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Digging through Frank Zappa's vault to uncover underground classics by Captain Beefheart, the GTOs and Wild Man Fischer

Digging through Frank Zappa's vault to uncover underground classics by Captain Beefheart, the GTOs and Wild Man Fischer
Frank Zappa, left, with Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart. The pair collaborated on the 1975 album "Bongo Fury" and Zappa produced "Trout Mask Replica," the avant-garde rock album by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. (Zappa Records)

Frank Zappa's legendary vault contains thousands of hours of the late artist's album masters, experimental recordings, outtakes, alternate versions and concert tapes.

Its contents, which remain at the family's Laurel Canyon estate while the property awaits a buyer, are owned by the Zappa Family Trust. Since the death of family matriarch Gail Zappa in October 2015, the trust has been embroiled in an inter-family argument about the rights and use of the Zappa name.

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While the majority of the recordings stored at the vault feature Zappa, his band the Mothers of Invention and various offshoot projects, a few non-Frank shelves are particularly notable and currently in a state of limbo.

They contain the original master tapes of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's avant-rock classic "Trout Mask Replica," the all-female Los Angeles band the GTOs' "Permanent Damage" and the utterly weird debut album by Larry "Wild Man" Fischer.

The albums were originally issued either on Straight Records or its sister label Bizarre, both of which were founded by Zappa and his then-manager Herb Cohen in the late 1960s.

Each of those records is an L.A. cult classic in its own way. The titles, including the brilliant "Trout Mask Replica," remain unavailable on the major streaming services and out of print on vinyl.

On a recent visit into the vault with Joe Travers, the Zappa Family Trust's so-called "vaultmeister," the climate controlled, multi-room facility was teeming with tape. In the main room, ceiling-high shelving housed rows of neatly arranged tapes, each identified in scribbled pen on the spine.

Near the vault's entrance, hanging from a hook, was the hardhat and lantern that Frank wore to spelunk for tape before the space got electricity.

“Those records are very, very Frank, because he produced them and had so much to do with them.”


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Asked whether the masters for "Trout Mask Replica" were in the building, Travers nodded in the affirmative, walked down an aisle and, like a librarian working the Dewey Decimal System, guided his finger along a row of tape until he found a group of tapes.

"Those records are very, very Frank, because he produced them and had so much to do with them," said Travers, pulling out a cardboard square the size of a personal pizza box. "His thumbprint is all over it, so they're central in my opinion."

In addition to Beefheart, Fischer and the GTOs, the twin labels issued gems from heavy metal innovator Alice Cooper, the Los Angeles folk-rock dramatist Tim Buckley and vocal group the Persuasions. Most of those recordings remain with Warner Bros.

Travers pulled open one of the "Trout Mask Replica" boxes to reveal the tape, which he called a "pancake" because of its lack of a center spool. Included were hand-scribbled notes on the session, along with dates and titles. Some of the titles listed matched up with the final "Trout Mask Replica" track listing, but a few intriguing others either got renamed or never made the cut.

The trust reissued "Trout Mask Replica" on compact disc in early 2012, and that version is a vast improvement on the lesser Warner/Reprise discs issued in the 1990s. Travers said that a new vinyl reissue of "Trout Mask Replica" was in the pipeline at one point, but plans for a release date have yet to be finalized.

Asked whether the material might be soon available on streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, Travers said, "It needs to be, and so does anything with Wild Man Fischer – and the GTO's album, and a lot of those records."

Travers ran his finger down the row of boxes until he came across the master tapes for the GTOs' only album.

The mostly a cappella album by Girls Together Outrageously, a.k.a. the GTOs, "Permanent Damage" is a mess of inside jokes, proto-punk and tripped-out humor, including a loosely sung ode to Captain Beefheart's shoes.

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The band's most famous member, Pamela Des Barres, went on to document her life as a rock groupie in the classic rock tome "I'm With the Band." Among the guest appearances on the album are Los Angeles rock DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, the artist Cynthia Plaster Caster and a young, handsome Rod Stewart.

A master tape from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's album "Trout Mask Replica."
A master tape from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's album "Trout Mask Replica." (Randall Roberts / Los Angeles Times)

Fischer's "An Evening With Wild Man Fischer" highlights an outsider artist whose antics landed him on national television via "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." The double album features contributions from the Mothers of Invention, Bingenheimer and polarizing rock impresario Kim Fowley. Long out of print, the record was recently issued on compact disc but remains unavailable on the streaming services.

Granted, not too many people are clamoring for it. Like the GTOs' album, Fischer's oddball record is considered a footnote by most music freaks, albeit a fascinating one. The absence of "Trout Mask Replica," though, is unfortunate, and renders Spotify's boast of 30 million songs worthy of its own explanatory asterisk.

Whether that will be necessary is up to the Zappa Family Trust. Here's hoping it finally delivers an essential Los Angeles recording into the ears of a new generation of fans.

There's a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that's not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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