YOU Magazine: August 19, 1990
By Lesley-Ann Jones
Take a generous portion of Elvis, add a measure of heavy rock and serve with a reggae accompaniment. Tongue firmly in cheek, prepare to enjoy the unique flavour of America's oddest band -- Dread Zeppelin.
It's a sweat of a drive southwards out of the mad metropolis in a July heatwave, but that's LA for you. Join the queue and melt your way along the packed Pacific Coast Highway, and Redondo Beach beckons a small, undramatic seaside suburb lined with condos.
Three hours on, everyone who is anyone in the record business has followed suit, and the Strand dance club, a smart, sophisticated music venue, is turning them away at the door.
Headlining tonight is the latest cult act to take America by storm. As yet they've had no air play, they have never released a single, and their fame has only spread by word of mouth. But whoever was in charge of cheerleading has done a magnificent job, for the will-be fans, the music press and even a scout from Johnny Carson are tripping over themselves and each other for tickets.
Another new group? Don't make me laugh. When there is no more virgin territory left to tread, seize the best of what's been done already and do it again -- with a twist. The coefficient is humour -- take none of it too seriously and have a good laugh at your own expense.
The house lights fall, the spotlights flare and suddenly all hell breaks loose. It's him, all right. Baby blue suit of lights shining with appliques, flared bell-bottoms at half-mast, foil-lined, jewel-encrusted cape, fake fur side-burns, spangled boots. The King, all 230 perspiring pounds of him, seemingly burger-filled and out of his mind on prescription chemicals, materializes complete with treble chin.
So this is how it was in the good old days, when the fat, feisty, fortysomething Elvis wowed them in the Vegas clubs. As impersonations go, it's a good one. Not only is this guy a dead ringer, the voice could be mistaken for the real thing.
'A-one. a-two. a-one-two-three-four!'
Elvis stamps his Cuban heel, and the band jerks to life. But 'Return to Sender', 'All Shook Up' and 'The Wonder of You' are off the menu tonight. Instead, the band -- all white except the conga player -- dressed in a colourful array of Rastafarian-style outfits, launch into a frenzied reggae cover version of the Led Zeppelin classic, 'Black Dog'.
They are called, wait for it, Dread Zeppelin. A white reggae band with an Elvis-impersonating lead singer performing Led Zeppelin tunes? It sounds like the ultimate bad acid trip. In fact, it is little short of sensational. Combining accurate send-ups of the world's most adulated singer and the greatest heavy rock band of all time gives you two great icons for the price of one. What's more, it works. The reggae-beat delivery is a bonus.
Zeppelin fans are in their element. Elvis aficionados are beside themselves. Everyone else in in stitches as the band careers wildly through a set which includes Elvis's 'Hound Dog' and 'Heartbreak Hotel', along with Zep favourites like 'Misty Mountain Hop', 'Stairway to Heaven' and 'Whole Lotta Love'.
'Lemme say this one time, and one time only,' gasps Elvis. 'Ahm an innertaner. Ahm here to innertane you folks, and that's all. No messages, no politics, nuthin' but pure innertanement.'
Since signing a fat record deal with IRS Records boss Miles Copeland, brother of drummer Stuart and manager of the Police, Dread Zeppelin have been seeing stars. 'It all sounded so mad, I just had to sign them,' says Copeland.
Touring flat out for over a year now, the band will release their debut album Un-Led-Ed this month, and will also be performing in Britain for the first time. 'It's taken time to get it together, but it has finally run away with us,' confides their amiable manager Charly Prevost, a US record business executive with 22 years' experience.
'To sell as many tickets on the strength of people just wanting to see the band - no record, no publicity, no airplay, nothing - is phenomenal in America.
'They are a parody band, but unlike any of the rip-off merchants out on the road. To be able to parody something, you've got to be able to do it really well. Zeppelin's Robert Plant is aware of us, and he loves us to death - he has been photographed wearing a Dread Zep T-shirt, and he has even instructed Led Zeppelin's lawyers to grant a license, protecting us and them by preventing other groups using the name Zeppelin. The license will permit us to borrow the name in perpetuity. Elvis's estate have not been so helpful. We've had meetings with them, and they keep on quoting the First Amendment at us. Looks like we'll have to slap a sticker over the image of Elvis on the album cover.'
