Let's get the truth of the matter out of the way first: this double-disc collection of unreleased early material by Ann Arbor, MI's Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen is for the hardcore fan only, and for those who are freaks for musical history. Is that a bad thing? Not at all. If anything, this is one of the more revelatory documents to be issued in the CD era. While many music listeners -- even the most fervent -- don't like to dig into the guts and grit of a band's early rehearsals and fumbling-in-the-dark material to find the spark that ignited the fire, there are those who live for stuff like this. SPV's Blue series has licensed from Billy C. Farlow -- the LPA's lead vocalist and chief songwriter -- these rough, rowdy, garagey demos that give more than a clue as to how the unique roots sound of that band came together and transformed the sound of American roots music by weaving together early rock & roll, honky tonk and Western swing and blues into a heady, intoxicated brew that landed them one Top Ten hit ("Hot Rod Lincoln") and made them one of the nation's premier roots and live bands for a few years in the early '70s.
Farlow's wonderful liner notes give the history in a folksy, funny, rambling way. The music -- 35 tracks' worth -- begins with six tunes from 1968 comprised of basement sessions with Farlow playing acoustic guitar with a bass player, a pedal steel, and hand percussion, and Bill Kirchen playing his trademark burning hot acoustic leads. They were working out future Cody classics like Farlow's "What's the Matter Now," the Lee/Ainsworth nugget "Midnight Shift," Billy Walker's "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Honky Tonkin'," and Scotty Wiseman's "Mountain Dew." In the late '60s, through the middle of the '70s, Commander Cody were playing a wide repertoire of songs from the American cannon, whether they be blues, rock & roll, country, folk ballads, and swing tunes was not only de rigueur for a lot of the hippie bands like the Grateful Dead, Dan Hicks, and others, but it was welcome by fans who were interested in virtually anything transformed by rock bands. Commander Cody's band numbered nine pieces at its zenith, made it their mission to present this music across genre lines, along with rootsy originals. The original members were George Frayne (Commander Cody), Kirchen, John Tichy, Steve Davis (aka West Virginia Creeper), fiddler Andy Stein, and Farlow, with Farlow's brother Johnny helping out on string bass, and John Copley playing brushes. The first six cuts feature this early incarnation; they were wasted -- wasted -- excited and discovering the alchemical magic that became the Airmen. Cuts like a reworked version of "Midnight Shift," and Hank Williams' "I Ain't Got Nothin' But Time" were recorded at Ann Arbor's fabled campus radio station WCBN (still on the air, look 'em up on the internet) in early 1969, sound rough because of primitive recording gear, but the performance is loose yet righteous. The first disc shifts to early 1970, to rehearsals when the band moved west to San Francisco with bassist Buffalo Bruce Barlow and drummer Lance Dickerson. Dickerson had been Farlow's drummer in an early band in from Detroit called the Sunshine (see SPV's other volume, Billy C. & the Sunshine's The Lost 70s Tapes) and both he and Barlow had been playing with Charlie Musselwhite. The Airmen swiped them. There are five tracks from these rehearsals that portray a much more electric, swinging, instrumentally dazzling Airmen. There is one from the band's first Bay area gig at Reggie's Garage gig (Farlow's amazing country song "Back to Tennessee," which was covered by the Grateful Dead in live performances) and three from their first performance at the Family Dog in 1969.
Included are two Farlow originals in "Semi-Truck" and a fully realized version of "What's the Matter Now." Disc two kicks off with real historic important: The first six cuts are compiled from the Lost Planet Airmen's now near mythic first performance at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. This is where the term country-rock came from. Because it was certainly country, but it rocked harder in the Chuck Berry-Little Richard-Buddy Holly way, rather than the Burritos or the Byrds style. Just check out the opener by Mel Tillis and Webb Pierce: "I Ain't Never." It roars into the Motown classic "First I Look at the Purse," (that is every bit the equal of, if not superior to, the J. Geils version) before ripping into Leiber & Stoller's "The Shadow Knows," before topping it all off with the doo wop standard "Get It," Carl Perkins' "Boppin' the Blues," and "Rip It Up." These tunes are out of this world and worth the price tag by themselves. Seven more cuts are from a homecoming performance at Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium in 1970 where the full Commander Cody sound is not only blooming, it's flowering into gold as the band was making records by this time and of course, early nuggets like their version of "Hot Rod Lincoln," Farlow's "Back to Tennessee," Otis Redding's "Shout Bamalama," and "Jambalaya," by Hank Williams. It's all there and then some as the final four cuts attest form the Longbranch Saloon in Berkeley with readings of Johnny Cash's "Big River," "Lost in the Ozone," and "Semi-Truck" among them.
This is a brilliant document. It's very rough in places, but the sheer verve, loose stoned-out glory, and ragged joy in the earliest performances that led to the nearly magical transformation of the first members into the wild, woolly, rowdy, and sophisticated tight-butt sound that belonged to Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen is nothing short of amazing. Again, CC & His LPA freaks will simply flip for this, and musical historians will take great delight in filling in these gaps. This is essential stuff -- and it's a gas, to boot.