How Jeff Beck helped a Plymouth woman get a job with Led Zeppelin

Not many people can say Jeff Beck helped them land a job. With Led Zeppelin. But that’s how Plymouth resident Unity MacLean came to work with the fabled British band at a time when its prowess was beginning to be drowned by debauchery.

After MacLean heard the news of Beck’s death Wednesday, her thoughts time-traveled to the high-velocity music scene of 1970s London, when she was in her early 20s and working, unhappily, in the A&R department at CBS Records. One day in 1975, she found herself in a pub on Wardour Street, adjacent to a recording studio.

“Everybody came in from the studio to have a drink and Jeff Beck was there,” she recalled Thursday. “I just happened to say I was fed up working for CBS and is anybody looking for anyone to work for them? There was a deathly silence, but then Jeff turned around and said, ‘If I hear of anything, I’ll let you know.’”

And that, she figured, was the end of it. After all, MacLean reckoned, the odds of a rock star following up on a chance encounter over a pint seemed slim at best.

“But I was staggered to hear from Jeff’s secretary about a week later,” she said. “‘Jeff says you’re looking for a job,’ she told MacLean.” Beck’s advice: Ring up Peter Grant, Zeppelin’s notoriously difficult manager. “He’s looking for someone,” the secretary said, “and Jeff says you can use his name.”

It worked. MacLean was hired.

Today, MacLean runs the British Imports shop in downtown Plymouth. She’s owned it for about 40 years, selling a selection of Anglo staples such as Walkers Potato crisps, PG Tips, Cadbury chocolates, and Spotted Dick (don’t worry, it’s just a traditional steamed pudding with a naughty name). For no additional charge, and with a little advance intel, visitors are often regaled by MacLean’s animated tales of her good times, bad times during an era when rock stars were treated like deities ― super-heated talents eventually sent crashing to earth like errant meteors.

In 2003, I spent hours listening to her for a Boston Globe profile. She told vivid tales of her tenure as Zeppelin’s publicist, wild anecdotes punctuated by a laugh too big for someone of her stature. Working with Grant, who died of a heart attack in 1995, was challenging. Often, she says, he’d show up at the office with “bagfuls of smack and cocaine, stick an ordinary key in some cocaine, and put it under your nose.”

“I was always fired anytime Peter got angry with me. I used to phone up Richard [Cole, the band’s tour manager] and he’d say, ‘Oh, take no note. Peter will forget about it in the morning. See you in the office, luv, bye.’ “

The stairway to Zeppelin began in 1971 when MacLean started working at CBS in London. That’s where she struck up a casual friendship with a regular visitor.

“[He] used to sit around the office, and everyone was extremely rude to him,” she says. “I liked him, although he did speak with an awfully weird patois.” That man with the accent was Bob Marley, pre-fame. She has a seemingly endless string of similarly eye-popping anecdotes about life at the upper tier of the rock business.

Once installed at Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records, MacLean worked out of a two-story office from 1975 until 1980. She watched, helplessly, as the band slowly disintegrated. Guitarist Jimmy’s Page’s decline was particularly disturbing.

“Jimmy was so lost in his haze that it was difficult to know how he would be from one day to the next,” she told me in 2003. “He could be hours, days late for rehearsal. It got to the point where Robert [Plant] would say, `We’re going to start at 2, which means Jimmy won’t be there until 5, so we won’t get there until 5.’ When Jimmy worked that out, he didn’t get there until 7. It was a bit of a game.”

The end of MacLean’s Led Zeppelin career came after drummer John Bonham choked to death on his own vomit. He had downed about 40 shots of vodka.

“I waited three months and quit,” she told me. “I was pregnant…and didn’t want to bring a child into a world surrounded by people who were dying or hell-bent on killing each other.”

This week, MacLean says Beck’s passing has sparked long dormant memories of that pub exchange and the unexpected follow-up that “changed my life radically.”

“Jeff was very influential in me getting to know Led Zeppelin. From my point of view, the rest is history.”

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