Commander Cody - Biography

By J Poet

Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen was the first hippie country band. They got their start playing the dive bars and frat houses of Ann Arbor, MI in the late 60s. When they moved out to Berkeley in 1968 they set the Bay Area on fire with their inspired blend of honky tonk country, rock, boogie woogie, blues and big band-inspired swing. With their fellow Michigan refugees Asleep at the Wheel, they introduced the San Francisco Bay Area to real hard-core country music, albeit viewed through a cannabis and lysergic haze. They toured endlessly and turned out a handful of classic albums, helping to pave the way for the emergence of country-rock.


        George Frayne was born in Idaho, but his father, an artist and illustrator, soon moved the family to Brooklyn to take a job in New York. Frayne had taken piano lessons as a youth, but was planning to follow his father into the world of art and illustration. In 1963 he was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, working his way through school by washing dishes at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. John Tichy was playing guitar in a campus band and invited Frayne to jam with them. They hit it off and played in various cover bands until Frayne graduated in 1966. When they continued on to graduate school they finally put together their own band, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, named after a 1950s serial whose main character was named Commando Cody. They cycled through more than 36 musicians before settling on the lineup of Frayne, Tichy, Bill Kirchen, Billy C. Farlow, and The West Virginia Creeper.


        In 1968 Kirchen left Michigan to go to San Francisco, but when he saw the fertile Bay Area music scene he called Frayne and convinced him to move to Berkeley. Their first gig was at Cody’s Bookstore on July 4, 1968, while a riot raged outside the bookstore. They played live on Telegraph Avenue for spare change (with Cody on accordion) while they rehearsed the band. A date at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1968 got them noticed and they were able to convince Buffalo Bruce Barlow and Lance Dickerson to leave Charlie Musselwhite’s band and sign up, completing the classic lineup. The Bay Area was a folk rock hotbed in those years and Cody fit right in, although they were a bit more country than folk. A demo tape got them signed to Paramount Records and they cut Lost in the Ozone (1971 Paramount). A cover of Johnny Bond’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” became a radio hit thanks to Frayne’s deadpan vocals and Kirchen’s twang-heavy Telecaster guitar hook. The band bought a tour bus – you can’t get more country than that – and started years of endless touring. Shortly thereafter Andy Stein moved out from back east to add his swinging fiddle to the band. When The West Virginia Creeper split, they also hired San Jose’s Bobby Black. Their second album, Hot Licks, Cold Steel and Trucker’s Favorites (1972 Paramount) included the classic “Mama Hated Deisel” and was as strong as their first, although it didn’t do well on its initial release. Country Casanova (1973 Paramount) borrowed “Smoke That Cigarette” from Tex Williams and did well enough on the country charts to get the band an invitation to play at the 1973 C&W Convention in Nashville. The band got booed off the stage for their hippie garb. Their last Paramount album, Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas (1974), was later dubbed one of the 100 Best Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.


        Warner signed them and they cut three more classics. Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen (1975 Warner) had an Amazing Science Fiction-like cover and featured the Tower of Power horn section. The album also included a re-make of Roy Hamilton’s “Don’t Let Go” that got into the Top 40. The Tower of Power horn section also helped out on Tales From The Ozone (1975 Warner). Hoyt Axton produced and the album captured some of the band’s live vibe. Their final album for Warner was We’ve Got A Live One Here! (1976).


        Despite having a few radio hits, the label felt they’d failed to live up to commercial expectations. Warner dropped them and they fell apart, leaving behind seven great albums of early Frayne continues on today, splitting his time between his art career and his Cody persona. Lead guitarist Bill Kirchen is still touring and playing roots rock with the Bill Kirchen Band.



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