×
Home Music Music Features

Interview: Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen

This band wants to do for country music what Butterfield did for the blues

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.

Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, circa 1970.

GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty

It is not true, in spite of the stories you hear on the street in Ann Arbor, that George “Commander Cody” Frayne burned down his fraternity house. True, the brothers had just thrown him out, but there was always the treehouse next door.

It was quite a treehouse, with several floors which looked down on some of the finest campus scenery at the University of Michigan. “It was really chic to have a beer with me in my treehouse and throw the beer cans down at the sorority house,” the Commander remembers. “It became the social center of campus. That was one nice treehouse. It was my major undergraduate achievement.” But somebody was jealous, and one day George found that the treehouse had been condemned and the tree was coming down. It looked suspiciously like the work of the fraternity, and soon after the demise of the treehouse came the total leveling of the frat house.

But for every story that gets debunked, a few more takes its place. Like the one that has the Commander working as a bodyguard for Louis Armstrong. It’s all hero worship, because Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen are most definitely culture-heroes in Ann Arbor. Take the word “Ozone,” for instance. It’s been a Commander Cody word for a long time coming from one of Billy C’s songs that goes: “One drink of wine/Two drinks of gin/And I’m lost in the Ozone again.” Nowadays the word is everywhere. There is an Ann Arbor comic book called Tales From the Ozone, the word appears on the Commander Cody t-shirt some eight times and it’s an essential part of Ann Arbor vocabulary.

But it was not always thus. Like any good band, the Lost Planet Airmen have had their hard times and paid some dues. The band story is at least as strange as some of the stories making the rounds, and even a bit stranger in places. What follows is the true story of the making of one of the very best unknown rock and roll bands in America today, so hold on, here we go — into the Ozone.

* * *

It all started with young George Frayne taking nine months of boogie-woogie piano lessons in high school from a guy on Long Island named Bob Knight. That was the beginning and the end of his formal musical education. He forgot about music entirely until he found himself enrolled at the University of Michigan and in need of a little pocket money. Thus was born the Fantastic Surfing Beavers, starring Max Goldman, lead singer, who was awful, but essential, since he owned all the equipment. Also in the band was a guy named John Tichy, who was the second Major Influence on the Commander, the first being his piano teacher. Tichy was a country fan, and was responsible for introducing such unusual numbers (for a 1965 surfing band, anyway) as Buck Owens’ “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” and Claude King’s “Family Bible” into the repertoire of the Beavers. Ann Arbor legend also has Tichy smuggling a whole Ann Arbor nickel bag into a hamburger that the Commander was eating. At any rate, the Beavers soon declined into what was evidently a well-deserved state of non-existence, and the Commander drifted from band to band playing keyboards and getting disgusted with the whole rock scene.

One night, after returning from a gig with the Lorenzo Lightfoot AC and Blues Band, an all-lifeguard blues band that reliable sources report to be possibly one of the worst aggregations of musicians and musical instruments ever assembled, George Frayne decided that it was high time to form Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. He gathered several of the best musicians he knew, including Tichy, and forged them into a band.

The original Lost Planet Airmen played a lot of “Mustang Sally” — type stuff in order to get gigs, and they featured a lead vocalist who called himself the Marquis de Soul. Also in the band was a soul — oriented drummer named Ralpy Mallory, who did not like country music. One night, at the University of Michigan Dental School Formal Ball, he announced that if the band insisted on doing one more country tune he would pack up his drums and go home. Maybe they didn’t hear him, but the next number they broke into was “Family Bible,” and Mallory, true to his word, packed up his drums and walked out of rock and roll history and into a lucrative rug-shampooing business. From that moment on, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen have devoted themselves body and soul to country music and old-time rock and roll.

But that devotion is not an easy thing to stick to in the Midwest where, chances are, you associate that type of music with the greasers at the drive-in who love to vamp on longhairs and inevitably wind up becoming cops. And it was even harder in 1967 when everyone was just getting into acid and revolution and high-powered MC5 music and all the other things that have put Ann Arbor and Detroit on the map.

