Led Zeppelin's Road Manager Is Still a Badass
Richard Cole's career is a time line of rock history.
Richard Cole (left) with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Photo courtesy of Cole
I'm standing outside a Tesco gas station in London's posh Notting Hill, waiting to meet Led Zeppelin and the Who’s legendary road manager, Richard Cole. He shows up right at 6pm with the sharp punctuality only a road manager could have. We go to a local DIY shop, and with a buoyant intensity that never breaks, he declares to the clerk, "It appears my scissors have run out of power." He slams the tape-wrapped scissors on the counter. Even though Cole doesn’t have the receipt and can only vaguely remember that he bought them in November, the clerk doesn’t hesitate to give him a new pair.
It all happens so fast that at first I thought he was actually stealing them. He shouts for me to hurry up as his crimson suede loafers peel back out onto the road. Cole never stops moving.
Cole grew up in postwar London and – like many other children of his time – became enamoured with the rock 'n' roll music that had slowly seeped over the Atlantic in the late 50s.
In 1961, at age 15, he left school to begin working as a scaffolder in North London and immersing himself in the local mod scene. "We were the first and the best. We were the true mods, my mates and I," Cole says at dinner, once I finally get him to sit still.
In late 1963, on the cusp of the British Invasion, Cole became fascinated with the local music scene at the famed Marquee nightclub and the nearby nightlife at a bar called the Ship. It’s there that he had what was perhaps his first important revelation: "There was no pussy in the scaffolding business."
One night, while watching local group Herbie Goings and the Night-Timers break down their gear after a gig, he asked if they were looking for a manager.
"I badgered them to death,” Cole tells me, "and lied through my teeth about my knowledge of the business. Most importantly, I had my license – driving the band and gear was the most important task of the day." Cole got the job, and his teeth remained sunk in the jugular of rock 'n' roll for the next 40 years.
Having proven himself with the Night-Timers and on the search for the next gig, he was offered the position of road manager for two bands: Mersey Beat and the Who. In perhaps Cole’s best lapse in punctuality of all time, he asked for the Mersey Beat gig a few days late – the job had already been taken. So he accepted the gig with the Who. It was 1965, and Cole wasn’t even 20.
Cole in October, 1965, driving the Who around London
Cole fondly recalls his early days with the Who as they'd storm up and down the UK, playing five shows a week. "They were like nothing else on this earth. There still isn't anything like them, and there never will be. The music, the style, the presence – they had it all. All lovely boys, but being with Keith and John was a laugh a minute," he recalls with distant eyes and a wild smile. This was the golden age before the hard drugs became prevalent. "It was all Purple Hearts [Dexamyl] and alcohol then."
Cole remained with the band for a year, noting their 1966 performance at the NME Pop Festival with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds was a landmark gig to witness. In fact, Cole only lost the job when he lost his license for speeding to one of the Who’s many gigs.
Inspired by a trip to America with the New Vaudeville Band in 1967, Cole moved to New York City and was managing Vanilla Fudge by 1968 – a year he declares to be maybe the best time of his life. It was in America where he met some of his favorite people of all time – the wild groupies of NYC.
"They were these crazy chicks – crazy in the best way possible,” Cole tells me. “Fantastic girls! They would take care of the boys in every way imaginable. Most importantly, they would take them around the city to the top clubs, and do their laundry – most of the boring work I'd have to do, so they'd save me time and I would get to hang out."
Shortly after managing the Jeff Beck Group, Cole began managing Beck's old band, the Yardbirds, for their last tour – now featuring a little known session player named Jimmy Page. Not long after the Yardbirds’ final show on a flatbed truck in 1968, Cole once again found himself in the right place at the right time – Page's new band, Led Zeppelin, was forming and was in need of a road manager.
Although he had only officially been in the music business for fewer than five years, it didn’t take long for Cole to realise that he was witnessing one of the greatest rock bands in the history of the world take shape. "About four shows into that first tour of 1968–1969, I realized Led Zeppelin was an exceptional band – simply brilliant musicians."
