Week 32: Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen (with a Silly Little Showbiz Book Club side trip)
A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
About four years ago, I wrote a manuscript that tracked the development of my poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie-review panel show Movie Club With John Ridley from its embryonic beginnings to its bitter, bitter end. I didn’t write a manuscript about Movie Club With John Ridley because I labored under the delusion that the show was important or popular: I wrote about it because I found it fascinating just how much drama, intrigue, and conflict went into even the most obscure pop-culture ephemera.
Movie Club might not have seemed like much from the outside. But inside, it was a universe onto itself, a tragicomic realm filled with larger-than-life personalities and cruelly thwarted dreams. I wrote about Movie Club in part because I suspected that my experiences weren’t terribly different from those of hundreds of others who strutted and fretted their hour upon the basic-cable stage and are heard from no more. I nursed a hunch that my experience echoed the experiences of countless other failed television personalities. I learned just a little too late that there isn’t an audience for books about television shows nobody’s ever heard of, so the manuscript now lives on only as a Word file on my computer.
I wanted to add something to one of my favorite weird literary subgenres: books that chronicle failed movies, television shows, or baseball seasons from start to finish, that get deep inside a failed production in an attempt to explain how a tiny corner of the entertainment universe works. This subgenre includes Picture, Lillian Ross’ empathetic exploration of the making of John Huston’s adaptation of Red Badge Of Courage, and The Devil’s Candy, Julie Salamon’s essential analysis of how Bonfire Of The Vanities went horribly awry. Other entries include The Man Who Heard Voices: How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On A Fairy Tale, Michael Bamberger’s fawning account of Lady In The Water; Final Cut, a memoir of being on the receiving end of Michael Cimino’s belligerence during the making of Heaven’s Gate, written by studio-executive-turned-writer Steven Bach; and Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s non-fiction classic about a year in the life of a middle-aged has-been trying to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer on an expansion team after crashing and burning as a fireballer during his glory days with the early-1960s Yankees.
So I was geeked to discover Geoffrey Stokes’ 1977 expose Star-Making Machinery: Inside The Business Of Rock And Roll during a recent trip to a used-book store. It was a musty paperback promising a warts-and-all, no-holds-barred, exhaustively detailed account of cult country-rock outfit Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen, and its eponymous 1975 album. In an ongoing bid to scare away what few readers this column has, I decided I would write a Silly Little Showbiz Book Club/Nashville Or Bust crossover entry in which I read the book, then analyzed the album it chronicles so meticulously.
Star-Making Machinery finds Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen at a perilous professional crossroads. The band won a fervent cult following with its raucous, inebriated live shows, but just about everyone agreed that the group hadn’t been able to capture that electricity in its underperforming, poorly produced studio albums. The group scored a modest fluke hit with a cover of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” but wasn’t able to capitalize on the song’s success.
When the group convened to record its fourth studio album, the stakes were high. The band’s members weren’t kids anymore, and traveling around the country eating shitty food and sleeping in motels was beginning to lose its allure. The success or failure of the band’s forthcoming album would go a long way toward determining whether they would finally, conclusively break through to the mainstream and live the rock ’n’ roll high life, or sink into semi-obscurity and a world of day jobs and dashed dreams.
In the parlance of Zombieland, it was nut-up-or-shut-up time for the band. Their shot at the limelight grew dimmer with each passing day. Yet due to complicated legal wrangling when they began recording what would become their self-titled 1975 album, they weren’t sure who would release it; their lawyer was at war with their label, ABC Records, and potential suitors like Warner Bros. were reluctant to sign a group mired in litigation hell. The band didn’t even have a budget to record its new album, which meant that hotshot producer John Boylan, his engineer, and the sweet-ass studio where the album was recorded all had to take the band’s word that it would pay them when the money finally came in.
Boylan rose to prominence as the boyfriend, manager, and producer of Linda Ronstadt, and the man who introduced her to the backup musicians who would perform on her eponymous 1971 album: Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon, and Randy Meisner, soon to be known as The Eagles. Boylan was a producer before he met Ronstadt, so he was understandably perturbed when critics praised her first album without him, 1974’s Heart Like A Wheel, as a bold evolutionary step forward for a woman who was finally working with a real producer instead of her boyfriend.
So Boylan had something to prove. The band hired him because they were impressed by his work with Rick Nelson, but they were nevertheless worried that Boylan would water down the live-wire intensity of their live performances and transform them into yet another interchangeable proponent of the “L.A. Sound,” a mellow aggregation of country, rock, folk, and pop epitomized by the sterile sounds of The Eagles.
As Stokes acknowledges, being a producer entails playing amateur psychologist. The slick, sophisticated Boylan immediately set about winning over the band through a combination of seduction, careful coaching, and Machiavellian head games. Being a producer in the mid-1970s also, not surprisingly, entailed being an amateur drug dealer.
