“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.
Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen
We’ve Got a Live One Here
Released 1996 from a concert performed in 1976
Well, what can I say? If I were in a band, this might be my choice. Originally from Ann Arbor, then San Francisco, then Texas, and now the East Coast, the Commander has developed his hippie cowboy swing style, comprising r&b, rockabilly, old-time country and novelty numbers and more, into an entrancing burgoo that will get you on your feet even when you’re too drunk to stand. They’re not a band at the front of many people’s minds; to me, they are the instant party, guaranteed fun that Jimmy Buffett always promises without the predictability or sometimes-pretentious navelgazing. These guys are in the realm of Fishbone or Riders in the Sky or Ian Dury: others had greater success plowing similar ground but didn’t necessarily do it any better. Let’s jump around and see what we find!
Don’t Let Go: The Roy Hamilton hit that has been covered by many acts, as has a bunch of the Commander’s repertoire, is a fast-moving, guitar-and-sax confection. Clear tones from both instruments and hearty backup vocals behind the slightly-raspy lead of the Commander (George Frayne), along with the joyous bass, rollicking piano, jumping drums…lots more, though, folks, step lively…
Seeds and Stems: A CCLPA original that sums up one of the band’s themes. The only bad thing about weed is its absence. This is a traditional country weeper that would sound amazing coming from Willie Nelson. It’s one of my least favorite of the band’s work, but only because it feels like three and a half minutes I could have been dancing.
Too Much Fun: I don’t know, is this the LPA’s happiest track? That’s a tight race, and the good news is, everyone’s a winner. The message here, like it says, is fun, with tons of solos for all the outstanding musicians in the group. This track, the album, and the band are just like I like my women—tight and loose!
Lost in the Ozone: The flip side of Seeds and Stems, when the chemical of choice has not run out, has in fact been running in for a while. A steel guitar run that shows you how it should be played, a fiddle run, Norton Buffalo on harmonica—these guys can play, and do. If they’re drunk, to paraphrase Mr. Lincoln, find out what they’re drinking and give it to all my bands.
One of Those Nights: Could have been the album’s title. Another fast-mover about how to lose your blues with virtuoso solos and strangulation-tight changes between voices and instruments. A real band that knows how to play and how to perform.
Riot in Cell Block #9: the Coasters/Blues Brothers tune, with plenty of harmonica, a Universal Monsters response vocal, siren sound effects—pure fun.
Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette: Merle Travis’s original ode to Raleigh’s revenge, pure country pop with backing vocals smooth as a 1959 Chesterfield jingle and the Commander’s improv-packed lead, wise to the ways of the legal weed.
It Should’ve Been Me: Who the hell covers this Ray Charles number? Beautiful, light, funny in a way that Ray gave up when he became the Genius and stopped trying to be Nat Cole. A great tune to catch your breath and hit the can before the next jumper starts.
Hot Rod Lincoln: The Big Hit for the Commander and the boys, it closes the show on this disc. It’s a tour de force as always; there’s no point in doing this song halfway. Makes you smile, makes you dance, makes you leave the party with a smile on your face…and still not the highlight of the package.
Rock That Boogie: This is. Your leg will bounce at the eight-to-the-bar joy here, even if it’s wooden. This cut makes termites move. Airman Billy C. takes lead here, as all the LPA trade off vocals. I won’t say one is better than another, just all different, for the most variety in the show. You must hear this; if it doesn’t make you dance, you’re dead.
I Took Three Bennies and My Semi Truck Won’t Start, Eighteen Wheels, Mama Hated Diesels, Looking at the World Through a Windshield: A big ol’ hunk of truck-drivin’ songs, scattered throughout the show. CC and the LPA have a huge spot in their hearts for truckers, and that loves comes through in fast and slow cuts. The tradition of storytelling is alive and well here, as fictional histories are recounted, and the delights and downers of life on the highway are given voice. You can hear how the Commander’s truck-driving bent helped earn lead guitarist Earl Kirchen the title King of Dieselbilly.
My Window Faces South is a short piece I hadn’t heard before, but it fits the style and mood of the band, or they force it to. One seldom hears about how great the North is, but the subtropical region of the USA engenders love among its citizens and expats like no other.
Milkcow Blues: a rockabilly connection, but it sounds very different from Elvis’ or Eddie Cochran’s take. The steel guitar and horns play up the blues much more and the arrangement plays against the sound of the rest of the album sweetly. It’s almost like a different band has stepped in to give the guys a break. It’s an eye-opening take on a song you’ve heard a thousand times.
Back to Tennessee is another one I didn’t know, a piano boogie about getting out of a bad situation and into a good one, via a stolen airplane to Tennessee. The narrator is a traditional loser, but he can sing, and he can dream.
Big Mamou is served up like Diggy Liggy Lo on others albums, with Cajun spice and, here, language. Bouncy rhythm and plenty of fiddle. Get this: it’s a Cajun dance number, and it isn’t anywhere near the most joyous cut on the record.
San Antonio Rose is a natural choice for these guys, as one of Bob Wills’ best-known cuts, and the fact that Asleep at the Wheel has stayed higher-profile covering much the same ground doesn’t steal any of Cody’s spotlight. The only time the LPA come close to the soft-pop AATW sometimes perform is on over-the-top weepers, openly poking fun at the melodrama of country, but never in a nasty way. The band recognizes that aspect of country’s musical tradition, but clearly they’d rather join the party at the bar than the mourners at the parlor.
No clunkers on the album, and I’ve never been let down by anything from the Commander. It’s always a delirious blast of familiar tunes and mind-popping originals, performed by a tight, expert set of players who are enjoying the hell out of themselves. Try it and wish you hadn’t wasted your life until now by not doing it sooner.
Here’s what Billy C. says: “Come sit on my knee and drink some gin, and we’re gonna boogie when the band begins.” That’s what I say too.