Cranking out one classic record after the next, the only thing that grew faster than the riotous crowds was the hedonistic excess that would come to define both the band and Cole. It has been said that much of the mayhem and madness surrounding the band in those days could be directly attributed to Cole – a claim he nonchalantly dismisses as he slices into a meatball with his fork. "I like to say that I never got into trouble. Rather, I would find myself in trouble. It was all so spontaneous then. Most importantly, it was all so much fun."
Led Zeppelin were bona fide rock gods by 1973, when they began one of the most successful (and controversial) tours of their career – a tour that later went on to partly inspire Cameron Crowe's movie Almost Famous.
After Zeppelin's performance at New York's Madison Square Garden, the night's box office receipts – totaling roughly $203,000 (£120,000) – famously went missing from their hotel’s safe deposit box. Cole was the last man to hold the money and the only one in the entourage with the key.
Suspicion was quickly cast over Cole, though the band and their management stood firmly behind him. But Led Zeppelin's word was no good to the FBI, who swiftly arrived at the hotel, pounding on his door to question him. "I greeted them with a bottle of Dom Pérignon and offered them a glass, but of course they declined," Cole recalls with a chuckle. "They had me take a lie-detector test, which of course I passed. And that was that. Actually, they were really nice guys, given the circumstances. We ended up suing the hotel and got a lot more money back. Funny how that works."
Growing tired of hotels on tour, Cole decided it would be a great idea to rent a "dude ranch" for Zeppelin’s week off – but they would never get to stay that long. The ranch owner, he recalls, was looking at them with disgust the moment they arrived. "He had his old lady on the porch next to him and a fucking Bible in his lap, so I knew we weren't going to get on that well."
After a few days of nonstop partying and an endless stream of women, an argument finally boiled over between Led Zeppelin and the ranch owner. It reached a near-deadly climax when the rancher pulled a shotgun and trained it on Cole. "We were done with the dude ranch."
The band and their roadies piled into their cars to make their escape. Running out of precious time and not wanting to stick around to be fitted for handcuffs or a toe tag, Cole floored his car straight through the rickety ranch gates, and the band successfully escaped down a dirt road straight for the airport as the sheriff sped to the scene.
As Zeppelin continued to rage on throughout the 70s, so did their festering drug and alcohol habits – and Cole found himself in the iron grip of opiates. One of his first wake-up calls, he tells me, came on the 6th of September 1978.
That night, the Who's Keith Moon was invited as a guest of Paul and Linda McCartney's to a preview of the film The Buddy Holly Story. Cole also attended ,and later they went out for dinner. Cole stresses that, at this point, Moon was trying to dry up and had been sober the entire evening. "It was actually quite a normal night, a real nice evening. Keith seemed fine – no drink or anything. In fact, it was I who left early to get my gear and fix.”
The next morning, Cole received news that Keith Moon had taken an accidental overdose of pills and died in the same flat Mama Cass had passed away in, four years prior. "Shock isn't even the right word,” he tells me. “There are no words still. My poor, sweet friend was gone forever."
The writing was on the wall for Cole, but it just wasn't legible enough for him to read. During what turned out to be Zeppelin's final European tour, in 1980, Cole was officially fired from the longest-running job he had ever held. In his first attempt to turn his life around, he headed to Italy for detox, but it didn’t exactly go as planned. The Red Brigades, an Italian left-wing terror group, bombed a railway station, and Cole was unbelievably mistaken as a member of the group and arrested.
"I'd been in Italy for only a little bit, but I had already gotten quite a nice tan and had a big beard – I fit the description." He spent the next six months in an Italian jail, though – as any working-class Londoner would do – he made the best of it. "The food was actually wonderful. I could even get roast lamb and baked potatoes by special order, because I had money."
While in jail, Cole received news that his longtime friend John Bonham had drunk himself to death. "It was all the more painful because I was stuck in jail… There was nothing I could do. I just had to sit there and take it the best I could. It was odd, because I remember thinking if it was going to be any of them dying, it would have been Page. He was quite thin and sickly-looking at that point, and he was also battling nasty demons himself." To further fuel his misery behind bars, Cole learned that his home had flooded, resulting in the loss of many valuables – including his entire record collection, which he estimates to have been roughly 2,500 records. "I don't even own any records now, nor anything to play them on. What's the fucking point?"
