The Commander Exits …

COMMANDER CODY LAUNCHES FROM EARTH, RIP GEORGE FRAYNE (1944-2021)

HISTORYMUSICOBITUARIES

By Robert Millis 

ON SEP 26, 2021

SARATOGA SPRINGS — George Frayne has resided in the Saratoga area across four decades. Until Sunday morning, Sept 26, 2021, that is, as he passed away at his home here after a gallant fight versus the Big C.

For the few Nippertowners recognizing that name, it is most likely because of his slashy-flashy, colorful paintings of pop-inspired imagery and personalities that hang in museums, galleries, private homes, and public spaces. It’s great, smile-inducing stuff, all part of a lifelong love affair with the brush that included achieving an MFA from the U. of Michigan.

But it was at that institution of higher learning where George picked up an intriguing nickname; one that labeled his presence in another form of artistic expression and from which he gained wide national acclaim and recognition:

That name was Commander Cody.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen sprang from the Ann Arbor college bar & frat house scene in the late ’60s as a good time, rollicking funhouse of a throwback rock & roll band that quickly gained coast to coast radio play via a humorous yet long forgotten cover song called Hot Rod Lincoln; the tale of that era’s young male fascination with big motors and fast speed. It was a big hit!

As is often the case, however, a chart-busting song with the type of quirkiness heard on this single will hang like an albatross on the offending performers’ neck and very often stamp them as both a novelty act and a one-hit-wonder. Such was the case here; at least in the hearts and minds of the American Top 40 crowd.

But as the AM pop radio world shifted into the heavier and more serious FM/ Rock Era of the early ’70s, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen played a different role in that emerging and glorious soundscape. As the group’s leader and pianist, George would lead them onto a different path.

George Frayne IV (1975)

With the British Invasion making room for more Americanized formats, country roots-rock and cosmic cowboy music emerged as the particular styles dominating the playlists of that timeframe for the more in-the-know members of the nation’s youth. Whether they be college kids, military grunts, backyard rednecks or wandering hippies, the consensus among them all made for a new and mostly unified music scene. Acts like the Dead, Allmans, Eagles, CSN, Skynyrd, Hot Tuna, and Marshall Tucker became major-major attractions, both over the air and (more importantly) in the live music halls, sheds, arenas, and stadiums throughout the land. It was big, wide, deep and spectacular ; dominating the radar screen of the Youth Culture of that faded day.

Floating just under the cloud of those giants were support players that, while not eventually gaining similar superstar status, were still recognizable enough to make a good living and to ride the tiger’s tail of the high life and big time fun. There were acts like the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco, Flying Burrito Brothers, Charlie Daniels … and the Lost Planet Airmen. All were important cogs in that machine; recognizable contributors to the scene.

The Commander and his crew made for a most interesting member of that field, given their very off-center and outside the curve musical styling and vibe. For here was a wacky ensemble of weed smoking degenerate longhairs getting off a Kesey-style bus and playing old time Texas swing and roadhouse boogie woogie. It shouldn’t have jibed. But it did, likely because it WAS something different while still being delivered by a bunch of regular guys (and the occasional Airgirl like Nicolette Larson) that one could easily hang out and party with. Plus, they made it all incredibly fun.

