BY WAYNE BLANCHARD
“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.
PUTTING IT ALL IN CONTEXT
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.”
By ’66/’67 the Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page—driven psychedelia of The Yardbirds’ single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” The Beatles mind-expanding Revolver, and the success of Cream and Hendrix, highlighted the real potential for power in British pop and rock. But now Brit blues bands Chicken Shack, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac were also part of the mix.
“Bonham was an inspiration when playing half-time blues,” remembers Ward. “His grooves were always in the sweet spot, and he filled the emptiness between the fours of the snare with triplets and polyrhythms, astonishing the listener and gathering delighted applause for each splendid execution of what seemed the impossible.” As Hiseman notes, musicianship in the ’60s mattered. “Musicians were seen as worthy of attention in their own right. Media interest was not in lifestyle, but in the playing skills that produced the music. I just bought a Melody Maker [music paper] from 1970, with three items on the front page: Jimi Hendrix Dead; Colosseum (my band) Sign Chris Farlowe As Vocalist; Harry James And Big Band Arrive In Britain.”
That’s not to say things were perfect, but with The Beatles obliterating virtually everything that came before, the music was serious stuff. Meanwhile, in studios around London, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were first-call session players on records with everyone from the Kinks and The Who, to Donovan and Dusty Springfield before Page joined the Yardbirds. While that group flourished with Jeff Beck, with Page they floundered, though onstage the guitarist took a heavier approach, with songs like “Dazed And Confused” taking shape.
When he needed a new singer and drummer, Page went to Birmingham, where dull skies shrouded a once-glorious industrial past and the gigging world was the hundreds of smoky pubs and clubs across the rough-and-tumble city and surrounding Black Country of England’s Midlands. He chose the hippy-blues-wailing Robert Plant as his singer, and Plant recommended the raucous Bonham. Page was hooked.
In the October 12, 1968 issue of Melody Maker, a headline stated “Only Jimmy Left To Form The New Yardbirds.” Of his new band, the young guitarist commented, “It’s blues, basically, but not Fleetwood Mac—style. [That band at the time, with guitarist Peter Green, was strictly a blues band.] I hate the term ’progressive blues,’ but it’s more or less what the Yardbirds were playing at the end. It’s great to know that today you can form a group to play music you like and people will listen.”
Earlier in the year, the Jeff Beck Group, with the late, great Mickey Waller drumming, laid the template for heavy blues-rock with its debut, Truth, on which Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and The Who’s Keith Moon guested. The raucously heavy follow-up, Beck-Ola, saw Tony Newman introduce a fearsome funkiness, with Led-heavy renditions of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” and “All Shook Up.” Ever astute, Page was onto the concept. “When the ’New Yardbirds’ came back from their first dates in Europe,” Newman says, “there was a real buzz around London. It put a shiver up your spine, because we knew something radical was happening.” [Beck and Zep manager] Peter Grant brought the Zeppelin guys along to see the Beck Group on many occasions, saying, ’Come look at this lot, because this is a band that isn’t going to last.’ [laughs] But our group – three players and a singer doing heavy blues rock – was a concept Peter knew could be expanded on.”
One of Zep’s earliest performances was on a bill with Buddy Miles, Buddy Guy, Jack Bruce, and Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum. “For me,” says Hiseman, “Led Zeppelin was another band who I perceived would be more successful than Colosseum because it had showmanship and relatively simple songs. Colosseum came from a different planet, but that meant I was able to appreciate John and the band all the more – I was a fan. I bought the records. But I never saw it as anything I would want to do.”
Recalling their times on tour together, Vanilla Fudge’s Carmine Appice was impressed: “John was new and fresh, with plenty of aggression and energy. I was blown away by his sixteenth-note right-foot triplet. He said he got that from the first Vanilla Fudge album, which confused me, as I didn’t remember doing it. So he showed me where I played it – once! He took that lick and created his trademark triplet thing. He had great hands, feet, and feel, and said his idols were the same as mine. But he also listened to contemporary players of ’67/’68.”
One contemporary was Rob Henrit, of pre—British Invasion popsters Adam Faith & The Roulettes, ’70s prog rockers Argent, the 1980s incarnation of the Kinks, and is now back on stage with Argent in 2010. “I was on TV a lot with Adam Faith, and was a flamboyant player as the music allowed me to show off. I heard Bonham liked that and said he’d learned a great deal from me.”
