Friday, June 29, 2012

Dread Zeppelin


There would be no Dread Zeppelin without two bands, the first of course is Led Zeppelin. It's highly likely that no more than a handful of music fans have heard of the second band, The Prime Movers. Before Dread Zeppelin started performing the songs of Led Zeppelin in a reggae style, Gary Putman, Curt Lichter & Joe Severs Ramsey were involved in a rather ordinary indie rock band from Pasadena, Ca.

The Prime Movers signed with Island Records in 1986, though virtually unkown in the U.S., they scored two Top Forty hits in the U.K., "On the Trail" and "Dark Western Night" Stuart Adamson (rip) guitarist for Big Country played on "Dark Western Night" and "Strong as I Am" (which was featured on the soundtrack of the Michael Mann movie "Manhunter") Big Country being a good example of what the band sounded like. 
In 1987 for reasons not quite clear, The Prime Movers fell out of favor with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. The release of "Strong as I am" as a single on MCA records, was said to have caused the rift. Whatever it was, Island Records shut the band down and then refused to release them from their contract, even when other labels expressed interest in signing the band.

It wasn't until 1996 that Ramsey, who owns and operates Birdcage Records, secured the rights to The Prime Movers' music thanks to some subtle arm twisting. Ramsey was co-manager of The Christians, a highly popular British soul/pop group, who had signed with Island. They held up their debut album until Island released The Prime Movers from their old contract. (That album "The Christians" went on to sell over 1 million copies)

Unable to record or put out new material as The Prime Movers, the trio of musicians found themselves stuck in musical purgatory, Sierra Madre, Ca.  Putman, Ramsey & Lichter weighed their options, the most obvious one being that they should regroup under a different name. Putman & Ramsey came up with Dread Zeppelin, which one music writer described as "the musical equivalent of the witness protection program"

In order to avoid any legal problems, Putman & Ramsey played it tongue in cheek. The idea of infusing Led Zeppelin songs with reggae was probably something they accidentally stumbled upon, as was their chance meeting with Elvis impersonator Tortelvis (real name Greg Tortell)  Dread Zeppelin quickly incorporated the sumo sized vocalist (he's nowhere near that big, he augments his girth with padding) into their stage show.

Legend has it that the band was cruising around Sierra Madre in their car, when Tortell, who was driving a home delivery truck for a local dairy, rear ended them. That's their story and they're sticking by it, it was even immortalized in one of the band's videos. The truth is that Greg Tortell was a delivery driver for a Sierra Madre dairy  (he still works there, although he was promoted to sales years ago)

Showstopping guitarist Carl Haasis (Carl Jah) and conga player Bryant Fernandez (Ed Zeppelin) joined Tortelvis, guitarist  Severs Ramsey (Jah Paul Jo) bassist Gary Putnam (Put-Mon, also known as Butt-Boy) and drummer Carl Lichter (Cheese) in rounding out the band. Now all that remained to be seen was if Dread Zeppelin's singular schtick of mashing up Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and Elvis Presley would pay off.

Dread Zeppelin's first  single release was Immigrant Song/ Hey Hey What Can I Do (1989) followed by Whole Lotta Love/Tour- Telvis: A Bad Trip (1989) both on Birdcage Records. "Kom Gib Mir Deine Zeppelin" a six song cassette only ep released in 1989  (The title was a take off on the German version of  The Beatles' "I wanna hold your hand") A growing local buzz led to the band being signed by Miles Copeland's IRS Records.

Started as a joke, Dread Zeppelin was now channeling a cheeky  rock/reggae hybrid to the hungry masses. No doubt the band came around at just the right time. The thing about Led Zeppelin is that they always took themselves too seriously, their fans and music critics also took them too seriously. Dread Zeppelin, while paying tribute was the pie in the face of all that seriousness.

Led Zeppelin's music was hardly what you could call a joyous noise. But, when mixed with a springy reggae beat and the cheese ball smarm of Elvis Presley,  it changed into something totally new, different and most of all... fun! For example,  Led Zeppelin's anguish inducing "Heartbreaker" was gene-spliced with Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" giving it an appeal that Page & Plant never could have imagined.

In all truth, the marriage of Led Zeppelin's music and reggae wasn't all that far fetched. Sir Jimmy and Co. had themselves dabbled in reggae rhythms (Dyer 'Maker, which was meant as Brit slang for Jamaica)  Who can really say, but if not for Bonzo's untimely passing, maybe Led Zeppelin would have gone in that direction, the way Rod Stewart & David Bowie went with disco and soul music

Sure and if my aunt had balls, she'd be my.... aunt with balls or something of that nature. Dread Zeppelin's first album Un-led-Ed (1990) surprised everyone by selling over a million copies. They even earned praise from Robert Plant himself, who admitted that he preferred their version of "Your Time is Gonna Come" to Led Zep's original. They were quickly tagged as "The Ultimate Tribute Band", but they were so much more than just that.

Dread Zeppelin's live show was as visual as it was musical, "Innertaining" as Tortelvis so eloquently put it, called for cheesy repartee between band members and the audience plus a healthy dose of picture perfect Jimmy Page guitar licks from Carl Jah and Bonzo-rific drumming from Cheese. Man servant Charlie Haj, would stalk the stage, wiping sweat from Tortelvis' brow and handing out towels, all while admonishing Carl Jah & Jah Paul Jo for hogging the spotlight.

