STAIRWAY TO BABYLON

KERRANG! Magazine: July 21, 1990
By Mick Wall


You thought it was all just a fanciful figment of our fevered imaginations, didn't ya? When Kerrang! - always first with the truly great new bands, remember - first told you of the existence of fab Led Zeppelin/Elvis Presley/reggae hybrid outfit DREAD ZEPPELIN back in March most of you probably thought that April Fool's Day had come early. But no! The plain fact is that this Haile Selassie/highly unlikely group most definitely do exist...and what's more they're gonna be playing a concert in a town near you any second now! Our well-traveled scribe MICK WALL reports from Hawaii, Jamaica and Bron-Y-Aur...

"I was created by aliens, as a matter of fact. And I was modeled after the most popular person on Earth, who was, of course, Elvis Presley. Then I guess I orbited the Earth for a couple of years. In Sky Lab, I think it was. Then one day I just dropped down into Daddy Tortell's backyard in Temple City, California, where he raised me from a small child.

"The way I found out I had this Elvis quality was, of course, through my beautiful singing voice. First, though, I delivered milk for a long time. Then one day I accidentally ran my milk truck into the back of a car and these five reggae musicians popped out. Somehow they seemed to recognise me, so I hired 'em on the spot. And the rest, my friends, is history..." -- The legendary Tortelvis, singer with Dread Zeppelin and all-around 'innertaner of folks', speaking from his mansion in Hollywood, July 8, 1990.

Dread Zeppelin -- a six-piece band from Los Angeles, California, that plays classic Led Zeppelin songs to a reggae beat, with a singer that looks and sings like (late cheeseburger-scoffing era) Elvis Presley.

Jah Paul Jo and Tortelvis Doin' The Claw You think that sounds improbable? Try this: At the rate things are going, by the end of this year the name Dread Zeppelin could wind up almost as famous as that of their celebrated mentors.

Well...why not? Remember the Rutles? Remember the Monkees? Hell, better still, remember the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band? The elements of novelty, surrealism and, yes, 'innertanement' that characterise those bands are all part and parcel of -- if you will -- the Dread Zeppelin Experience.

This ain't rock 'n' roll, momma. This ain't even reggae. This is the Twilight Zone...

Joe Ramsey sits comfortably behind his smile, squints into the yawning blue yonder of the LA sky and, in a voice as calm as milk, he pours it out.

"Maybe we were on some kind of organic acid, I don't know. We were just foolin' around in rehearsal one day, jamming on things like 'Heartbreaker' and 'Livin' Lovin' Maid', just throwing riffs around. And, you know, anything with a heavy beat can usually be turned into reggae. It's actually very easy.

"So we start to get into doing reggae arrangements of a couple of old Zeppelin songs and, I don't know, it just sounded great. And it was fun. And we started joking about how we were gonna form a band called Dread Zeppelin and just do all these old Zeppelin songs with a reggae beat. And at first people would kind of look at us strange, you know?

"But it's weird. Apparently, Jimmy Page used to say in interviews that Led Zeppelin always used to rehearse 'Stairway To Heaven' as a reggae song. And once -- I swear -- I read this quote in Spin magazine where it said Jimmy Page had wished Led Zeppelin could have been a reggae band. Strange, huh?"

Or perhaps not so strange at all: 'D'yer Mak'er', from the Zep LP 'Houses Of The Holy', was simply reggae without the dreadlocks (even the title is a pun of the word 'Jamaica').

Joe Ramsey is the lanky, personable rhythm guitarist of Dread Zeppelin. If any one individual is responsible for dreaming up the idea of the band it's Joe. Or Joe Zeppelin, to give him his proper title.

The rest of Dread Zeppelin -- bassist Gary Putman (aka Butman), lead guitarist Carl Haasis (aka Carl Jah), percussionist Bruce Fernandez (aka Ed Zeppelin) and drummer Paul Masselli (aka Fresh Cheese) -- came from a pool of LA musicians. All friends and loose acquaintances for many years that had struck out in a variety of nearly-but-never-quite-made-it local bands, the Prime Movers, featuring both Ramsey and Putman, being the most prominent (they had one of those here today/gone later today deals with Island Records).

Greg Tortell, meantime, when he wasn't driving a milk truck, was drumming in rival L.A. bands of even more obscure origins called the Sneaks and Pete The Butcher.

"But that was in my previous life," growls Tortelvis, poking out his gut, "before I learnt to walk with the King..."

Cut to a split-screen image of Dread Zeppelin onstage at The Strand, a dinner-and-dance dive in Redondo Beach, earlier this year. Suddenly, Tortelvis halts the band mid-number to ask a woman sitting eating at a table in the front row, "Are you having a good time tonight?"

The woman, completely unphased, looks up and says, "I'm having a great time."

"Are you enjoying all the songs that we're playing and everything?" asks Tortelvis.

"Yes," she nods.

"You like the costumes and everything?" he persists.

"Yes."

