I'm two minutes late for my 3:00 p.m. phone call with Unity MacLean, the former publicist, A&R, and office manager for Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records. It might as well have been a lifetime. I know she’s got stories to tell.
The youngest child of English cricketer Walter Robins, MacLean was born in Windsor, Berkshire, U.K. in 1948 and raised in Hampshire, in the South of the country. At 14, her family moved to London's hip St John's Wood, where she became entranced by the blossoming mid-’60s counter-culture. It was there that MacLean began hanging at her friend Kenny Evan's flat—in 1966, his roommates were Bernie Rhodes, a designer who would go on to discover Johnny Rotten for the Sex Pistols before managing the Clash, and Richard Cole, the late road manager for Led Zeppelin, with whom MacLean formed an instant friendship.
"I think [Cole and I] got along so well because we didn't bore each other with all the, ‘Oh, can you hear that bass come in through the speakers? Oh boy! The drums are just beating into your soul,’ [nonsense.] We never talked about that sort of crap." she says. "It was more 'What's your favorite whiskey, Richard? Let's get some beers in. What whiskey are we getting, let's have a few shots!’"
What whiskey are we getting, let’s have a few shots!
When they met, Cole was at the tail end of his run road managing the Who, losing his position after he lost his license for speeding. (Rhodes drove him home from court after his license was yanked.) Despite being legitimately famous, Keith “Moony” Moon and John “The Ox” Entwistle were still living with their parents at the time—which meant they were also fixtures at Cole's flat.
One night, while sitting around the living room, Moon burst in with a shoe box "absolutely filled to the top with assorted, colorful pills," as MacLean remembers. Moon began tossing them around, bellowing like a concession boy hawking peanuts and cracker jacks in the baseball stands. "‘Here you are, here you are! Take your pills, take your pills! I'm the doctor, now take your pills!’”
MacLean would end up having a warm friendship with Moon. In fact, the drummer was also a guest at her wedding to Bruce MacLean in 1972. "We didn't have any champagne so Moony said ‘Ok, where's the local off-license?’ He walked up the road and came back with bottles. I mean, loads of champagne. He really turned the wedding into a bit of an event, it was great of him."
And on the topic of the Who, Unity has chilly memories of Roger Daltrey. “Roger was rather into himself, you see,” she says. “Moony would turn up, I think he was in overalls or something crazy like that. Daltrey would turn up and most of the time he'd wear this dark, velvet jacket that fit very tightly. He would always look in the mirror, fixing his hair and making sure he looked okay, and he didn't have a laugh. Not like Moony did, and not like Richard Cole did, and boy, did we have a laugh every night back then."
"I know he didn't get on well with Pete Townshend," Unity tells CREEM, "But then Pete Townshend got very strange at one point with his guru thing and, you know, he'd start spouting all this, ‘Oh, you've got to live with yourself as one,’ [new age nonsense] and everyone's like, ‘Oh god, here we go.’ You know, ‘Go get him a pulpit he's about to sermonize.’”
MacLean says she got involved in the music business as she tells it "purely by accident."
"I was looking for something to do at the time," she says. Her husband’s good friend, Dave Margeson at CBS Records, later known for managing Supertramp, asked MacLean if she was interested in temporarily filling in for his secretary while she was on vacation. "He asked me if I could man the phones, collect and sort the mail, and I said, ‘Sure, I'm not doing anything.’ And he says, ‘Don't worry I'm paying you!’” MacLean laughs.
After 10 days, the job belonged to MacLean. Fun fact: Margereson's boss at CBS was Mike Smith, the guy who did not sign the Beatles to Decca Records in 1962. From MacLean’s account, he didn't seem he didn’t learn from his mistakes, mistreating a then-unknown Bob Marley. “‘Oh, you're here again, are you?,’” MacLean says Smith would snarl at Marley, sitting outside of his office, "‘If I can find the time to see you I will but not now!’”
"Everyone was so snooty and nasty to him," she says of CBS’s treatment of Bob Marley. She offered him tea and conversation. They remained friends until his death in 1981.
