Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen didn't half cheer up the mid-'70s for me, musically

By 1976, I was musically jaded. I'd bought at least ten contemporary music LPs in a row, none of which had truly hit the spot. I hadn't really discovered country music, Glam had faded, Disco hadn't hit its stride, I wasn't into Funk, and drugs had turned Rock into a bloated, self-satisfied, pompous snoozathon. True, there was a nice little Rockabilly revival happening, but I was only 23, so it was a bit soon to stop listening to new stuff. Then a work colleague suggested I listen to Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen's Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Trucker's Favourites. It didn't really sound like my sort of stuff - but it turned out to be an absolute delight.

The band, in its original form, lasted from 1967 until its leader disbanded it in 1976 (the  year I discovered them, inevitably - I've spent a lifetime behind the musical curve). They released seven albums during that period, four of which I adore. I suspect they're pretty obscure these days - but, then, they always were. If the name means anything to most people, it'll be thanks to their US single, "Hot Rod Lincoln", which reached No.9. One of their albums managed to get all the way to No.47, but the glorious "Hot Licks" stalled at 97. Here in the UK, they made nary a dent.

Why the lack of success? Well, stylistically, they were a bewilderingly eclectic mess: Rockabilly, Hillbilly Boogie, R&B, Doo-Wop, Western Swing, straight Country, bar-room Honky-Tonk, Jump Blues, '50s Rock 'n' Roll, Boogie-Woogie, Cajun, Zydeco - they even recorded a track called "Gypsy Fiddle", which matched its label. It was mostly Southern music, but the band members were from from all over - Idaho, Michigan, Alabama, New York etc. They weren't exactly matiné idol material - nobody under 20 was ever going to fall for them. And they were far too jokey and light-hearted to be taken seriously by po-faced rock music critics; too long-haired and musically miscengenated for country fans; and not hard-edged or faithful enough for roots music buffs. I loved the chaos: they opened up any number of new musical paths for me to explore - my roots music tendencies are partly their fault.

The band's obscure status is demonstrated by the difficulty I've just encountered finding relevant tracks on YouTube: they're all there, but in many cases so well hidden it's as if they've been published in samizdat. Here are a dozen of my favourite numbers:

First, a lively cover of Roy Hamilton's exuberant 1958 R&B hit, "Don't Let Go":

Here's their take on Terry Fell's 1954 Country number, "Truck Drivin' Man":

Cab Calloway first recorded "Minnie the Moocher" in 1931:

The lovely "Tina Louise" was written by Kevin "Blackie" Farrel:

The sleazy R&B number, "Watch My .38" is another band original:

"The Shadow Knows" was a 1958 Coasters' song written by Leiber & Stoller:

"Lightning Bar Blues" was written by sort-of-folkie, Hoyt Axton:

The much-covered "House of Blue Lights" was an Ella Mae Morse boogie-woogie number from 1946:

"Hawaii Blues" was a band composition:

"Mama Hated Diesels" is another band original (the colleague who put me onto Commander Cody admitted that this song made him cry):

"Truck Stop Rock" is another number penned by the lads:

And I couldn't leave "Gypsy Fiddle" (better known as "Czardas") off the list:

The band's leader, aka George Frayne IV (i.e. the piano-playing, gravel-voiced Commander himself) retained the rights to the name and has continued to perform and record. Out of loyalty, I even bought two of his albums. But, in the unlikely event you've been bowled over by any of the above tracks, I'd explore the following early albums:

Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites (1973)
Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas (1974)
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (1975)
Tales from the Ozone (1975)

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