NEW MUSICAL EXPRESS: August 4, 1990
By AJ Barratt
The rastaman vibrations of DREAD ZEPPELIN have found favour with America's MTV rock kids. TERRY STAUNTON climbs the stairway to Babylon while the Dreads wait to meet their hero ROBERT PLANT. But watch out for those communication breakdowns.
"After half an hour Elvis' bodyguards motioned that it was time to go. As they were leaving Robert gushed, 'Elvis, you're my idol. Thanks for letting us come.' The King responded by singing the beginning of 'Treat Me Like A Fool'. Robert sang the second line: 'Treat me mean and cruel'. Together Elvis and Robert Plant sang the last line: 'But love me'. For Led Zeppelin the best part of the visit had been when Elvis asked for their autographs. He said they were for his daughter, Lisa Marie." (From Stephen Davis' 'Hammer Of The Gods')
This historic meeting took place in Los Angeles in May, 1974. Presley and Plant, the most potent male sex symbols of their respective generations, face to face for the first time. It was the ultimate meeting of machismo, a legendary moment in the history of rock 'n' roll never to be repeated. Until now. More than 16 years later in the campus town of Rochester, New York, the stage is set for the second coming.
Tonight Robert Plant has an audience with Presley incarnate -- Dread Zeppelin's enigmatic singer Tortelvis. By the wildest of coincidences, Plant's American tour to promote his 'Manic Nirvana' album has arrived in Rochester the same night as Dread Zeppelin skank into town to entertain the bored college kids. Plant has packed out the purpose-built War Memorial Arena in the downtown business sector, while the Dreads make do at the less than salubrious Back Streets club two miles away.
But who are Dread Zeppelin? Put simply, they are a six-piece band who play reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs, ironied by a singer who looks and sounds like Las Vegas era Elvis Presley. Couldn't be simpler, could it?
After countless live shows across the United States, the Dreads finally release their debut album, Un-Led-Ed, this week. Opening with wild studio trickery before slipping into a heavy bass riff, 'Black Dog' is the ultimate collision of styles. The manic guitar break from Jimmy Page's original is still there, but it's fighting for space with Tortelvis and his cocktail lounge crooning, with the whole shebang shoved into a cement mixer which could have been designed by Lee Perry.
'Whole Lotta Love' features tongue-twisting toasting from the Dreads' bongo player Ed Zeppelin against the Bonhamesque cymbal smashing of drummer Fresh Cheese & Cheese, to transform an aging air guitar anthem into the most commercial dub classic since the 1974 Rudie Edwards hit, 'Ire Feelings'.
In fact, nowhere on Un-Led-Ed does the song remain the same.
A novelty with the most limited of shelf lives? Perhaps, but right here and now Dread Zeppelin have hit upon the freshest pop formula in years. Led Zeppelin fans will love it, reggae fans will love it, Elvis fans will love it. Robert Plant already loves it to death.
Dread Zeppelin hail from Temple City, California, while Plant alternates between Camden and Kidderminster. This Friday night they both find themselves 3,000 miles from home, on the east coast of America. Preliminary phone calls between record companies have been made and the logistics look good. A meeting of mutual appreciation societies is definitely on the cards.
Tortelvis sits nervously in his Holiday Inn hotel room waiting for a call. It's three hours before Plant goes on stage, but he still hasn't arrived in town. His tour publicist is incommunicado ("We played there once," says Tortelvis, "great audiences") and the rest of us are playing the waiting game.
Dread Zeppelin are confident they will find themselves in the same room as their idol before the night is over. Everything that has happened to them, or that is going to happen to them, is part of a master plan, a preordained destiny that dates back 13 summers to when Tortelvis was visited in the night by The King Of Rock 'N' Roll.
"Elvis himself came to me in '77 and told me, 'You gotta do Led Zeppelin music reggae style the way it was supposed to be done.' It's as simple as that. I wasn't really sure what he meant at first and I sorta forgot about it for a while.
"Anyways, I had me this job delivering milk in California and it all fell into place, I knew what I had to do. When I was driving the milk truck I ran into the back of a Ford Pinto. I don't know if you know anything about Ford Pintos, but they're made with the gas tanks in the back so when you hit 'em on the bumpers they just sorta blow up.