That ‘fun’ part can not be over-emphasized. From the opening notes, this was a band that let the audience know a celebration was starting and there would be no naysayers along the route. The ensemble aspect of a lot of different things happening up on stage by a lot of different people added to the impact. CC&HLPA were once described as “the perfect opening act” for any headliner of any genre.

~~~ WATCH ~~~

Along the way, they released a worthy catalog, including the famed Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas (at the Armadillo World HQ), which is consistently ranked as one of the top in-concert albums of all time and which spawned deep-cut original singles. Shows were performed around the globe, often with those previously mentioned superstars. They toured with the Dead during the over the top Wall of Sound days. Cody got into some sort of hotel trouble with Hunter Thompson (something about fireworks and a stun gun). Heck, they even warmed up for Led Zeppelin in the UK before 100K people. As always, it somehow worked out just fine. Imagine what this life was like?

But then began a fade to gray. Of course, it did. The Airmen were too numerous, too talented, too adventurous, too costly and too weird to hold together. Plus, arena rock, disco and punk/new wave were moving in and waving warning flags. The Scene was over. Those dope-smoking college kids with all the time in the world had now turned off the radio, junked the old VW and taken jobs downtown or in the Valley.

Mark Emerick, John Tichy and Commander Cody

But the Commander himself soldiered on under his own name, playing smaller and smaller venues as the years rolled on while the visual artist within him became the more passionate pursuit. It was during this transition that he made the move to the 518, while still climbing stages in a scaled-down format with a revolving cast of comrades and a more portable electric piano. But it didn’t feel quite right to anyone that knew of him from “back in the day.

For the inherent unfairness of the Music Game is that it doesn’t usually reward those that actually deserve it. That very case can be made with George and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. History has forgotten them, to a great degree.

That may be because History has also somehow forgotten those days of many dozens of original bands playing five shows a week, jumping from college to college and roadhouse to roadhouse and of young people having as their primary recreational outlet getting to those venues after hearing the recordings communally with their friends. Maybe it’s because it sounds just too unbelievably good to be true vs the troubling landscape of the current music world’s distressing reality? But leave all that analyses to the sociologists’ grad school theses – if THEY even care.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen 

Sure, that handful of big timers became permanently enshrined in the annals of fame and went to the bank forever and ever and ever and a day. Their nostalgia tours still roll into Vegas and the big rooms, whether any of their members are still a part of the charade or not. Likewise, the royalty checks overfill their mailboxes and the plaques on the wall sometimes require additions to hillside mansions.

But the second-tier players like George and the gang deserve a better legacy than they have (or haven’t) received. Heck, the only shrine dedicated to them seems to be a small, booth-side shout-out in Clancys Tavern here in the Spa City, courtesy of its owner and longtime Cody pal Tommy C.

But at least Mr. Frayne had that other equally loved artistic passion of painting to keep him rolling and to keep making people happy. Let’s, therefore, chalk that part up as a blessing and a good thing. We just hope he looked at it that way and it kept him happy, as well.

Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate
Lord, you hate to make him wait
You just gotta have another cigarette

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George Frayne Dead At 77: Commander Cody’s Tragic Cause of Death Revealed 

By Mike Stevenson Sep 27, 2021 07:20 AM EDT

George Frayne

(Photo : Ed Perlstein / Contributor) APRIL 2: Commander Cody, aka George Frayne, performs with the Lost Planet Airmen during a reunion concert on April 2, 1978 at Provo Park in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images)

George Frayne, popularly known as Commander Cody, of the popular country-rock band “Commander Cody And The Los Planet Airmen,” has passed away at the age of 77.

His wife, Sue Casanova, confirmed the news on Facebook using his account. She mentioned that she lay her head on her husband’s shoulder as the rock singer’s “soul took to flight.”

“I am heartbroken and weary and I know your hearts break too. Thank you so much for all the love you gave and the stories you shared.” Casanova added. (read the full post below)

According to Saving Country Music, Frayne’s cause of death was Cancer.

Frayne spent his early days in Boise, Idaho. In 1967, he formed his band “Commander Cody And The Los Planet Airmen,” in Michigan.

He got his stage name “Commander Cody” from the 1951 sci-fi film “Lost Planet Airmen,”; he was inspired by the character of Commando Kody, King of Rocket Men.

His band has a distinct style of music as they mix country sounds with boogie-woogie, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, western swing, and jazz.

According to Louder Sound, their band was one of the first musical acts to have a counter-cultural twist to the sound of Nashville.

