Led Zeppelin rewrote the book on rock ‘n’ roll excess and extremes.
Constantly trumping one another with drink, drugs, sexual conquests and unspeakable acts of debauchery, they made even the likes of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards look like Cliff Richard.
By their side through their heyday, and arguably even more hard-living, was their hellraising tour manager Richard Cole, who has died of cancer aged 75.
As well as arranging the band’s security and transportation on the road, he was also tasked with ensuring the band’s needs were met off stage. This included ‘escorting girls to the rooms of the band and keeping Zeppelin nourished with drugs,’ he wrote in his explosive 1992 memoir.
Smashed hotel rooms, Samurai swords and rampant drug use were all part of life on the road with Zeppelin.
Possibly the most notorious incident – which earned Led Zep the top slot in the 100 Sleaziest Moments Of Rock in 2000 – involved Cole, the band’s drummer John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham and a hotel room orgy involving fish entrails that was so depraved, the other band members couldn’t even stand to watch.
Their behaviour is enough to shock in today’s #MeToo era, but Cole maintained no lines were crossed.
‘We were hot and on our way up and nobody was watching too closely,’ he later recalled. ‘All the Led Zeppelin depravity took place in an alcoholic fog. We found ourselves in a position to do almost anything we wanted and there seemed to be a tidal wave of free-spirited groupies who were always co-operative.’
Despite a falling out over Cole’s participation in tell-all memoirs about the band, ultimately he remained a friend. Robert Plant reportedly visited him in hospital towards the end of his life, while Jimmy Page paid tribute to a ‘brother and friend to the end’ in a moving Facebook post.
Rock ‘n’ roll king: Led Zeppelin’s hellraising tour manager Richard Cole has died of cancer, aged 75. Pictured, at his wedding to former bunny girl Marilyn Woolhead in London in 1974. As well as arranging the band’s security and transportation on the road, he was also tasked with ensuring the band’s needs were met off stage. This included ‘escorting girls to the rooms of the band and keeping Zeppelin nourished with drugs,’ he wrote in his explosive 1992 memoir
Friends to the end: Jimmy Page with Richard Cole at an event in 2018. Cole came under fire for sharing the band’s secrets, and some ‘tall tales’, but ultimately they reconciled and Page paid tribute to a ‘friend and brother’ in a Facebook post
Born in 1946 in north London, Cole, the son of a Rolls-Royce engineer, left school at 15 and held a string of blue-collar jobs before a chance meeting at a club in 1965 led to Cole becoming road manager for Unit 4+2.
The band reached No.1 in the UK singles chart and gave Cole access to the upper echelons of the music industry. He went on to work with the New Vaudeville Band and The Who.
Cole later recalled how, on his first trip with The Who, Keith Moon stopped at a hardware store for ‘weed killer and sugar’ to make smoke bombs.’ Their aggressive performing style gave Cole a taste of the chaos that was to come with Zeppelin.
‘[Pete] Townshend would be smashing his guitar into the amps and Daltrey would be swinging his mic around,’ Cole recalled in 2016 book Keith Moon: A Tribute. ‘There were no barriers in those days and the audience were very close to the band. People had to be careful not to get hit.
‘I saw some of the smashing up of the gear but it didn’t happen every night. One night in Bishops Stortford I remember he smashed the whole kit up; even the cymbals got broke.’
By the time Led Zeppelin embarked on their first US tour, in 1968, Cole was living in Los Angeles. Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, brought him on board, starting a working relationship that lasted more than a decade.
He showed his commitment to the band early on in the tour when he drove through a blizzard in Oregon, determined to get Zeppelin to their next gig in Los Angeles. The interstate was shut but Cole drove past the police roadblock and down an icy highway.
At one point the vehicle rolled dangerous close to a sheer precipice after the brakes failed when Cole stopped the car to relieve himself. ‘The band was so rattled, they could barely pass around the bottle of whiskey intended to calm their nerves,’ Bob Spitz writes in his new book Led Zeppelin: The Biography.
It was in these early days that the notorious ‘fish orgy’ took place. It is exceedingly sleazy, even by rock ‘n’ roll standards.
Some facts are disputed but everyone agrees it took place in 1969 at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle.
One version of the story claims it all started with Bonham and Cole fishing for sand sharks, which they hung in their hotel bedroom wardrobes. Cole later said the story involved red snapper, not shark. Other accounts say it was Bruce Wayne, road manager for the support act Vanilla Fudge, who went fishing with Bonham.
On the road: Born in London, Cole moved to Los Angeles where he was contacted by Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, ahead of the band’s first American tour in 1968-69. Pictured, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Richard Cole at Honolulu Airport in May 1969
Flying high: Robert Plant and Richard Cole recline on a fur-covered bed ahead of a concert in New York in 1973. Cole was eventually fired in 1980 after succumbing to a heroin addiction
And then, as tour photographer Robert Zagaris recalled, the orgy began: ‘Everyone was smoking joints and hash. A blonde groupie was stripped naked.’ The groupie was a 17-year-old girl named Jackie.
Details of what happened next are hazy but it is agreed the fish were involved, Jackie was naked and events got out of hand.
‘Things got pretty intense, so we went out into the hall, where Bonzo and his wife, Pat, joined us, and we watched the action through the door,’ Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice recalls in Spitz’s book.
‘We were invited to take a look but after a while we left because it was all a bit unsavoury,’ Robert Plant later said of the incident.