What followed after the success of Un-Led-Ed was a grueling three years of non-stop touring, that saw the band play over 250 days out of the year. Original drummer Cheese (Curt Lichter) was the first casualty of the relentless pace, leaving the band in 1990. He was replaced by Fresh Cheese (Paul Maselli) just in time to record Dread Zeppelin's second album "5,000,000 Tortelvis Fans Can't Be Wrong"

The band broke slightly from the all Led Zeppelin format to include Bob Marley's "Stir it Up" as well as three original songs.  The biggest fear for any novelty act, is what to do once the novelty wears off.  That moment was now upon Dread Zeppelin, Gary Putman's plan was to release a rock opera  called "Albert" based on critic Albert Goldman, who had famously flambeed Elvis Presley with his controversial  1981 biography "Elvis"  

That project amounted to nothing. A flurry of personnel changes followed, new drummer Fresh Cheese  left the band, followed by Ed Zeppelin (Bryant Fernandez) who was replaced by his identical twin brother, Bruce.  And then, the band was dealt a crushing blow when Tortelvis quit in disgust. Out of desperation, the band released their third album "It's Not Unusual" with Gary Putman taking over the lead vocals (as Gary B.I.B.B.) 

"It's Not Unusual" was an album of  humorless disco covers. Records sales were to say the least underwhelming, IRS Records immediately dropped the band. At that point for all intents and purposes, Dread Zeppelin was kaput. It would've stayed that way if not for INXS, and their late lead singer Michael Hutchence (who was a big Dread Zeppelin fan) requesting that Dread Zeppelin open for them during their 1993 U.S. tour.

Both Tortelvis and Ed Zeppelin were presuaded to return to the fold, and this reunion resulted in the band's fourth album "Hot & Spicy Beanburger" which was a return to the tried and true formula of Led Zeppelin + reggae + Elvis = happy fans. However, with the band still without a major label contract, Tortelvis held on to his day job at the dairy. Another grueling round of tour stops followed including several in Albuquerque. 

In 1994, the band appeared in National Lampoon's Last Resort and contributed a couple of songs to the soundtrack. Guitar wizard  Carl Jah (Carl Haasis) and Ed Zeppelin (Bruce Fernandez, I think?) left the band shortly after the movie experience.  And that should have been the end of the story, but it wasn't.  Somehow, Dread Zeppelin kept the joke alive and they're still active both in the studio and on stage to this day. 

Dread Zeppelin never signed with another major label, but they kept pumping out albums, The First No-Elvis (1994, a Christmas special) No Quarter Pounder (1995) Ruins (1996) The Fun Sessions (a one shot deal with Imago) Spam Bake (1998 which consisted of all originals) De-jah Voodoo (2000) Presents (2002) Bar Coda (2007) and their most recent SoSo in 2011.  Tortelvis still sneers while doing karate moves, Charlie still waits on him hand & foot. Gary Putnam, who was once lauded as an outstanding guitarist, has rediscovered his gift for riffs.

Selected Quotes from Tortelvis:

“A lot of the same people have been coming [to our shows] for years now, but there are new people as well,” Tort says. “It’s obviously the concept that draws people, but once they’re there, it’s the musicianship that makes it kind of cool. These guys are masters of their instruments — other than myself. I’m kind of a hack.” He chuckles. “But I do the best I can.”

“Between 1990 and ’93 was when we were touring 250 shows a year,” he recalls. “It was pretty nonstop.  At this point, we’re playing weekends and whenever we can, we’ll go off to some part of the country and play a few shows. We’re not really killing ourselves anymore. It’s a fun thing now — hang out with the guys and have fun.”

 “We’ve done a few different things through the years,” he says, citing their original album,  “Spam-Bake,” and non-Zeppelin covers they’ve recorded like “Free Bird.” “Basically, we don’t do anything exactly like before, but there always has to be that hint of Elvis and reggae in it somehow.

Dread Zeppelin's success playing Led Zeppelin songs in a reggae style, has helped spawn a cottage industry  of Led Zeppelin cover bands. Almost without exception every last one of them plays it straight, reproducing, note for note the music of the original band.

There's more U.S. Led Zeppelin Tribute bands than you can shake a stick at, Get The Led Out, Swan Song, Led Zepplica, Heartbreaker, Fem Zeppelin, Lady Zep, Zedd... ad nauseum!  Lez Zeppelin, the best of the all-female tribute acts performing Led Zeppelin music, stands out from the mangy pack. They're based out of New York City and in 2007, they even released an album "Lez Zeppelin" produced by legendary rock producer, Eddie Kramer.

Bustle in Your Hedgerow is an exceptional Zep tribute band. They're an instrumental quartet that performs Led Zeppelin music sans vocals. The band includes several prominent NYC musicians, Dave Dreiwitz (of Ween), Marco Benevento, Joe Russo and Scott Metzger.  Black Dog calls itself "the definitive Led Zeppelin tribute band, the closest thing to the live sound of the legendary group" their website carries this disclaimer " All-pro musicians make up this awsome band" their spelling error, not mine.

Chicago Led Zeppelin tribute band, Kashmir (not to be confused with Canadian Led Zeppelin tribute band, Kashmir) cryptically declares  "It is important to look the part, but way too often tribute bands seem to forget that without the sound, the look does nothing" In the world of cover bands that means they sound just like Led Zeppelin, but they look like Bachman Turner Overdrive.

Fred Zeppelin (who like Led Zeppelin hail from the West Midlands) declare their intent "not to dress up in any manner or turn the music into an embarrassing cabaret act"  It's worked for Fred Zeppelin, Jason Bonham joined them for a one-off encore appearance and Robert Plant gave them his cheeky stamp of approval by declaring "Accept no Substitute" after watching them play on several occasions.

That should do it for Led Zeppelin month here at Dirt City Chronicles, and in all honesty I hope I never have to write about them again.  We truly learned nothing this month, the least of which is that Robert Plant likes to watch other musicians imitate his old band, which is kind of creepy.  But, I'll take any Led Zeppelin tribute band over  that Billy Joel tribute act that I saw in Laughlin, Nv.  now that was fucked up!