MacLean eventually moved from CBS A&R into marketing, where she grew disillusioned by their new hires. "They started hiring kids who went to college for marketing, people who sold baked beans or Campbell soup, which wasn't my style. I knew my time at CBS was over and it was time to look around,” she said.
In 1974, MacLean heard that Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant was looking for dependable people to help run their music label, Swan Song, after a rocky launch. She was hired on the spot with no inquisitions or tests, excited to be surrounded by "genuine music people and not baked bean sellers."
There, her respect for Page as a brilliant musician turned to distrust in him as a person. "He wasn't a crusher, though he could at times use words to crush you. What I particularly didn't like was that he was always going, ’Oh, yes, yes, okay, fine, that's what we're going to do,’ and then he'd go to Peter and scream, ‘Guess what they told me they want to do!’”
He also instructed her and the staff to lie to his wife about his whereabouts, which MacLean found to be unfair and emotionally draining, as staff were sometimes spending more time lying on his behalf than attending to their actual duties.
Robert Plant, on the other hand, was lovely, and John Bonham was “sweet as anything.”
By the late '70s, MacLean and Grant’s relationship grew frosty. She’d plan an event for Led Zeppelin; he’d only want the band to appear with a-listers. “He'd have his table way in the back and it would be one or two members of Zeppelin, usually Jimmy, as well as, say, Paul and Linda McCartney,” she said. At the Knebworth Festival in 1979, for example, organizers threw a massive party for the band, only to have a dozen people, MacLean included, attend. The organizers were nonplussed. "‘Oh boy, you should have been here when the Rolling Stones were here, boy, we threw a big party! I mean, I thought it was going to be the same. I thought Led Zeppelin had a reputation in the hotels and all that!’” MacLean quotes them.
For what it was worth, she joined Bonham at an empty table covered in "tons of food and tons of booze." “‘Ah, who cares, come on, let's have another drink!’” he said about the lack of party-goers. He was always straight with her. Like when he confessed to her that he wanted to leave Swan Song in 1979.
“Listen, I'm a drummer, and I love my bulls, I love my cows, I love being a farmer, but I didn't sign on with this lot to be a record company,” she remembers him admitting. “I know nothing, nor do I care about selling records, so I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to back out of this." At the same time, Cole, then the road manager for Led Zeppelin, was suffering from a nasty heroin addiction, and was dismissed from the organization. "Led Zeppelin really in a lot of ways wouldn't have been Led Zeppelin without Richard [Cole] holding everything together,” MacLean says, likening Cole’s downfall with the eventual dissolution of the band. “He was absolutely brilliant in his logistics and determination.”
I know nothing, nor do I care about selling records, so I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to back out of this
In 1980, Bonham died suddenly of pulmonary aspiration. MacLean found out from a reporter. “The Daily Express rang and asked for a comment and I must have turned white as a sheet. I nearly passed out,” she says. “I couldn't believe it and I also thought to myself, ‘Peter could have told us.’ It was so cold."
MacLean sent Cole a letter, informing him of Bonham’s passing, which enraged Grant. She says he had one of his employees, who were "pretty nasty, pretty dangerous people," threaten her for contacting Cole. "Don't fuckin’ threaten me,” she told them. “I'm not scared of you, you can't do fuck all to me! I don't care what Peter has to say, I'll do exactly what I want and if it comes to it, I'll resign." MacLean never heard a word from Grant again. She quietly left Swan Song in 1980.
In the years that followed, MacLean moved to Massachusetts with her husband and son, Luke MacLean. She opened an English artisan food shop in Plymouth, Mass., called British Imports, a charming store stocked with Cadbury Flake bars, Dandelion & Burdock soda, white pudding, and steak and kidney pies. Forty years later, now a grandmother, she still runs her shop–and thinks about her old friends.
"Last Christmas was the first year I didn't receive a Christmas card from [Richard Cole] and it was really so upsetting," she says. "What a character Richard was! The fact that he didn't play music didn't matter. He liked people who liked music, but he specifically liked people who wanted to have a good time and live life to the fullest." The same, of course, could and should be said about MacLean.