Monday, May 15, 2017

I'd Love to Turn You On #179 - Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen - Lost In The Ozone

After the multi-colored explosion of counter-culture and youth exaltation that took place in mid to late 1960’s America, there was a desire for something maybe a little less experimental, maybe a little less world-changing and maybe a little more…fun. In the world of popular music there was a small but meaningful group of bands who were (re)discovering the joy and heritage of American roots music. Groups like Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, N.R.B.Q., Asleep at the Wheel and The New Riders of the Purple Sage were discovering the past and finding that it was a blast to play this kind of music. Audiences were equally desperate for something that required less thinking and more dancing. In thrall of classic outfits like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, Tex Ritter, and The Johnny Otis Revue, these bands were finding that they were not the first musicians to jump in a bus and travel across the land bringing high times to the people. One of the most legendary and hard partying of these bands was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Starting in Michigan and landing in the Bay Area, they released their first album Lost In The Ozone in 1971. Like the aforementioned American big bands and revues, The Airmen brought a joyous repertoire of originals and classic Americana to the stage and gave the hippies a much-needed emotional break.

There is nothing fancy, tricky, artsy or fartsy about The Airmen’s music. It is basically revved-up country and western with a bit of R&B thrown in. The Commander himself (George Frayne IV) was a trained painter and sculptor whose love of boogie-woogie piano led him to leave the academic path (he has doubled a college professor) and hit the road with a crack eight-piece big band to give the people what they want. And boy could they deliver! The album kicks off with a clear statement of purpose, “Back To Tennessee,” “Wine Do Yer Stuff” and “Seeds And Stems (Again)” tell us with no uncertainty that these boys want to get back to the country and start the Par-Tay! And that is exactly what they do. They do not let up. The hallmarks of this great band were the Commander’s pumping boogie-woogie, Billy C. Farlow’s authentic vocal stylings, Bill Kirchin’s world-class guitar picking and the addition of non-traditional rock instruments like pedal-steel guitar, fiddle and the occasional horns. The original material makes the dichotomy of country/hippie life clear, and then the raucous cover versions that round out the album bridge that gulf in fine form.

About halfway through, starting with title cut “Lost In The Ozone,” the album kicks into high gear. Any young person who had made it through the late 60’s and into the politically charged atmosphere of the early 70’s could relate to the feelings suggested by this song’s title and sentiment. “Midnight Shift” and “20 Flight Rock” offer a clear reference back to early rock and roll, but the Charlie Ryan classic “Hot Rod Lincoln” provided The Airmen with their biggest and longest lasting hit and neatly crystallizes their aesthetic. It rocks in a way the fan of rock and roll can appreciate, but it is an absolute retro blast. Originally a hit in 1951, it reflects the moment in our history when popular American music was turning from regionalism to the monolith known as rock and roll. Within a few years, everything would change for good.

The album ends with an uproarious live version of “Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar,” one of the greatest songs about the joy of making and listening to music. A big band hit going back to 1941, it was a wonderful reminder to contemporary audiences of the fundamental importance music can play in lifting our spirits from the mundane or cruel realities of day to day life. With Vietnam about to crest and Watergate on the near horizon that wasn’t the worst thing.

“When He Jams It’s A Ball, He’s The Daddy Of Them All!
The Rhythm He Play Puts Those Cats In A Trance, Nobody There Bothers To Dance.
When They Jam With A Bass And Guitar, They Holler: Oh Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar!”

-         Paul Epstein

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