Face pouring with sweat, Tortelvis leans a little closer into the mike and mumbles in a voice like Memphis at moontide, "Can I ask you one more question?"

"Yes."

"Are you going to finish that potato?"Dread Zeppelin Group Photo

The legend of Tortelvis goes back to 1988, when Joe Ramsey used to rent a little club in Pasadena for his and other bands to play in. His friend, Greg Tortell, was installed as DJ.

"Greg's really great with voices, we heard him do Elvis all the time. It was around about the time me and Gary were breaking up with the Prime Movers and sort of half-jokingly telling our friends we were going to form a band called Dread Zeppelin," says Joe.

"Well, Greg got to hear of it and started saying, 'I wanna sing for your band', none of us really thinking it would ever really play."

Greg: "They didn't mention to me that they wanted me to sing like Elvis, actually. I came in and tried to sing like Robert Plant, but I couldn't do it. It was just too high for me and I was a little depressed by that. Then I said, 'OK, I'll do it the Elvis way'."

Joe: "So we said, 'Hey, sing like Elvis. Why not? But you gotta doll up'. So he went out and got the whole Elvis thing together and we started doing it. And right from the very first gig we knew we were on to something."

Greg: "I went out and rented a big costume -- cost me $100. I thought we were only going to do one or two shows and that would be it. But we played and went down so great we just kept going. There have been Elvis sightings all over the place ever since..."

That was in January, 1989. Since then the gigs keep rolling in: clubs, bars, high school lunch-hours and college christenings...one time they even got as far as Canada.

"That's something Elvis never did," says Tortelvis wistfully, tucking into another McWhopper Burger With Everything.

Soon there was a single: a three-track cassette-only release featuring versions of Zep's 'Immigrant Song', 'Hey, Hey, What Can I Do' (the only Zep track never to appear on album) and -- what else? -- 'Whole Lotta Love'.

Distributed on a mail-order basis by their own Birdcage Records label -- Joe's kitchen served as headquarters -- they eventually sold over 10,000 copies and what started out as strictly a one-off stir-crazy idea had quickly blossomed into the beginnings of a career -- perhaps even the seeds of a legend.

The band decided to explore the possibilities. A Dread Zeppelin album was the next logical step: if all went well possibly a slew of Dread Zeppelin albums.

"The original idea we came up with was to do all the Led Zeppelin albums in chronological order," says Joe. "But as soon as we started we realised that some of the cuts on 'Led Zeppelin I' are very bluesy, and we couldn't get that radical with them. 'Communication Breakdown' was very difficult to do something new to, though we did have a great version of 'Dazed And Confused' which was really weird.

"Then we thought, well, we'll combine the first two albums. We started doing that and then we thought, well, there's some really good stuff we do in the show that we don't wanna leave out either. So just out of all that -- total mayhem, in other words -- came the album."

For the record, the Dread Zeppelin album, released on July 30 on the IRS label, contains 10 covers of original Led Zeppelin songs -- 'Black Dog' (from 'Four Symbols'), 'Heartbreaker', 'Livin' Lovin' Maid', 'Bring It On Home', 'Whole Lotta Love' and 'Moby Dick' (from 'Zep II'), plus 'Your Time Is Gonna Come', 'Black Mountain Side', 'I Can't Quit You Babe' (from 'Zep I') and 'Immigrant Song' (from 'Zep III').

Some, like 'Whole Lotta Love' and 'Black Dog', though reggaefied and regenerated, keep pretty much to the original template. (Though Tortelvis does start crooning 'You ain't nuthin' but a black dog, 'cryin' all the time' at the finale of the latter while some moonstruck mutt in the background sounds like it's having its nuts sawed off.)

On other tracks, the Dread Zeppelin identity possesses the originals in such a way that whole new songs begin to emerge: 'Heartbreaker', for instance, is transformed into 'Heartbreaker Hotel' ('Since my baybay lef' me...' et al) and 'Black Mountain Side', one of Page's most famous instrumentals, is here left pretty much intact except for the added stream-of-consciousness warblings of a manifestly stoned Carl Jah.

"It's actually Carl doing a great impression of the Maharishi," Greg tells me. "It's talkin' about Tortelvis and Dread Zeppelin getting together for the first time. The message is to 'live and eat well'."

Joe: "We're all very into the Maharishi, actually. Did you ever see that Donovan album, 'A Gift From A Flower'? He's holding a flower on the back of the sleeve and he's holding hands with the Maharishi. I'd like Dread Zeppelin to hold hands with the Maharishi, too. That'd be the ultimate."

'Fine talk, but is it any good, though?' you're probably asking yourselves. The answer, believe it or not, is yes. 'Dread Zeppelin' is very good indeed.

Great playing, great songs (in case anybody needs reminding), immensely witty and thoroughly entertaining, it is, in its own way, one of the most original debuts of the year. Play it once and you won't stop playing it until your brains are dribbling out yer ears.

Ask Robert Plant...

