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Music

When Led Zeppelin's road manager was mistakenly arrested as a terrorist after the Bologna massacre

Not to be mistaken for Reverend Richard Coles of The Communards, Richard Cole was one of rock music’s biggest characters. The tour manager for British heavyweights Led Zeppelin, he and the band got up no end of hijinx that have gone down as legend. However, he made his name as an eminent tour manager long before Led Zeppelin came around.

Born in Kensal Rise, north-west London, in 1946, Cole was galvanised by music after hearing the groundbreaking rock and roll of Elvis Presley and the iconic jazz dynamics of drummer Gene Krupa. Quite the character, alongside his taste for music, ran his interest in the fashion industry, and whilst working various low-paid jobs, he harboured plans to be a fashion designer. 

Giving you an essence of the man, he once claimed to have designed the shorts worn by Beatles members John Lennon and Ringo Starr on the cover of Revolver and asserted that he helped create the album’s graphics. 

Cole finally found his way into the music business when he met Richard Green, a journalist for the Record Mirror at London’s Marquee Club in 1965. Green suggested that Cole get in touch with John Barker, the manager of the pop band Unit 4 + 2, for a job as their road manager. Luckily, Barker gave Cole the job, and he quickly became known as one of the best around.

Later that year, he worked with The Who, and The New Vaudeville Band in 1966. In 1967, enjoying immense success, Cole emigrated to the US to work for hard rock heroes Vanilla Fudge as their sound engineer. Sometime after, he heard the news that London’s premier guitar band, The Yardbirds, were coming to the US in 1968. He promptly contacted their manager Peter Grant, whom he knew from his time with The New Vaudeville Band, as Grant was their manager. 

Cole became the tour manager for The Yardbirds, but later that year, they dissolved. Not messing around, under Jimmy Page’s direction, they became The New Yardbirds, the earliest formation of Led Zeppelin. Grant became the manager of Zeppelin, and Cole their tour manager, and the two would manage them through their rise to the top over the rest of the decade and the early 1970s. 

Cole and Grant would oversee one of the most successful outfits of all time and would be there for all the soaring highs and the crushing lows. The band partied hard, and by the end of the ’70s, this unrelenting lifestyle was starting to take its toll on all involved, including Cole. Whilst their tour manager, he too developed substance abuse problems, mainly with heroin. 

As the band was petering out in 1980, Cole was fired as road manager before their final tour in Europe. Grant was concerned about his substance abuse, so Cole was replaced by Phil Carlo, in an effort to persuade him to clean up. He was sent to Italy to detox, but things did not go to plan. 

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In 1980, Italy was gripped by political turmoil, with fascist and communist militant groups grappling for political dominance. The years between 1968 and 1988 became known as the ‘Years of Lead’, due to the wave of far-right and far-left violent incidents that took place. 

The worst flashpoint of this dark period came in 1980 in Bologna. In the morning of August 2nd, 1980, a bomb was detonated at the city’s Centrale railway station, which killed 85 people and wounded over 200. The worst political violence Italy had seen since the Second World War, the authorities were under tremendous pressure to catch the culprits. Eventually, members of the far-right organisation ‘Armed Revolutionary Nuclei’ were sentenced for the crime, although much doubt remains over who was actually behind it.

Regardless, it was a long road for the authorities to close the case, and many false leads were followed. Many people were also mistakenly investigated in connection with the bombing, one of whom was Richard Cole. 

Cole was temporarily imprisoned, and this had a significant effect on the rest of his life. In his 1992 memoir, Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored, Cole revealed all. Whilst imprisoned, Cole was subjected to a forced detox from heroin. Sleepless nights, constant sweat, diarrhoea and pain ensued, and understandably, his time in the custody of the Italian state was something he would not look back on fondly. 

When released, Cole found his world completely different to the one he had left. Granted, he was no longer addicted to heroin, but all of his money had been spent on drugs prior to being jailed, meaning that he was broke. He had no steady income from Led Zeppelin anymore, so he was forced to take up work as a scaffolder, something he claimed he hadn’t done since the pre-Zeppelin days. 

He would eventually find work as a tour manager again for icons such as Eric Clapton and Black Sabbath, but this time in Italy wasn’t what he had hoped. Interestingly, Cole’s memoir was questioned by Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones after its release, who criticised its accuracy when portraying the group. However, I don’t think anyone can doubt the duress he suffered in Italy.

One of the strangest moments in rock and roll; this is just one moment in Richard Cole’s colourful life.

Watch Cole promote his divisive book below.