From the countryside, the band ultimately moved to Berkley, California, where they got a recording contract with Paramount Records.

They were popularly known for their tracks such as “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which entered the Billboard top ten at the time, “Mama Hated Diesels,” “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!,” “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” and many more.

The band was disbanded in 1976, but Frayne was able to have a solo career. He went on to retain his stage name, Frayne began touring across the United States and released his first solo album titled “Midnight Man” the following year.

Aside from being a singer, Frayne was also an artist as he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in design from the University of Michigan. He also has a master’s degree in sculpture and painting.

Frayne’s last solo album was “Dopers, Drunks, and Everyday Losers,” which was released in 2009. His final collaboration album was titled “Live from Electric City.”

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September 26, 2021

Pioneering Country Rocker Commander Cody (George Frayne) Has Died

Saving Country Music

There were few that could tap into the cosmic side of country music better, and nobody that could sail as deep into the ozone as Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. And now, the band’s illustrious pilot, the Captain, keyboard player and singer Commander Cody himself, Mr. George Frayne, has flown his final mission. 

On Sunday morning, September 26th, it was revealed that George Frayne had passed away in Saratoga Springs, New York due to Cancer. 

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen revolutionized the space where country and rock intersected by bringing a wild, loose, and uninhibited attitude to the music. They were the cool everyone wanted to be, and every music scene wanted to claim them as their own. But the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan is where it all officially started, though the band would eventually move to Berkeley in California, and be closely associated with the hippies/cowboys scene in Austin at the Armadillo World Headquarters as well. 

They only had one true hit—that being a remake of the 1955 song “Hot Rod Lincoln” that went Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1972. But “Seeds and Stems” is the song many bands an artists stole the idea from, while their live albums Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas (1974) recorded at The Armadillo, We’ve Got a Live One Here!(1976), and the essential country trucker record Hot Licks, Cold Steel, and Truckers Favorites (1972) all make for badass record store finds that have withstood the test of time, not to mention the band’s original studio albums such as Lost in the Ozone(1971), Country Casanova (1973), and Tales from the Ozone (1975). 

Officially formed in 1967 after George Frayne had earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Michigan, once Frayne finished his master’s in sculpture and painting in 1968, he started devoting himself to the band full-time, and they hit the road, bolstered by the world-class Telecaster playing of Bill Kirchen, and saxophone/fiddle player Andy Stein. Borrowing from country, rock, Western swing, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues, their live shows were a thing of wonder, and the wild nature of their performances inspired bands like Texas mainstays Asleep at the Wheel, who Commander Cody even convinced to relocate to California for a stint. 

The original Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen burned hot, but didn’t burn too long. Signing to Paramount Records and later Warner Bros., the businessmen wanted to make them into a version of The Eagles or something similar. But they couldn’t be tamed, and were even more tough to market beyond the band’s legion of devoted fans. They did get to tour with The Grateful Dead and once opened for Led Zepplin as well before the original band officially broke up in 1976. 

George Frayne kept going with the Commander Cody name for many years though, and in multiple iterations, including the Commander Cody Band, Commander Cody and His Modern Day Airmen, and Commander Cody and His Western Airmen, but mostly just Commander Cody, which he went by all the way until his death. Bill Kirchen and Andy Stein went on to continue in music quite successfully, with Bill becoming one of the most revered Telecaster players in history, and Andy Stein playing in the house band of A Prairie Home Companion

George Frayne also never lost his passion for visual art. Originally born in Boise, Idaho on July 19, 1944, he received proper training in all sorts of mediums during his time in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. Eventually Frayne permanently relocated to Saratoga Springs, New York where he spent the better part of four decades. He worked in acrylics and depicted a variety of subjects from pop art to portraits of classic cars. Frayne also published a book Art Music and Life through Qualibre Publications in 2009. 

An important character in both the country and rock realm, George Frayne, a.k.a. Commander Cody will be sorely missed, while the seeds he planted with the other Lost Planet Airmen can still be seen and heard throughout country and rock today. 

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VARIETY

Commander Cody, aka George Frayne, Roots-Rock Band Leader and ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ Singer, Dies at 77

By Chris Willman

dead dies commander cody obituary appreciation