Joe: "You know, I'd always heard how humourless Zeppelin were and how they weren't going to dig this at all. So I'm just totally knocked out by the way Plant has reacted to it. He was on the radio here in Los Angeles the other night being interviewed and answering questions from callers, so we got Tortelvis to call him up and say hi."

"It was great," says Greg. "As soon as he knew it was me he started singing 'Rock A-Hula Baby'. It was hilarious. I started speaking to him in character and he got all excited. We both got excited."

Joe: "Yeah, cos the bottom line with Plant and Presley and everything else is, we are big fans. That's the whole thing. We're not knocking it. Plant thanked Tort for entertaining him. He said it was great entertainment, and that's exactly what it is. It's to make people happy."

Not everybody, however, has got the joke as quickly as Robert Plant. The Elvis Presley Estate was definitely not amused to begin with and have only allowed Tortelvis to proceed with earning a living out of his depiction of 'The King' under certain mutually agreed conditions.Tortelvis

Joe: "They told us, one: 'Don't pretend you are actually Elvis', which we don't do anyway. Two: 'Don't pretend you are actually in the family', which we were doing (for a while Tortelvis claimed to be his illegitimate son). But most of all they couldn't understand why we didn't have Tort impersonate the younger, better lookin' Elvis. We said, "'Well, take a look at the guy!'"

Greg: "The thing is, we're not making fun of Elvis. A friend of ours brought his girlfriend to see us, and this girl just loves Elvis, you know? And he thought she would hate it. And she didn't wanna go, but he made her. But she watched the show and by the end she really dug it. She said, "'They're not making fun of Elvis. They're making fun of people who make fun of Elvis'. And she was right."

Interestingly, Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis' daughter and main inheritor of the Presley Estate, accidentally got a chance to see Dread Zeppelin do their thang when her husband's band, Ten Inch Men, opened a show for the Dreads once at a club in Pasadena.

Greg: "She saw a few songs, but from what I hear her friends were making her feel uncomfortable -- because there was an Elvis impersonator on the stage -- by asking her 'Do you like it? Do you like it?' So she had to leave. Not that she didn't like us, cos I heard she said she thought it was OK. She just felt a little weird."

With the album and new single ('Heartbreaker Hotel') about to hit the streets, and Dread Zeppelin with them -- Tortelvis plus entourage arrive for their first spate of gigs in Britain at Edinburgh The Venue on August 20 -- the present looks ripe with possibilities for Dread Zeppelin. Feature films are already being discussed.

Joe: "Elvis made 29 films then retired from acting, and we thought it might be fun to make a film made up of 29 scenes based on the 29 Elvis films. We've already got 13 of them written."

Tortelvis: "And of course we'd like to make a concert film, with those cool kinda split-screen effects, you know what I mean? Shots of me being helped on to the stage by my assistant, Charlie, that sort of thing."

They've even got the next Dread Zeppelin long-player worked out and organised, right down to the fine details.

"It's going to be a rock opera," Joe deadpans, "and it's going to be called 'Albert'. It's about this rock critic who also happens to be deaf, dumb and blind..."

They're talking, of course, about the man who wrote the highly controversial and much-publicised 1981 'Elvis' biography-cum-expose' Albert Goldm...

"No last names!" they both protest in unison. "It'll all be there on the album," promises Tortelvis, with one of his devilish lop-sided chuckles.

The plan, they say, will be to include the various Zeppelin numbers from their live set that they didn't record for the first album -- 'Rock And Roll', 'Misty Mountain Hop', and a truly gut-wrenching (trust me) version of 'Stairway To Heaven' are all likely candidates.

Plus a little of their own material this time, and perhaps even some covers or one of two other 'legendary innertaners that just enjoy innertaning folks', though right now they're not saying just who (there's a clue...)

But what of the long-term future of a project like this? Aren't they afraid that maybe the gag will wear thin before too long?

Joe: "No more so than any other sort of band starting to get a little attention, you know? If it does, it does. I'm not worried about it. I'm having too much fun."

Greg: "I just like to watch people's faces when they see us for the first time, or when they first listen to the album. That's the thrill right there, I tell ya Everybody's always got somethin' to say about it, you can guarantee it."

I leave Tortelvis Mansion a wiser, fatter man. As I reach the palatial diamond-encrusted door, Tortelvis lifts his monstrous form out of his seat for the first time and comes juddering across the room to say goodbye in person.

He shakes my hand and, naturally, I ask for an autograph. As he signs my tits he leaves me with these words of comfort, which I repeat for you now for your own personal edification.

Tortelvis looked me straight in the eye and said just this: "Always remember, first there is the man, then there is the image. And the image is one thing, but the human being, well now, he's another. Heh-heh-heh."

There was a strange glint in his sunglasses and a saliva-dripping curl to his lips. His blue-black pompadour kiss curl hung seductively over his nose, hiding some of his beautifully bloated face. 'This', I said to myself, 'is how I shall always remember you, Tortelvis.'

In the distance, I could hear the hum of wrought iron electronic security gates being raised...


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