Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored [Harper Entertainment] is the history of the incredible ride of one of the 60s and 70s top rock and roll bands. The autobiography of Richard Cole and the insider’s biography of Led Zeppelin, Uncensored is the key word of the title, as both Cole’s history and that of Led Zeppelin are filled with actions that exceed the pale. Sex, drugs, and alcohol are all abused to such an extent, that most would find the history incredible, if not impossible. Cole clearly has no ax to grind in this biography though, and since he portraits himself as the greatest abuser, he gains nothing from exaggeration.
Cole’s biography of Led Zeppelin tells of a modern rock and roll band surprisingly in charge of their own destiny. Financed by Jimmy Page and Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin wrote and produced their first album without a record contract. Given the star power of the former Yardbird, the band was quickly signed by Atlantic Records and on their way to their first US tour. Artistic control of Zeppelin was always held by Jimmy Page, but Robert Plant, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones soon became equal partners in the enterprise. This was equity in fact as well as in spirit. All revenues generated by the band were split five ways between Grant, Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones.
Musically, Led Zeppelin was always in top form. Spurning the short set lengths of its 60s and 70s rivals, Led Zeppelin regularly played without intermission for over two hours - and sometimes over three. In response to fan’s encouragement, some songs would last as long as 40 minutes. The rest of the band would take a breather during Bonham’s drum solos, and Bonham could relax during Jimmy and John Paul’s improvisations.
From the beginning, the band clicked. There was little need for practice. Whole records were cut in days or weeks – an incredible feat by any measure. Tours were played solo – with no opening band. Until the end, the band was tight, both personally and musically. What ultimately broke up Led Zeppelin was not personality conflict and infighting, the bane of most rock and roll bands, but rather the death of Bonham. The rest of the band could not imagine replacing Bonham, and Led Zeppelin died with him.
Cole’s personal story is a window into the world of the Rock and Roll. Although Cole himself wasn’t a star, within rock circles he achieved a level of notoriety. Being road manager for Led Zeppelin, the biggest band of its time, meant more than just arranging for alcohol, drugs, girls, and other entertainment for the band (and himself). It also meant arranging transportation, hotels, security, acceptability of the venues, and handling hundreds of thousands of dollars of the band’s money.
Led Zeppelin’s security was always Cole’s greatest concern. Whether the problem was crazed fans, a vengeful constabulary, bootleggers recording music during the concerts, or avoiding the repercussions of otherwise felonious acts, Cole handled it well. How he managed, even he sometimes didn’t know. He admittedly was so drunk and/or stoned so much of the time that, in retrospect, he was surprised that he could operate. The same could often be said for one or more members of band. Except for the music, members of Led Zeppelin seldom took anything seriously but the desire to have fun and try something new. With the variety of options available to them in normal course, “something new” constantly became more difficult to find and more incredible to experience.
As a book, Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored is a must read for the dedicated fan, the rock historian, or anyone who ever attended a Led Zeppelin concert. Cole did a solid job of documenting the mood of the band as well as the memorable parts of Led Zeppelin’s 12 year ride. This is the incredible history of an incredible band.