CommanderCody.com

George Frayne IV, who led the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a group that combined elements of the rock counterculture with a love for roots music in the early 1970s, died Sunday at age 77. Frayne had been receiving treatment for cancer for several years.

“Early this morning, as I lay my head upon his shoulder, George’s soul took to flight,” his wife, Sue, said in a post on his Facebook page. “I am heartbroken and weary, and I know your hearts break, too. Thank you so much for all the love you gave and the stories you shared.”

Frayne’s seminal group was popularly best known for a remake of the 1955 rockabilly-flavored song “Hot Rod Lincoln” that made the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, peaking at No. 9, with some crossover impact on the country and easy listening charts.

Although the group’s style was often described in its early days as country-rock, the Bay Area-based band had a harder-driving style — and, as its sci-fi-serial-based name would indicate, more of a sense of humor — than other country-influenced artists coming along at the time down in Los Angeles, like the Eagles or Poco. The sounds of rockabilly, Western swing, jump blues, jazz and boogie-woogie piano figured into the band’s free-wheeling style as readily as country, finding enthusiastic fans among followers of rock groups like the Grateful Dead, for whom Commander Cody sometimes opened, as well as devotees of more traditional music forms.

Although it took until 1971 for their major-label debut, “Lost in the Ozone,” to be released, the group actually formed in 1967 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, going against the tide of the psychedelia that was peaking along with the flower-power movement in favor of sounds that dipped deep into the supposedly squarer music of decades past, like Western swing pioneer Bob Wills.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen released seven albums on the Paramount and Warner Bros. labels from 1971-76. After the original group’s breakup in 1976, Frayne continued to record and tour under the name Commander Cody until shortly before the pandemic kicked in.

He told the website Classicbands.com about the origins of the group’s name, saying they got it from “the same place that George Lucas got it: from Republic Pictures. In 1948, 1949, Flash Gordon like operations would run in theaters in between films. Then later, this character Commander Cody made three movies, one of which was ‘Lost Planet Airmen.’ I was watching the Lost Planet Airmen movie and I saw the Commander Cody character and I thought it would be a great name for a band. I had no idea anyone was going to have to be Commander Cody. I mean, there’s no Lynyrd Skynyrd. There’s no Steely Dan. There’s no Marshall Tucker. Why did there have to be a Commander Cody? That’s a long story in itself.

But, of course, there was little sense sci-fi in the music itself… although there was a lot of weed. “In about 1966 I found a Bob Wills album and marijuana,” Frayne said in an interview with No Depression in 2018. “I’m pretty sure those guys were stoned most of the time. I started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’ album that had ‘Crazy Arms’ and Buck Owens’ greatest hits. We did [Owens’] ‘Tiger by the Tail’ regularly. What country music afforded for us was there was no rehearsal; we listened to the record, we drank a bunch of whiskey and coke, and played. Country music is easy to do if someone knows the lyrics and the song, you can follow along relatively easily.”

But, comments like that notwithstanding, Frayne was a serious musician, whose foremost influence as a pianist was Fats Domino. “The Commander I knew was a music-history buff, fine-arts scholar and one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered,” David Malachowski, a guitarist who joined Commander Cody’s band in the late ’90s, told the Times Union, a newspaper in Frayne’s final hometown, Saratoga Springs. Malachowski pointed out the complicated nature of a piano playing style that required different rhythms and even speeds for left-hand and right-hand parts. “I asked him once how he did it, and he said he just played the left-hand figures nonstop all day for about a year, until it became second nature,” the guitarist said.

Born in Boise, Idaho in 1944, Frayne was raised in the Long Island area before attending the University of Michigan, where he received a master of fine arts degree in painting and sculpture the same year the Lost Planet Airmen assembled.

Frayne’s first Ann Arbor band was the Fantastic Surfing Beavers, with a different frontman. After the Commander Cody band formed, according to a 1970 profile by Ed Ward in Rolling Stone, “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.”

Frayne told Rolling Stone in that profile: “We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,. 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.” Yet audiences for the Dead and other groups cottoned to the group once they moved to the San Francisco area in 1969. Said Frayne in those early days, “We’d like to do for country music what (Paul) Butterfield did for blues.”

Of the hit “Hot Rod Lincoln,” Frayne said, noting how he came to be its lead singer, “At that time I couldn’t sing a note really, but I could talk fast. It became apparent that I’d have to become Commander Cody, ’cause all the guys in the band who wanted to be Commander Cody would’ve been out of the question. So, the band voted that I would have to be Commander Cody because I could basically talk fast and had a good rap and gave pretty good radio. Then people started saying ‘Who’s the Commander and what’s he gonna do?’ So I had to come up and do a number; because I couldn’t sing, I found out there’s a long history of guys who couldn’t sing. I first found it out through Phil Harris and traced it back to Johnny Bond.”

