Getting Lost in the Ozone with George Frayne, aka Commander Cody: An Interview with the Man Behind the Music
By Monica Sirignano and Dave Bower
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen took the music industry by storm in the early 70s, with their hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which reached the top ten on the Billboard charts in 1972. One of the first to incorporate Western swing into its style, the band was known for its original sound, infusing elements of rockabilly, blues, country and boogie-woogie piano into their innovative music. In its original incarnation, the band consisted of George Frayne (Commander Cody), John Tichy, Billy C. Farlow, Bill Kirchen, Andy Stein, Paul “Buffalo” Bruce Barlow, Lance Dickerson, and Bobby Black. Come 1976, Frayne disbanded the band and explored a solo career, retaining his stage name of Commander Cody and continuing to develop a devoted cult following of fans. In addition to his music, Frayne is also a renowned painter, sculptor and video artist. After a significant break from recording, he made a comeback with his 2008 album, Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers, and has also recently published a book called Art, Music and Life. Frayne now resides in Gansevoort, and continues to play locally, nationally and abroad.
The Free George: Regarding the name Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, we know you chose the name after the film serial.
George Frayne: Right, exactly.
TFG: What about the film made you choose it as the name of the band?
GF: Well we were sitting around trying to think of band names and it happened to be on the TV at the bar we were at, and the character on the screen had this black leather jacket on, with a rocket on the back. And the camera was zeroing in his controls that he was setting with his hands…it’s at this exact moment that I’m trying to think of a band name…and he’s got these two controls, one of them is “Up/Down” and the other is “Fast/Slow” so his name was Commando Cody, we changed that. So he’s got the jacket, the rocket on the back and the headgear, and he puts it on fast and then he up and takes off, and I thought “that’s pretty cool.” The name of the movie is Lost Planet Airmen, we thought it was pretty good too and as we were about to change our frat band into being a country and western swing band and we thought that would get everyone’s attention.
TFG: Would you classify your music back then as country swing?
GF: No, in the day we had a band that could play everything. We played some big band swing songs, we played some rockabilly, we played some country, we played some hard rock, pop rock, we did some blues and boogie woogie as well as some zydeco swing. So, we had 8 different guys all of which played different instruments so we did some eclectic stuff which our record companies were always complaining about. Back in the day they’d say, “Well, we don’t know what bin to put your product in.” Today this wouldn’t be a problem, because it’s all American music, but back then that was the big excuse as to why they couldn’t sell records for us.
TFG: So the record companies wanted your music to be one specific genre?
GF: This is the kind of thing that guys like Warner Brothers tell ya when they can’t figure it out and you can’t get a hit and they’re not really doing anything. Yeah, all that crap they used to say, you know?
TFG: In one incarnation, you had 36 people working with your band. How was that?
GF: Yeah, it wasn’t actually the band, but there were 36 performers…it was more of a hippie art performance happening thing than anything else. We had the Dancing Green Sisters who came out in matching blue costumes and tap danced and sang “Ain’t She Sweet.” Then we had a six foot five inch girl named Pat the Hippie Strippy who would make bizarre costumes and do a Gypsy Rose Lee thing, and then there was a giant woman who did jumping jacks with an American flag and there were like five hippies who would come in on kazoos, and there would be all that kind of stuff happening. We did a couple of frat houses with this, but none of the fraternity guys would get into the same groove. To the average frat guy in 1967, a bunch of crazed hippies was kinda, you know…I mean, my hair wasn’t down to my knees or anything like that, I mean I was kind of a frat man myself.
TFG: [laughs] So you were clean cut and shaven back then?
GF: Well, at the time I was starting to grow my hair long.
TFG: And you actually grew up in New York State?
GF: Yeah, I lived in Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties. I graduated from Bayshore High in ’62. I used to work as a lifeguard at Jones Beach every summer for 10 years. I was on the track team in both Oceanside and Bayshore High, and I was the 1962 Suffolk County Shot Put Champ.
TFG: [needless to say, we were taken aback] The shot put champ? Really?
