Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Rock group, often labelled country rock, formed in 1967 in Ann Arbor Michigan, and resurrected '69 in San Francisco at the instigation of Bill Kirchen, who had scouted ahead. Lineup: Commander Cody (b George Frayne IV, 19 July 1944, Boise ID) piano/vocals, Billy C. Farlow, harmonica/vocals, Bill Kirchen (b 29 June 1948, Bridgeport CN) guitar/vocals, 'Buffalo' Bruce Barlow (b 3 December 1948, Oxnard, CA) bass/vocals, Lance Dickerson (b 15 October 1948, Detroit MI) drums, Andy Stein (b 31 August 1948, NYC) fiddle/saxophones, John Tichy on guitar and vocals, and Steve Davis (known as the West Virginia Creeper) on pedal steel. Their intention was to capitalize on the absence of any proficient hippy country group, the very idea a heresy by redneck standards; Cody said that they wanted to do for country what Paul Butterfield had done for white blues.

They briefly worked backing Gene Vincent, leaving behind a number of low-key records. The influences of rock'n'roll, rockabilly, boogie woogie, early jazz, country music, western swing, Cajun and novelty songs all mingled in repertoire. The subject matter of original songs also set them apart from straightforward country bands: tongue-in-cheek 'Down To Seeds And Stems Again' mixed country mawkishness with marijuana metaphors; 'Lost In The Ozone' dealt with getting high; 'ozone' became a catchphrase. During their turbulent history they sold respectably and had a fluke top ten hit single with 'Hot Rod Lincoln' which heralded a slew of novelty songs; Cody defined his artless vocal style as 'talk[ing] very fast in rhythm'. They developed from a shambling barroom band into a polished concert act but had difficulty translating their live act on to vinyl throughout their career. Their debut album Lost In The Ozone brilliantly encapsulated their range. Hot Licks, Cold Steel And Truckers' Favorites '72 explored the myth of the truck-driver in America (a theme Cody returned to periodically, particularly with 'Truckstop At The End Of The World' on Let's Rock '86). The second album produced a series of defining moments through songs such as 'Semi Truck', Kevin 'Blackie' Farrell's tear-jerker 'Mama Hated Diesels' and 'Looking At The World Through A Windshield'. For this the rudimentary steel skills of the West Virginia Creeper were replaced by Bobby Black, an exceptional steel guitarist and session musician. The group was going from strength to strength, defining their image as dope-smokin', truck-drivin' country hunks. Country Casanova '73, Live From Deep In The Heart Of Texas '74, Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen and Tales From The Ozone '75 all assisted in establishing them as a strong crossover act, popular with rock and country audiences alike.

Their dealing with the Paramount label at the time of recording Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen and switching to WB was tellingly captured in Geoffrey Stokes's book Starmaking Machinery: Inside The Business Of Rock And Roll '77, one of the best accounts of the machinations of the recording industry. Growing disenchantment with their inability to break through to a larger audience and the sheer fatigue of relentless touring made them decide to quit '76; the swan song was the potent live double set We've Got A Live One Here '76, the inclusion of Norton Buffalo on harmonica, trombone and vocals adding a new dimension but not enough to halt the decline. Solo Commander Cody went on to make two disappointing LPs, Rock'n'Roll Again and Flying Dreams '77-8, both on Arista; Lose It Tonight '80 on Line/Peter Pan was stronger but lacked the Airmen's earlier flair, including 'Two Triple Cheese, Side Order Of Fries', the animated video for which was hailed as 'fast-paced, fuming, ingenious' in The Rolling Stone Book Of Rock Video. (It cost a mere $250 to make.) A spin-off band, the Moonlighters, made two albums, The Moonlighters and the lacklustre Rush Hour '77-8, but officially became Cody's backing band '86 on his Let's Rock (reissued on Blind Pig '94); this lineup featured Kirchen, Barlow, Tony Johnson on drums and Austin de Lone on guitar and keyboards, and was a welcome return to the LPA's eclectic vision, heavily influenced by rockabilly, truck-drivin' country and rock'n'roll.

Norton Buffalo produced two underrated solo albums, Lovin' In The Valley Of The Moon and Desert Horizon '77-8 and threatened for years to make another; Buffalo worked extensively in film and with people like Bette Midler (introducing her to Johnson's 'Midnight In Memphis', one of the best songs in her film The Rose), the Steve Miller Band and David Soul; Farlow released solo records and also became a temporary Airman on Worst Case Scenario; Stein became best known for his work on the National Lampoon soundtracks and released a jazz album Goin' Places on Stomp Off '87. Dickerson worked with David Bromberg, Mitch Woods and His Rocket 88's and several other bands; others sessioned with Link Wray, Hoyt Axton, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Flaming Groovies, etc. Cody and Farlowe re-formed the Airmen '91 for the album Aces High '92 on Relix; meanwhile Cody pursued a parallel career as an artist whose paintings commanded high prices. Albums contemporaneous with Live From Deep In The Heart Of Texas emerged: Sleazy Roadside Stories on Relix '88, Bar Room Classics on Aim '93. Worst Case Scenario on Aim '94 was an unfocused collection of Airmen early '90s formations. The best-known Airman by the late '90s was Kirchen, who was signed to Black Top, contributed a cover of 'Semi-Truck' with his band Bill Kirchen and Too Much Fun to Rig Rock Deluxe on Upstart '96, and regularly joined forces with Nick Lowe. From a country renegade image they had become the old men of country rock.

Dopes, Drunks and Everyday Losers on Blind Pig 2009 included The Commander's version of John Hiatt's 'Tennessee Plates'; Richard Ludmerer wrote on the BluesWax website that this by itself was worth the cost of the album, and that Cody's version of Hoyt Axton's 'No No Song' made one wish for a whole album of Axton covers: 'Call me sentimental, but this album will put you in a good mood just when you need it the most. Like a comfortable flashback.'