He found his shot in a remake of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” originally conceived in 1955 as an answer song to a hit from 1949 titled “Hot Rod Race.” If that destined them to be a one-hit wonder commercially, it was OK with him that that was the hit: “I like the song, so it doesn’t bother me to do it every night. No problem whatsoever.”

The original band’s sound grew less country during the 1970s. “We really liked [our sound] and we played that kind of music until we were booed off stage at the CMA Convention in 1973,” he told Seattle PI in 2013. “In which case we decided that, well, if these guys are going to treat us like this, we’re not going to do their music anymore. Because their attitude was, ‘Who are these hippies? Take a bath, find a rock concert, et cetera, et cetera.’  That was the end of our interest in country and western swing. The people from Texas found out that I wasn’t from Texas and they thought that I was stealing their music and they didn’t get it.”

In that same interview, he said, “I smoke a lot of marijuana and it’s really easy to change your groove around when you’re stoned. … I especially enjoy painting while I’m stoned, and I keep doing that until this very day. On the other hand, I don’t smoke weed at rock and roll gigs anymore, whatsoever, because I’ve been more interested in remembering all the words for the song. Don’t forget, I’m an old geezer. I can’t afford to forget the words.”

In a 2012 interview, Frayne quipped, “The secret is we’ve been doing the same set for 40 years. It’s like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ without the gay attire and dancing.”

Frayne was well-regarded as a painter as well as band leader, and published a book of his visual art, “Art Music & Life,” in 2009. He also taught art, including a stint on the arts faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. An experimental video he made, “Two Triple Cheese Side Order of Fries,” is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Frayne’s wife said on Facebook that memorial events are being planned. “We are working on 2 big gatherings, on both the east and west coast (The Island and the Bay Area) to celebrate the Old Commander’s phenomenal life, and to benefit musicians in need,” she wrote.

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George Frayne, a.k.a. Commander Cody, Alt-Country Pioneer, Dies at 77 ~ NYT

With his band the Lost Planet Airmen, he infused older genres like Western swing and boogie-woogie with a freewheeling 1960s spirit and attracted a devoted following.

George Frayne, the leader of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, on the NBC show “Midnight Special” in 1973. The band lasted only a decade and had just one Top 10 hit, but it had a lasting impact.
George Frayne, the leader of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, on the NBC show “Midnight Special” in 1973. The band lasted only a decade and had just one Top 10 hit, but it had a lasting impact.Credit…Paul W. Bailey/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

By Clay Risen

Sept. 30, 2021

George Frayne, who as the frontman for the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen melded Western swing, jump blues, rockabilly and boogie-woogie with a freewheeling 1960s ethos to pave the way for generations of roots-rock, Americana and alt-country musicians, died on Sunday at his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was 77.

John Tichy, one of the band’s original members, who is now a professor of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said the cause was esophageal cancer.

Though the band lasted only a decade and had just one Top 10 hit, Mr. Frayne’s charisma and raucous onstage presence — as well as the Airmen’s genre-busting sound — made them a cult favorite in 1970s music meccas like the San Francisco area and Austin, Texas.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was not the only rock band exploring country music in the early 1970s. The Eagles, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco and others mined a similar vein and were more commercially successful. But fans, and especially other musicians, took to the Airmen’s raw authenticity, their craftsmanship and their exuberant love for the music they were making — or, in many cases, remaking.

“He said, ‘We’re gonna reach back and get this great old music and infuse it with a ’60s and ’70s spirit,’” Ray Benson, the frontman for Asleep at the Wheel, one of the many bands inspired by Mr. Frayne, said in a phone interview. “He saw the craft and beauty of things America had left behind.”

Mr. Frayne and his band were more comfortable onstage than in the recording studio. They often performed 200 or more shows a year, and they were widely considered one of the best live bands in America; their album “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas” (1974), recorded at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, was once ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 albums of all time.

“He was a comic-book character come to life,” Mr. Benson said of Mr. Frayne. “He looked the part of the wild man, chomping on a cigar and banging on a piano. But he was also an artist, who happened to use the band as a way to express a much bigger picture.”

