Former The Dark Ages singer Clive Coulson, from South Auckland, had become a well-respected road manager and soundman in London in the mid-1960s. After a US tour with Jeff Beck fell apart, a once in a lifetime opportunity opened up.
Coulson remained under contract to influential music publisher and band manager Peter Grant, who after the demise of The Yardbirds helped to form Led Zeppelin and sign them to a five-year contract with Atlantic Records.
The band was tight after their first tour of the USA. After completing their self-titled debut album, they were working on a second album and another US tour when Coulson arrived back in London in early 1969.
An opening had come up to replace roadie Kenny Pickett, who wrote the song ‘Grandad’ for Clive Dunn. Pickett was making so much money he no longer wanted to stay on with Led Zeppelin.
He was now Jimmy Page’s main man, making sure his bows were okay and his guitars were in tune and keeping an ear on the sound.
While getting used to working with the band, Coulson found himself doing a bit of everything. “It was a very closed shop. They never had excess people on the road so I ended up having to mix the sound from the side of the stage at times as well as looking after Jimmy and a bunch of other stuff.”
Coulson laid it on the line. “I can’t do all this, we need someone for Jonesy and someone for Bonzo and someone for the backline, so they splashed out a bit.”
Before the first Jeff Beck tour Coulson admits he’d never set up band equipment before but learned as he went. “I had this system where I put coloured tapes on things, green tape here went to green tape there and yellow tape to yellow tape.”
Jimmy’s main man
He was now Jimmy Page’s main man, making sure his bows were okay and his guitars were in tune and keeping an ear on the sound. Their relationship was cemented, he reckons, when in the middle of a gig at Madison Square Garden, Jimmy lost one of the small bridges on his Gibson Les Paul guitar. “I found it and replaced it for him on stage. After that he reckoned my muck couldn’t stink.”
The band were touring to promote their debut album, recorded in October 1968 at Olympic Studios in London and released in the US in January 1969 and the UK in March, and recording Led Zeppelin II as they went.
“We would cart around boxes and boxes of tapes and just go into studios. In New York fellow roadie Henry ‘The Horse’ Smith and I sang with Jimmy Page on the chorus parts of ‘Whole Lotta Love’.”
Coulson says the band and its management kept tight reins on everything they did, in particular how their recordings were treated and the artwork on the covers. When the band arrived in Germany the record company there had decided without consultation to release the first two albums, Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, as a double album. According to Coulson, what was even more embarrassing was that the only recognisable face on the cover art was his own.
That did not go down well and for reasons of his own Coulson decided it was time to take a break, heading back to Australia, where he flatted at Bondi junction with former New Zealand pop diva Sandy Edmonds.
At the junction
Coulson thought he’d have another crack at singing, and joined a band called Mecca with guitarist Denis Wilson and bass player Bob Daisley. Their one recording, ‘Black Sally’, on Festival was an underground success. It was later covered by The Human Instinct on their second album.
In 1971 after Coulson introduced them Daisley teamed up with guitarist Stan Webb in Chicken Shack and he later worked with Mungo Jerry, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Gary Moore.
While playing with Mecca, Coulson got a call from Led Zeppelin management, who were having “staff problems”. Would he come back? Stevie Wright from The Easybeats took over from him. The first return gig as Jimmy’s personal roadie saw Led Zeppelin headlining the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music in England in June 1970.
In Japan in September 1971 Coulson was taken by surprise when Jimmy Page dragged him on stage. “I thought there was something wrong with the microphone when he handed it to me but then he said sing.”
This happened in ‘C'mon Everybody’, which was part of an encore. “When I heard it back it was awful and I realised my singing career was over.”
After being back with the band for nearly two years, Coulson had been looking forward to joining the band for their Western Springs, Auckland, concert in February 1972. He thought that might be a good time to ask for a pay rise but he was mistaken.
“I was only earning about 35 pounds a week and when they refused, I just said ‘stuff it’. I really wanted to come to New Zealand with them but they were so tight. They didn’t call Jimmy ‘Led Wallet’ for nothing.”
Coulson remained in the Peter Grant stable but as an independent road manager and sound operator on wages. His next gig was back with Jeff Beck, who had teamed up with Vanilla Fudge members Carmine Appice on drums and Tim Bogart on bass in Beck, Bogart & Appice.
Coumbia Records wanted a hit single from Jeff Beck, so Stevie Wonder offered him the rights to ‘Superstition’, which he recorded in New York’s Electric Lady Studios ahead of a Japanese tour.
