Music Break: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen – Down to Seeds and Stems Again

January 9, 2022

Just found out we lost George Frayne, aka Commander Cody of the Lost Planet Airmen, a few months ago.
He was a U of Michigan graduate, and the Airmen were a standout Ann Arbor band in the seventies.

They had one top ten hit – “Hot Rod Lincoln” – below. The Washington Post had a nice obit.

Washington Post:

The name George Frayne may not ring a bell, but his alter ego, a glib, piano-pounding bandleader named Commander Cody, became a minor rock star of the early 1970s, fast-talking his way through a pair of unlikely hits, “Hot Rod Lincoln” and “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).”

He and his band, the Lost Planet Airmen, created an original mix of country music, jump blues, rockabilly and boogie that made them one of the most roguishly entertaining good-time bands of their era.

Mr. Frayne, who continued to perform as Commander Cody long after the Airmen were grounded, died Sept. 26 at his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was 77.

The cause was esophageal cancer, said Steve Barbuto, his longtime drummer and manager.

Mr. Frayne’s musical career began in the early 1960s after meeting a guitarist, John Tichy, a fellow student at the University of Michigan. Tichy recognized Mr. Frayne’s “dynamic personality” and his skill as a boogie-woogie pianist who could play driving rhythmic patterns with his left hand while playing melodic figures and accents with his right hand. Together, they played in a variety of groups at fraternity parties, developing a raucous, headlong style that became Mr. Frayne’s hallmark.

“We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1970. “We were just having a good time, picking and playing and making a few dollars on the side.”

Besides rock-and-roll, Mr. Frayne and his bandmates began to listen to country music by Buck Owens and the Texas swing of Bob Wills and added their songs to their repertoire.

“The songs were simple, it was easy to catch the hook, and it was easy to sing along,” Mr. Frayne told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call in 2005.

“As you probably know, it’s not manly to practice,” he added, “so we’d get a bottle of whiskey and get in our ’49 Cadillac hearse with a surf board on top, and listen to songs on 45-rpm records on the way to the gigs. That was how we learned them.”

By 1967, Mr. Frayne had come up with a new name for the band, derived from a series of short science fiction films of the early 1950s, “Commando Cody,” and a 1951 sci-fi movie called “Lost Planet Airmen.” The slightly altered combination, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, became one of the more memorable band names in rock history.

In the late 1960s, one of the guitarists, Bill Kirchen, moved to the San Francisco Bay area and invited some of his old compatriots to join him. Mr. Frayne gave up a job teaching art at a college in Wisconsin and headed west.

“I got into the car with our singer and bass player and got to California on June 4, 1969,” he told the Morning Call. “By August we were opening for the Grateful Dead.”

At a time when folk rock and acid rock were popular, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had a bracingly original throwback style, playing souped-up honky-tonk and rockabilly songs from the 1940s and ’50s, delivered with a touch of counterculture irony.

There were eight members, including a pedal steel guitar player and musicians who could play the fiddle, saxophone and trombone, not to mention Mr. Frayne’s roaring Jerry Lee Lewis-flavored piano. Four different members sang lead vocals, with Mr. Frayne specializing in tunes that didn’t require him to carry a tune.

The group had a few other minor hits, including “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” (1973), in which Mr. Frayne approached a novelty song from the 1940s as if it were a proto-rap monologue. In 1974, the Airmen released “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas,” considered one of the decade’s finest live albums, before breaking up two years later.

“We were Americana and alt-country about 20 years before that was even a label,” said Tichy, who left the band to become a professor of aerospace and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. “In our little way, we changed the course of our kind of music.”

George William Frayne IV was born July 19, 1944, in Boise, Idaho. He grew up on Long Island, N.Y., where he was a lifeguard and track athlete in high school. Both parents were artists.

Mr. Frayne studied sculpture and painting at the University of Michigan, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1966 and a master of fine arts degree in 1968.

“I’m probably the only musician who actually stayed in art school,” he quipped. (He also noted that, during his years in Ann Arbor, “I was the main pot dealer for the University of Michigan.”)

He taught at Michigan and the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh before pursuing a musical career. After the Airmen broke up, Mr. Frayne continued to perform as Commander Cody as a solo act. He appeared several times on David Letterman’s late-night talk shows, formed a new band and occasionally reunited with members of the Lost Planet Airmen, including Kirchen, a standout guitarist who lived in the Washington area for several years. Mr. Frayne released his final album, “Live From Electric City,” in 2019.


2 Responses to “Music Break: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen – Down to Seeds and Stems Again”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    Thanks for this!

    Always been a Commander Cody fan.

    Bill Kirchen made a pretty good name for himself:

  2. I will always think of The Commander holding court at the bar at Threadgill’s, telling stories of his wild and crazy days. Bill Kirchen still plays regularly here in Austin and across the country. He does a fabulous version of Hot Rod Lincoln with an extended series of memorable guitar riffs representing everyone from Johnny Cash to Johnny Rivers and, of course, the Kings – BB, Albert, and Elvis.

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