by Jah Paul Jo, The Prince of Peace and Love (self-proclaimed)
I’m back on the road and I aint gonna stop, gonna roll ’till I mold, gonna rock ’till I drop… ~Lonsome Dave (Foghat)
One of the staples of Rock & Roll has always been the “road” song. From Hank Williams to Woody Guthrie to The Kinks to Foghat (how’s that for an eclectic crew!), the road has beckoned… and has proven perfect fodder to stir the artist to dizzying new heights of lyrical passion. I consider “5,000,000* *Tortelvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” to be one big ol’ road song.
Recorded in the early Fall, 1990, “5,000,000*…” was conceived and recorded during a three week break from touring to support the surprisingly successful “Un Led ED.” The *Big Brains* knew the concept: This is a novelty band. The novelty will wear off. Have the band on the road for as long as humanly possible. In other words “Make hay while the sun shines!”
When the band finally did get a break, guess what? Yep! It’s time to make a new album. I, probably more than anyone else in the band, was living the “Kerouac-Dream” (I base this scientifically on the amount of bellyachin’ by individual members about never being home). I had no real encumbrances. In fact, I was crashing at my Dad’s house. No wife that wanted to kill me for being gone all the time. But even I was totally wiped out.
Adversity may be the mother of all creation because, when the album did get started, it really started to roll. Rasta Li-Mon, who really was the glue that stirred the drink (or something…) was on board. After a couple of false starts in bargain basement studios (Dread Zeppelin were always a target for record company “bean-counters”), “5,000,000*…”began to take shape.
The songs that we knew that we would use were “Stairway To Heaven” (which I intentionally left off “Un led ED” only to insure that DZ WOULD make a second album) and “Misty Mountain Hop.” These were the songs that were, at the time, staples of our live set. We had given up on the entire concept of doing album by album midway through the recording of “Un Led ED,” so “5,000,000*…” would be even more of a HAJ-podge (forgive me).
There were basically two ways that we approached recording songs in these days. Method One would be if we kind of knew the song already and it just came naturally to devolve it into a reggae style. “Black Dog” and “The Immigrant Song” are two examples. Method Two would be to have absolutely no idea what we were going to do with the tune and hope for a “happy miracle” in the studio. “Hey Hey What Can I Do” is the best example of this… half the guys didn’t even know the song before we started. “Stairway” and Misty Mountain Hop” were the ones we knew. All the others had to be “HM” (happy miracles).
A big rap on the band at this time was “where can they go from here?” This cracked me up because before we did “Un Led ED,” the rap was ” why are they even doing it in the first place?” Rasta Li-Mon and I felt strongly that we needed some non-Led Zeppelin content (but, of course, the Zeppelin influence would ALWAYS be all-pervasive). To this end, I wanted to do a couple Bob Marley tunes and a few selections by the KING. There was a faction in the DZ line-up that resisted ANY change (That’s right! Conservative Dread Zeppelin members!) This group fought me big-time on this. I felt (and still do) that to do “Un Led ED Part 2″ would have meant death for the band. We had to take it *somewhere* else to make it vital. I was adamant that I didn’t want it to be a “novelty band” that just picked on the most obvious targets. I wanted to create our own mythology with original songs and to be able to explore our other areas of influence: reggae and rock-a-billy. Of course, this was dangerous and left us open to easy criticism. I remember one review in particular that ragged on our original songs and then spent the rest of the reviews talking about the “hilarious” lyrics of “Do The Claw.” Wow, I guess they weren’t that bad after all.
Compromises were made and we eventually recorded Marley’s “Stir It Up” and Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock.” Groovy. “Stir It Up” was a lot of fun to do. The biggest challenge was to make it slow enough. To give it that Zeppelin touch, we resorted to an old joke that we had done live previously with the song, “Woodstock.” Insert the “Lemon Song” riff. The band was tight enough live at this time to insert the “Lemon Song” riff into almost any song, at any time, at will. Electric Sitar seemed a natural addition – I have an old lefty Coral that you can only tune two strings at once, and an ancient moog synth (that we found in Dave Stewart’s attic… really!) gives it that weird sonar sound during the choruses.
Probably my favorite song on the album was “When The Levee Breaks.” This is the oft-sampled Bonham drum intro – so of course, perversely, we could not sample. Fresh Cheese & Cheese does an admirable imitation for the opening and then… that reggae thang. Very cool rasta-style backing vocals courtesy of the Michael Jordinaires. I love the way this track came out.