While they were on the road, it was suggested to Stevie that he record 'Superstition' for his Talking Book album (released on Motown) then released it as a single. This caused a fall out between Wonder and Beck for a while, with Coulson quipping that, “it all seemed a waste of time.”
Back in London in 1973, Coulson was approached by former Free frontman Paul Rodgers, who asked if he would be interested in managing a new band he was putting together with his old bandmate Simon Kirke on drums, Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople on guitar and Boz Burrell from King Crimson on bass.
He sought advice from Peter Grant. “We sat outside in G’s Porsche while they were rehearsing bass players through ‘Feel Like Making Love’ and he agreed to be involved as long he didn’t have to do any of the day to day stuff.”
Bad Company became the first group signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan song records; their self-titled album went to No.1 on the US charts.
Grant became a silent partner, leaving Coulson with full responsibility. “We structured everything … None of them had any money so we set them up with their own publishing company and guided their career. All they had to do was write songs and play.”
Bad Company became the first group signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song records; their self-titled album went to No.1 on the US charts as did the first single ‘Can’t Get Enough’.
The plan was to emulate the Led Zeppelin model by targeting the US market. Their first tour was eight weeks supporting Edgar Winter. “I felt so sorry for him; every night he got blown off.”
After a three week break Bad Company became the headliners with Dave Mason, Peter Frampton, Kansas, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Black Oak Arkansas as support acts. Coulson was on a guarantee plus percentages and saw his investment of time and effort in Bad Company finally paying off on the second and third tours and their second and third albums.
“I remember the first band meeting when we handed out the cheques. Paul Rodgers and Mick Ralphs got over a million pounds each and Boz and Simon got more money than they’d ever seen before.”
After that huge financial success Paul Rodgers invested in his own home studio and wanted to do a solo album but the deal was “no projects outside the band”. That, says Coulson, may have been a major management error as it saw the end of Bad Company. “Maybe if we let them do other things they might have had a better appreciation for the band.”
On reflection Coulson says he was just a cog in the wheel with Led Zeppelin but with Bad Company he “determined a lot of their destiny and it was really rewarding”. When the band split he was offered other projects but didn’t think anything could compare with what he had already been through.
By this time Coulson owned a farm in Suffolk which had been turned into the 27-hole West Chiltington Golf course and restaurant mainly run by his wife, which eventually sold for over £2 million. “I couldn’t handle dealing with the people; they’d complain about the green or something and I’d just hand them back their money back and say don’t bother coming back.”
He’d been thinking about having a book written about his rock and roll memories but that opportunity passed him by when the writer from Melody Maker didn’t turn up for a scheduled meeting.
Clive Coulson had come a long way from his formative alternative blues-rock experiences in The Dark Ages.
After several trips back to New Zealand he knew that’s where he wanted to be, settling for an 800-acre (325ha) farm at Raglan, west of Hamilton, where he had bulls and breeding cows.
Clive Coulson had come a long way from his formative alternative blues-rock experiences in The Dark Ages with former Otahuhu College classmate and Underdogs member Mick Sibley, to become one of the most successful roadies and band managers in the world.
When I last spoke to him in 2003, I found him animated but struggling for breath between sentences. He was a committed farmer and showing less interest in the music industry, even the boxes full of memorabilia he’d accumulated over the years – T-shirts, tour jackets, awards – were slowly being sold off. Although he admitted that when he got together with old buddy and fellow Raglanite Midge Marsden, the stories still flowed freely. He was even roped in occasionally to brighten up Midge’s music lectures at Hamilton Polytech.
Coulson remained close to Jimmy Page even after he left the band, Robert Plant was godfather to his eldest son, and John “Bonzo” Bonham had loaned him money to buy a house in Wales then refused repayment. He was a pallbearer at Peter Grant’s funeral in 1995 and continued to own a publishing company and shares in Bad Company’s music.
Clive Coulson passed away after a heart attack on 25 January 2006, having achieved the rock and roll dream and his underlying desire to live on the land. “Nothing was planned, I just fell into things. I’d done most things and would never say something couldn’t be done … I always wanted to be a farmer. Rock and roll served its purpose as far as I’m concerned.”
Read Clive Coulson Part One: from the Dark Ages to Jeff Beck - here
Personal interviews with Clive Coulson in 2002 and 2003
Interview with Dave Hartstone, 2000