Friday, February 15, 2019

Frank Zappa and The GTOs

The sixties began boisterously with The Beatles and their "long" hair and their "yeah, yeah yeahs." It was far removed from the crooners and pop stars that had set the standard since the 1930s, but it paled in comparison to what would occur in the second half of the decade as the Fab Four quit touring to hit the studio, the hippie movement emerged in L.A. and San Francisco, and garage rock took over New York.

Dave Marsh would coin the phrase "punk rock" in 1970, a catch phrase for all kinds of garage rock, bubblegum, surf and hot rod music, and iconic bands like The Velvet Underground. In L.A. that kind of heaviness with a touch of the avant-garde was the forte of bands like The Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Out of that subterranean mix came The GTOs (I know, you’ve never even heard of them, outside the car).

The GTOs were six (sometimes seven) hot girls who were initially groupies from all over L.A.. Several of the girls hung around the Sunset Strip area in the sixties. Groups like The Byrds, The Seeds, The Standells, Love and The Doors were the Strip's house bands. The GTOs were Miss Pamela (Pamela Ann Miller, later Pamela Des Barres), Miss Sparky (Linda Sue Parker), Miss Lucy (Lucy Offeral, later Lucy Mclaren), Miss Christine (Christine Frka), Miss Sandra (Sandra Lynn-Rowe, later Sandra Leano), Miss Mercy Fontenot, aka Judith Edra Peters and Miss Cinderella (Cynthia Wells, later Cynthia Cale-Binion). The band was mentored by Frank Zappa, who of course was a major player in L.A.'s counterculture, AKA "the freaks," and yet, Zappa didn't use any LSD and Marijuana - he thought it interfered with the ability to play music and he expected the musicians who worked for him (the various lineups of the Mothers of Invention) to stay straight while on stage or in the studio, hence his mistrust of hippies.

The lineup seemed like something out of the 80s rather than the sixties. Miss Sparky drove a Hudson Hornet attracting loads of attention on the strip when out in her ride with the band, done up in their stage outfits (or lack of them) and makeup. Miss Mercy was from San Francisco and attended a Fillmore concert the first night they opened in 1966. She turned on to acid for the first time that night. She was in and out of Juvenile Hall while in her teens. Miss Christine and Miss Cinderella shared a room at The Landmark Hotel in 1967. They later brought in Miss Mercy (the Landmark Hotel is remembered as the site of Janis Joplin's 1970 death from a drug overdose). Miss Christine had come to L.A. from San Pedro with Miss Sandra where they initially lived in the basement of Zappa's house in the mid-sixties. Miss Christine was the live-in nanny for Zappa's two oldest children (Dweezil and Moon Unit) before Miss Pamela took over the position. Miss Mercy came from Haight-Ashbury, which she left out of boredom, saying she "couldn't be a hippie forever." Miss Cinderella was brought into the group by Miss Mercy later on. Let's see, is that everybody?

The group originally called itself The Cherry Sisters, and later, The Laurel Canyon Ballet Company, but Zappa persuaded them to change it to The GTOs. GTOs could mean "Girls Together Orally" or "Girls Together Only" or maybe "Girls Together Outrageously," the later the one that sticks on Wikipedia. The girls were also a part of a freeform dance troupe called "Vito and His Freakers" (but that’s a “whole nother story"). They would show up at clubs all over L.A. and if there was music playing they would dance around in a bizarre, sexual way. In a recent interview, Pamela Des Barres said that Vito would actually grab the other dancers and literally throw them about 10 or 15 feet in romantic bravado. These were the "hottest" girls in rock 'n' roll and their fetish-like outfits, made for them at Vito & Szou's Art Studio/Fashion Boutique and Crash Pad, catapulted their celebrity. 

When The Byrds toured the Midwest, one of their roadies, Carl Franzoni, took the girls on the road as "touring Byrds dancers," amidst great fanfare. Franzoni was eventually associated with Frank Zappa - he's the Carl Orestes Franzoni mentioned in the liner notes of the Freak Out album. Franzoni moved the girls into Frank's digs in Laurel Canyon before long. As they began to assemble themselves into a rock and roll band, they developed a style which was campy but oddly disquieting. The performances featured all of the GTO's taking turns singing their strange songs, reciting poetry, doing obtuse and strange dancing in weird costumes. It was a take  on Victorian era "see what my daughter can do" tea social, this time around with a touch of the lysergic.

Frank was always on the lookout for different and offbeat talent and maneuvered the free-spirited girls to record the 17 song LP album Permanent Damage. Zappa produced the majority of the LP alongside Lowell George (a member of the Mothers and soon to be a founder of Little Feet). Other luminaries such as Ry Cooder, Davy Jones, Jeff Beck, Nicky Hopkins and Rod Stewart also appear on the LP. (Rock ‘n’ Roll mythology points to this aside: At some point Rod Stewart left Zappa’s suburban L.A.  studio to wander about in the middle of the night. The GTOs finally went out to look for him. Worried that he was he was from England and he didn't know the turf, they panicked that he could've fallen into a swimming pool or gotten bit by someone's Doberman. As the story goes, they kept calling "Rodney, Rodney" until they finally found him on the steps of a school building moping and pining.)

Permanent Damage was released in 1969 with such disreputable titles as (the Zappa touch is obvious):

1. "The Eureka Springs Garbage Lady"
2. "Miss Pamela and Miss Sparky Discuss Stuffed Bras and Some of Their... "
3. "Who's Jim Sox"
4. "Kansas and The BTO's"
5. "The Captain's Fat Theresa Shoes"
6. "Wouldn't It Be Sad if There Were No Cones"
7. "Do Me in Once and I'll Be Sad, Do Me in Twice and I'll Know Better"
8. "The Moche Monster Review"
9. "TV Lives"
10. "Rodney"
11. "I Have a Paintbrush in My Hand to Color a Triangle"
12. "Miss Christine's First Conversation With The Plaster Casters of... “
13. "The Original GTO's"
14. "The Ghost Chained to the Past, Present, and Future (Shock Treatment) "
15. "Love on an Eleven Year Old Level"
16. "Miss Pamela's First Conversation With The Plaster Casters of Chicago"
17. "I'm in Love With The Ooo-Ooo Man GTO's"

The GTOs' music and stage show, both musically and visually, was intelligently crafted with signature Zappa weirdness.  Des Barres says Frank was a genius and he was very good about letting The GTOs exercise creativity and originality. The girls acquired cosmetology school names like "Miss Christine," "Miss Sparky," "Miss Lucy," etc., all compliments of Tiny Tim, the falsetto-voiced ukulele player famous for "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" and for marrying Miss Vickie (not a GTO) on the Tonight Show.  

Despite the LP, the support of Zappa (and seemingly all of Hollywood), The GTOs only played five gigs in their career, though these were important venues like the Whiskey A Go-Go, with their first major gig was as the opening act for The Mothers in 1968 at L.A.'s Shrine auditorium. Their live sound was marked by slightly dissonant harmonies (similar to the harmonies employed by Frank and The Mothers of Invention) and very tasty keyboard and guitar touches. Despite their celebrity and Zappa's input, The GTOs remain obscure.