Although this event was particularly out of hand, unruly, dangerous and even criminal behaviour was not unusual.
On a record-breaking monthlong tour of America in 1978, Cole was asked to hire a motorbike and a 10ft python. The bike, it turned out, was for racing up and down the corridor of the group’s hotel in Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
Exploring the world: Robert Plant and Richard Cole on a surf board in Hawaii in May 1969
Wedding day: Unlike his famous antics, Cole kept his private life out of the spotlight. He is thought to have married at least twice – once to former bunny girl Marilyn, above – and is survived by a daughter. Pictured, Cole, Marilyn, Lionel Bart, Page, John Paul Jones and Plant
Like any self-respecting band, Led Zeppelin had their own plane. Only there’s wasn’t a small, private jet, but a repurposed Boeing 720B called the Starship which was fitted out with a queen-sized bed, shower and faux fur throw.
On a stop in Japan, Cole bought two Samurai swords which he and Bonham used to chop down the door of bassist Jones at the Tokyo Hotel. Once inside, they continued the rampage and reduced the furniture to splinters.
‘Chairs crashed against the walls. Couches soared out of shattered windows. A television set followed close behind, exploding on an air conditioning unit more than a dozen storeys below,’ Cole wrote in his memoir of one hotel stay.
In 1977, Grant, Cole, Bonham and a security man were arrested for assaulting a staff member at a show in San Francisco. All were fined and given suspended sentences.
One of the great mysteries surrounding Cole took place in July 1973. The band, who were wrapping up a US tour, had $200,000 in cash taken from a safety deposit box in the Drake Hotel.
According to Spitz, Cole was the prime suspect as he had the only key to the box. The authorities suspected it was an inside job: Cole was interrogated, fingerprinted and later told people that he’d taken and passed a lie detector test. The crime is still unsolved.
On stage, Led Zeppelin matched their excesses with sell-out tours and prodigious sales, becoming one of the most successful bands of all time.
A group portrait of the wedding parties and guests from two rock marriages, taken at a pub in Fulham, London, England. Richard Cole, road manager for the rock band Led Zeppelin wed Tracy Heron-Weeber and Simon Kirke, drummer for the band Bad Company, wed Desiree Serino: (back row) John Paul Jones, Paul Rodgers, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Blewis Le Feurn, Lionel Bart. (Front row) Richard and Tracy Cole, Desiree and Simon Kirke, Maggie Bell and Bon Harris
Here come the boys! Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, road manager Richard Cole and John Paul Jones arrive at Honolulu in 1969
But, like so many bands of the era, Cole and other members of the Led Zeppelin entourage eventually found themselves in the throes of a drug addiction. Their use reportedly started with marijuana and cocaine, before graduating to heroin.
‘Drugs were seen as something innocent,’ Cole later explained. ‘They were very easy to obtain. Fans used to give them to us. I don’t think we even thought about it.’
By 1980, Cole had developed a devastating heroin habit and was fired following the band’s final European tour.
Grant sent him to a rehabilitation centre in Italy. The day after he arrived, Cole was arrested on suspicion of plotting to blow up Bologna train station and spent long weeks in prison before police accepted he was innocent.
He was still in prison when he learned Bonham, then 32, had died after consuming around 40 shots of vodka in a 24-hour period.
According to Rolling Stone, Bonham had recently overcome a heroin problem and was taking an unspecified medication for anxiety and depression at the time of his death.
Cole stopped using hard drugs in the 1980s and reportedly gave up drinking in 1986. After leaving behind his hard-partying ways, Cole went on to work for acts including The Gipsy Kings, Black Sabbath and Eric Clapton before quitting the music industry in 2003.
Remembered: Jimmy Page paid tribute to his ‘brother and friend to the end’ in a statement
Although he was a trusted member of the Zeppelin family, Cole shared the band’s secrets to Stephen Davis for his controversial 1985 biography Hammer of the Gods, before following up with his own book, Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored, which was met with public criticism by the band, who claimed he had exaggerated their debauched antics.
‘These stories would filter out from girls who’d supposedly been in my room when in fact they’d been in his,’ Plant said in an interview in 1985. ‘He got paid a lot of money for talking c**p.’
Plant even alluded to Cole’s ‘tall tales’ in his Twitter tribute, writing: ‘Farewell Ricardo… Sadly no more tall tales… Brave to the end.’
Unlike his famous antics, Cole kept his private life out of the spotlight.
He is thought to have married at least twice – once to former bunny girl Marilyn Woolhead – and is survived by a daughter, Claire. Led Zeppelin fan accounts describe Cole as being a ‘solid family man’ who split his time between homes in London and California.
Cole was also able to overcome any rifts with Zeppelin. He was invited as a VIP guest to official Led Zeppelin film and book launches and to the 2007 reunion concert. Plant visited him in hospital in the final part of his life, The Times reported.
Remembering his friend in a statement, Page said: ‘Richard and I went back a long way and he had been recruited by Peter Grant to be tour manager with the Yardbirds Keith Relf, Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja, and myself during our American touring schedule of underground venues. He was with me at the time that band folded and when I formed Led Zeppelin.
‘From the time of the rehearsals at my home at Pangbourne through to the touring of the USA, we witnessed the phenomena that was Led Zeppelin. He was there for the first and last concerts of the band.
‘He was a brother and a friend to the end. Goodbye my dear friend. They were special times and so were you.’
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
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