Gary James' Interview With Led Zeppelin's road manager
Their music is synonymous with the '70s. In fact, their music may well have defined the whole of the '70s. We are speaking of course about Led Zeppelin.
For twelve years, Richard Cole traveled with Zeppelin as their road manager. Now, in a tell all book titled "Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin Uncensored", Richard reveals what it was like to tour with one of rock's greatest groups...Led Zeppelin.
Q - I guess if you were gonna write a book about Led Zeppelin, you would almost have to call it Stairway To Heaven, because that's the song most people associate with the group, or did you have another title in mind?
A - One time we were gonna call it "Good Times, Bad Times".
Q - Which is a pretty good title.
A - Yeah. The original idea was to write a book from the 60s through the 90s, but then we sent all the sample chapters to Harper / Collins, they said there's so much material here, we just want to deal with the twelve years of Zeppelin. So really the whole thing was about 1,400 pages at least. We only used about 400 of them.
Q - Does that mean you'll be writing a sequel?
A - Yeah, but that will be different. That will be Zeppelin plus a lot of other bands. It spans the whole three or four decades of the rock 'n roll business.
Q - You are the first Led Zeppelin insider to write a tell all book. Why haven't we seen Robert Plant or Jimmy Page, or even Peter Grant (Zeppelin's personal manager) recount their Zeppelin days?
A - I have no idea. Robert said to me a couple of years ago, we should sit down with a tape recorder one day with all these stories. But, I suppose they've been busy doing other things. They just haven't bothered to get around to it.
Q - What was the reaction of the guys in Zeppelin to Stephen Davis' book Hammer of the Gods, do you know?
A - Yeah. They didn't like it because a lot of it they found, was inaccurate and a lot of it was really a put down on them. With this book, I had a great time with those guys. I tried to write a book that enhanced their career and you know, show all the funny and positive sides, not all the negative things.
Q - So they must really like your book.
A - Well, who knows? I hope they do. If I wanted to write a malicious book, I certainly have the material to do anything I want to do. But, I don't believe in that sort of thing.
Q - Have you received any reaction from anybody in the group about this book? Do you still keep in touch with them?
A - No. We rarely speak. I'd seen Robert in London, just after Christmas and he said to me he was looking forward to reading the book, because he can't remember anything. When I spoke to Jimmy a couple of years ago, I did speak to him last year, but I was with him a couple of years ago at a show we were both doing and I was telling him about the book and he looked a bit horrified and I said, "No, it's got all the funny bits in it." And he said, "It's about time somebody wrote about the humor we had." And then of course he (Jimmy Page) has always been plagued with this black magic business and hopefully I put that to rest. I think if I know nothing about it, I mean, who else is gonna really know about it? I never saw him practice anything.
Q - You write, "As close as I was to them, I sometimes felt there was something within Jimmy that he never let anyone see, particularly when it came to Pagey's pre-occupation with Crowley." Is there no one who truly understands why Page is so fascinated with Crowley?*
A - I've never met anyone. I'm sure he's got a circle of friends, maybe the black magic circle, I don't know. I'm sure there are other Crowley devotees or fans or whatever you might want to call them, that he knows. You don't run across that many people that have a great interest in Crowley every day. I used to go with him (Jimmy) to buy the books, because I used to drive him around. I've looked through them and I suppose they're quite interesting, but I've never particularly bothered to read anymore. He was just interested in it. To what extent his interest went, I'm afraid I really don't know.
Q - How did you remember conversations you had with people? Did you keep journals or a diary?
A - No. I've got a very good memory. But, the other thing is, when you're a tour manager, you're doing so many things in a day, so therefore, you get used to using your memory. You can't carry 'round a piece of paper, what you're doing all the time, 'cause there's so many people firing different questions at you. You gotta come up with answers. So, I suppose the memory gets trained.
Q - There's a radio station here in Syracuse that every night will play what they call "Two In A Row" or "Three In A Row" of Zeppelin songs. The material still sounds great. I'm just wondering if you realized at the time, as you stood on the sidelines, that these songs would stand the test of time.
A - I knew the stuff was good, but it's like you can't look into the future. I mean, I suppose if you went down the road three or four years, the first album still stood up. So, you knew the stuff was gonna stand up. I certainly didn't realize it was gonna stand up twenty-five years later or something, because you just don't know. There's been some great songs, but there's something about them. They pretty much play all ten albums all the time, which is quite incredible, 'cause most people really have one big song. I think as they were going on, the later years, we knew that there was some good, classic stuff there.
Q - And the songs sound like they could have recorded yesterday.
A - That's the difference between that, and most things. It's very solid the way it was recorded. It doesn't matter what anyone's got today, they could never make anything better than that.
Q - Zeppelin never released as many singles (45s) as other groups of that era did.
A - That was their selling strategy.
Q - That was Peter Grant's idea?
A - Yeah. Don't forget, everybody was playing those songs on FM radio. They'd be playing the whole album, so he didn't see any point in taking a single off. He said if people want to buy the single, let them buy the whole album, which is exactly what they did.
Q - That position must've met with some record company resistance.
A - Initially it did, but when they'd seen what he was doing, especially with "Stairway To Heaven", you know, that record sold millions of albums.
Q - I read somewhere that Zeppelin still sells 12,000 albums a week.
A - That sounds good. I think last year or two years ago they were still the second biggest thing on Atlantic (Records), even after all those years.
Q - It was always a big thing to see an interview with the group in a magazine. Did Led Zeppelin like the press?
