Artist, musician, and pioneering band leader Commander Cody helped invent a whole new style of music during the early 1970s, a period regarded as the height of rock innovation. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were one of the original groups to fuse divergent strains of American roots music - stripped-down basic rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, bop, country, western swing, and rockabilly - and create an innovative, yet familiar and convincing sound. Along with retro-revisionist bands like the Byrds, the Eagles, and Poco, for whom the Airmen laid the groundwork, Cody and his crew played country-rock. However, they usually rocked harder, making them the quintessential “bar band,” much in the same vein as British pub rockers Brinsley Schwartz and Ducks Deluxe. And whereas many of the group’s counterparts followed the bombastic trends of the day, the Lost Planet Airmen resisted overblown, pompous heirs. Instead, they preferred a no-frills, back-to-basics approach and are best remembered for their biggest hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln”, a high-octane tribute to the legends of rock music, as well as a string of now-classic albums. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were also the precursor to the Austin, Texas, music scene of the 1980s. In fact, Austin’s own Asleep at the Wheel first moved to San Francisco under the influence of Cody, where they played in clubs as a satellite of sorts to the Airmen.
Although roots rock fell out of mainstream fashion in the 1980s, the bar band sound underwent a revival the following decade. Commander Cody believed that a younger generation searching for music and bands they could identify with is what fueled the renewed interest in country-rock. “It’s really simple what’s happening out there now,” Commander Cody, explained in an interview with J. Eric Smith. “Ever since the ‘90s came on there’s been this whole generation of people who actually thought that Janet Jackson and Madonna and all of them were singing and dancing at the same time when they saw them on stage. But now they’re realizing ‘Oh, my God, that was on tape!’ and they’re looking for something real. So when they go to some bar and hear what a real live band is all about and grasp the concept of people making it up as they go along, they’re like ‘Whoa, we’ve been missing something all these years!’ That means that people who can do what I do are in business these days.”
Commander Cody was born George Frayne on July 19, 1944, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and raised on Long Island, New York. After high school, Cody studied art and design at the University of Michigan, where he first met Airmen cohort John Tichy. At the time, Tichy, an engineering student, was running the kitchen crew at a fraternity house and playing guitar with a student band called the Amblers. He and Cody, who washed pots and pans in the same campus kitchen, soon formed a friendship, and after discovering that Cody played some piano, Tichy invited him to jam along with his band. The Amblers hoped to record, but after lead singer Frank Winchester died in a car crash the group disbanded. In the summer of 1964, Tichy started another band called the SSB (Schwaben Stage Band). Then, when Cody returned to school in the fall of that year, the pair formed a new band, the Fantastic Surfing Beevers.
When Cody completed his undergraduate studies in 1966, the future of the group was uncertain, as he had not yet decided upon where to pursue his Master’s degree. However, the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies at Michigan offered him a scholarship to stay. Thus Cody and Tichy, who planned to attend graduate school at Michigan as well, decided to form a new band in the fall of 1967. Cody chose the moniker Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen after the 1950 movie.
Upon graduating in the spring of 1968, Cody accepted an offer to teach art at Wisconsin State University in Oshkosh, while Tichy went to Georgia Tech to earn his Ph.D. Unable to abandon the Lost Planet Airmen, Cody commuted fourteen hours each weekend to play his role and keep the band going. Eventually, the double life became too taxing, and he was fired from his job in Oshkosh. Back in Ann Arbor, Cody devoted himself to the group and his artwork. Soon thereafter, he piled into a van with singer/harmonica player Billy C. Farlow and steel guitarist West Virginia Creeper (real name Steve Davis) and left Ann Arbor for San Francisco, California, following the trail of Lost Planet Airmen guitarist Bill Kirchen. Tichy would join them later after completing his doctorate in engineering.
A month after their arrival in San Francisco, the band moved into a house they dubbed “Ozone West” on Telegraph Avenue in nearby Berkeley, where they practiced and even took their music out on the street, with Cody substituting his keyboards for an accordion. Soon they were auditioning to play at clubs with Bill Graham in the city and at Mandrakes in Berkeley. That summer, old fans from Ann Arbor came out to see the group, helping the Airmen to land their first professional gig at the 1968 Berkeley Folk Festival. Before the event, the band recruited drummer Lance Dickerson, bassist “Buffalo” Bruce Barlow, and fiddler/saxophonist Andy Stein and were off and running.