"But this particular Ford Pinto didn't blow up, instead these five rasta guys, these reggae musicians, just popped up out of nowhere. I hired them on the spot, it was how it was supposed to be."
But why you, Tortelvis? Of all the people in the whole wide world, why did Elvis speak to you?
"Well, first let me say that it was not the ghost of Elvis that spoke to me. He came to me a couple of months before he died -- I guess he kinda knew he was gonna die, 'cos his mother died at the same age.
"I was not actually chosen by Elvis himself, there were rumours that I was his illegitimate son, but that's not true. Actually, I was created by aliens and modeled after the most popular person ever to walk the earth, which, of course, is Elvis. On this planet at this moment in time I am the closest thing to Elvis and I swear to you it is not coincidence.
"Maybe the aliens knew somethin' the rest of us didn't. Maybe they knew that Elvis would die before his time and they had to create a replica to carry on his work, which was to do Led Zeppelin songs reggae style."
Are you suggesting that if Elvis was alive today that's what he would be doing?
"Without a doubt, he was always looking for new areas to move into. I'm actually really into the later Elvis, the Vegas years when he had to work harder to remain on top. It was not an easy time for him, struggling against drugs and weight problems an' all, and on top of that he had to compete with The Beatles and, later on, Led Zeppelin. The '50s Elvis had it too easy, nobody could touch him. But when he went to Vegas he did all kinds of music and pushed himself to remain on top. It was undoubtedly his most creative period.
"So the aliens had to find someone to carry on the work of Elvis after he died and I am that man. I look like him and sound like him, as you can tell by listening to the record I have a beautiful singing voice. It's very tonal, very much like Elvis in his last ten years."
Not wanting to sound indelicate, you do resemble the later Elvis, even though you're a good 20 years younger than he was.
"Yes, that's right, I am the image of the big Elvis. I know Elvis hated looking like he did in those last years, but from a technical standpoint it helps the voice. Just look at the size of all those opera singers. Being this big gives your voice a deeper, more resonant tone.
"But I have to tell you that this is not the way I want to look, but the boys in the band think it would be better if I keep the weight on. It's a little tough gettin' the big gold belt on and everythin'. It's hard to bend down and pick up the underwear the girls throw at me."
Dread Zeppelin do have their detractors. They've been labeled as a one-joke comic sideshow and prime purveyors of the poorest taste imaginable, yet, unbelievably perhaps, they have the blessing of not only Robert Plant, but of the Presley organization.
After running into trouble over using a picture of Elvis on T-shirts without prior consent, they have convinced Jerry Schilling -- Elvis' right-hand man throughout the '70s -- that their intentions are honourable.
"He didn't really like the idea too much at first. He thought the record was OK, but he didn't take too kindly to the fact that I was overweight and thought we were just makin' fun of Elvis.
"Elvis' people are really particular about how he is perceived by others, they don't take kindly to certain things. Jerry Schilling told us that they've got thousands and thousands of feet of film of Elvis when he was all big and sweaty, and they will never let that be shown to the public.
"I tell ya, when Jerry Schilling was saying all this to us he actually got a tear in his eye. Those boys really love Elvis, just as my boys love me, and we would never do anything to offend the memory of Elvis."
So Elvis is definitely not still alive?
"No way, he's dead, I really believe he's dead, and it hurts me to think of the people who do all those newspaper stories sayin' he's still alive. They're just out there tryin' to make a buck off of Elvis' dead back. What Dread Zeppelin are doin' is not in bad taste, but what those newspaper guys are doin' is just gross."
It's now less than an hour to Plant's showtime and he's still not in town. Time for another round of phone calls to all concerned. The Plant road manager at the venue tells us everything is hunky dory. Robert will be around after the show and the tickets and backstage passes for The Dreads are waiting at the box office. "It's all systems go," we're told. "Robert really loves Dread Zeppelin and he's looking forward to meeting them."