Liberty DeVitto, whose drumming propelled Billy Joel’s many hits, feels “John Bonham was an R&B drummer in a heavy metal band. He had the heavy sound and attack of Carmine with ’D’yer Maker,’ the R&B fills and feel of Roger Hawkins on ’What Is And What Should Never Be,’ and as he developed he added jazz feels or more swing, like the Purdie-style shuffle for ’Fool In The Rain.’”
Appice says, “John liked the great Motown, Atlantic, and Stax artists, and rock and roll like Little Richard, Bo Diddley.” Both Bonham and Bevan loved American rock and roll. “I remember John and I agreeing that the two best rock and roll drummers were Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine,” says Bevan. “Palmer’s drumming on Eddie Cochran’s ’Somethin’ Else’ obviously inspired Bonzo’s intro to Zep’s ’Rock And Roll.’” But even more revealing, “We loved that huge drum sound Phil Spector achieved on his productions.” So is that where the idea for Zeppelin’s big drum sound came from? “My guess,” comments Hiseman, “is that Bonham had a natural ear for what was going on around him. I learned a long time ago not to play the drums but to play the band. I think that’s what John did.”
But Bonham also had the power of the straight eighth-note. And Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith makes the point that, “As far as the dotted ride pattern to the straight-eighth note, that would be the late, great Earl Palmer. He was the first.” So Bonham got more than the “Rock And Roll” intro from the American session king.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE DRUMS?
A lot has been made of his gear, but Bonham could make any drum set sound huge. “It’s attitude,” says Henrit.” As Lance Armstrong said, ’It’s not about the bike!’ Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy says, “Bonzo’s sound came from a combination of brute power, subtle finesse, and impeccable groove. John Bonham is the only one who could ever truly sound like John Bonham. That sound was him – not necessarily his drums.”
Bill Ward sees it differently. “Bonham was light of foot and light in his wrists. It was his dexterity, his touch that seemed to intuitively know how to find the power points on each drum.” Page certainly recognized that. After all, he’d played with some of the very best session drummers, and they sure knew the when, where, and how to hit a drum. Obviously, so did Bonham.
Ward recalls Bonham’s drums back in the day. “They were the same as everyone else’s in the ’60s. He had several kits before Zeppelin, mostly Ludwig, I think.” When Zeppelin landed in America for the first of two tours with Vanilla Fudge, Bonham’s kit was diminutive next to the mighty blonde Ludwigs of the headliner. According to Appice, “He had a 22″ x 14″, 13″ x 9″ on the kick, and maybe two 16″ x 16″ floor toms with a 14″ x 5″ Ludwig chrome snare, a ride, two crashes, and 14″ hats. When he saw my two 26″ maple bass drums, oversized toms, and deep snare, he wanted the same. I called Ludwig: ’I think this band is going to be really big.’ How’s that for an understatement! They gave him the same setup as mine, complete with gong. He loved it.”
Though the second kick – at the insistence of Page and Jones – was soon gone, that didn’t hinder his ability to deliver the blistering triplets and offbeat bass shots that personified his audacious – yet always musical – approach. A few years later Ward saw Bonham on a different setup. “I watched him play his son Jason’s kit in the ’70s. It was small in comparison to a regular kit, but John sounded incredible. Whatever drums he had, he could make them sound huge and very tonal.”
IT’S ABOUT THE “AIR”
Page was quick to integrate Bonham’s sounds and style into Zep’s compositions: He and Jones often locked in on the meter and let the drummer float the time. Today, click tracks and a dependence on the drummer to keep the time limit opportunity for the music to breathe the way it did with Zeppelin. One of Chad Smith’s favorite Bonham tracks is “Wanton Song.” “The use of space in the verse is breathtaking. I also love ’Since I’ve Been Loving You,’ live at Albert Hall, with its awesome use of dynamics and that famous footwork on full display.”
Yes, it was really all about the “air – that space that made such a difference. “I think his feel was a product of his wide-open sound,” says Rob Henrit. “He was arguably the first drummer to have his own room to record in, so there was never a problem with leakage, meaning each offbeat could be ’larger than life.’ I suspect he was the first to have echo on the drums in his cans and that let him play more sparsely.”
BIRMINGHAM GETS HEAVIER
Another thing Bonham had going for him was volume. Bevan thinks he may have influenced that. “He’d come see me play circa ’63, ’64, but I don’t know if he was influenced by my playing or my volume! I was the first of the noisy drummers from the Birmingham area – Bevan, Bonham, Bill Ward, Cozy Powell: all loud!” But why were Birmingham bands getting so loud? “Black Sabbath,” says Bevan, “were the first really heavy band to come out of our area.”
