Modern rock drumming owes its soul to John Bonham. With the exception of Keith Moon, everybody before Bonzo held back a little. Their goal was to fit into the rhythm by tiptoeing around the bass line and building the groove part by part. Volume wasn’t even that important – Charlie Watts always played pretty softly, because ratcheting up the noise would only have obscured the exquisite synchronicity he enjoyed with Keith Richards and Bill Wyman.
We mentioned Moon, but for the first few years of the British Invasion he was an anomaly, too idiosyncratic to spawn any imitators. It was Bonham who found a way to channel that same amount of aggression into a more accessible style. There was power in his performance – power so volcanic that it fundamentally redefined the drummer’s role. After the first two Led Zeppelin albums, both of which were released in 1969, people began to think of the drums in rock as the source of the rhythm, rather than as a component of the rhythm.
The impact was, to be honest, not always ideal. It was too easy to misread Bonham’s thunderous, wall-of-fury style as license to tune everyone else out and just blast away. Nothing, of course, kills a groove faster than a drummer too lost in an endless eruption of noise to notice that the band had unplugged and gone home.
These drummers miss the real point of John Bonham. He didn’t destroy the old school; he just cranked every element of it to an unprecedented scale. The traditional values were intact in his playing – locking in with the bass player, paying attention to how the song changed from section to section, balancing improvisation against repetition. But in his hands, these values, in proportion to each other, took on gargantuan dimension. Loud became really loud. Swing became brain-bashing, ear-bleed intensity.
This groove, as developed by Led Zeppelin, was the laboratory where metal, alternative, punk, and their permutations hatched, grew, and began taking over the world.
From the moment he met his future partner in the Zep rhythm section, bassist John Paul Jones sensed that Bonham was unique. He had been talking with Jimmy Page about putting a band together, so when the guitarist started raving about this drummer he’d heard playing with Robert Plant in Birmingham, it seemed like a good idea to try him out. The four guys got together in a tiny rehearsal space, decided to do “Train Kept a-Rollin’,” counted the tune off …
“ … and the room exploded,” Jones remembers. “I immediately knew that I could work with this drummer. No one I’d ever played with was so hard-hitting and so musical – two disparate terms. He was loud; you had to stand well back. But he was also extremely sophisticated. Also, he knew he was good. He was quite a showoff, which was great. That’s what you want in a rhythm section: somebody who has the ability to show off but knows that he doesn’t have to all the time.”
Even in that very first song, Bonham and Jones felt themselves falling into sync, feeling out each other’s phrasing and sense of rhythm. By writing original material in rehearsal, they nailed their arrangements early on, so that by the time they were playing in public, everyone felt familiar enough with the foundation to stretch out – a common practice, if not the ultimate challenge, among rock bands in those days.
Few albums document Led Zeppelin as vividly as How The West Was Won, a previously unreleased concert set made available now as a three-CD package from Atlantic. And few tracks capture the essence of Bonham better than “Immigrant Song,” recorded at the Long Beach Arena in 1972. Jones, in a classic understatement, recalls this as “a damn good night,” and it’s easy to hear why. From the opening beat, he and Bonham drive this track mercilessly, at a tempo slightly more up than usual. From the precision of the arranged parts to their dialog throughout the freewheeling final section, this is rhythm section wizardry of the highest order.
The lockup of bass guitar and kick drum is clear in the first verse; less obvious are the variations that add breath to these parts. “This song started as a Page riff, so because Bonzo and I learned it at the same time in rehearsal, naturally we’d be in sync,” Jones explains. “But then he would adjust his accents when we played live, to make sure it kicked along even better. I would do the same. I’d even drop out a note or two, if I felt they might get in the way of the especially strong rhythm on this particular song.”
Aside from one quick round-robin figure just after Plant’s first line, Bonham hammers the backbeat throughout each verse, except for the last four bars, in which he adds an offbeat accent. This pattern stays in play all the way up to the jam at the end, when he begins peppering various snare hits into the mix and even omitting the backbeat entirely. In an odd way, it’s a reminder of how drummers in rock and jazz follow opposite paths toward building tension: where the postbop practice is often to imply the backbeat until a final “shout” chorus, Bonham loosens his grip on the 2 and 4 toward the end to create an almost dizzy sense of freedom and unpredictability.
“Page would be soloing at this point, so Bonzo and I were on our own,” Jones explains. “As the guitarist was away somewhere else, we needed something more to come out of the rhythm to keep the energy up. So we’d turn the patterns upside down, backwards, and any way we could. The scariest thing was when we would come up with a fairly unlikely fill, from out of nowhere, at exactly the same time. You see, all music, all composition, is a matter of posing questions and then answering them. We heard the question, and we came to precisely the same answer at the same time. That only happens when you’ve been doing it together for quite a while.”
Aside from “Immigrant Song,” the Led Zeppelin catalog bristles with examples both of Bonham’s elemental strength and his ability to stay connected to his fellow musicians, and to the song itself, even during the most turbulent moments. “Take a song like ’What Is and What Should Never Be’ [from Led Zeppelin II],” says Jones, “with the contrast between the dreamy A sections and the hard B sections. Listen to how the groove tightens up. It’s the same beat, but Bonzo does quite a lot to contrast one against the other at the same tempo. I don’t think there’s much of that going on these days, with the downbeat/backbeat merchants. You go to a rock concert these days, and people are all standing there. At our concerts, women would come up and dance to the band all night. It was rock and roll you could actually dance to. A lot of the reason for that was Bonzo, and that was maybe his most important contribution – basically, he swung like hell.”