By Michael Hockinson
"I think the true story of Dread Zeppelin is actually
weirder than the made up one."
-- Joe (Jah Paul Jo) Ramsey
Critics confounded by the concept (or the perceived "blasphemy" of covering Led Zeppelin tunes in less than reverential tones) often attempt to dismiss Dread Zeppelin as a one-joke parody band. Directing such misguided souls to "Un-Led-Ed" (their finest album) is your best rebuttal, aptly illustrating the band's complexity, the intelligence of their arrangements and their high level of musicianship. These reggae mutations succeed both as durable humour and as credible interpretations, heartily endorsed by no less a fan than Robert Plant. A promo poster issued for their second album once asked, 'Whaddya want anyway - reality or entertainment?' The answer was obvious - reality was suspended. In the music of Dread Zeppelin it was as if Elvis was getting the Led out to a reggae beat. That the group never succeeded in being perceived as anything more than a one-joke band can be laid at the feet of individuals whose lack of faith in the group's potential would literally deflate the Zeppelin.
Before Dread Zeppelin, my interest in Led Zeppelin was, at best, appreciative. There always seemed to be a few of their albums floating in and out of my collection (and "Hammer of the Gods" was a juicy read), but it wasn't until DZ got their hands on it that I really began to take notice of the Zeppelin catalogue. "We started out thinking we were going to do each album," remembers Joe Ramsey. "So we were going to do the first one, "Led Zeppelin I," but there were so many songs that were similar, I didn't think it would've been as interesting. "Led Zeppelin I" has a couple real stand-out songs, but not as many as "II" has, so we put those two together. If you notice, "Un-Led-Ed" is mostly stuff from I and II. From then on it was what the hell, we'll pick out anything we want to do. It's kinda weird, but I was probably the least of the Led Zeppelin fans in the group. But I knew the ones that everybody would've known. They had to have a combination of things. They had to lend themselves to the reggae rhythm, and they also had to be a song that people would react to and know. And I was kind of a good judge of that."
I became aware of the group in July 1990 while working for Sea-Port, a wholesale music "one-stop" warehouse located in northeast Portland, Oregon. Regular accounts were assigned "will-call" bins where their orders awaited pickup, delivery or shipment, padded out by whatever buttons, posters or promotional fliers the labels provided. One such flier that caught my attention that summer was the "Temple City Tattler," a tabloid newspaper parody prepared by IRS to promote Dread Zeppelin's debut album.
Dressed as if here were preparing to meet Richard Nixon, Tortelvis stared back at me, right hand doing what I soon learned was "the claw," an accompanying caption declaring his mission to be one of "pure innertainment." Surrounding captions promised "The Inside Story" on Dread Zeppelin, plus the findings of "Top Docs" that "Sunlight Makes Skin Darker!" "Un-Led-Ed" was proclaimed "...a triumph of good over evil...a true gift to eternity," the group "one of America's most beloved bedtime tales of fame, power, and fortune." Jah Paul Jo, the "self-proclaimed prince of peace and love," was introduced with news of his recent acquisition of a "Lifetime Sellie, the International Concert Merchandisers' Award for career achievement in the field of "at venue" revenue." By the time I got to that living, loving legend of Tort's milktruck scoring a direct hit on the gas tank of a '72 Pinto from which five reggae musicians emerged unsinged, I'd gotten the joke and cracked open a copy of the "Un-Led-Ed" cassette to play in the warehouse. "Dread Zeppelin's a strange thing," remarked Joe during a lengthy phone interview from October 1995. "It was born out of everybody being just fed up with the music industry, whatever group they were performing in at the time and thinking, we're going to do this crazy thing and just have fun with it. And as soon as we stopped being serious, that's when we started being very popular (laughs). In the beginning, there was a feeling that we were doing something 'out there,' there was something really happening."
It was not until the release of their second album - "5,000,000*" - nearly a year later, that I would join Physical Jah Fitti, the fan club run by Joe. My membership certificate (#0107, with real Tortelvis signature, a $755 value) forever dignifying "...the bearer's obsession with, devotion to, and undying love for Dread Zeppelin, the world's greatest Rock 'N Roll band, and the only true force behind peace, truth, and love in this Cruel, Cruel World." As a member, the real fun began when I started receiving "Dread Talk," the group's quarterly newsletter. Within its pages the Dread Zeppelin legend was shaped (warped?) by Joe, editor Babs Johnson and the handful of like-minded fans up to the task. My first contribution was a Xerox graphic of the Dread "Graf" Zeppelin airmail stamps, intended for use on Dread's "zeppelins" during their 1991 World Tour, but recalled at the last minute by the Post Office. This type of legend enhancement pervaded those early issues, including rumours that Tortelvis and Rita Marley were expecting; Butt-Boy and Carol Doda seen discussing implants at Spago; Jah Paul Jo the center of a catfight in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel between Madonna and LaToya Jackson; news from Paris of a new line of casual wear inspired by Ed Zeppelin, and the legendary Reggae Blades, the pre-Dread band that first brought Carl Jah, Butt-Boy and Jah Paul Jo together, scoring big on the Canadian charts with their single "Cheez 'ums."