Tortelvis breathes a sigh of relief and gets back to the master plan. On paper the idea sounds preposterous. The music of arguably the greatest rock band to walk the earth put to a reggae beat? Do us a favour!
"No, no, it really works, you've heard it! Elvis knew it would work, he told me it would work -- and it does.
"Actually, I read somewhere, I'm not sure if it's true, that Jimmy Page originally wanted Led Zeppelin to be a reggae band but John Bonham couldn't play the drums. Reggae drumming is very technical and maybe it was just too much for him at the time.
"We have added a dimension to the music of Led Zeppelin that I think the members themselves craved for when they were in existence, that's why Robert Plant loves us so dearly. We have achieved something with his music that he never had the opportunity to do himself.
"I actually spoke to Robert earlier this month on a radio phone-in program and he was really excited to hear from me. We were talkin' about the sexual nature of musicians and how my greatest influences were himself and Elvis Presley, two of the sexiest men ever to make records. He continued the sex theme later in the show and mentioned me in the same breath as George Michael. I was very flattered.
"I would say the four of us: Elvis Presley, Robert Plant, George Michael and myself are the living embodiment of sex."
It's now half an hour before Plant hits the stage and -- at last -- he is in the venue with his publicist.But one tiny word nobody wanted to hear reaches us in our hotel rooms: "No."
The publicist says Robert is far too busy and has to fly back to New York City the second he comes off stage. "He'll be in a limo halfway to the airport by the time the final applause dies down," the publicist states in a most matter-of-fact fashion. She says these self-same words at least three times, as if she's really pleased with the effect they have on us.
"It was communicated to you two or three days ago that the meeting could not take place."
No it bloody wasn't! AT&T have made a mint on the phone calls setting this up!
"It was never going to happen, you knew that."
No we bloody didn't! Three record company offices, an independent British publicist, Robert's tour manager, a journalist, a photographer, and -- most importantly -- the band were under the impression it was all systems go.
"I don't want to talk about this anymore. Robert will be in a limo halfway to the airport by the time the final applause dies down."
We've heard that one! Has Robert himself said, 'No'?
"Robert is very busy right now."
Did he know anything about this in the first place?
"Robert is very busy right now."
If Robert knew we were here would he make time for us?
"Robert is very busy right now."
Phones are slammed down and the echoes are heard across the state. Immediately a plot is hatched to race to the airport and hijack Plant for a few minutes when he gets there, but the Dreads' record company wisely nips it in the bud, fearing it will cause bad blood and jeopardize future meetings.
Dread Zeppelin give in. They head off to their own venue for their own show visibly disappointed by the events of the last half hour.
Outside the Back Streets club kids loiter with Led Zeppelin record sleeves under their arms. A few enquiries reveal that the club's Ansaphone message has been advertising for the past week that Plant would actually be joining Dread Zeppelin on stage.
"Robert's people must have got wind of that and have pulled the shutters down on the whole thing," says the Dreads' road manager. "The club has f---ed up the whole thing."
The Dreads carry on regardless, they play a blinding show, introducing new numbers to the set, including the most imaginative re-working of 'Stairway To Heaven', with toaster Ed Zeppelin and crooner Tortelvis swapping lines.
To the side of the stage, the Dreads' assistant, Charlie Haj, hands Tortelvis a towel to mop his brow between numbers, each time placing a Hawaiian lei over the singer's head. Charlie bears no resemblance whatsoever to Presley's celebrated 'gofer' Charlie Hodge.
"I guess it just wasn't to be this time around," says Tortelvis after the show. "It would have happened if Elvis had wanted it to, but tonight was not the night. But myself and Robert will meet, we will share a common bond and we will continue to embody sex to the youth of the world."
Fingers crossed, Plant will see Dread Zeppelin when they reach Britain in late August, when they promise to showcase new material from their rock opera Albert, about a man who makes fun of dead musicians.
Tortelvis is still hopeful of making a record with Robert Plant some day, a record that will go down in history as a classic, alongside 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Stairway To Heaven'.
"We have a message for the world and together we have the power to bring peace and love to everyone. Robert has a whole lotta love to give, and we can help him by giving a whole lotta dub."
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