“We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,” says the Commander. “We were just having a good time, picking and playing and making a few dollars on the side. It was when the psychedelic ballrooms were starting to be big. We played the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on the same bill with Canned Heat so, naturally, the audience hated us, booed us, you know.”

“Yeah,” said Bill Kirchan, who is still playing lead guitar with the band, “the dudes who liked it were the ones that hang around the edge — a sort of heavy grease crowd at the perimeters of the ballroom. One of ’em came up to me afterwards and grabbed me by the shoulders and said ‘Hey! Dat wuz all right!’ That really inspired us.”

But, inspired or not, the band began to fall apart. The Commander has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in sculpture, and he got a job teaching at Oshkosh State College in Wisconsin. He was doing a lot of painting at the time, and had a one-man show there, the First Annual Ozone Art Show. But he would fly back to Ann Arbor on weekends to get the band together and play occasional gigs at Canterbury House and various other Ann Arbor hotspots. Back in those days the band occasionally featured Billy C’s brother on stand-up acoustic bass and John Copely playing the snare drum. They could only afford one drum, so they figured it had better be a snare. People who saw them then gave assurance that Copely was a real wizard on that one drum, though.

Slowly, a cult began to grow around the band. Their appearances became marked by all sorts of bizarre occurrences. For instance, there were the Galactic Twist Queens. First two of them, then seven, then ten, then twelve of them — weird females who would dance while the band played. There was Teenie Chiffon, an ex-Who groupie who is now the in an American flag and do jumping jacks or get on the ground and do the breast stroke; and an aggregation called the Fabulous Greene Sisters Tapdancing Act.

But they were falling apart. First Kirchan left for the West Coast. The West Virginia Creeper went to Nashville to pick up the steel guitar. Billy C went on the road with Sammy Lay and His Mojo Workers. Then one day Kirchan called the Commander up from California and told him that the band could make it in San Francisco, since nobody was playing their type of music, so what was left of the band jumped into the Commander’s brightly-painted van (done by his brother Chris, who also designed the Cody teeshirt) and left the north country for the golden West.

Bill Kirchan and Billy C, who had been left on the Coast when Lay’s band broke up, started a band called the Ozones, which got a steady job in a hillbilly bar in the Mission district of San Francisco called Harris’s Town Pump. Not long after they started, a Samoan crowd moved in, and thus began a chapter of the history of the Lost Planet Airmen that will stick in their minds for a long time. An extended quote from an interview of the band, done by John Grissim, is appropriate here, since if I tried to pass this story off on you myself, changes are you’d think I was making it up:

BILL: “You had to be drunk on your ass to play there. You could not play that gig sober, it was a physical impossibility.”

CODY: “Remember that little old guy with the submachine guns in his trunk?”

BILL: “Right; a trunk full of submachine guns and Japanese electric guitars. President of the Commander Cody Fan Club; a girl who would wrap herself Great dude. He always had a glass of wine in his left hand and a shot of whiskey in his right. And a derringer in his sock, which he showed everybody.”

CODY: “He was arming the Samoans for when the Black Panthers were gonna take over. I walked in there one afternoon when the band had the four-to-ten shift on Sunday. And the bar — it’s really incredible, ‘cuz you go into this place and there’s maybe twenty people in the place and three of them are playing pool and having an argument and the band is playing and it’s six o’clock and the band is drifting off to sleep. The barmaid is singing along with the band and there’s closed circuit TV of something like topless go-go girls or something. There’s a couple of Samoans sitting here, and there’s this pregnant Samoan lady who’s passed out and she’s laying there and this guy is disrobing her. And another guy is slowly sliding off of his chair and falling on the floor right in front of the bandstand. And then a guy came in with a lit Molotov cocktail and was going to throw it at the bar, but the bass player talked him into throwing it outside instead. What a place!”