I am not naïve enough to be shocked by drug use in the rock world, but I was surprised to discover how pervasive and all-consuming drug use had become. It was in many ways the glue that held the industry together. Stokes writes matter-of-factly of the ubiquitous practice of “Drugola,” where label representatives would approach powerful DJs, radio programmers, and record-chain bigwigs and offer them a little complementary nose candy, Bolivian marching powder, and white lady in exchange for special consideration. Also, they would ply them with cocaine.
Things were just as debauched on the recording front. No self-respecting producers would even think about entering the studio without a good supply of cocaine and marijuana for use as a pick-me-up, motivator, or reward. This wasn’t just true of wanton hedonists like The Rolling Stones: Stokes makes it sound like just about every band went into the studio with a head full of chemicals and a potpourri of mood-enhancers. Even Boylan, a sophisticated L.A. type who prided himself on his professionalism, made sure to keep a stash handy for all occasions, not just the special ones.
As Boylan tries to transform a sloppy party band into seasoned professionals, the band’s good-ol’-boy lawyer Joe Kerr, a former high-school coach kicked out of education for his liberal attitudes toward sex and drugs—he regularly kicked off meetings by firing up a joint—tries to free the band from its ABC contract and find a more enthusiastic label.
Burr and Boylan each faced formidable obstacles. Commander Cody had long gotten by on energy and enthusiasm rather than technical skill. They simply aren’t terribly gifted musicians or singers, so the recording process entailed take after take after take after take. The conventional wisdom on Commander Cody held that they were too country for rock audiences, and too rock for the country crowd. Their music and aesthetic was wrapped up in both the sound and the utopian ideal of 1955, a magical year where country, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll, and R&B all bled into each other in an orgy of musical miscegenation. The genres diverged wildly over the ensuing years, but Commander Cody prided itself on returning to rock’s embryonic beginnings.
For a while, the stars seemed to be aligning for Commander Cody. Stardom appeared at least possible, if not imminent. After buying out their ABC contract for $100,000, the band signed with Warner Brothers, a label that thought enough of them to woo them with fancy dinners, parties, and volleyball games on the studio lot.
Star-Making Machinery then takes us from the recording studio to the executive offices of Warner Bros., where publicists and A&R reps embrace the challenge of turning Commander Cody into a hit-maker. It helps that the label genuinely likes Commander Cody and crew, as opposed to the assholes in Seals & Crofts. One neat bit of trivia gleaned from the book: Everybody hates Seals & Crofts. Apparently they’re raging assholes.
Reading a book like Star-Making Machinery, it’s easy to get swept up in the wave of enthusiasm and anticipation that accompanies new projects. The possibilities were boundless: Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen could have transformed the cult band into The Eagles. It could have marked the arrival of the band as a major artist. It could have gone quadruple platinum and made the band an arena headliner. You never know. The year after Commander Cody hit record stores, Boylan co-produced a debut by an unknown band whose eccentric mastermind was intent on releasing an album he had recorded primarily by himself in his basement. The mastermind in question was Tom Scholz. The band was Boston. The album sold 17 million copies.
Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen looked primed for success. An influential radio station picked up “Don’t Let Go,” the record’s first single, and plenty of other stations followed suit. Then the song started to get dropped, and the album’s momentum began moving in the wrong direction. In spite of the best efforts of all involved, it was a failure. The band fired Kerr and slide guitarist Ernie Hagar, and disbanded not too long after the album’s release.
Listening to Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen today, it’s easy to see why it failed. In shaving off the band’s rough edges, Boylan rendered its sound bland and antiseptic, all smooth contours and mellow vibes. The album’s professionalism came at a steep cost. The songs come off as sleepy and forgettable. The band’s fabled eclecticism doesn’t feel like an admirable effort to synthesize countless different strains of American music, so much as an unwillingness to commit to any genre or style. Whether playing rockabilly or tear-in-your-beer country, the group comes off as dilettantes.
In retrospect, it seems sad that the hopes and dreams of so many smart, talented, passionate people were wrapped up in the failure or success of “Don’t Let Go.” It’s a silly little wisp of a song, a straightforward cover of a rockabilly tune by “Shake, Rattle And Roll” writer Jesse Stone. On “Don’t Let Go” and the original “The Boogie Man Boogie”—an unfortunate ode to a supernatural boogie machine that feels custom-made for Dr. Demento—Commander Cody sounds like a a disposable novelty act, not a fun band with a good sense of humor. Think Sha Na Na with a little more integrity, or the Stray Cats.
“Southbound,” the Hoyt Axton-written opening number, starts things off on a singularly unpromising note with its far-too-smooth melding of Jimmy Buffett vacation-rock and Eagles slickness. Commander Cody fares better in its country fare, like the loose, appealingly ramshackle Western swing of “Four Or Five Times,” “California Okie,” a melancholy character study of a Southerner homesick for Oklahoma, and the mournful “Devil And Me,” with its expressive slide guitar.
But mostly, Commander Cody captures a band in the grips of a profound identity crisis, torn between rock and country and between its loving evocation of the past and the commercial demands of its uncertain present. Cody lunged for the big brass ring and came up short. Frontman George Frayne said it best when he bitterly quipped “The only thing worse than selling out is selling out and not getting bought.”
Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
Townes Van Zandt