“Bonzo’s gone. Zeppelin is finished.” It’s been 30 years since the tragic news broke from Jimmy Page’s Mill House, in Pangbourne, Berkshire. The memory of John Bonham, fuelled by fact and fantasy, has since grown to become legend. But the reality is, Bonham was every bit as good as they say. He was the man with the golden groove, the sensational chops, and that great, big sound. Friends and fans remember the loud but loveable bloke from Birmingham with gratitude and respect. To them, he defined and dignified rock drumming. And all these years later he remains The One. Yes, there have been faster, louder, and more technical players, but in the end, they all bow to Bonham.
From the slam-down intro of “Good Times, Bad Times,” Led Zeppelin’s debut album kicked rock and roll square in the face. With funky fills, groove-pushing cowbell, triplet kick work, and sheer attitude, its drumming was stunningly fresh and devastatingly powerful. Thanks to Jimmy Page’s arrangements, the drums were showcased in spacious yet intense settings. So when that wide-open ride roared in “Communication Breakdown,” or those through-the-bar fills pulled you deeper into “Dazed And Confused,” there was a palpable sense of drama. It was no longer “rock and roll .” This was rock. Hard rock. Heavy metal, even.
And before Zeppelin’s debut even left the turntable, the hottest new band on the planet was back with Led Zeppelin II, featuring tunes that veered from the storming groove of “Whole Lotta Love” to the show-stopping drum solo of “Moby Dick,” and that raucous riff-o-rama “Ramble On.” This wasn’t about redefining something old. Bonham was about defining something new. Rock drumming had never sounded so good. Some may argue, it never has again.
Let’s first step back to the early ’60s to see how Bonham survived a decade of musical transition to become the right drummer in the right place at the right time. 1950s Britain saw traditional jazz and dance bands give way to American rock and roll and rhythm and blues, with skiffle and the instrumental hits of The Shadows setting the stage for Beatlemania and the Swinging ’60s.
Tony Meehan and Brian Bennett, both of The Shadows, were the British drum heroes, while Charlie Watts, Keef Hartley, Jon Hiseman, Tony Newman, Mickey Waller, Ginger Baker, Aynsley Dunbar, and Mitch Mitchell were young ’jazzers’ who would move into the blues and – in some cases – on to rock. Gene Krupa, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello, Davey Tough – the American jazz greats – were their heroes, so the “ting-ting-a-ting” swing ride pattern ruled, drum tunings were high, and tone and touch were among the requisites.
By 1964, session king Bobby Graham and The Beatles’ Ringo Starr were two of the most rocking players on the radio, with Graham’s slamming beats on Dave Clark Five stompers “Glad All Over” and “Do You Love Me,” as well as Kink’s hits “You Really Got Me” and “All Of The Day And All of The Night” signaling an increasingly aggressive approach. More importantly, these hits highlighted the shift from swing-style ride playing to straight eighths while also pushing aside the obligatory “boom -ta ta — boom ta” pop beat of the day. But Bonham? “I’m not sure John was a fan of British drummers, though he must have been influenced by Tony Meehan and Brian Bennett, and Clem Cattini’s session work,” says Bev Bevan, drummer with legendary ’60s chart toppers The Move, then ELO, and for a while, Black Sabbath. “John and I generally shared musical tastes, all of them American.” Any jazz? “I don’t recall him being a jazzer, though I’d do a 5/4 drum solo in an adaptation of Dave Brubeck’s ’Take 5,’ and he liked that.”
According to Jon Hiseman – who replaced Ginger Baker when he quit the Graham Bond Organization for Cream, took Mitch Mitchell’s spot with Georgie Fame when Mitchell joined Hendrix, and then put jazz into John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before launching his groundbreaking jazz-rock unit, Colosseum – many jazzers weren’t so generous with Zeppelin or Bonham. “The diehards just didn’t get it, and to a certain extent never did. But the blues-rock musos I knew were all great fans of Led Zeppelin and John’s big, open sound. As for me, I always felt the problem with the jazz beat was that it was bound up in a kind of convention, and jazz musicians judged you on how well you ’re-created’ the feels of the established masters. As I began to explore the eighth-note feel, I felt free. I felt I was in unexplored territory.”
Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward speaks fondly of his friend. “My earliest recollection of meeting John Bonham was at The Wharf Pub in Ombersley, Worcestershire, about 1964. He was with The Crawling King Snakes, playing popular songs of that era, plus blues and R&B. His rhythms were immaculate, making each song his own, turning it into something superb. A great example was “Morning Dew.” Of all the versions I heard, including the original, none compared to the King Snakes’, with John Bonham leading the pack.”
Ward recalls that, “Sometimes on trips to Drum City, the Birmingham city-centre shop owned by BBC Light Jazz Orchestra drummer Mike Evans, I’d bump into Bonham, along with other fine drummers – offshoots of the cosmopolitan hordes who’d chosen Birmingham as home. Some visits turned into mini-clinics. I’d watch Mike do his ’Purdie.’ I think he turned everyone on to Bernard Purdie, whose hi-hat work was incomparable. Bonham would sit in and funk out, his bass drum playing that language everyone seemed to be speaking but still not applying as well as he did. Many different drumming styles existed, and somehow they all ended up in Mike’s drum shop. We were rich in rudiments and healthy in the music of the day.” But Ward has an admission. “In 1964/’65, I didn’t understand what John was doing. Often, on the many occasions I watched him play, I thought he was ruining the song, like maybe he’d lost his 1. Uncannily, however, after several bars, he’d bring his beats into alignment with whomever he was playing with. At last, I realized what he’d done. He was always in his 1, even when it sounded like he wasn’t.”
The recollections of Trapeze and Deep Purple bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes, whose new project, Black Country Communion, has John’s son Jason Bonham drumming, are also heartfelt. “I first saw John play in 1968. He jumped on stage with my baby band, Finders Keepers, at the Rum Runner in Birmingham, and pretty much demolished the drum kit. I’d heard stories of the Big Bloke from Redditch with the big ’ands. A couple years later he joined me and Trapeze on many shows. He was the dog’s bollocks … amazing!”
Ward recalls that while often loud, and at times seeming to almost maul his drums, Bonham’s talent lay in that he was a natural and a very learned student. “Behind his almost brutish and chaotic appearance he was an endearing man, studious, and a hopelessly caught-up-in-drums-and-drummers man. His knowledge of drumming was overflowing. This was the Bonham I knew.”