I first met Joe Ramsey at a Portland soundcheck in September 1992. When he offered me his hand, warmly shaking mine as if he'd known me for years, I felt I had met a kindred soul. Tortelvis had left the group that summer and in the interim bassist Gary Putman had evolved from Butt-Boy to Gary B.I.B.B., gold lame frontman of Disco Dread's "Groovy Booty Bomb." Guitars to the fore, I watched during that check as Carl (Jah) Haasis, Butt-Boy and Jah Paul formed a tight circle onstage, working out an arrangement for "Get Down Tonight." "That was one of two things that we did (live) that were really good that we didn't do in the studio," notes Ramsey. "The other was "Y.M.C.A." I wanted to do a single after the disco album came out, and nobody wanted to do it (laughs). That's a typical thing. It was always like, kind of my idea, and if I got any kind of feedback at all, I'd probably do it. Sometimes I'll react okay to no one wanting to do something, and other times I'll go, 'Ah, the heck with it.'"
It was becoming apparent that Ramsey's commitment to the success of Dread Zeppelin was not often shared by others. Watching the band at subsequent Portland soundchecks in 1993 (following the return of Tortelvis) and 1994, it was obvious to me who nurtured the creative spirit in the band. Onstage, it was Jah Paul leading Carl and Gary through a new arrangement of "Stir It Up," mutating the opening riffs of "Dancin' Days" to the Jackson Five's "Dancin' Machine." Tortelvis meanwhile, would be sitting on a folding chair in the audience, looking bored and aloof. Dread Zeppelin's descent actually began when their third album - "It's Not Unusual" - was being considered. Following an ambitious world tour in 1991 promoting "5,000,000*," Ramsey knew another album of Led Presley Reggae would not be a step forward. Dread Zeppelin's manager during this period was former Supertramp manager Charly Prevost. In this previously unpublished phone interview from 1992, he offered me his assessment of the group's situation:
"We are perceived as a novelty band. I don't think we see ourselves as such - I don't think we see ourselves as a mainstream act - but we don't see ourselves as a novelty band in the sense of Sha Na Na and some of those types of bands. From the very beginning our biggest support has always come from the press. And the press always asked us, "Okay, this is good and fine, but what are you guys going to do next?" There was an element of "what are we going to do with the (third) album? Is this a one joke song? And when people get the joke, how do you keep it going? We started to wonder what we were going to do next. We thought about doing an album of originals. Gary said, "Well, I think that would be a mistake, we are a cover band, people know us for our Led Zeppelin covers. To go out and do an album of original music at this point would not work."
"Jah Paul Jo has wanted to do a rock opera for a long time about Albert Goldman. So that idea was floating around. I frankly wasn't that enthused about that idea at the time. I'm a little warmer to it now than I was, but I wasn't then. Then we thought about doing an album of all-original songs that would have Led Zeppelin song titles. So we'd have a song called "Stairway To Heaven," but of course it would be another song. There's no kind of copyright restrictions on doing that sort of thing, but then again that was the original song thing. Then we had an idea to do a song from each country we've been in. So we could do "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," or "Waltzing Matilda" in Australia; "The Girl From Ipanema" in Brazil; "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight" in England...and that was short-lived. We were just looking - we were floundering. And while all this was happening we could sense that the appeal of Dread Zeppelin had peaked somewhat in Europe and England. 'Cause we'd toured so much (456 gigs to that time since 1990), people were always looking for a new show, a new song line-up, a look."
It really didn't become clear until the guys were in Brazil. Joe was in a club, and he started to hear local Brazil music. And he called me and said, "This is unlike anything I've heard before. It's not rock, and it's not disco, but it's all of those things." Then we started to look at what was bigger than Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin and there were only two things - Michael Jackson and "Saturday Night Fever." So we had this idea to parody "Saturday Night Fever" - to do it straight - do all the songs. So I went out and bought every copy of "Saturday Night Fever" I could get, gave 'em to everybody, we bought the movie, we looked at it, and then we realized that some of the songs were not suitable - the Yvonne Elliman songs, some of the ballads, but some of the Bee Gees songs were quite good. And we mulled over the idea of doing that, finished touring, and decided to take a month off, not talk to each other, but when we got in the studio we would do "Saturday Night Fever." We didn't really have the final song list."
