“Alright, guys, the drummer’s off into a solo – time to head to the bar… Hang on a minute, what the hell is this? This isn’t a drum solo. It’s a transcendental experience.” That’s what you get from listening to Led Zeppelin: not just a stairway to Heaven, but complete and utter transcendence. And a gargantuan part of that was drummer John Bonham, who, in a little over a decade with the group, not only elevated rock drumming to an art form, but raised the bar so far out of reach that, four decades after his death, he still remains the greatest drummer of all time (not to mention one of the wildest of rock’s excess-all-areas personas). And that drum solo? The one that sometimes lasted over 20 minutes on stage? Yeah, he called it Moby Dick, after Herman Melville’s fictional whale. Never was there a more apt a name for a piece of music that itself seemed to rise from the deep, ready to crush everything in its path.
“I liked their music better”: joining Led Zeppelin
Born in Redditch, Worcestershire, on 31 May 1948, John Bonham began playing the drums at the age of five, improvising a drum kit out of coffee tins and other containers he found around the home. By the time singer Robert Plant began making overtures to the drummer, trying to convince him to join a new group he was forming with guitarist Jimmy Page, Bonham had played with a string of local Birmingham groups – including Plant’s own outfit, Band Of Joy – and was considering offers permanent role from British rockers Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. The untested Led Zeppelin may have been the riskier bet, but then John Bonham enjoyed a good risk… and besides, he “liked their music better”, which is how he found himself touching down in the US in December 1968, with Plant, Page and bassist John Paul Jones, landing like a piece of military-grade aircraft, ready to blow every other band out of the water.
Trampled underfoot: destroying the competition
No drummer could come close to John Bonham – then or now. As Led Zeppelin released their debut album, in January 1969, there were arguably only two drummers that got anywhere near him: The Who’s Keith Moon had the power and the rock’n’roll antics; Cream’s Ginger Baker had the versatility. But John Bonham combined the two, sitting behind Jimmy Page’s blues-drenched riffs and locking in tight with John Paul Jones on songs like Good Times Bad Times, practically pushing Led Zeppelin to invent heavy metal, while also revolutionising the way drummers thought about their instruments. Influenced by Carmine Appice’s speed, Bonham trained his right foot to work the kick drum double-time, not realising that the Vanilla Fudge drummer had used a double kick pedal. “That drummer of yours has a right foot like a pair of castanets,” Jimi Hendrix once told the group.
Superhuman feats of power were one thing – also check out Led Zeppelin III’s Immigrant Song, which sounds impossible for mere mortals to play – but John Bonham was also influenced by some of the early jazz drummers, like swing-era bandleader Gene Krupa and bebop pioneer Max Roach. It’s arguable that Bonham is the only other drummer to have made a drum kit sound as melodic as Max Roach did on his 1966 solo album, Drums Unlimited – which, doubtless, the teenage Bonham heard as he was working up his own style.
Rhymin’ and stealin’: how John Bonham invented hip-hop (kind of…)
John Bonham developed his drumming style across eight studio albums and countless live performances with Led Zeppelin (with a few session gigs on the side – Roy Wood and Paul McCartney And Wings, among them). As comfortable unleashing funky grooves on Trampled Underfoot, from 1975’ Physical Graffiti, as he was keeping up with the demands of a track like The Ocean – which, closing out 1973’s Houses Of The Holy, found the drummer switching from thunderous beats to a swing pattern ripped straight out of his jazz idols’ playbooks – Bonham also inadvertently found himself playing a crucial part in hip-hop’s rise to dominance. When three bratty New Yorkers going by the name of Beastie Boys lifted the intro to When The Levee Breaks for the opening cut of their debut album, Licensed To Ill, they made sure that Led Zeppelin’s drummer was front and centre of hip-hop’s entry into the mainstream.
“He had the ultimate feel”: death and legacy
It’s no surprise that John Bonham has influenced everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith to Rush’s Neal Peart and Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. “He had the ultimate feel,” Grohl told Mojo magazine while picking his favourite John Bonham performances. “He could swing, he could get on top, or he could pull back.” What is surprising, however, is that the drummer suffered from severe anxiety issues that only increased as Led Zeppelin’s fame grew. “I’ve got worse,” Bonham revealed in 1975 as his group straddled the world, revelling in their status as the greatest rock band in history.
Led Zeppelin’s rock’n’roll antics are legendary – and, with them, Bonham’s capacity for a drink. Bonzo was the nickname given to him – or, rather, his wild side – when he’d had a few too many. How much of it was reckless abandon, and how much of it was an attempt to quell his nerves, we’ll never know – treatment wasn’t a thing back then, when fans expected their idols to be indestructible. But Bonzo’s antics fuelled the legend: while staying at Chateau Marmont, the historic hotel on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, he drove a motorbike through the lobby, tearing up the carpet. You can only get away with that sort of thing once per establishment, but that didn’t stop him repeating the stunt again in two other hotels: the Continental Hyatt and the Andaz West Hollywood.
Led Zeppelin dominated the 1970s, but they barely survived into the following decade. In September 1980, while rehearsing for their first US tour in three years, Bonham went on a 12-hour drinking session, beginning with a late breakfast at midday and lasting until midnight, when, after consuming 40 units – about a litre – of vodka, he passed out and was put to bed. The following morning, on 25 September, bassist John Paul Jones and Led Zeppelin tour manager Benji LeFevre went to rouse him, but the 32-year-old drummer, who had been placed on his side, had choked on his own vomit in his sleep. “It was terrible,” John Paul Jones recalled. “It made me feel very angry – at the waste of him.”
No one could replace John Bonham – not in Led Zeppelin, nor in the pantheon of rock gods. Just three months after their drummer’s death, the rest of the group officially called it quits. Such was Bonham’s power, when Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones reunited for Live Aid, in 1985, they needed two drummers to fill in for him: Phil Collins and Chic’s Tony Thompson. After that, the only other option was to go back to John Bonham’s DNA – and only for truly special causes. In 1988, the surviving members performed a short set at a 40th-anniversary celebration of Atlantic Records, the record label that unleashed the group onto the world. Twenty years later, in 2007, they reconvened for a headlining slot at London’s O2 Arena, in honour of the late Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic’s legendary co-founder. On both occasions they enlisted John’s son, Jason Bonham, to sit in behind the kit.
John would have been proud: “He’s always drumming, even when we go out in the car he takes his sticks to bash on the seats,” he once said of his son, in the mid-1970s. “Before the end of Led Zeppelin I’m going to have him on stage with us at the Albert Hall.”
That didn’t happen, but Jason Bonham – and the music Led Zeppelin left behind – has kept his father’s legacy alive now for longer than John Bonham himself was on the planet. That’s a stairway to immortality.
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