By Jah Paul Jo
In each human heart is a tiger, a pig, an ass and a nightingale. Diversity of character is due to their unequal activity. ~ Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
80% of life is just showing up. ~ Woody Allen
At the end of 1991, Dread Zeppelin were just plumb tuckered out. In less than two years, we had recorded two full length albums, several specialty songs, filmed at least five videos all while maintaining a tour schedule that took the band around the world several times while performing an average of 250 shows per year.
We felt, that we definitely needed to take a different direction with the new album. Lots of ideas were discussed – and Miles Copeland even had expressed interest in filming a movie about the band. Indeed, he even had dispatched a writer/director to accompany the group on tour. Unfortunately, even probably the most unfunny member of Dread Zeppelin (my vote would be Fresh Cheese!) was even funnier than this guy so the movie idea was quickly shelved.
Two concepts eventually rose to the surface. One, a rock opera simply entitled, “Albert.” This was an idea that we had discussed as a possible second album. Unfortunately, we had no time to get this together – it would have taken a lot of work and planning and turned out to be a luxury that we just couldn’t afford. I had presented the idea of Albert, a rock critic who secretly really wanted to be a star (loosely based on Albert Goldman, he of the heretical book on Elvis, John Lennon and Lenny Bruce). The idea was to pattern the rock opera on Tommy (natch!), with shades of The Pretty Things’ “SF Sorrow,” Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” and the usual bloated seventies pastiche all filtered through the zeppelin-inna-reggae-stylee kaleidescope.
Sound ambitious? You bet it did. A little too much for many in the group who didn’t want to use their “leisure” time getting it together. Instead, we went with idea #2…. DISCO!!!
Ok then… Dread Zeppelin will do “Saturday Night Fever.” We tackled this project much the same as we had for the original LP, “Un Led ED,” in other words, not a whole lot of preparation before recording (we were masters of “winging it”).
There was a lot of talk about how this album would be recorded. During DZ’s trip to Brazil, I became quite enamored by the style of their “instant” disco music – lots of samples, loops and such. Rasta Li-Mon and I discussed using this technique for “Unusual.” We were also interested in recording the basic tracks at our home rehearsal studio rather than using a traditional studio. We met with Russell and Ron Mael of Sparks fame who demonstrated their midi-studio to us. They had a uniqe and wonderful sounding set-up (and were very charming people – Russel’s home gave Pee-Wee’s Playhouse a run for it’s money). They convinced us that we could make a great sounding recording in this fashion.
Enter Greg Edward. He had an amazing portable midi-studio that could be delivered directly to whatever room you wished to record in. Greg made a deal with IRS that he would record the band with his gear in exchange for a co-production credit. Done. Greg was a nice guy who, in a short time, would take on an even bigger role in the project and, indeed, in the band even continuing.
Rehearsals began uneventfully enough. Two or three songs were chosen – “Stayin’ Alive,” “Disco Inferno” and “You Should Be Dancing” for Dread Zepp-ilazation. At this point, we were once again drummerless as Fresh Cheese and Ed Zeppelin had taken a powder after our Australian tour in early 1992. Drum machines and loops, supplied by Rasta Li-Mon, were used for the rehearsals and we would start to build what would later become a master track – in essence creating, rehearsing and recording all at the same time.
It soon became apparent that Tortelvis’ heart was not in the project. Never one to be super exuberant anyway, he mainly sat in his big old comfy chair (which Butt Boy and I later had removed from the studio so he wouldn’t fall asleep in it!) and sang. No input. No excitement. No fun.
At a band meeting held with the band’s management and Greg Edward, Tortelvis told us that he missed his wife and his milk delivery route (I swear I’m not making this up!) too much to ever go on tour again and ran from the room in tears. Besides the incredulity we experienced at seeing Tortelvis actually running, we were completely shocked that he would leave the band. We were watching all of our work, all of the time building Tort up to be some kind of Alien-Elvi, go down the drain like so much spilt sour milk (pardon the pun). We were all old friends and none of us knew that he felt that badly.
Something to remember about the Dread Zeppelin band at that time. Only half of the members would have considered themselves career musicians. The other half kind of fell into it and got a lot more than they ever bargained for. And only Butt Boy and myself had had any kind of success in music previously (we being two thirds of a band called the Prime Movers who had two semi-hit singles with Island records in the UK).
I was completely disheartened. It looked like the band would not be able to survive. We had purposely built the singer up to be the leader of the band – I mean, how can you have Elvis in the group and NOT be the leader. And now he was gone.