"We started to rehearse at the end of (March), and Tort was still the frontman. But it turned out that Tort said, "I'm gonna make this record, but I don't wanna go out and tour again like this, it's too much work, I'm sick of it, I don't really enjoy touring." He didn't have the heart to sing "Jungle Boogie." He didn't sound right singing "Night Fever." So he decided he'd had enough and he quit the group. So we auditioned Charlie Haj (Earle Rothwell), the man who handed Tort his water and towels onstage, 'cause he wanted to do it. He wanted to have a shot at it, and he knew the set and he knew the songs, and he knew we weren't looking for Tort's brother. It turned out he sounded like Buffy Saint Marie. It didn't work out, but I really admire him, it was a gutsy move. I don't know who came up with the idea; I know two of us almost came up with the idea simultaneously - let's give Gary a shot at it. (He) looks good (and) he's got the moves. All these guys can sing. At one time or another they've all sung lead in different bands, he and Joe go back a long time. We gave him a shot and it worked. It was rough, but it worked."
"We went into the studio, we didn't miss a beat, and we made the record extremely secretly. Nobody at IRS knew what was going on, the agency didn't know - we didn't say anything to anyone. I found myself worrying that if I had to tell people Tortelvis was gone and we got this new guy, people would put it down, they'd try to stop it, it wouldn't work. So we made the record and there was really no pressure. And as we went along, we decided to just throw all the rules to the wind. We were creating a new band and we felt that for all of those people who felt that we had to change, and we started to believe it at this point, just to get ourselves up, we decided to make it as different as we could, but to keep the Led Zeppelin/reggae element in there as much as we could in the music." Hearing Joe's side of the story, one could draw the conclusion that Prevost didn't bother to consult with the band about his decision to keep IRS in the dark about the new lineup:
"I remember we'd just done a tour of Australia that was successful and we came home thinking we're going to start working on this third album. We had the idea to do disco stuff, because I felt we'd done two albums that were pretty much along the same lines - we're going to do something a little different. We actually started rehearsing with Tortelvis, worked out arrangements for a few of the songs and were about two or three weeks away from beginning the recording when he just bailed. When Tortelvis left, I don't really know what happened, but the manager, I think somehow finagled it so that they (IRS) didn't know he was gone. It's not all his fault, because that's a reflection of the record company too, where they're so out of touch they don't even...we were handing them tapes of the recording sessions and they're all 'Uh-huh, okay. Doing disco? Okay.' I think when they finally saw the album covers they realized - hey, wait a minute, something's different here."
"If you're just talking success, I think the thing that hurt us the most was Tortelvis leaving...that was what really derailed the project. Up to that point, I think we had a pretty good relationship with IRS. They were still happy to release Dread Zeppelin products and that was cool. In hindsight, I think that changed the direction of the band more than anything else. After that, it was always a reclamation thing, rather than a moving forward thing. At the end it almost felt like treading water and I didn't like that feeling. I like to be involved in something that's going up, rather than staying in one place or possibly going down as far as popularity goes."
"You hear about people with a fear of success; it's funny, 'cause Gary and I have been in bands for years, and we're knocking our heads on the wall, trying everything we could to get anywhere near the popularity Dread Zeppelin was. So with (Tortelvis), it was out of the blue, he didn't even really want to be a musician, it was kind of just there. And it's always been just kind of there. It was like, well, I don't really need to work hard on this. I think it freaked him out that we had to work real hard the first two years and we hadn't gotten a million dollars yet. And I think that's why he left. To be real honest, it took a real toll on everybody's personal life, traveling all the time. A lot of people thought we were making tons of money at the time, which we weren't. We were paying for a big organization of people - a manager, a road manager, sound man, bus, all those things. A lot of the money didn't really trickle down to us. We were always thinking that we were going to get this big chunk of money from the sale of "Un-Led-Ed" which we've never gotten."
