George Frayne (Commander Cody) - piano; Bill Kirchen - guitar, vocals; John Tichy - lead guitar; Norton Buffalo - harmonica, vocals, trombone; Billy C. Farlow - harmonica, vocals; "Buffalo" Bruce Barlow - bass; Lance Dickerson - drums; Andy Stein - fiddle, saxophone; Don Bolton - pedal steel guitar
You're about to hear a winning battle in a losing war. Sadly, things weren't going well for Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen in 1976. They'd certainly gone further than they'd ever imagined when George Frayne IV - henceforth known as The Commander - assembled his band in 1966. The move from Michigan to San Francisco had provided a great showcase for their fine mix of rockabilly and Texas swing. A recording contract followed, and there had been a genuine fluke hit with 1972's, "Hot Rod Lincoln." In 1976, however, the country-rock movement was better defined by The Eagles than, say, a bunch of genre-crazed hippies - despite the incredible talent they possessed. Their only true contemporaries were over in England, and most of the pub-rock bands - with the exception of Chili Willi & the Red Hot Peppers - were fairly awful.
And, to be honest, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen were in a rut. After the artistic triumph of 1973's Country Casanova, the band signed to Warner Bros. The Commander and his men had gotten pretty good at pretending to be truck drivers, and their sense of balladry was really impressive. Somehow, though, the staid Warner albums just couldn't capture their ragged greatness. The final insult came with the 1976 release of We've Got a Live One Here! 1974's Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas was an invaluable document, but Warners managed to release a live album that sounded like some faceless act ripping off Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen.
But the truth is that Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen were still a great live band - specifically on March 14, 1976. They proved it on the King Biscuit Flower Hour. God only knows what happened with the Live One tapes, but now you can hear the band captured in all their rich humor, pathos, and generally cheery madness. It's a great mix of songs, too. "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)" and "Down To Seeds and Stems Again" were longtime favorites, but the band sounds genuinely inspired. Even "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar" is a real hoot, despite its sad legacy as the failed follow-up to "Hot Rod Lincoln" - represented here in grand closing style, and updated with plenty of drug references and an Angie Dickinson cameo.
You'll also note that all this greatness is presented in fine democratic fashion. Bill Kirchen and John Tichy always shared the spotlight with the Commander, and rightfully so. Later that year, though, it was every boogie-woogying man for himself. Tichy was ready to leave the act, and Commander Cody already had plans to go solo with 1977's Midnight Man. That was followed by the short existence of a Commander Cody Band, and then the slow fade to being a one-hit wonder.
Don't feel sorry for the guys, though. This whole Americana/No Depression/Brooklyn Hillbilly movement has helped to cement the band's reputation. The occasional reunion of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen remains a big deal, and Kirchen and the Commander can both draw a crowd on any Saturday night. Those Warner Bros. albums may be better forgotten, but here's something to make us all feel better about the later years.