After his release, Cole returned to England, where he continued his nasty drug and alcohol problem. Down and out and in need of money, he amazingly returned to scaffolding – 20 years after he had left that world for rock 'n' roll. But the straight job didn’t turn him straight. “I was still drinking and doping at that point. You could say I was high up on the beams and only getting higher."
I remark on what an ironic arc that is for a life, but Cole dismisses the idea. "I suppose it would have been, if I had died up there – but I wasn't dead yet. I certainly wasn't done with life."
In late 1985, Cole took his final drink in a pub. "I was not even halfway done with a pint when I heard this voice say, ‘All right, Richard, that's enough, isn't it?’” He placed the glass on the table and hasn’t had a drink since.
The present-day Richard Cole. Photo by the author
The rock ‘n’ roll life came knocking again in 1986, when Black Sabbath found themselves in need of a manager. "They asked me if I was looking for a gig and if I could still throw a mean left hook. I said yes to both and was off again." He notes that Tony Iommi was the only original member of Black Sabbath at this point, and they were not doing as well as they had been. "What a fucking band they are. Just fucking monstrous. Geezer, Tony, and Bill were just an absolute powerhouse, but I really have to give credit to Ozzy for their success. He was an absolute natural. Sabbath wasn't making much money at that point. Ozzy was making a ton of money, but when you put them all together they make a fucking fortune!" Tours with Ozzy Osbourne, Eric Clapton, and Lita Ford carried him into the 1990s, where he settled down to live in Los Angeles.
Possibly to make amends with the ghosts of his past, Cole also became a licensed drug and alcohol counselor. Cole still sporadically returns to tour managing, working for acts like Fu Manchu, the Gypsy Kings, and even Crazytown. He’s almost surprised when I tell him I think that Crazytown is easily the worst band in the history of music. "Work is work," he shrugs.
The mention of John Entwistle, the Who’s bassist and Cole’s childhood friend, sends a pained look on Cole’s face before I can ask if he was surprised to hear of Entwistle’s cocaine-induced heart attack in 2002. "You're always surprised," he tells me. His eyes water briefly and he looks up to the ceiling. "He was a lovely guy, the Old Ox. I knew him since I was 18. We all lived at our mum's in those days. We'd go and pick each other up and have a riotous good time. You don't just make friends like that. I miss them all terribly."
Nearing 70 and with three stents in his chest and 50 years of memories – some of which will be captured in the book he's writing about his mod years – Cole doesn't have much room to care about current music. "These bands today, they’re all people who have gone to university – posh boys who only seem to be into it for the money and not the fun. Back then, we were in it for the fun. There was no fucking money! For fuck's sake, Bonzo was a bricklayer when Zeppelin started! He was even apprehensive about leaving that job to go out with Zeppelin. What does that tell you abut the musicians of today? Those boys knew fuck-all about the business. They just worked their asses off until they had a hit record."
Though living a relatively quiet life, he still does manage to see his old friends – he had been out with Robert Plant the week before, and last spoke to Jimmy Page a few months ago as he put the finishing touches on the Led Zeppelin re-issues. He even excitedly tells me he is off to hang out with Steven Tyler the following day. We exchange stories about seeing the Rolling Stones on this most recent tour as well. The restaurant at this point has come to a full hum with evening diners filing in to the point that we are almost shouting in each other’s faces. He has another appointment, and we prepare to say our goodbyes. Cole asks me if there is anything more that I would like to know. I don’t want this conversation to end – with his gray, slicked back hair, neatly trimmed beard, and khaki shorts, he reminds me of my own father. I lie and tell him I think that’s enough.
With that same affable energy and wide smile on his face, he shakes my hand. "All right, John, lovely to meet. Please keep in touch." He is ten feet away by the time he finishes the sentence – those crimson suede loafers are already peeling up the road.