Angered at being kept in the dark about Tortelvis' departure, IRS dropped Dread Zeppelin when initial sales for "It's Not Unusual" failed to match their previous albums ("Un-Led-Ed" sold 100,000 copies within a few months of release, while "5,000,000*" shipped over 100,000 copies initially). The group might have fizzled out then and there, but early in the new year, Joe called everyone together (including Tortelvis) to see if there might be interest in making one last album. Recorded in March 1993, "Hot & Spicy Beanburger" was a return to the old formula. "Beanburger" was released on Birdcage, Ramsey's independent label, with the hope that Rhino Records would pick it up later for national distribution (with bonus cuts). In May, DZ opened for INXS in Los Angeles. Hutchence & Co. were big fans and had wanted the group to open ALL of their North American tour dates, but according to Joe, "Tortelvis' gruelling milk delivery schedule" made this impossible. "Kinda makes you wonder what would've happened if we had gone on the whole tour," wrote Joe, in a posting to the Dread Zeppelin Chat Line in May 1997. Despite the missed opportunity and an eventual thumbs down from Rhino, an extended "Hot & Spicy" tour, touting the return of Tortelvis (as well as Ed, who had also left during the disco period), resurrected the classic lineup one last time (save for drummer Fresh Cheese, who was let go after the '91 tour). In the spring of 1994, the group even made a cameo appearance in "National Lampoon's Last Resort," a truly awful movie, featuring the two Coreys, Feldman and Haim, for which they provided an original song played over the closing credits. The song's title, "The Last Resort," held no little irony, as it turned out to be the last song to feature Carl Jah and Ed Zeppelin. By August, both had given notice of their intentions to leave. Just outside of L.A., the classic lineup played their last live show in Eagle Rock, 3 September 1994.
By 1995, Joe's unhappiness with Tort and Gary's level of commitment to the band was coming to a head. "I just know the work ethic of the guys...and why they're doing it. It's a lot different from the reasons that I was doing it. There was a period of time when someone would say 'Lets go play in Dallas.' And (I'd) go, 'Wait a minute, we just played Dallas three months ago, we don't want to overdo it.' The new attitude would be, 'Well, they're offering us $2000.' Be that as it may, it still might not be a good idea." That January, the group convened in Kingston, Jamaica at Bob Marley's legendary Tuff Gong Studio to record basic tracks for their fifth studio album - "No Quarter Pounder." Bolstered by the recent reunion of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, at one point the band considered calling the new album "Un-Led-Ed Part 2" in response to "Unledded," the title of Robert & Jimmy's live MTV album. That May, while on tour to promote their forthcoming album, an opportunity for Dread Zeppelin to finally meet Page and Plant in Las Vegas turned into a shocking example of the varying levels of commitment within the group. As recounted by Joe, "This sums up why I had to leave the group, this little anecdote in a nutshell:"
"We were going to play in Las Vegas and the reason they booked us, why we're coming back so quick (DZ had played Vegas in March), is that Page and Plant are playing the same night, and so they're going to make it a big Led Zeppelin weekend and tie it in with the radio and all this stuff. Anyway, it turns out that through our agency we get an invitation from Page and Plant to come to the show, come backstage and the whole bit. 'Come back, we'll meet you there and we'd love to talk to you.' Like, oh wow, this was cool! But only three guys could go."
"Okay, so Tort and Gary usually do the interviews and they wanted to go real bad so I said okay. Since they had to go in costume, they wanted our road manager to go with 'em. So I said okay, that's fine. It's no big deal to me. I would like to meet 'em, but not as much as those guys. I'd given the road manager a camera and I said, 'You make sure you take the whole roll when they're there.' Well it turns out they're late to get there and they won't pay for parking - I swear to God, it was like seven bucks to park - so they park a million miles away. So they walked off, and they got in backstage and their roadie said, 'Man, you guys are late - Plant really wanted to meet you.'
"And they couldn't stay for the whole show 'cause we had to do our show, so they couldn't meet 'em afterwards. The only time they could've met 'em was before the show. And I looked at 'em when they told me this story and I was in shock. I thought, well, boy, that's really going out of your way. Yeah, to meet Page and Plant. Who knows, if they would've liked us, they might have come to the show afterwards. I was kind of hoping they might've come to our show later, 'cause ours was a late show - but they didn't. This would have been about $100,000 worth of advertising. You could've gotten "Rolling Stone," you could've gotten "Spin," you name it. And because they wouldn't pay for parking..." Eventually Ramsey decided he'd had enough and a meeting was called. "I didn't deal with the other guys, I just dealt with Gary and Tort. I didn't dig the way it was going. That meeting was kind of ugly and I said 'that's it.'" After six years, Joe Ramsey had left Dread Zeppelin, the group he created.
"I've always likened a band as being the closest thing to having a love relationship. You put a lot into it, you create, it's very intense. So when it stops, you always feel kinda bad, a little breaking up period - you kinda get over that. Dread Zeppelin changed your life radically. I had bits where it was real fun and then personally, there sometimes were problems. But I had less problems than I think most of the other guys had. It was really kind of strange when you're home; if you had a girlfriend or if you were married, all of a sudden you're just gone all the time. I think the interesting part is that a lot of the guys didn't think of themselves as career musicians. So usually you'd say, 'Well, you wanted to be a musician, so you kind of asked for it.' But for some of these guys, that wasn't even true. The original Ed Zeppelin (Bryant Fernandez), he was a graphic artist, and that's what he wanted to do. But all of a sudden, he's on tour! (Laughs) His girlfriend's going, 'Gee, when are you coming home?' Then the drummer, Fresh Cheese (Paul Masselli), got divorced - that was bad. He was bummed for a long time. God, it was weird."