Mr. Frayne in performance with a later version of the Lost Planet Airmen in 2016.
Mr. Frayne in performance with a later version of the Lost Planet Airmen in 2016.Credit…John Atashian/Getty Images

George William Frayne IV was born on July 19, 1944, in Boise, Idaho, where his father, George III, was stationed as a pilot during World War II. Soon afterward the family moved to Brooklyn, where his father and his mother, Katherine (Jones) Frayne, were both artists. The family later moved to Bay Shore on Long Island, near Jones Beach, where George worked summers as a lifeguard.

Mr. Frayne’s first marriage, to Sara Rice, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Sue Casanova, and his stepdaughter, Sophia Casanova.

Having learned to play boogie-woogie piano while at the University of Michigan, Mr. Frayne used his musical talent to make beer money, joining a series of bands hired to play frat-house parties. He soon fell in with a group of musicians, including Dr. Tichy, who played guitar, and who introduced Mr. Frayne to classic country, especially the Western swing of Bob Wills and the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens.

Both Mr. Frayne and Dr. Tichy stayed at Michigan for graduate school and continued to play in clubs around Ann Arbor. Although they offered throwback country to students otherwise keen on protest songs, they were a hit. They just needed a name.

Mr. Frayne was a big fan of old westerns, especially weird ones like the 1935 serial “The Phantom Empire,” in which Gene Autry discovers an underground civilization. Something about sci-fi and retro country clicked for him. He took the stage name Commander Cody, after Commando Cody, the hero of two 1950s serials, and named his band after the 1951 movie “Lost Planet Airmen.”

He received his master’s degree in sculpture and painting in 1968 and that fall began teaching at Wisconsin State College-Oshkosh, today the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. But he was restless; he flew back to Ann Arbor on weekends for gigs, and when Bill Kirchen, the lead guitarist for the Lost Planet Airmen, moved to Berkeley and encouraged the rest to follow, Mr. Frayne quit academia and headed west.

The San Francisco scene was still in the thrall of acid rock, but the East Bay was more eclectic. Soon the band was opening for acts like the Grateful Dead and later Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper.

The Lost Planet Airmen grew to eight core members, several of them sharing lead-singer duties; there would often be 20 or more others onstage, dancing, playing kazoo and even, at certain adults-only shows, stripping. Their music was bright and up-tempo, centered on Mr. Frayne, who sat — or just as often stood — at his piano, longhaired and shirtless, pounding beers and keys.

1970 profile in Rolling Stone, a year before the band released its first album, called Commander Cody and His Lost Airmen “one of the very best unknown rock ‘n’ roll bands in America today.”

At first the Lost Airmen’s rockin’ country didn’t really fit in anywhere — neither in the post-hippie Bay Area nor in Nashville, where they were booed off the stage at a 1973 concert, the crowd yelling “Get a haircut!”

“We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,” Mr. Frayne told Rolling Stone. “We were just having a good time, picking and playing and making a few dollars on the side.”

WATCH

In 1971 the band released its first album, “Lost in the Ozone.” It spawned a surprise hit single, a cover of Charlie Ryan’s 1955 rockabilly song “Hot Rod Lincoln,” with Mr. Frayne speed-talking through the lyrics:

They arrested me and they put me in jail
And called my pappy to throw my bail.
And he said, “Son, you’re gonna’ drive me to drinkin’
If you don’t stop drivin’ that hot … rod … Lincoln!

It was that song, and the band’s frequent trips to Austin, that allowed them room to find their place, nestling in among the seekers and weirdos piling into the city and building its music scene.

“They were plowing new turf, even if they were doing it with heritage seeds,” the Austin journalist Joe Nick Patoski said in an interview.

But the success of “Hot Rod Lincoln” haunted them, especially when they tried to reach too far beyond their fan base.

“Their success got them pigeonholed as a novelty band, and so the suits at the record company were looking for the next ‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’” Mr. Patoski said.

In 1974 they signed with Warner Bros. Records, but the relentless pressure to produce new music, and the band’s lackluster album sales, eventually broke them apart — a story documented in the 1976 book “Starmaking Machinery: The Odyssey of an Album,” by Geoffrey Stokes.

“The only thing worse than selling out,” Mr. Frayne told Mr. Stokes, “is selling out and not getting bought.”

After the band broke up in 1977, Mr. Frayne continued to perform with a variety of backup bands, always as Commander Cody. In 2009 he re-formed the Lost Planet Airmen, mostly with new members, and released an album, “Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers.”

He also returned to art, making Pop Art portraits of musicians like Jerry Garcia and Sarah Vaughan — collected in a 2009 book, “Art, Music and Life” — and experimenting with video production.

WATCH

As a musician, he had one more minor hit, “Two Triple Cheese, Side Order of Fries,” in 1980. But it was the song’s video, directed by Joe Dea, that really stood out: A fast-paced, low-tech (by today’s standards) mash-up of 1950s lunch-counter culture and hot-rod mischief, it won an Emmy and is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