I-Lar-I Treadwell and Bun-E Slopes both guest on “Levee…” and they really make the track happen. I-Lar-I (real name: Larry Treadwell) is an amazing guitarist in his own right, but for Dread Zep, would come up with a brand new sonic invention for each session. For “5,000,000*…” the invention was “Larry’s Tower.” I can’t really explain it, but it was very tall and required lots of plug-ins and chords. All of the crazy sounds on the intro, “Forgettin’ About Business, Parts One & Two,” emanated from Larry’s Tower and the beginning narration was performed marvelously by I-Lar-I. Genius! For the aforementioned “Levee…” Larry plays acoustic balalaika – no kidding.
Bun E Slopes is our blues harpist supreme. Any harmonica heard on a Dread Zep album is blown by Bun E. (real name: Rick Germond). As all you Led Zep-heads know, “Levee…” is a harmonica showcase and Bun E. Slopes burns. Bravura performance. Bun E. is also heard on “The Train Kept A-Rollin.”
Yeah, right… old Yardbirds. Where can we go from here, indeed! Great Tortelvis vocal with searing harmonica back-up. Carl Jah a no-show for this session so Jah Paul Jo plays all of the lead guitar (most unusual!). I’m always surprised that more reviewers didn’t pick up on the Police’s “Walking On The Moon” riff. Maybe they didn’t care.
A guitar tour-de-force, Carl Jah did an amazing job with “The Song Remains The Same.” Carl, being our resident Led Zeppelin riff-ologist, pieced this one together and it was easily the toughest arrangement that we ever tackled. Slow, fast, ska, reggae, somehow we made the two guitars sound like Page’s 12 string (kind’a) – I was very pleased with this one. Also became one of our best songs to perform live.
THE ORIGINAL SONGS
The three original songs that appear on “5,000,000*…” originated with three ideas by the band’s main three songwriters. “Forgettin’…” was based on a guitar riff that Carl Jah introduced. “Big Ol’ Gol’ Belt” began as a Butt-Boy idea and my contribution was “Do The Claw.”
“Forgettin’ About Business Parts One & Two” were meant to serve as an overture. Rasta li-Mon and myself had some fun with samples along with the I-Lar-I narration. Boy, a lot of people didn’t like the Hindenburg samples. If we reopened any old (and I mean OLD) wounds with this, we apologize. But that is a photo of the exploding Hindenburg on the cover of Led Zeppelin I and we figured that it was a natural. Hmmmmmm. Besides, the reaction from a lot of Led Zeppelin diehards to our mutation of the LZ songs, “Oh, the humanity…!” just seemed to fit. Also a little bit of the “My Favorite Martian” theme song in there to bolster our new claim that Tortelvis was, indeed, created by aliens and placed here on Earth to resemble the most famous entertainer of all time (The Presley Estate made us stop saying that he was Elvis’ illegitimate son!).
I challenge anyone to find a song that contains as a lyric the word “smelt.” From the mind of Butt-Boy, Big Ol’ Gol Belt” has that and more. Carl contributed the guitar solo arrangement and I had a big hand with the “loverly” Michael Jordinaires vocal middle. I had also, at the time, discovered the many and varied uses of a cheap-o Radio Shack Bull Horn. It can be heard in all of the choruses and the “toast” in the middle of “Train Kept A-Rollin.”
“Do The Claw” was a little bit “Communication Breakdown” and a little bit Elvis’ “Do The Clam.” As the East Coast Hip-Hoppers say, “It’s All Good!” Lots of fun to record, it became an even rowdier song live, as audiences around the globe would hold up their four-finger (better than the one-finger) salute to the band at Tortelvis’ prearranged signal. Spawned two sequel songs, “Do The Claw Again” and “Do The Claw Again (Again!).”
I’m not sure of the reason, maybe it’s because of “Stairway To Heaven’s” inclusion, but I thought of this album as like a take-off of “Led Zeppelin Four” (or “Runes” or “Symbols”). Had to have a reference to that album. At this time, it had become kind of an in-joke never to have Charlie Haj pictured with the band. Keep him, by design, as a sort of mystery man. So who would be better toting those sticks than the omnipresent Charlie, Tortelvis’ right-hand man, boy Friday and helpmate? The photos were taken in a park outside of the IRS offices in Universal City. Charlie (real name: Earle Rothwell), handled his own wardrobe and dazzled us with his argyle sock/sandle combination. The only direction I remember giving him was yelling “Look more pathetic!” I think that he really captured it. Where the real Zeppelin cover was a photo hung on a very old looking wall, ours looked like it was hung on a prefab trailer wall parked somewhere outside of Vegas (probably near Area 51). Perfect.
The inside became a little more problematic. I originally wanted it to look like a telethon with banks of phones being manned by as many famous folks as we could muster – kind of a bargain-basement “Sgt. Pepper’s. Time constraints limited us to what we came up with. Again, we were on the road while all of this was being fabricated by the IRS art department (who ALWAYS did excellent work). A lot was lost in the translation.