Soon after the Town Pump experience, the band got the rest of its members together and began intensive practicing. Two months later they began looking for gigs as Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen again. They auditioned at Mandrake’s in Berkeley, where they were very well received. Then came the Wild West Show, which folded. Then a benefit for the Wild West show at the Family Dog where they played for an audience of two — Chet Helms and Michael Christopher, who is now their manager.

The next weekend they were on the bill with the Grateful Dead and suddenly the West Coast audience started passing the word: Commander Cody is really good. They weren’t exactly rolling in money yet, but they did earn enough from their gigs to go to Nashville for the Country Music Association convention, where they saw some of their idols. There was Charlie Rich, whose piano playing and Many New Sides of Charlie Rich album were very important influences in the band’s early days; Johnny Bond, who is responsible for several songs in their repertoire, including “Smoke That Cigarette” and “Divorce Me C.O.D.”

The members of the band are optimistic about the future, as well they might be. They’ve finally gotten a good rhythm section together, with their new drummer Lance Dickerson adding immeasurably to the production of a rock-based country style, negotiations for a recording contract are about to begin, and their reputation is taking hold on both coasts, as well as in between.

Besides the Commander, the present band consists of Billy C on acoustic guitar, harp, and lead vocals; Bill Kirchan on lead guitar and vocals; the West Virginia Creeper on steel guitar; Andy Stein on fiddle, Lance Dickerson on drums, and Bruce Barlow on bass.

Billy C, whose last name is Farlow, was born and raised in Decatur, Alabama, where he listened to Hank Williams and Elvis on the radio and his neighbors in the Holiness church on Sundays. He decided that he wanted to be a singer, so he got a guitar and learned how to play a few chords and strum it. In the year that he started high school, his family moved to the hillbilly ghetto of Detroit. He began playing with various bands, and was lured by the Commander’s devious means into the band after the Marquis de Soul left.

Kirchan began his musical career by playing trombone, and graduated into folk music in the middle of high school in Ann Arbor. After several acoustic bands, he formed a rock band called the Seventh Seal which, he says, “degenerated into a psychedelic band,” so he quit and joined Cody.

The Creeper didn’t have a name until one day when he was passing through the West Virginia State Historical Museum and saw a picture of a famous motorcyclist named the West Virginia Creeper, who, says his present-day name sake, “was famous for showing up on time.” Creeper met Cody after getting an athletic scholarship (he is a one-time West Virginia trampoline champion) to the University of Michigan. While the Commander was teaching in Oshkosh, Creeper, who had formerly played regular guitar, went to Nashville and worked in a car-wash vacuuming out C&W stars’ cars while learning to play steel guitar.

Andy Stein, who reportedly can play every stringed instrument in existence, was an off-and-on member of the group in Ann Arbor, and joined as a permanent member at the end of last year. Bruce Barlow formerly played bass with the late Magic Sam, and joined the group when they played at the Berkeley Folk Festival last year, and Lance was playing in Charlie Musselwhite’s band, which broke up on the Coast at the same time Lay’s band did, when he met Billy C.

The band, the Commander in particular, is very vocal about country music and what they see as their place in the galaxy of C&W stars. One very important key to their aesthetic is voiced by Billy C: “To hell with the modern sound!” The “countrypolitan” approach they see as a dead end. The original songs they do, such as “Lost in the Ozone” and “Seeds and Stems,” are firmly rooted in the Sun Records style of the middle Fifties. Also, the considerable experience of the Airmen with blues is helping them develop a fusion of the two styles, with Creeper experimenting with the steel guitar so much that you occasionally hear him referred to as B.B.Creeper. As the Commander has said, “We’d like to do for country music what Butterfield did for blues.”

The band doesn’t have a contract yet, so the only way you can get to hear them is to go see them in person. They walk on stage, Creeper hunching over his steel guitar, the Commander lighting up a stogie and planting it in the side of his face, Kirchan standing erect, Billy C getting up to the mike and suddenly erupting with “All of my friends are boppin’ the blues / It must be goin’ around.”

And you nod your head. Yes, indeed, it must be…

Newswire

Powered by