Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen were one of my favourite Country Rock bands. They were not, like Gram Parsons or Gene Clark, breaking new ground, they were certainly not as precious about musical tradition as the likes of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band nor as insipid as the cocaine cowboys from L.A. The group aspired to a modern take on Western Swing, a counter-culture Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, flavoured with Country, Rock & Roll & Boogie Woogie. They mixed their own songs with Rockabilly & Country classics, all performed with exuberance, humour & a sense of fun. As the lyrics of one of their songs goes, (the title of a “Best Of…” compilation), there’s “A whole lotta things that I never done but I ain’t never had too much fun”.
The good Commander (pianist George Frayne) had assembled his crew in Ann Arbor, Michigan before relocating to Berkeley, California where they signed with Paramount Records, a new label that mainly released the soundtracks of films from their affiliated studio. There were by now eight members in the group. To do it right needed more than piano, two guitars, bass, drums & a vocalist so steel guitar & fiddle ensured that it would be done right. “Lost In The Ozone” (1971) introduced talented musicians who rocked like the best bar band around while keeping the three chords & the truth of “proper” Country music in their hearts. “Hot Rod Lincoln”, from the Commander’s stash of vintage talking songs, was a surprise US Top 10 hit. “Seeds & Stems (Again)” is an hilarious yet still poignant invocation of the meanest Blues I knew in those pre-sensimilla days. The final three live tracks acknowledge that Commander Cody’s mission to play good music & have a good time was most fulfilled & best experienced on stage.
On “Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites” (1972) the hook to hang the album on was trucks & their drivers. Not some breaker, breaker Citizens Band baloney but blue collar, hard driving, hard living men who won’t do nothing but the “Truck Stop Rock”. “Semi Truck” describes the frustrating combination of a faulty vehicle & a benzedrine buzz, “Looking At The World Through A Windshield” had first been recorded by Del Reeved in 1968 while “Mama Hated Diesels”, the saddest song I know, sounds like an old song but was written by a friend of the band. “Hot Licks” is a great Dieselbilly album played with such brio that it will always sound fresh & uplifting. I have great memories of six days on the road from London around Italy in a, as we call them, lorry when this tape was a fixture of afternoons on the autostrada.
On “Hot Licks” Bobby “Blue” Black, the new steel player, showed that he could play more than sad & lonesome, contributing sharp, sweet pedal work. Andy Stein was a virtuoso on fiddle when the band were keeping it Country, saxophone if they were ready to Rock while Bill Kirchen, now recognised as the Telecaster master that he was back then, sang those melancholy songs as well. Commander Frayne is more than handy on the keys & a fine on stage host while front & centre young Alabaman Billy C Farlow brought his Southern charm, his fine voice & his enthusiasm for the songs he wrote & the oldies, still goodies, he chose. With John Tichy adding guitar, “Buffalo” Bruce Barlow, bass & Lance Dickerson drums you had a damn fine band on a crowded stage.
The band released a third album & “Country Casanova (1973 ) was a little more polished with plenty to please the already converted. It was followed by the live recording that we knew would show them at their best. “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas” (1974), taped over four nights at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, 13 songs, only two of which had been previously recorded, the only record you needed to bring to a rockabilly party on Saturday night. From the keeping it cowboy “Sunset On The Sage” to a (better than the original?) rocking revival of Gene Vincent’s “Git It” Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen get it absolutely right. One reviewer wrote “a band that refuses to be pretentious about its lack of pretensions”, a good thing in 1974 & a good thing now.
“Star-Making Machinery : The Odyssey of an Album” is a book by Geoffrey Stokes about the attempts of the band, their management & new label Warner Brothers to sell more records. It’s something of a classic study on how business gets in the way of music & will cost you £296 ($405) for a hardcover copy! Big money was involved, the studio drugs were of higher quality but the executive who thought he could have the new Eagles on his hands was overpaid & too high. I handed over my hard-earned for the eponymous fifth album because buying Commander Cody records was a thing I did. There are good songs on it but it was the earlier records that got played & I passed on “Tales From The Ozone” where there was a lack of original material. “Tales…” hardly bothered the charts (#168 on the Top 200) & Warner finally went for the tried & trusted live album option. The 19 track double “We’ve Got A Live One Here” captures a UK tour where the group run though a great selection of their back catalogue. The original group had about run its course & this serves as a better souvenir than any “Best Of” curation.
It was a long-anticipated treat to see the band on that “Live One” tour. Billy C had returned home before the concert but that was OK, the band still rocked, the Commander stepped to the mic for more of his showpieces & while Bill Kirchen may not have been a rockabilly rebel rouser he knew his way around that music. The group wanted the audience to have fun, they succeeded & it was a great night. There had already been a couple of tweaks in personnel & the next record was essentially a George Frayne solo effort with a change in musical direction with multiple sidemen. While Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen lasted they were a delight, understanding the attraction of the Country music that laid the ground for Rock & Roll, an affinity that was shared by their audience. This band got it!
Footnote : Sometimes in the late hours when the company is good & I am suitably refreshed I have been known to treat those assembled to a Commander Cody tune. “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)”, more a recitation than a song, was a hit (#1 for 16 weeks!) in 1947 for Western Swing star Tex Williams.. Look, I hardly know you & I’m straight now. OK, if you insist, here’s a snippet… (deep breath) “Now I’m a guy with a heart of gold, the ways of a gentleman I’ve been told, the kind of guy who’d never harm a flea. But if me and a certain character met, the man who invented the cigarette, I’d murder that son of a gun in first degree
It ain’t ’cause I don’t smoke myself & I don’t figure it’ll hurt my health, I’ve been smoking ‘ 25 years ain’t dead yet. But nicotine slaves are all the same, at a pettin’, party or a poker game, every thing’s gotta stop while I smoke that cigarette” (and exhale, lovely).