But my favorite part was the list of credits done as an acceptance speech (Grammy?!) for an award that was lost. The bean-counters struck again by making the US version black and white, completely losing the vibrance of the Tortelvis outfit, the garish orange of his spilled Cheet-os… a shame. Try finding the UK or Japanese version which is in full color. Better yet, the UK vinyl version which uses this full-color image as the back of the album. Collectors, on your marks…
Just to give you an idea how fast and furious all of this was happening around us, IRS placed the booklet SIDEWAYS in the CD jewel case. Unbelievable. the joke was a bit subtle in the first place, but sideways didn’t make any sense. I complained and complained (and inherited an ASTRONOMICAL phone bill in the process as well as the beginnings of an ulcer), but as far as I know, they’re still doing it. That’s show biz.
The final indignity occurs on the back of the CD package. I was told that the song titles would float on the wallpaper that appears on the front cover. Our manager at the time was, apparently, too lazy to write out the full title of the songs (or even get them right for that matter) so “Misty Mountain Hop” appears as “Misty Mtn Hop” and “Big Ol’ Gold Belt” shows up as “Big Ol’ Gol’ Belt.” Yeah… little things, but sometimes they mean a lot.
MANAGERS, RECORD LABELS AND LEGALITIES
After producing “Un Led ED” completely by ourselves with no outside interference, “5,000,000*…” became a virtual smorgasbord of folks who thought that they knew better than us what would be “right” for Dread Zeppelin. IRS boss, Miles Copeland, made one stop at the studio and declared that the album wasn’t funny enough (actually, I really don’t think that we were trying to make a “funny” album). Stinging (no pun intended) from this criticism, we actually injected a bit more “jokey” type material. When Copeland listened to one of the final mixes, he ACTUALLY asked why we thought that it was a good idea to put in more funny stuff – “You guys are a good band… go with the music!”
Another pattern that was to emerge with this album was for our manager to decide that he HATED one of the songs and demand that it be left off the finished album. In hindsight, I think it was a trick to try to run control on the band; prove to us how invaluable that he was to us… ” See, I know best.” Well, with “5,000,000*…” we really hit the jackpot, he hated two. The first that he demanded that we leave off was “Big Ol’ Gold Belt” (maybe it was his hatred of the tune that caused him to misspell it on the album jacket). “No way,” we said.
Then, when it became apparent that we weren’t going to back down on this, “Jailhouse Rock” had to go. A cryin’ shame. I was told that “Jailhouse Rock” would be the official, all-formats B-side of the Stairway To Heaven” single that was to be released in Europe. This was a lie and it turns out that the only place that this song surfaces is on the 7 inch UK “Heaven” single and the special 3 inch Japanese CD single.
Speaking of “Stairway To Heaven,” our single release was to have a complete video done to promote it. The concept was a take-off on the Japanese film “King Kong Versus Godzilla.” This time, it would be a gargantuan Tortelvis (is there any other kind?) fighting Godzilla. We actually shot a lot of our Japanese performances for inclusion in this video and a sixties style trailer announcing the upcoming video. Terrified that we would be stopped by Led Zeppelin, IRS attorneys huddled with our manager and lawyer and decided that we couldn’t release the video. What a mistake. Later, we found out that it would have been perfectly OK to have released the vid – but no one wanted to roll the dice. To add insult to injury, Nike made a very funny commercial showing basketball star, Charles Barkley battling Godzilla – EXACTLY our idea.
I think that it was this big, big mistake of not capitalizing on “Stairway…” that was the real downfall of the band. Everything had been moving upward at this point. This is where it really started to level off. The video, as conceived, would have been amazing. As it was, “Heaven…” charted in the UK and Europe. but I always wondered what it would have done with a great video promoting it.
AFTER THE RELEASE
After the dust had settled, it was back to the road for Dread Zeppelin. The band worked harder than ever in 1991. Circumnavigating the globe twice, we played in such exotic ports as Brazil, Argentina, New Zealand,and Australia. Went through Europe and did the entire US and Canada maybe three times. All a blur. I don’t think that “5,000,000…” really changed the public’s perception of us. People either loved us or hated us; and even a lot of the ones that loved us didn’t realize that we had a second album out. Many times, well-meaning folks would say, “I love your album.” Well… we have two out y’know. For that matter, people would say that even after “No Quarter Pounder!” Well… thank you but we’ve got four out. As much as I wished that they’d paid attention, I knew they meant well. And there could only be one emotion that the Prince of Peace & Love can feel for his fans: Love, Man LOVE!