Commander Cody pulls no punches when talking about the musical eccentricity that’s set him apart from other roots-based acts over the years. Cody, real name George Frayne, and his band, the Lost Planet Airmen (currently updated to the Modern Day Airmen), have been dazzling audiences since 1967 with their hybrid blues, country, rock, and swing sound and incendiary live shows. Cody is quick to tell you how he found his niche.
“We’d been playing in a frat-rock band,” Cody earnestly begins. “We’d been listening to rockabilly, and we’d been listening to Western swing – the Western swing came after smoking weed. It was that simple; then we started playing stuff like that. We never stopped playing our old stuff because we had to do three sets a night, but the new stuff we added to our repertoire was like Hank Williams stuff, the blues stuff, and honky-tonk stuff.”
This amalgam of the most delicious flavors of pure Americana will be featured at two Commander Cody shows in Northeast Pennsylvania this week – on Friday, June 20 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, and the following night at the Honesdale Roots & Rhythm Music & Arts Festival.
Eventually, after a short-lived breakup, the Michigan-based Lost Planet Airmen ended up in California, where the band added a full-on blues rhythm section and never looked back.
“The idea was always to add stuff to our base that we liked,” Cody explains. “Our stock sound started to disappear when we started writing our own material because it started to sound like the stuff we were listening to.”
For this self-proclaimed “multimedia artist that plays piano,” as Cody also holds a master’s degree in sculpture and painting, it’s no surprise to find out that he was a part of the late 1960s musical movement that burgeoned in San Francisco, encompassing bands like the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and other emblems of counterculture. Cody recalls the immense impact that the blues had on the musicians of the time, including himself.
“When you were just listening to the radio, you didn’t hear that (blues),” says Cody. “It was very hard to find blues albums then. You’d get a Top 10 song to break through with blues flavoring that was indicative of what was going on under the surface. When you heard a harmonica, when you had all these teenage kids listening to Frankie Valli and stuff, you’d go, ‘What the hell is that?’ Then, you’d hear your first Muddy Waters cut. That was what it was like throughout the ‘60s in England and America.”
Cody also recalls the infamous folk festivals of the day as the real place where white kids would truly discover blues music.
“All the old geezer blues guys would come in with their guitars and sit around, like John Lee Hooker,” he says. “Those guys became famous through the folk festivals in the ‘60s because all the folk people like Joan Baez were singing blues anyway; that’s how it snuck in, and then the bands started rocking it.”
Commander Cody went on to have a bona fide hit in 1971 with a cover of Charley Ryan and The Livingston Brothers’ 1955 song “Hot Rod Lincoln” off the album “Lost in the Ozone,” making it to No. 9 on the charts. Cody recalls the still-fledgling status of the band at the time his version of the song exploded.
“We were just starting to get recognized, getting our big concerts together,” he says. “We thought we had a good opening set, not really playing for four hours yet. We had the hit record, and then people were discovering that the band was really good. A few years later, Billboard voted us the best live band in the world in 1974. After that, we started doing super-professional albums; that was one of the things people didn’t like about us.”
The off-the-cuff nature of the band had started to wane a bit by this point, detracting from the raw vitality of the band.
“Of course, then we got involved with Warner Bros. and that’s when it all fell apart,” admits Cody. “We had about a five-year period of being rock stars.”
The Lost Planet Airmen also did time with major labels like Atlantic, Arista, and MCA. Cody reflects on his time with a major label with trademark humor, likening the artist’s relationship as relative to how big you are at the time.
“You know that scene in ‘Spinal Tap’ with the record company people?” Cody asks. “That’s what I tell people dealing with a record company is like. That’s the most realistic description that you could ever present. That’s just what it is – a gigantic pain in the ass.”
Cody’s been free of those sorts of stifling business practices for years now, most recently working with the independent roots label Blind Pig for his most recent studio album, 2009’s “Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers.” He’s also released independent live albums as of late, like 2013’s “Live from the Island.” He notes the creative freedom that many artists these days are afforded with the dissolution of the major record company business model.
“There’s a lot more opportunities for a band coming up,” Cody admits, “a lot more windows, a lot more doors. The whole scene is different. You still have the hoops to jump through and kiss ass to a certain extent, but for someone with original music that knows what they’re doing, you don’t need these slick guys in suits to convince them of what you’re up to. You’re able to do your own thing. There’s pros and cons – just a different way of how it’s done.”
Looking forward to this coming weekend’s live shows, Cody reflects upon his favorite period of live shows with the Lost Planet Airmen – beginning in 1975 with the “Tales from the Ozone” album and continuing with the following year’s “The Boogie Man Boogie.”
“We were doing the big band/swing type of stuff,” says Cody. “We would do gigs and festivals with those guys; they’d come out and sit in with us. The best tune they were on was called ‘Boogie Man Boogie.’ It’s easily found if you Google that name; it’ll take you to one of the videos of that. It’s just a hilarious boogie-woogie song with those guys. That style of music is what I like the most. We still do that stuff today; fortunately, I can so that stuff with small bands.”
Touring these days is much different for Cody. The marathon weeks and months on the road have since given way to the “weekend warrior” mindset that so many artists are now successfully practicing. Cody’s still enjoying his time in front of audiences, now without the added travel stress.
“A long tour for me now is going out to the West Coast for five days,” Cody says. “Nobody works on Mondays and Tuesdays these days anyway because of the economy. The festivals are usually fun, and there’s a boatload of cash. So, I go out and do two, three dates and come back; we do about 70 dates a year. In the old days, you’d sit around on the bus and get high and write songs, but after five or six years, that gets stale, too. Playing the gig is always fun; you just cut out that drag part, which is the traveling.
“And believe me, in the ‘60s, ‘70s, up until the mid-‘80s; 50 percent of the hotels were barely livable at best.”