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George Frayne, who formed country-rockers Commander Cody in Ann Arbor, dies at 77

09/29/2021 –  by christopherporter

Commander Cody by Michael Ochs

Commander Cody photo by Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

George Frayne, better known as country-rock pioneer Commander Cody, died in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Sunday, September 26, at age 77 as the result of cancer.

Best known for the Ann Arbor-spawned group Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, Frayne was also a fine artist who graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s in design in 1966 and a master’s in sculpture and painting in 1968. In between those two years is when he formed Commander Cody and the group became mainstays of the Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan music scenes, known for their marathon live shows that mixed country, rock, Western swing, and boogie-woogie.

Frayne was born in Idaho but grew up in New York City and Long Island. He came to Michigan to go to college, and because Commander Cody’s formative years were in Ann Arbor, many folks in town still associate the band with the city even though the group moved to Berkeley, California, in 1969 and didn’t release its first album, Lost in the Ozone, until 1971.

Cody, who was never for a loss of words, was more ambivalent about his place in Ann Arbor’s history.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, 1964

George Frayne (third row, eighth from the left) with his frat brothers in Sigma Alpha Epsilon from the 1964 edition of the Michiganensian yearbook.

“Ann Arbor’s not home,” Cody told The Ann Arbor News in a 1979 interview.  “I mean, I spent a lot of time here, and I’m beholden to the university. It’s not home like it was. When I was a junior in ’64 or ’65, they threw me out of the SAS and I built a duplex treehouse in the big tree in front that I moved into. It’s now cut down.”

SAS is a typo; Cody was a member of SAE, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, whose fraternity house burned in 1965. There were rumors at the time that Cody was responsible for the fire, but that was debunked in a 1970 feature in Rolling Stone:

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.

Despite Commander Cody’s music being influenced more by old-timey rockabilly and country than the day’s contemporary sound, the group was heavily into partying just as much as their psychedelic-rock peers. As the Commander Cody song “Lost in the Ozone” by group member Billy C goes, “One drink of wine / Two drinks of gin / And I’m lost in the Ozone again.”

“In Ann Arbor, I have a certain reputation to live up to and I’m sticking up to it,” Cody said in a 1979 Ann Arbor News interview, which was conducted because he had just played The Second Chance (now Necto). “I have a real macho reputation in this town. In some ways, it’s awesome, you know—I used to go to the Schwaben Inn and down 27 shots of Kessler’s Smooth As Silk and walk home from it.”

The Schwaben Inn was at 215 S. Ashley Street where the Three Chairs furniture company is now, and it was one of the places George Frayne, who was not yet known as Commander Cody, would play regularly in the mid-1960s as a member of The Fantastic Surfing Beevers. (The 1970 Rolling Stone article mentions the “Beavers” but Cody spelled it “Beevers” in a Facebook post recalling when the group was the Thursday night house band at the Schwaben.)

The countercultural newspaper Ann Arbor Sun interviewed Cody in 1974 about those early years and how His Lost Planet Airmen eventually came together in 1967:

SUN: Most of your fans here know that you are from Ann Arbor, but very few people know the history of the band how the whole thing came together. What about that?
CC: Well, the whole thing was just a cosmic accident, just a whole bunch of accidents. John Tichy, our rhythm guitar player, had this band called The Amblers. He played lead guitar in that band and they decided they wanted to have an organ player so I went out and bought a Wurlitzer and I joined his band and couldn’t play for shit.

SUN: Do you know what year that was?
CC: Yes I know what year that was, it was 1963. The fall of ’63 when we started doing that shit. We were making a lot of dough – making $125 a week playing two TG’s or a Saturday afternoon sorority party and Friday and Saturday frat parties.

SUN: What kind of band was it?
CC: Horrible man, it was just terrible. Steve Davis played I bass for a while. Tichy played lead -we played a couple of I country tunes, and mostly we played “Money” with all the dirty lyrics and all that. We used to have to drink at least a fifth of booze before we could go down and play that horrible shit. I was working my way through college you know, I wasn’t selling encyclopedias, I was playing bullshit to people who didn’t know shit and they were paying good bread. We had the best TG band on campus for 6 years though- it was one of the first bands in Ann Arbor.

But it became a drag and I went to grad school in sculpture. When I graduated l taught at Oshkosh State University for one year, and it was such a drag that I used to drive 750 miles every weekend and back to come to Ann Arbor just so I could play some music. In other words, I had got the music jones by that time, and I had to come back and play with the band.

SUN: Still the same band?