All of which goes right over the heads of the band themselves. They are only in it for the love of music, they insist. First there is Elvis, or TortElvis to be precise. Real name Greg Tortell, he seems to have met the band while working as a milkman in Pasadena. 'They seemed to know there and then that they wanted me for their band,' says TortElvis, the drawl pure Memphis. 'Somethin' to do with the way Ah look.'
Guitarist Joe Ramsey, alias the Prince of Peace and Love, has spent a lifetime in and out of bands that never made it. So has Carl Haasis, or Carl Jah, an ace guitarist with zip-fast fingers who actually does it better than Jimmy Page.
Paul Masselli, aka Fresh Cheese, is their drummer, a Scientologist and the only married member of the group. His wife is Cyndi, a sourface in a salmon pink T-shirt with a black pelmet where her skirt should be and poodle parlour hairdo.
Bruce Fernandez is Ed Zeppelin, conga player supreme, and a recent addition to the group. The original Ed Zeppelin, who left the line-up in April to get married -- he couldn't face leaving his wife at home for the non-stop 200 gigs-a-year schedule -- was actually Bruce's real brother Bryant. And they didn't tell anyone else in the group about the swap.
Last, but by no stretch least, is bassist Gary Putman, or Put-Mon, who bares his butt at the drop of a jockstrap. According to legend, Joe was driving through town one day when he heard a mind-blowing guitar solo wafting on the smog from a small house nearby. He parked, rapped on the door and, getting no response, wandered in to find a stark naked Gary out back straddling his bass and giving it all he'd got, while his mother crouched beside the television set straining to follow her favourite soap. Joe signed him on the spot.
'He's a closet nudist,' nods Charly, but there ain't too much closet about it. Prancing around all day at the sound check in the minimum of clothing, his stagewear consists of a lime green and black thong complete with lace sporran, chain and antenna: 'It stops the other guys getting too close...'
Black leather fingerless gloves and knee-high leopardskin boots complete the deranged look. With a baby doll tied to his guitar that 'cries' at regular intervals, he stands on a monitor on stage to play, tossing his blond head wildly. Periodically he will leap from his pedestal to launch headfirst into a series of outrageous contortions, usually ending in a back spin with his legs in the air. As he skips to the front of the stage to take a bow, women clamber over each other to tuck dollar bills into his knickers.
'I could have problems with this lot,' announces Charly with great understatement. 'The music is everything to them, and they regard it with such purity. Everything else scares them half to death. That's why they hide behind all these stories.'
He means the ridiculous myth they have concocted to explain their existence, starring the hefty TortElvis as the 'real' son of Elvis and Priscilla, conceived by an alien from outer space, who was instructed by his daddy on his very deathbed to perform Zeppelin songs in a reggae style '...the way they were meant to be sung'.
'The fact that guys like these came up with such an outrageous story is incredible,' muses Charly. 'These are just nice, middle-class, Mister Average Americans, after all.'
Put-Mon twists his crotch at the ecstatic throng, and flings himself into an uncontrolled can-can. Charlie Haj, the valet, has wound so many garlands around TortElvis's neck, the star can't get his lips against his Budweiser. Stage left, a row of middle-aged couples are staring on in open-mouthed amazement.
'The parents,' explains Charly: 'They can't believe it. Would you believe it if you were Gary Putman's mother?'
They mercilessly plunder every element of Zeppelin and Presley stagecraft to the last. TortElvis kung fu's his way across the stage, sinks into the splits and can't get up again. His valet rushes forward to lift him.
'Laydees an' gennelmen, TortElvis has left the building. Thank you and good night,' booms a voice into the dark arena, seconds after another exhausting encore, thus sending up The King's live shows to the bitter end.
Like the man said, it's innertanement, pure and simple, fer sure. But what the hell will Terry Wogan make of it?
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