For sure, Sabbath turned up to make their doom-laden, angst-ridden point, but according to Bill Ward, “The biggest challenge was to be heard. When Marshall stacks showed up, as a drummer, I had to triple my energy output. However, playing louder wasn’t always accurate at first. I had to learn how to be accurate and forceful. And when PA systems and mikes showed up I had to relearn all over again.” And therein lies another Bonham quality: the ability to groove as deep as he did and pull out the chops, all while playing at a high volume.
As others influenced Bonham, so did he influence others. “Hot rock drummers of the ’60s?” laughs Chad Smith. “Ginger, Ringo, Charlie, Bonzo, Mitch, Moonie, and Paice-y. Only the bloody British for me!” UK session great Geoff Dugmore, who has recorded with John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, recalls: “As a kid, I spent days with Houses Of The Holy, figuring out the groove on ’The Crunge.’”
Jones once told Dugmore that the second part of the “Black Dog” riff was modified so the drums could play straight through and come out in the same pocket at the other end. “He and Bonham worked parts so the bass drum and bass guitar didn’t fall together, so each instrument sounded even bigger.” With Page, Dugmore found himself at Olympic Studios, set up the same way Zeppelin recorded.
“I’m on a riser with Jimmy’s amps at the other end of the studio. He’s also on the riser, right between my ride cymbal and rack tom, grooving with me. I knew I wasn’t Bonham, so I had to be aware of his expectations. Both Jimmy and John Paul just wanted me to be me and to feel the groove with them. That brought home to me how special the Zep unit was. It can only happen when everyone is on the same wavelength.”
Any stipulations? “Yes. No headphones. No click track. And no count-in. We just felt the moment to start, and it was amazing how instinctively that came. Jones has the most massive fat, round sound and is calm, relaxed, and totally in control of his instrument. I’m sure that assuredness let Bonham have the creativeness and fire he had.”
Mike Portnoy, whose Hammer Of The Gods, a Zep tribute band, saw him in a white boiler suit and black bowler hat behind an orange perspex Bonzo kit, has a unique perspective. “My biggest drum heroes are John Bonham, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, and Neil Peart, but I think Bonham is the most universally loved. Perhaps Moon was too reckless for some, Ringo too simple for some, and Peart too technical for some. Yet Bonham’s style was something everyone appreciated, so yes, perhaps he truly was the ultimate rock drummer.”
Is there anyone Portnoy feels embraces that Bonham aesthetic? “Dave Grohl comes to mind. Although Jason Bonham really was the only person for the ’08 Zeppelin reunion. He did an unbelievable job, capturing his dad’s spirit, fire, and style. It was the ultimate tribute. Nobody else should be drumming with Plant, Page, and Jones other than a Bonham!”
Until the end, Bonham continued, almost workman-like, to be Led Zeppelin’s drummer. He escaped the rigors of stardom with his family and friends back home, where he seldom touched drums, but did enjoy listening to everything from Elvis Presley and James Brown to the Stylistics and Supertramp on his jukebox. Open-minded, he evolved with Zeppelin, from a busy basher to the groove-oriented, soul-inspired player heard on Presence and In Through The Out Door.
Though enamored by the technical audacity of fusion pioneers Billy Cobham, (Narada) Michael Walden, and Alphonse Mouzon, he knew their influence had no place in Zeppelin. All this was a long way from his earliest rehearsals with The New Yardbirds, when his overly busy and extra-loud drumming prompted words of warning. Of course, in those early times Bonham was likely trying to ensure he didn’t get overlooked. He needn’t have worried about that!
THE LAST WORD
Forty-two years on from those first rehearsals, and exactly 30 years this month from his untimely demise, how is Bonham remembered? “John Henry Bonham, in my humble opinion,” states Chad Smith emphatically, “is hands down the greatest rock drummer of all time. His sound, technique, musicianship, groove, and feel have never been duplicated. No-one comes close today and probably nobody ever will.”
Glen Hughes agrees: “Everyone, from rock stars to milk men, love Bonham.”
Jon Hiseman considers the lost potential: “Bonham’s reputation was built in one band, and because of his untimely death we never heard later developments.”
Liberty DeVitto considers the options: “If I said he was the best, I would be putting him above Keith Moon, Mick Avory, Bobby Elliott, Micky Waller – but I will say John Bonham was in there with the best of them.”
Without hesitation, Bill Ward fondly remembers Bonham as The One. “Absolutely! I admired him. I respected him. He was the groove master. He wrote the bible on rock drumming. To learn the primal basis that will bring a drummer up to the current era of rock or metal drumming, one has to listen to John Bonham. He was an institution unto himself. He was his own guy. Thank you, Mr. Bonham.”