If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Robert Plant must walk around blushing a lot, thanks to Billy Kulke.
Kulke has the famed Led Zeppelin singer down cold, from the long, curly mane of flowing hair to the banshee vocal wails. But long before he capitalized on the coincidental similarities in looks and sound with the legendary vocalist by founding the faithfully authentic British Led Zeppelin tribute band Letz Zep, Kulke was, like millions of other Zeppelin fanatics, just a devotee in the crowd.
“I was a huge fan growing up in Liverpool, I saw them at Knebworth [in 1979] – that was the only chance I had to see them live,” said the cheery Kulke in a phone conversation with The Jerusalem Post from his home in London, where he and fellow bandmates, Andy Gray on guitar, Steve Turner on bass and keyboards and Simon Jeffrey – filling John Bonham’s big shoes on drums – tour extensively, recreating the sound and also the experience of seeing contemporary music’s most revered hard rock unit.
“People used to tell me I looked like Plant when I was a teenager, so I used to go into the record shops and look at the back of the records to check.”
Kulke ended up buying the records, and found himself mesmerized with the music Zeppelin was making. Rock’s biggest act in the post-Beatles 1970s, Led Zeppelin had it all – the musical chops from guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and Bonham, the stage presence of Plant and the mystique and power of the songs.
However, by the time Led Zeppelin performed at Knebworth in 1979 (the band’s first shows in two years, following the tragic death of Plant’s young son), they were clearly past their peak and in the wake of the punk rock explosion, considered the bastion of dinosaur rock on the way to becoming obsolete. Within a year, Bonham had died, and the surviving members decided to disband.
Aside from an occasional one-off reunion, and a triumphant 2007 show at London’s 02 Arena in 2007 with Bonham’s son Jason sitting in the drummer’s seat, the band has kept to their word of not getting back together. That’s left subsequent generations of music fans without the opportunity to see what all the hoopla was about – which is what Letz Zep is all about.
“When we play, we get fathers bringing their teenage sons to the show, and they know every word. For them, it’s quite magical – that’s the great thing about performing for a new generation,” said Kulke. “Music should be a living thing, and if it inspired you, then it keeps the wheels turning. That’s a great thing.”
FOR KULKE, music has been a life-long inspiration. Moving from Liverpool to London in the early 1980s, he formed a band, Jagged Edge, which toured with successful artists like Ozzy Ozbourne and Roger Daltrey, but by the 1990s, he was primarily doing studio work with members of Whitesnake and Iron Maiden.
“You reach a point in your career when you realize you’re never going to reach the heights of someone like Zeppelin. But if you love music, you want to keep on playing,” said Kulke.
He expressed that love by getting together with friends to jam on Zeppelin classics in local pubs. And Kulke attributes the success of Letz Zep to the fact that the members are indeed all Led Zeppelin fans, playing their music for the sheer enjoyment of it.
“We thought of this as a hobby at first, just to be able to play – not as a business model,” he said.
Things got more serious, however, when in 2003 the group received a surprise visitor at one of their small London pub shows – Robert Plant. The singer had gotten word that the band was recreating the Zeppelin sound like nobody else had, and he wanted to check them out for himself.
“It was nerve-wracking. Somebody had said he was coming to the show, but we didn’t know whether to believe it or not,” recalled Kulke.
“He came into the room about 20 minutes after the set started, and stood in the doorway. Everyone could tell it was him. Even though we were nervous, we felt good because if he hadn’t heard good things about us, he wouldn’t have come, right?”
Interviewed later by British pop magazine Q, Plant gave the quote that made Letz Zep’s career: “I walked in and saw me.”
From being a hobby band, Letz Zep started getting inundated with offers to perform, and within a short time, all the band members had placed their main projects aside and Letz Zep became the mothership.
Kulke said that besides bearing an uncanny resemblance to Plant, he also shared a similar vocal style. Even so, there was some minor tweaking that needed to take place once the band decided to get serious about their Zeppelin fixation.
“I learned some vocal techniques to utilize in order to help me sound like him more,” said Kulke. “It was really difficult, because Plant has quite a voice and it’s not easy to duplicate.”
Likewise, getting the Plant swagger down pat came somewhat naturally to Kulke, but a little homework didn’t hurt.
“I had watched The Song Remains the Same [the Led-Zeppelin-in-concert film from 1973] many times, so I knew how they behaved on stage. But we do still watch films sometimes to fine tune things,” he said.
LETZ ZEP’S show encompassed the band’s greatest hits, from “Stairway to Heaven” to “Whole Lotta Love”, and amid the metallic roar, includes an acoustic portion to feature some of their more delicate ballads.
Among the revelations gleaned by Kulke and the rest of Letz Zep is that while listening to Led Zeppelin songs as a fan until they’re ingrained in your memory is one thing, but learning to play them is something else entirely.
“When you grow up with Zeppelin, you think you know everything about the music, but when you go to play it, you have to think in a different way,” said Kulke.
“They turn riffs backwards by a bar and turn them back again. Listen to the lead break in “Communication Breakdown” – there’s seven bars instead of eight – and when you go to play it, you go ‘hang on, how did they do that?’
“You really appreciate the music more when you listen to the arrangements and how they came up with them. And listen to Bonham – to this day, there are not many drummers who can do what he did.”
Clearly, even though he makes his living now from performing Led Zeppelin songs, Kulke still remains a fan. And he was with the thousands who were lucky enough to see the group live at London’s 02 Arena in 2007 for a concert in the aid of the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund. He wasn’t disappointed.
“I thought they were better than they were at Knebworth. At Knebworth, it was at the height of their pomp, and this time it seemed like they had something to prove, and they just went out and nailed it,” he said.
“No, Plant doesn’t have the voice he once had, but you know, they’re
his songs, and he can sing them any way he likes. He’s still
Even though Plant has adamantly refused to agree to take a revamped Led
Zeppelin on the road, Kulke is confident that if the band ever does get
back together for more than a one-time show, they will take their
legend further than it already has come.
“Zeppelin was always cutting edge, and I think if they toured again, it
wouldn’t be a retro show like we do, it would be Zeppelin 2010 – it
would be cutting edge. They wouldn’t rest on their laurels.”
Neither does Letz Zep, and they’ll prove it when they make their
Israeli debut on Friday and Saturday nights at the Barby club in Tel
Ticket information at www.barby.co.il.