CC: Oh no, we had started Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen as a last ditch effort by which me and Tichy could get some more bread so we could drink some more beer and put ourselves through school. We needed a new band, a new way to make some dough because we were really short. And then after a while, we started to add- Billy C. had started to jam, Billy C.’s brother was in the band, everybody was in the band. What we’re talking about now. This is when I’m in Oshkosh.

SUN: When you were coming back for weekends?
CC: Yeah, Billy C’s got his own band sometimes. I’m coming back, Kirchen’s split for California. Danny Erlewine was playing with us for a while.

SUN: What about Andy Stein? He’s a very charismatic member of the band. How is it that he…?
CC: Andy literally fell into us, we were sitting in front of the fabulous Foxcraft Apartments, me and Steve Davis, the West Virginia Creeper, drinking beer about 8 o’clock at night. digging the action around Campus Corners. The night was really thrilling, we were having a good time. And here comes this real freek walking down the street with this violin case, he’s got a trench coat on. I thought “He’s gotta be good” so I asked him if he could play it. He goes, “sure, I can play it.” So I invited him to come down to gig. He came down to the gig with tuxedo and sandals, eating a roast beef sandwich. He was fiddling and eating a roast beef sandwich at the same time, and stole the show that was at Canterbury House.

Even from the start, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were caked in drama, as recounted in that 1970 Rolling Stone article:

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.

Michigan Rock and Roll Legends elected Cody and Co. into its Hall of Fame and wrote this about the band’s earliest days in Ann Arbor:

They recruited a group of musicians that Frayne would describe as “neo-radicals who specialized in a form of quasi-social mayhem”. These included Steve Davis on steel guitar, John Copley on drums, John Farlow on stand-up bass, Ann Arbor native Bill Kirchen on lead guitar and lead vocals, Andy Stein on fiddle, Steve Schwartz on rhythm guitar, and Billy C. Farlow on harmonica and lead vocals.  

About that time, Frayne also started selling marijuana in Ann Arbor.  The group had, by now, expanded into a kind of stoned-out vaudeville troupe of over 30 people.  Besides the core band, their show also contained other best-forgotten acts such as the Fabulous Tapdancing Green Sisters, the Galactic Twist Queens, and Pat the Hippy Strippy.  Frayne paid everybody in reefer joints, which might explain the large number of people wanting to be part of the show.

During much of the Commander Cody group’s existence in Ann Arbor, Frayne was teaching art at Oshkosh State College in Wisconsin and he would return to town on weekends to gig with the band. But once guitarist Bill Kirchen left Michigan for California, the Commander and His Airmen soon followed, and it was from Berkeley that the band really built its national following with seven studio and live albums recorded between 1971 and 1977.

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen performing at a free concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1970. Photo by Leni Sinclair, as featured in Ann Arbor Sun, May 31, 1974.

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen performing at a free concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1970. Photo by Leni Sinclair, as featured in Ann Arbor Sun, May 31, 1974.

Commander Cody’s rise was chronicled in Geoffrey Stokes’ 1977 book Star-Making Machinery (variously subtitled as The Odyssey of an Album and Inside the Business of Rock and Roll), which was a widescreen look at the 1970s music industry that used His Lost Planet Airmen as a case study.

But whenever Cody returned to Ann Arbor, whether as a solo artist or with the band, which dissolved in 1977, the local press gave him plenty of ink, whether for him to pontificate in interviews or to review his concerts, such as in the 1971 Ann Arbor News article “Film of Naked Girl Strikes Sour Note at Music Concert.”

Frayne was clearly a beloved cult hero that the town claimed as its own, but his various band members adored this creative eccentric, too. The “Titan of the Telecaster,” Bill Kirchen, who’s had a long and decorated solo career since the end of the Airmen, tweeted this when he learned of Frayne’s death:

A radio-broadcast concert of Commander Cody and His Lost Pilot Airmen during the 1972 tour supporting Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites album. While the excerpted show took place in Ann Arbor, it’s unclear which of these three concerts it is: Union Ballroom on May 21 and July 27, or the October 27 Hill Auditorium gig reviewed in The Ann Arbor News


Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.


Related:

➥ “AADL Talks to Commander Cody


➥ “MRRL Hall of Fame: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen” [Michigan Rock and Roll Legends, October 4, 2011]
➥ “The Commander Leans to a Detroit Rock Style” [Ann Arbor News, August 12, 1979]
➥ “The Star-Making Machine” [Ann Arbor Sun, September 17, 1976]
➥ “Interview With Commander Cody Home Town Boy Makes Good!” [Ann Arbor Sun, May 31, 1974]
➥ “I Play Like I Live” [Ann Arbor Sun, July 7, 1972]
➥ “Film of Naked Girl Strikes Sour Note at Music Concert” [Ann Arbor News, April 19, 1971]
➥ “Interview: Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen | This band wants to do for country music what Butterfield did for the blues” [Rolling Stone, April 16, 1970]
➥ Commander Cody mentions at oldnews.aadl.org

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