GF: I weighed 175 pounds at the time [laughs].
TFG: You don’t meet many shot put champs.
GF: Yeah, I started off doing the high jump because I had really been sort’ve a fast kid, and it was kind of a way to keep off the street, I was kind of a juvenile delinquent and the track coach discovered me fleeing someone I had perpetrated, some sort’ve crime, I can’t remember what it was at the time, but I was running, and I jumped over this fence, it must’ve been 6 feet, so the track coach said “Hey, listen kid, before you get arrested, why don’t you join the track team?” I learned how to shot put also, so I was high jumping and shot putting [laughs].
TFG: That’s pretty wild. So do you still shot put in your spare time?
GF: Yeah, right [laughs].
TFG: What prompted your move to Gansevoort?
GF: I had moved to Saratoga, and then we realized that it’s a great place to live, but you need to have money to live in Saratoga, so if I moved two miles over the border and found a cheaper house…you know this is where Wilton, Gansevoort and Saratoga becomes a mangled mesh down here by McGregor’s Golf Course. Between exit 15 and 16 there’s this whole gerrymandered district, some of which is in Gansevoort and some of which is in Wilton and part of which is in Saratoga. Anyway, I had lived in California for over 25 years. I’d lived 20 years in Marin County and everything you’ve heard about Marin County is totally true, and I was getting really sick of it, plus it was really expensive. In 1999 in Stinson Beach, California, land was $500,000 for a half-acre. It just sucked, so I had to get out of there. My second wife is an Italian from here, and this is a perfect place to be if you’re gonna step down and be in a local band, play in bars and stuff. This is an ideal location; you’re halfway between Montreal, New York City, Boston and Buffalo, there’s a bar every ten feet.
TFG: We’ve seen a lot of your art as well and you’ve had a pretty extensive art career, do you think that the art, videos and music you’ve made…do you feel that they all interconnect?
GF: Oh yeah, it’s all kind of the same thing. I sort’ve put something down in the book, it’s been published, and now we’re looking for a major distributor, but we’ve gotten really good reviews with it. Art, Music and Life, it’s on the web also.
TFG: Of all the musicians you’ve played with, who’s been your favorite?
GF: Norton Buffalo. He was the most fun guy, the most challenging musician that there was to play on stage with. He was the finest harmonica player that ever lived and was especially good at the chromatic harmonica. He sat through the last days of my original Lost Planet Airmen in 1975-76 and toured with us in Europe where we recorded the We’ve Got a Live One Here! album, and he replaced three guys in the band.
TFG: When you started out, did you think you’d become as big as you have?
GF: No, no we were just trying to figure out a way to rock. I was teaching basic college courses at Wisconsin State University in Oshkosh. It was 20 degrees below zero, and one of those days I drove to school—I was 24 years old—and I was thinking at the time that I’m gonna die here. And you know, my hair wasn’t very long, it was maybe as long as the Beatles hair was, and I was not receiving any kind of good vibes from the local denizens whatsoever. And later when I had moved out of town, they had found out that I had actually smoked some hashish in the dwelling that I had rented on this tiny little lake in the middle of nowhere; they got quite pissed off. They tried to arrest me.
TFG: They tried to arrest you?
GF: Well, yeah.
TFG: Is it true that Hunter S. Thompson threw a bomb at you?
GF: Yeah, in 1984 I was interviewing Hunter Thompson and Bill Murray for Cox Cable, they were in Florida somewhere in the Keys, and I was interviewing Hunter, and he was talking about—this is in 1984—why we should invade Mexico right away…it kinda makes sense now…anyway, he fired off a tazer at the cameraman who quit and then left, so there was nothing else to do except hit the local bar which everyone did. So somehow after whatever band was playing there, Hunter went out and got a large bowling ball size bunch of cherry bombs, M-80s, and taped them together with duct tape and later that night lit it up and threw it through my door, which was open, drapes were flowing in the breeze, he kind of rolled in there and so it kind of exploded on me. At the time it was a drag, but it makes a good story now.
