There’s a school of thinking that says in order to find out if you like an artist, or to develop an appreciation for one, you need to pick an album, any album, and jump right in.
But what happens if you start learning about Van Morrison by listening to Astral Weeks? What if, God forbid, you try to develop a taste for the Rolling Stones by starting with Their Satanic Majesty’s Request? You’ll get a false reading: Astral Weeks is a hard album to wrap your head around, even for diehard fans, and Satanic Majesty’s is just plain bad.
Enter the greatest hits album. They’re the perfect gateway into a band’s back catalog, (and I’m sure the 2 or 3 record label executives left on the planet are vigorously nodding), and allow you to get a feel for an artist’s entire career rather than just one moment. But with some bands, I find you don’t need much more than the greatest hits album. And that’s not a criticism–sometimes you just hit gold on the first try. I love this album, and I can’t imagine I’ll find another one by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen that I’ll ever like more. In fact, I listened to this on a car ride to Connecticut last week, and I sang along with every word. Every last one.
Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967, and enjoyed decent popularity for the next 10 years or so. Michigan might seem like a weird place for a country band, but then Commander Cody was definitely a weird country band. Rather than straightforward outlaw country or the polished Nashville sound, the band was rooted much more in Western swing, boogie-woogie, and early rock & roll, and they delivered it all with manic energy and giant ‘70s mutton chops. There’s definitely a dose of hippie sensibility mixed up in there too, from their infamously wacky cover art to their country laments about running out of weed (“Down to Seeds and Stems Again”).
Most of the songs on the disc are covers of songs by artists that I’ve never heard of. Say whatever else you will, but the band had a fantastic ear for a forgotten gem, and they were adept at taking old songs and reinvigorating them for a new audience.
The obvious place to point you is track three, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which was the band’s biggest hit. If you like Cake and John McCrea, George Frayne’s spoken delivery won’t bother you a bit. Even if it does, there’s so much to keep you entertained here that you won’t focus on it for long. Apart from the explosive riff, which is so hard that even the great Bill Kirchen doesn’t even play it clean every time (check the sour note at 0:54), there is some truly innovative playing from fiddle player Andy Stein and steel guitarist West Virginia Creeper. Between the two of them, they produce all the sound effects on the track—squealing tires, police sirens, horns.
The band’s version of Eddie Cochran’s “20 Flight Rock” is another keeper, propelled by Andy Stein’s bleating baritone sax and Bill Kirchen’s glassy-toned solo, which keeps the rockabilly spirit of Cochran’s version but amps it up with a full-band sound. For me, it’s the definitive reading of this song—the one I heard first and the one I keep coming back to.
“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)” probably sounds much more outré today than it did when Tex Williams and Merle Travis first recorded it in 1947. Lyrically, it’s not particularly pro- or anti-smoking, but instead makes the point that it’s an awfully inconvenient habit: “them nicotine slaves they’re all the same/at a pettin’ party or a poker game/everything’s gotta stop when you smoke that cigarette.” This is Commander Cody and the Airmen at their best: a tight, full-band sound, layered instrumentation that veers off into jazz (the tricky interval leaps around the 3:00 mark), and a slightly naughty sense of humor.
Speaking of, the next track, “Everybody’s Doin’ It” features the f-word twenty-four times throughout the track—not something you’re used to hearing in an otherwise-forgotten, rather racist country song from 1937, but the band hits it with gusto (though they thankfully leave the racist bits out). The real star, though, is Andy Stein’s perfect intro solo, which, when combined with the steel guitar backing him, sums up the strange musical fusion that is Western swing—part country, part jazz.
To be fair, these songs are about the most clichéd country tropes out there. There’s plenty about women, a few about various vices, and a few about trucks. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s easy to brush these songs off as not particularly inspired, and some are downright cringe-worthy if you go into them with the wrong attitude. “Mama Hated Diesels,” for example, reveals a tragic tale about a broken family and the hard existence of the long-haul trucker. There’s crying, a spoken interlude, and a dead mother. But the song is so over the top, so tawdry, that you can’t help but set the music snob hat aside for a minute and just weep in your Miller High Life. It’s true country cornball, and you can either brush it off or bask in its full B-movie glow.
Cornball or not, ironic or not, I take a real pleasure in these songs and the way this band plays them. I don’t know if I’d call the album “Too Much Fun” per say, but it’s certainly close.
PS–If you’re jonesing for more, head on over to Medium.com, where another Commander Cody fan (don’t worry, he’s from Texas, so he’s legit) and I wax philosophic about Commander Cody & co.