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.
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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.