TFG: Were you hurt?
GF: Well, yeah I mean it burned up my feet a little bit, but I mean hurt as compared to what…as compared to getting hit by a semi truck. I burned my foot putting out the fire in the drapes. Fortunately there were no cops or fire department, because the hotel owner was in on this.
TFG: You recently did a tour of Italy, how did that go?
GF: We were there for 12 days, and we did 9 days, 8 in a row. I go there every year, I have a birthday party at an Irish pub in Faenza, which is over by Ferrara, which is the non-touristy, northeast side of Tuscany. It’s really cool. Very, very cool, and in Italy they have free concerts in the little cities and towns at the top of the hill in the town square during the summertime. They set up a stage and bands come through and play free concerts for the local people who haven’t left for the beach. In Italy, everybody kind of heads for the beach in July, and they also have big festivals for the people who are staying behind, to give them something to do. It’s bad when you get the bed and breakfast out by the wrong side of the field with no air conditioning, and its great when you get the downtown hotel with air conditioning and the full bar with tequila…it can go either way [laughs]. The autostrada’s a great road, the truck stops are the best in the world, you can go into a truck stop in Italy and have a shot of grappa, grab a bottle of wine and go back to driving.
TFG: What’s your favorite drink?
TFG: Tequila’s good.
GF: As a matter of fact, Sammy [Hagar] makes a great tequila, but it’s a little pricey. If he brought down the price and maybe the proof down to 85, it’d be even more fun to party with, but it’s really good, the best stuff in the world.
TFG: So what propelled you to take a 23-year hiatus from the music scene?
GF: I wouldn’t call it a hiatus. I wasn’t recording. There really wasn’t anything to record, we were out playing in different bars and using different people every night, so there was no reason to record anything. But when I got here and starting using these East Coast musicians, the guys in my band, it took 7 to 8 years of keeping the same people, in the same band, doing the same set every night we played, to get to the point of where it was worth recording. And then we recorded the Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers CD 2 years ago at Professor Louie Hurwitz’s studio in Woodstock.
TFG: That’s a great album. What inspired Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers?
GF: Well, we were in the middle of a depression. “Loser’s Avenue” is about Wall Street, then we took “Down and Out” and some similar stuff. We took a couple of new songs and dug up a couple of old songs about losers and it was pretty easy to put stuff together that was related. The band’s been on a nice level since then for the first time in a long time. The level takes a long time if you’re not able to rehearse.
TFG: And going back awhile, the video “Two Double Cheese, Side Order of Fries,” which is in MOMA’s permanent collection. What was the inspiration for that?
GF: At that time it was the beginning of the music video era, and I was writing stuff that was thematic. Things like “Mars Needs Women,” “Joint Chiefs of Staff,” “Thanks a Lot, Lone Ranger,” all those songs from the late 70s and early 80s are all theme oriented, the idea of doing fine art music videos without posing, without guitar solos, without choreography.
TFG: And you’re still doing videos?
GF: I just made one today and uploaded it about an hour ago. I’ve got 166 recordings of old stuff to do and I’ve got new recordings, so I go back and forth. This new one is from a Los Angeles recording I did for Arista in 1978 off an album that really sucked, but there were a couple of interesting things about it, and it’s called “Take the 5th Amendment,” which is an old song from Joe Tex.
TFG: You actually studied cinematography as well.
GF: Yeah, I have a major in sculpture and a minor in painting and cinematography. When my brother was alive we made 16 millimeter films, and he was the director and I was the producer, and since he died I’m now the director and producer. I just do stuff in imovie, and I take my camera with me, and now we just put stuff together along with this giant vault of relatively cool material.
TFG: A lot of your videos are on YouTube, along with your music. How do you feel that YouTube and the Internet have changed the industry?
GF: I wish we had these tools back when I was just getting going. It’s just incredible, before you had to get a record to sell a record, the person had to go to a record store to buy a record and now all people have to do to get a record is just turn on a screen.