After sending a tape to Paramount Records, the Airmen landed their first record deal. In 1971, the group debuted with Lost in the Ozone, which scored them a Top Ten hit with the single “Hot Rod Lincoln”. Subsequently, they bought an old Greyhound bus, fitted it with twelve bunks, and began touring. After firing original member West Virginia Creeper, Cody and his Airmen recruited steel player Bobby Black and recorded their second album, Hot Licks, Cold Steel and Trucker’s Favorites, at Larry Black’s (brother of Bobby) studio in San Mateo, California. Released in 1972, the album failed to sell well, though it is now considered, along with Lost in the Ozone, a certified classic in the field.
In 1973, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen released a third album, Country Casanova, which contained a version of the old Tex Williams swing favorite “‘Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (that Cigarette)”‘ that cracked the country charts. Later that year, the group was invited to play at the Country & Western Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, but were literally booed off stage according to Cody with cries like “get a haircut” and “find a rock concert.” The following year, Cody and his Airmen released their last album for Paramount recorded live at the Armadillo World Headquarters club entitled Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas. A favorite among fans and critics alike, Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas was later named by Rolling Stone as one of the best 100 albums of all time.
After signing to Warner Brothers Records in 1974, the band recorded CCHLPA, featuring the Billboard Top 40 classic rocker “Don’t Let Go”. In 1975, they returned with a second studio album produced by Hoyt Axton entitled Tales from the Ozone. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen completed their commitment with Warner Brothers with another live album in 1976, the swinging We Got a Live One Here. This would be the last record made with the original members as much of the group’s money had been diverted into the pockets of unscrupulous managers, driving the Airmen lineup into the ground in 1977. When they returned from a European tour in the winter of that year, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen went their separate ways.
Despite financial hardships, Cody fondly recalled his excursions with the Airmen. “We were travelin’ and playin’ and drinkin’ and havin’ a great time all those years,” he told Smith. “And we were playin’ the stuff that we liked, stuff that came from all over the place; we didn’t think we were coming up with anything new, we just liked a lot of different stuff and didn’t see any reason not to play it all. I mean, we were the last band to back up Gene Vincent before he died. We played with Bob Wills’ band. We played with jazz guys from way back. I played boogie-woogie with Les Paul and the guys from his band. I opened up for Led Zeppelin. We went on between the Chambers Brothers and Alice Cooper at the Spectrum. We went on between Slade and Sly Stone out in Fresno in front of 50,000 people. I’ve done a gig with Howlin’ Wolf and Steve Miller, where Wolf came ridin’ out on a Vespa. So from that kinda standpoint, I couldn’t have had it any richer then.”
Following the breakup, Cody continued to live in the San Francisco Bay area, spending the next two decades performing and recording as Commander Cody with a revolving lineup. Additionally, he enjoyed a second career as a respected artist, known particularly for his music-inspired paintings. In 1997, Cody was forced by his ex-wife to leave his Stinson Beach home in Ukiah, California, and decided to relocate to New York State where he had grown up. After settling in the town of Sarasota Springs near New York City, Cody began to gather some of the area’s local musicians as sidemen. His old friend Tichy, now a professor and Chair of Aeronautical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at RPI in Troy, New York, served as a link between Cody and a new lineup of Lost Planet Airmen.
Today, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen features Cody (George Frayne), guitarist Mark Emerick and drummer Steve Barbuto. After a twenty-three year hiatus since the release of the classic Let’s Rock, Commander Cody has returned to Blind Pig Records. Ever since his wild, early days as front man for the Lost Planet Airmen (“Hot Rod Lincoln”, “Lost in the Ozone”, etc.), the Old Commander has plowed his own path through the fields of the American music scene as one of its few truly unique and iconoclastic figures. His special blend of old-time rock ‘n’ roll, redneck country, boogie-woogie and swing has virtually defined American roots music. Dopers, Drunks & Everyday Losers will delight old and new fans alike with its mix of new songs and classics from the Cody catalog. Highlights include updated versions of “Seeds and Stems Again”, “Seven-Eleven” and “Wine, Do Yer Stuff.”