Sound: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen appeared on the music scene at a time that, stylistically, they possibly couldn't have. As the 60's came to an end, the beginnings of guitar-heavy rock were about to blossom into the '70's era of arena rock where 'the riff' dictated the song as rows of Marshall amplifiers were cranked up to 11. How did a group of transplated hippies playing hybrid country-swing-boogie even manage to make a mark?
Formed in 1967 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by George Frayne (Commander Cody) they used boogie woogie piano as a foundation to mix country, rockabilly, blues, and swing. While they could be tagged as country rock, they were much less in the vein of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Buffalo Springfield or Poco with their rockified country. Instead, they took their musical ideas from 'old' country swing, I.e. Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills, to come up with an amalgam of stoner-country-outlaw-swing; just enough overlap to provide them exposure to rock fans.
Honing their skills and becoming known for legendary, marathon live shows, the band moved to San Francisco in 1970 and secured a recording contract resulting in their debut - Lost in the Ozone. The combination of Americana musical styles and a hippie, counterculture attitude, but not the angry, rebellious tone that so frequently came to the forefront, resulted in one of the most unique musical offerings of the decade.
01.Back to Tennessee: the Commander's ivories sparkling prominently, the band sets the stage with a great, laid back country-swing feel.
02.Wine Do Yer Stuff: the title lets you know what these boys were up to, the country-fried harmonies and graceful fiddle create a stoned-out country ambience.
03.Seeds and Stems Again Blues: a lyrical reflection of their time in San Francisco, one of the Commander's all-time greats; a slow melancholy ballad with the requisite sad steel guitar and fiddle, delivered with just the right amount of irony without sounding cliche.
04.Daddy's Gonna Treat You Right: stoner swing at it's finest with some fine supportive steel playing.
05.Family Bible: played with respect and conviction, this old classic is given a wonderful treatment by the Commander and would've gone over gangbusters at The Grand Ole Opry.
06.Home in My Hand: solid outlaw country backed by the Commander's ivories and some fine, clean guitar playing courtesy of Bill Kirchen.
07.Lost in the Ozone: a high octane country number with the finest steel playing on the album and a hippie sing-along chorus (the title).
08.Midnight Shift: the band adopts a more rockified feel reminiscent of Elvis' Don't Be Cruel, and seems to have stepped somewhat out of it's comfort zone, but the listener will be entertained by some fine piano playing courtesy of the Commander.
09.Hot Rod Lincoln: the song (a cover) that gave the Commander a Top 10 hit and, by virtue of the stellar Telecaster performance by Kirchen, provided them ample exposure to a rock audience. Delivered by the Commander in an uptempo deadpan haze, a possible historical pre-cursor to country rap.
10.What's the Matter Now?: the Commander's purest foray into old-fashioned country, pure whiskey-stained barroom gold.
11.20 Flight Rock: tossing off the unsuccessful mid-tempo feel of Midnight Shift, the band kicks in to high gear, adds some horns and comes up with an old fashioned rocker Bill Haley would've killed for.
12.Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar: a long-time concert staple for the Commander, the band goes for more of a blues-rock feel allowing for plenty of solos. A live recording and the longest cut on the record (by far, clocking in at 5:08), it's indicative and representative of the Commander's live performances. // 9
Lyrics: The Commander was successful in mining multiple veins of lyrical trains of thought. A good portion of the songs (Daddy's Gonna Treat You Right, Midnight Shift, 20 Flight Rock, Beat Me Daddy 8 to the Bar, Hot Rod Lincoln) are a reflection of the mindset of an everyday factory worker/truck driver-eking-to-get-by-American where the all-too brief weekends, with it's predictable and irreplaceable simple joys of drinking and barroom mayhem, are yearned for as the factory whistle sounds on Monday morning.
Of course, with the Commander you also get the odd combination of old-time family memories and respect (Back to Tennessee, Family Bible, Home in My Hand) while trying to clear out the living room of a haze of marijuana while not tripping over the empty bottles of alcohol (Wine Do Yer Stuff, Seeds and Stems, Lost in the Ozone).
Billy Farlow handled all lead vocals with the exception of Hot Rod Lincoln (Commander Cody himself) and he acquits himself well with a steady tenor. But Farlow's true genius is in his delivery, sounding completely earnest even when delivering the most corny of lines (Seeds and Stems... Well, my dog died today), displaying energy when hammering out '50's boogie (20 Flight Rock), and even properly pious (Family Bible). The harmonies that are featured on many of the cuts are spot on and would make any southern choir director envious. // 9
Overall Impression: The Commander's first would also be his finest, and courtesy of the chart appearance of Hot Rod Lincoln, it provided the band ample exposure and cemented their reputation as live performers even when the subsequent releases didn't match the sales success (or qualitative content) of this timeless debut.
Using country as a base, Commander Cody would be difficult to categorize even with the numerous subgenres that have sprung up (trashcan Americana, lo-fi country, regressive country, etc). While country in lyrical content, their musical elements encompassed country, swing, blues, rockabilly, all styles in which rock has it's roots; but one could never call the Commander rock.
Whether intentional or not, the Commander's enduring legacy will be the mining and successful blending of pure Americana musical styles into their own vision and interpretation of what they believed to be contemporary at the time; unintentionally perhaps, they created a work that proved to stylistically timeless. // 10