TFG: Radio has changed as well, with satellite radio and such. Do you miss things like record albums and the role that radio stations used to play?
GF: I don’t sit around and put the LPs on the old turntable anymore. I’ve still got a turntable, because sometime in the future all that mylar’s gonna melt off the CDs and they’re gonna be worthless, but you’ll still be able to play records. I’ve got all the stuff that I really like on mp3 anyway and that’s fine with me. I could take all the good Rockpile stuff, which is great, then you don’t have to sit through the whole album or listen to songs you don’t like or pick up the needle and put it someplace else, you can just take your own stuff and put it together. You can market it and I can make my own professional product here.
TFG: You feel more in control of what you can market.
GF: For instance, in the old days when you had publicity photos, well you don’t have to have the same stale publicity photo anymore, which everyone in the world used to have, because you’d have to buy them in 500-1000 blocks at a time, so you’d wind up with all this extra paper laying around, all this crap you didn’t want like Beatle pictures and bios, all this useless stuff—you don’t need all that anymore. If people want a certain kind of publicity thing to sign, I can print a batch up here and take them down to the show with me. I don’t have to customize them or sit around with a stack of 500 or 1000 old stale photographs that are going anywhere except into a trash dump. If we had all this stuff then I probably wouldn’t have been the victim of all this maneuvering and stuff by other people who would try to market you back then. It was not cool to do different stuff like we did with swing and rock and rockabilly and country. It was called eclectic and today it’s called Americana, you can put it anywhere and lots of people listen to it.
TFG: It seems like people are always trying to cage or classify things and if they can’t then they get scared of it.
GF: Yeah, but it’s okay to do stuff like that today, because you can market yourself to all the people who want to hear eclectic groups. You can find out where they are, what they’re doing and do it yourself without having to rely on some lame, businessman nerd in L.A. someplace. You know if you’re a musician, in these days of doing it, the education’s there for people to find out what they can do, and it’s all at your fingertips, whereas it used to be the old universal knowledge about the business.
A perfect example of that is Bob Dylan decides he wants to have a rock band in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival and did the first show acoustic and everybody loves it. He does the second show with the band and starts playing and everybody tries to kill him. Well, the problem was that the amplification, microphones and PA systems were so shitty that they couldn’t hear anything but Michael Bloomfield, who was this nutty guitar player as you recall. Everyone could hear Michael Bloomfield and you wonder why Pete Seeger went nuts at that one festival. It wasn’t because of that rock and roll music, the songs themselves or the playing thereof, it was the fact that no one could hear anything at the concert but raspy, nasty guitar.
So, yeah, everything’s better today is what I’m trying to say, and there’s good things for me to get out of all this stuff before I croak for crying out loud. I’m 67 years old and it’s hard enough, but at least I can fix it so that we can more or less run the thing ourselves and in a professional manner, which you could never do that, so if you’ve got a band and you’re starting off today your odds are way better.
TFG: It definitely seems that way, like it’s opened up. One of the major complaints though is that musicians are losing money, so has that been an issue?
GF: That depends on how much money you’re losing or not. For someone in my position, where I don’t sell a ton of stuff, every once in a while we have a bizarre hit and it sells…it’s like lamenting “Oh, man the albums are so cool ‘cause you have a nice graphic and you could play with it, it was a piece of art,” but now things are different. That’s all there is to it, you have to be able to adapt to what’s going on today, or go out and find a club of people that break out records and sit around and do it. You have to adapt to what the technology’s gonna do, because the technology isn’t going to step aside for anything.
The Commander Cody Band consists of George Frayne, aka Commander Cody on piano, Steve Barbuto on drums, Mark Emerick on guitar, Chris “Tiny” Olsen on pedal steel, and Randy Bramwell on bass.
For more info on Commander Cody, visit www.commandercody.com
Check out a video of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen singing “Hot Rod Lincoln” below.
Check out George Frayne’s video artistry in Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette below.
–Dave Bower and Monica Sirignano are Publishers of The Free George.
Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=2951