Saturday, 30 November 2013

Fly like a Beagle

We're about to be woken by distant cannon fire,
and the strains of "O Tannenbaum"...   

It’s December – how did that happen?   Well, the same way it does every year presumably, with Christmas trees and promotions now firmly established in shop windows, ferry sailings all but booked out and intensifying scarlet splashes appearing among the leaves of the cities many pohutukawa trees.
At my house, December 1 also marks an occasion eagerly anticipated but dreaded in equal measure by a significant other.  This Sunday will mark the dusting-off of Snoopy’s Christmas (and various other cheese-and-tinsel infused Yule-tide ‘favourite’ songs) for the annual festive thrashing - lasting until I’m made to put the CDs away on Boxing Day.  The above image is the cover for a compilation album I created a couple of Christmasses ago, so that others can do the same... or possibly not.
How did this novelty hit, released by The Royal Guardsmen, become so firmly established in contemporary Kiwi culture, and why do I love it so much?
As with many things, there might be a personal degree of perversity involved. The more people I meet who want to pour scorn on this feel-good favourite, the more I want to profess my devotion to it.  I even went as far as sending a card containing this message to a well-known journalist who was somewhat un-Christmassy about the best canine pilot in Allied Command in his column (and fortunately he saw the funny side).  
 There’s much more to it than contrariness of course, so let’s first see how this festive duel of aerial aces began.

The Royal Guardsmen were actually six young men from Florida, most of them still at High School when they formed in 1965.  The name was chosen to reflect the popular ‘British music invasion’ on American pop charts at that time, and their original aim was to become a ‘cover band’ (long before the expression was ever coined), performing authentic versions of current hits live. 
Meeting a talent scout in a music store led to them recording a demo record which in turn led to a proposal from record producer Phil Gernhard.  He was asking local bands to take a look at the lyrics for a novelty song called Snoopy vs The Red Baron, with the aim of releasing a record of the ‘best’ treatment.  The Guardsmen unenthusiastically composed a self-professed ‘hokey’ arrangement, which Gernhard liked, released, and it shot to the top of the American charts in November 1966, catapulting a student garage band to something approaching fame. I love the fact that their first television appearance was hosted by Khan himself, Ricardo Montalban.
 Although our adversaries are in place for this ‘proto-Snoopy’s Christmas’, along with the military drum beat and aeroplane sound effects, obviously the most important element (the clue is in the second word of the title) is missing.
Sadly the band’s ambitions to become serious musicians were thwarted by Gernhard’s insistence that they record two further ‘Snoopy’ songs the following year, but the third one, a certain Christmas novelty hit, is a record the Guardsmen have admitted to having the most fun making. Although eventually becoming a gold record, Snoopy’s Christmas only charted at number one in the US on Billboards ‘Best bets for Christmas’ chart.
In New Zealand, however, it shot to number one in Christmas 1967 and for reasons I’ve been unable to ascertain, has remained a festive favourite here ever since (despite the predictable Snoopy hate from vocal minorities in media silly-season opinion polls each year). 
As for the Royal Guardsmen, they eventually became disillusioned with their pigeon-holing as a novelty band and split up in 1969.  They remain philosophical about their one-time fame as ‘the Snoopy Boys’ – proclaiming “Long live the dog” when the single debuted at number 3 on iTunes Children’s chart. They apparently filmed a 2011 documentary titled, Burned by a Beagle – The True Story Of The Royal Guardsmen.

I must confess, while working a student holiday job in my teens which kept me within earshot of a radio all day, I strained for some ‘cred’ by affecting a cynical adversion to having to listen to the song several times a day.  A friend pulled me up with the far more genuine remark “Come on, how can you possibly complain about Snoopy’s Christmas?”  I instantly realised he was right – to profess an adversion to the distilled spirit of peace and goodwill which this silly little song celebrates would surely be the very worst in Dickensian mean-spiritedness.  I wasn’t like that, and didn’t want to be.  I love Christmas, always have and always will.

Snoopy’s Christmas also channels the essence of the famous unofficial Western Front Christmas Day truce in 1914 (beautifully depicted in the film Joyeaux Noel 2005),  and I hope to give this a closer look as we get closer to Christmas this month.
I can’t help but wonder how Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, famed, respected and feared on both sides for his unparalleled aeronautic skill, would feel if he knew that he would become best remembered by many because of a Christmas song celebrating his fictional encounter with a cartoon beagle.
In the spirit of Joyeaux Noel, perhaps it just might have seemed utterly preposterous enough to ignite even a famously-elusive teutonic sense of humour. 

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