In September 1995, Ramsey released "No Quarter Pounder" on Birdcage. While he no longer played in the group, he continued to publish "Dread Talk," which by this time had evolved into a slick publication sporting colour covers. Meanwhile, the revamped Dread Zeppelin had signed to Imago Records, quickly recording "The Fun Sessions," a collection of classic rock covers. "I'd heard it was going to be classic rock-type stuff, like "Freebird" and things like this," says Joe. "And I'm thinking, boy, the last time we tried something like that it didn't work out that well (laughs). The part that got me, they called it "The Fun Sessions." And (Dread producer) Lee Manning (Rasta Li-Mon) says to me, 'That's not a very funny name. That probably just says that working with us was really not fun' - 'cause we made 'em work hard. I think that's the thing...whatever."
By now, Ramsey's relationship with the band was nonexistent. At one point he tried to hook up the group with an Australian promoter that wanted to foot the bill for a trip for the band downunder. According to Joe, Tortelvis' only response was 'You can contact my lawyer about this.' "When you actually want lawyers involved," Ramsey e-mailed me in February 1996, "I can only expect the worst." That spring, Birdcage agreed to cease publication of "Dread Talk," turning over the running of the fan club and merchandising to the group's new production company, Cash Cow. Birdcage's final issue, after six years of "The Truth, The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth," was "Ruins," a 15-track CD of DZ oddities, rarities and b-sides - just for the fans. It was quite a sendoff.
Dread Zeppelin has always been about change. Anyone who has followed the group from the beginning has seen this change in just about everything: drummers, Charlies, rastamen, even its lead singer and musical format. But a lot of fans, myself among them, consider Joe's departure not merely a change, but a loss of the group's creative soul. I've seen the post-Joe lineup twice and readily admit they still put on a good show, lending some credibility to the "Fun Sessions" material they feature. Greg Tortell now sports a moustache and goatee and has taken to wearing neon-coloured stage suits, the total effect adds little to the Elvis image he is supposed to be projecting. Gary plays a confident, metal-edged lead guitar, but it too is a compromise - the group may never be able to fill the hole left in their sound by the departure of Carl and Joe. Bruce Fernandez's return in 1997 has helped restore some focus to the group (no one toasts "Stairway To Heaven" like Ed Zeppelin), but as Joe has pointed out "for the group to be real (you) got to release stuff, (you) gotta have new material. Things have to come out."
In December 1996, Cash Cow Records released "Live Front Yard Bar*B*Que," a sloppy "live in the studio" CD which attempted to recreate the current DZ stage act with only limited success. As a fan, I have been less than impressed with Dread Zeppelin's post-Joe output. I rarely play "The Fun Sessions" or the live album. For me, they're just not as durable an entertainment as the group's Birdcage albums. This November, Dread Zeppelin's first real studio album without Joe - "Spam Bake" - is due out. The reception it receives may well determine whether the group still has a future as a real band.
In his book "Dead Elvis," Greil Marcus summed up Dread Zeppelin quite succinctly when he declared the band's premises "absolute trash... the result...at once banal and grand." Dread Zeppelin were indeed part of Elvis' "second life" as Marcus has labelled the years after Presley's death. They are part of that "conversation between specters and fans, made out of songs, art works, books, movies, dreams" a great "...common art project, the work of scores of people operating independently of each other, linked only by their determination to solve the same problem: who was he, and why do I still care?" Joe Ramsey was a little kinder in his motives than many when he created Dread Zeppelin and many of its song arrangements.
"Everywhere we went on earth people needed this kind of entertainment," he wrote, in the liner notes included with the double live CD "The Songs Remain Insane," released in Australia in December 1996. "They wanted to laugh. They wanted to sing along to Zeppelin tunes. They wanted to flash their cigarette lighters in appreciation of "Stairway To Heaven," no matter what the version. They wanted to believe that somewhere, somehow, someway there was a wise and kind and benevolent ELVIS out there, possibly driving a Cadillac, or holding a diamond ring with their name on it. They wanted to believe...yeah! They needed to believe. Dread Zeppelin gave them that...and they believed. Some even considered it art."
copyright ©1997 by Michael J. Hockinson
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