This is not the first time we talk about drummers in this blog, do you remember when we told you the story of Keith Moon? Today we tell you about John Bonham who, with his drumsticks, wrote the destiny of music together with Led Zeppelin, on the anniversary of his death, exactly today 40 years ago.
John Bonham’s short biography
John Henry Bonham was born on May 31, 1947, by the British couple Joan and Jack Bonham in Redditch, England. The passion for the drums came almost immediately, in fact he began to play it at the age of five.
Bonham attended Lodge Farm Secondary Modern School and, from 1962 to 1963, played for the Blue Star Trio and for Gerry Levene & the Avengers. Soon after, in his teens, he began playing with his first semi-professional band, Terry Webb and the Spiders.
1968 was an extremely important year for John Bonham for two reasons. The first is because he married Pat Phillips, whom he met four years earlier. While the second is because he joined what I consider to be one of the greatest bands ever (and I know it’s not just my thought), Led Zeppelin. The history of the band’s name is rather curious, also because Bonham’s place could have been taken by the aforementioned Keith Moon.
Here are the words taken from the article on this blog about it: When he briefly considered the idea of leaving The Who in 1966, Keith Moon spoke to Entwistle and Jimmy Page to form a sort of supergroup. He said the suggestion had come to him as a “led zeppelin” (rather than a lead balloon), a name Page kept for when he needed it a few years later. (Actually in English lead balloon means to fail miserably, which did not happen at all,to be fair!).
Career with Led Zeppelin
Fortunately, in 1968, John Bonham entered Led Zeppelin and Keith Moon stayed with The Who: this was the destiny of music, two great bands with two equally great drummers.
Jimmy Page in Luce Ombra – Incontro con Jimmy Page (https://amzn.to/3koZQjm) said he sought out a powerful drummer to form Led Zeppelin, but Bonham “went beyond any boundaries I could imagine. He was just superhuman.”
Before Led Zeppelin drums were almost always relegated to a role of pure support. On many records produced in the sixties the bass drum, if not the entire drum, was almost not heard. There are various convincing explanations for that strange “silence”: in part it was due to the limitations of technology, or to the incompetence of the sound engineers of the time, or to the simple fact that this was a very banal habit.
Page, on the other hand, wanted to take his band’s impact to the highest level, so he looked for a whole new way to record drums. His experiment gave such positive results that to this day that he counted the miking of John “Bonzo” Bonham’s drums among his greatest achievements in terms of production and sound engineering.
In 1969, Led Zeppelin released their self-titled debut album, released under the Atlantic Records label. The album initially received negative reviews from critics, however it managed to have considerable commercial success. In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine included it among the 500 best albums of all time.
In the same year, Led Zeppelin, now unstoppable, released their second album, Led Zeppelin II, nominated for a Grammy Award. This album was also a huge success and became one of the band’s best sellers.
In 1970, after Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, the third album came out … guess what it’s called? Obviously Led Zeppelin III! And the fourth album of the following year? That’s right, Led Zeppelin IV. Both of these albums achieved great commercial success and were acclaimed. The latter became a real bestseller, also containing the super-popular songs “When the Levee Breaks”, “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll”.
Always in 1971, John Bonham played drums in the song “Everybody Clap” by Scottish singer Lulu Kennedy-Cairns. The song is written by Maurice Gibb (one of the Bee Gees) and Billy Lawrie.
In 1973, Led Zeppelin came out with their fifth album, and here those who expected Led Zeppelin V will be disappointed. The album is in fact titled Houses of the Holy. It got a Grammy Award nomination and reached the top of the music charts of the time.
Two years later, Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album, Physical Graffiti, was released. The album features one of the band’s most famous songs, Kashmir, which Bonham also co-wrote.
In 1976 the band released their seventh album, Presence, which received mixed reviews.
On the eve of the 80s Bonham played drums on his friend Roy Wood’s album (co-founder of Electric Light Orchestra) and in the English rock group Wings for their album Back to the Egg.
It must have been some wonderful times, living in England, with the opportunity to call Led Zeppelin’s drummer to play in your band! I certainly can’t say the same!
The ninth and final studio album, titled Coda, was released in 1982, two years after the death of John Bonham, who died at the age of 32.
On September 24, 1980 John Bonham participates in rehearsals at Bray Studios in view of the upcoming tour in America. After a day of playing and drinking vodka he retired to Page’s new home in Windsor with the rest of the band. At midnight, accompanied by one of Page’s assistants, the drummer went to bed and fell asleep, but at some point his heart stopped beating.
John “Bonzo” Bonham, leader of Led Zeppelin, was dead: he was 32 years old. The medical examiner certified an “accidental death”, concluding that the musician had died of suffocating from his own vomit while he was sleeping inebriated by excessive alcohol consumption. This sad death reminds me of that of Janis Joplin, very similar, which we told you about some time ago.
A few weeks later the other members of the group, devasted by the loss, reunited at the Savoy Hotel in London, where Robert Plant told the manager that, without Bonham, the band could simply not continue. It wasn’t a surprise. Often Jimmy Page had described Led Zeppelin as the fifth element born from the alchemical fusion of its 4 components. The logical consequence was that by eliminating one factor from the formula, the whole structure collapsed. “If it had been any of us, I don’t think we would have moved on,” Page said. “We were like that. Nobody else had John’s ability.”
On December 4, 1980 the 3 members of the group released a public declaration that officially sanctioned the dissolution of the band: Led Zeppelin no longer existed.
Page said that Bonzo’s death “came as a shock”, and called it the worst moment of his life. However, John Bonham’s legacy is enormous (his son Jason is also a successful drummer), and it never ceases to inspire 40 years after his death.
What can we learn from John Bonham?
John Bonham is recognized for some distinctive traits and is, even today, a source of inspiration for many drummers: speed (especially with the right foot), power, and an unrivaled sense of groove (something for which, for example, I greatly admire The Police‘s Stewart Copeland). In addition, Bonham was able to create different, innovative sounds, also thanks to the unusual hand-foot combinations.
For example in the masterpiece Stairway to Heaven, the hand-foot combination we are talking about can be heard at 6:21. or in Dazed and Confused it can be found at 4:57.
In addition to the hand-foot combination, we have already announced his speed, one of Bonham’s peculiar characteristics, especially with his right foot. It was in fact capable of playing very quickly without the aid of a double pedal or two bass drums, which many people use today (along with triggers …)
And we also talk about John Bonham’s style, because he had a great sense of groove. He had a very eclectic taste; he was in fact a big fan of soul, funk and blues music, which we can easily recognize in what he played.
The drumming technique manuals talk about “John Bonham’s groove shuffle” and the samba based section. These are examples of how listening to different styles of music can create a totally personal style. I will try to convince myself on this last sentence that I wrote, because I find it hard to believe it being rather sectorial in the choice of music.
Either way, it is clear that external stimuli, wit and perseverance are the key to creativity and success that, sadly, John Bonham did not enjoy for too long. Long instead, and everlasting, is the memory we will have of him.