A - The press didn't like them in the beginning. That was the problem. They were always getting persecuted or nailed for something to do with their music, which was totally unfair considering, looking back twenty-five years later. Their stuff is still the most played stuff on the radio, so they had every right to be upset. But then, they didn't bother with any press for years. Then, they decided to do the press and so they brought in Danny Goldberg. I think he was an excellent liaison with the press, so he picked the press that were going to be beneficial.
Q - Prior to Beatlemania and the British Invasion, we didn't hear too much about road managers. The position of a road manager was a new one, wasn't it?
A - I was one of the first ones that specialized in the American tours of the English bands. Normally what English bands did, they left their guys at home and picked up an American crew. So, I got that changed. I even brought over all the equipment with me, starting with The New Vaudeville Band, because it was much easier to bring you own stuff and know what you're getting every night, than to take a chance on things being wrong. Some of the smaller cities just didn't have the right equipment we needed. And after that, nearly all the bands decided to bring their own crews with them.
Q - I've seen advertisements for schools that will train you to become a road manager. Can you learn what you did in a school?
A - You wouldn't learn what I did in a road manager school because the things that I did, had never been done before. No one used semis and big planes and all those things like we did because we were the first ones to use most of those things. So, I had to come up with the ideas and make them work.
Q - At the height of Zeppelin's popularity, would you ever have been able to see one of the guys in a grocery store, pushing a cart?
A - Oh yeah. You have to remember with them, as enormous as they were, a lot of people didn't know them by sight that well because they were never on television. It's not like someone who is highly publicized like a Michael Jackson, who's been on numerous television screens. These guys never did anything like that. They all lived in small villages pretty much, 'cause they were country houses and those sort of people leave you alone. They don't bother you.
Q - Back in 1975, when tickets went on sale for Zeppelin's Boston shows, riots broke out. Did anyone in the group ever say what's going on here anyway? Are those people crazy?
A - Well, they wondered what was going on. I don't know whether they would really use the word crazy. I think they were surprised it went to those lengths because they were very anti-violence in shows and things. Robert never told people to get on the stage. If anything, he spent a lot of time telling them to sit down and be quiet and enjoy the music. So, that sort of thing was surprising to them.
Q - John Bonham comes off as quite the philosopher in your book. He says "The longer you tour and the more successful and the bigger you get, the more touring just becomes a chore. It's work. We make a lot of money, but we don't have a life. With bodyguards, we're imprisoned by our own success. Sometimes I think it's a nightmare." Richard, why did it have to be that way for Led Zeppelin?
A - It's something you can't believe until you're in the situation.
Q - In the beginning, everyone was so co-operative in the group. As time went on and Zeppelin became more and more successful, they started to give you a hard time. Was there no one who could say no to those guys? They were, at times, out of control.
A - (laughs) We were all out of control, including myself. Who's going to tell you? It's like taking drugs and things. First of all, they were too powerful for anyone to say anything to. They were making money for everyone across the board, whether it be promoters, record companies, travel agencies. They certainly weren't doing any harm to anybody. They were making a lot more people comfortable, financially, than anything else. There was also no one to really point the finger at and say, well, look what happened to so and so. Look what happened to them because of this. Nowadays, it's very dangerous and people are aware of it, what happens if you take too many drugs and drink too much. The business has changed that much, that people just don't basically put up with it.
Q - Bonham also says "It's hard to figure, either we're running so fast we're ready to collapse, or we have so little to do that we're going crazy." Why couldn't the schedule be more even, more balanced?
A - It's hard to do an even schedule. See, first of all they were kids, so they didn't want to be away that much. So, they'd do three weeks touring when they got in a position where they could demand what they wanted to do. They'd do a three week tour and a couple of weeks off. Also, you can't over-expose yourself. So, it really gets very difficult.
Q - John Bonham died in September, 1980. How enthusiastic was Led Zeppelin about going back out on the road at the time?
A - Well, I wasn't with them. I was recuperating. Obviously, they must have been enthusiastic if they were rehearsing. I'm sure they must've been very enthusiastic because they were gonna do all the stadium shows. That would've been the first time that they actually had done a complete tour just dedicated to stadiums. That would've been another first. You're talking about stadium shows twelve years ago, which was unheard of.
Q - So, the band was not on a course of self-destruction?
A - No. Far from it.
Q - Had Bonham not died, Zeppelin would've gone on for a long time, wouldn't they? Maybe they would've still been around today?
A - Yeah. There's no reason why they couldn't, especially with people like The Stones continuously touring...and The Who. There would be no reason for them to give it up unless the decided to. Most people don't really call it a day, although there have been some bands. They got on very well together, so it wasn't as though there was any discussion between any of them goin' on all the time. So, there would be no reason for them to pack it up.
Q - But, you knew when John Bonham died, Zeppelin was over, didn't you? Or did you think they would carry on without him?
A - I knew it was over when he died because he was irreplaceable. I never figured for one minute that they would try and bring in another drummer. Robert and him had kind of grown up together. John Paul Jones (Zeppelin's bassist) told me years before, 'cause I was asking him if he ever thought of making a solo album, and he looked at me as though I was mad. He said "What for? I play with three of the best musicians in the world. Where am I going to find anyone comparable?" To try and recapture that same thing every night was, I think, just too difficult.
Q - People didn't understand that to replace one of the members in the group, was to change the whole group. You remember the rumors going around that Zeppelin was going to take on another drummer. Every guy in the group was a brilliant musician.
A - Right. They were brilliant musicians, but there's also a chemistry that makes groups great. It's knowing how each other thinks and being able to compliment the others without being asked to do something. You know, there's so many things that go into it, besides just being a great musicians. Bonham had the personality. He had all the parts that were the core of Led Zeppelin.