Re-enter Greg Edward. Greg became our one-man cheerleading team (usually my role, but I was bummed). He convinced us that we could carry on and find a replacement singer. We continued with the rehearsals/recording and, after a couple of weeks had somewhat of a rebirth. The band was sounding great and I think that everyone had a real purpose for working hard on this album and really making it sound great. We worked extremely hard on the vocal arrangements and I think that it shows.
In the meantime, we were auditioning new singers. Well, not just singers but Elvis impersonator/singers. Man, what an experience. it seems the rule of thumb would be: either the Elvis was a good singer and not a bit like Elvis OR looked and acted just like Elvis but couldn’t carry a note in a paper bag. And, no offence to Tortelvis or the millions of other Elvi-in-training, let’s face it – most of these guys are a cape away from a full Vegas-era jumpsuit.
So we turned inward. Butt Boy had been one of the singers for the fabulous Prime Movers – how about him? We recorded “Stayin Alive” with the Buttster on the mike and… it was pretty good. Besides, the famous and ultra-patient Rasta Li-Mon had worked engineering a vocal performance by the always charming yet hopelessly off-key Belinda Carlisle… how bad could THIS be?
So Gary B.I.B.B. was born.
The name is an obvious homage to Barry Gibb, but what is the acronym? I’m not telling.
After the singer issue was settled the recording went very smoothly. One of my plans was to bring in as many guest artists as possible. We had extremely high (as in falsetto) hopes of having the Bee Gees guest – and they were actually into it – but had scheduling problems. But I think that we more than made up for that by having one of my personal idols, and every bit as crazy as you think that he would be, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Jay spent a whole day with us in the studio, regaling us with stories of the old days and just plain old good advice on life, love, etc (I had Rasta Li-Mon record record it all with mikes around the studio!!). His big number was going to be the seventies classic, “Jungle Boogie” originally done by Kool & The Gang. Jay walked in with a notebook full of ideas for the song. He would often refer to his notes and then let out crazy jungle wails or banshee-like screams like, “Mustard from a gorilla’s armpit!!” or “Possom eyeballs!!” It was an awesome bravura performance – mostly one take stuff (a true professional!). At the end of the day, he rode off into the sunset in his huge orange van (with fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror!). “Jah Paul Jo, who was that masked man?”
“Son, that was none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins…”
Randy Bachman of BTO contributed to our version of “Takin’ Care Of Business.” He sang the second verse and played his trademark guitar riffs – making the song another of my favorites. I know that in his heart, Randy really wanted to do the duet with Tortelvis – two heavyweights of the rock scene. It’s really a shame that it didn’t happen but I thank Randy for the wonderful job that he did.
For the first time ever, we were unable to clear an original song through copywrite. This was the much-asked-about sequel, “Do The Claw (Again).” They said that it sounded too much like “Let’s Twist (Again)” by Chubby Checker. Well… DUH! Nevermind, some day Birdcage will release it.
All during the recording, we had searched for what to call the record. I remember early suggestions were “Groovy Booty Bomb” (which was where the disk should be filed on the finished cover) and “This House Sho’ Gone Crazy” after an utterance from a classic Three Stooges film. But it finally came to us when Gary B.I.B.B. started singing the classic Tom Jones song in the runout of one of the Bee Gees tunes. That’s it!! Besides, there’s a wonderful Led Zeppelin connection there as Jimmy Page played the lead guitar in the original Tom Jones recording of “It’s Not Unusual.”
So the band and the recording were firing on all cylinders. Like the legendary flying Phoenix, we had risen from the ashes, pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps only to be hoisted on our own petards by our management.
(At this point you may want to ask the children to leave the room)
Upon completion of the recording, it soon became apparent to us that IRS records, who had completely financed said venture, had NO IDEA that Tortelvis wasn’t in the group. How could this be? They had heard rough mixes, discussed the project with our management… and now they were shocked. No Tortelvis? How are we going to market this?
I should make clear, owing to bad experiences that I had had with record companies in the past, butting into the artistic process and making a mess of most everything, I never wanted to see an A&R type individual when we were recording – and indeed, we didn’t. We were left almost completely alone throughout the recording process which is probably WHY things went as smoothly as they did. Just one problem… our manager NEVER told them that we had a new singer.
Maybe they would have been supportive. Maybe they would have pulled the plug on the project all together. We’ll never know. IRS felt burned and rightfully so. The group had no idea that this was being done. Besides, we knew that we would need the record company’s help to take it on the road – if not financially (cause Dread Zeppelin NEVER took tour support!), at least with promotion.
All that was left was to take new photos for the cover of the album (in our new “glittery” outfits) and start to prepare to take it on the road. there was still a lot of demand for Dread Zeppelin to tour and we felt energized – almost like we were a new band (which we kinda were anyway).