Bonham – or “Bonzo” as he was known – is one of my favourite drummers. And, in a band of virtuoso players, I feel that he was often the difference for Led Zeppelin, the component that made them stand out.
Listening to any of the band’s albums is the instant proof of his magic behind the kit – but the live recordings – both official and bootlegged – show him to be a percussion composer: live, he actually composes as he plays, choosing drums for fills for texture; choosing strokes via stick or hand to accent what he played in the moment/s before, to set up what he was about to think to play. Every move a backup of the move that had just been made – or was in anticipation of what was to come.
That should be how anyone/everyone plays the drums – but it is hardly ever the case.
I first heard John Bonham when I first heard Led Zeppelin. I was 14. And it – quite honestly – changed my life.
Always a stickler for a good drummer, for a huge drum sound, I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard my brother’s copy of Re-Masters. I was sure I was hearing multiple bass-drums for Good Times Bad Times – and the choice of fills during the subdued numbers like All My Love was instantly inspiring.
Bonham had power as a chief weapon, sure. But there was a lot of subtlety in the way he played – and he knew how to sit on a groove (listen here to the drum-only outtakes of Fool In The Rain where Bonham appropriates the Purdie Shuffle).
But it is the power that people think of – and understandably.
It doesn’t have to just be the live drum solos – think of Achilles Last Stand, which is just one example of a Led Zeppelin song that is driven by Bonzo – carried by Bonham being just the right example of carried away, taking the song with him at every step – rather than just hitting cymbals and creating fills to impress. It’s an endurance feat to this day, a good test of a rock drummer that thinks they have chops and speed and skill; get them to play that, make no mistakes, then send them out to the world…
My favourite Zep album – if I had to pick one – is Physical Graffiti – but every single album is buoyed by Bonham’s drumming; fresh still because of his ideas. He had a feel that cannot be replicated – and the fact that he is still so often held up as a guru for hard-rock/metal drummers is, in so many ways, a testament to the ideas he got down on tape.
I love listening to one of the most famous Zeppelin bootlegs, Destroyer. Bonham is on fire – giving the songs new meanings live. He seemed to live for the live moment, for the spontaneity, inching a new definition in to a song by elbowing in a different fill or stroking the skin of the drum sans sticks. He was always thinking as he played.
A new found appreciation for everything that Bonham did arrived, for me, with the Led Zeppelin DVD – this is where I really saw him as a drum-set composer, a spontaneous arranger, thinking as he played, pushing new shapes from old blocks.
And, sure his son has inherited some of his talent and worked hard to get some of the rest – and there are many other players who can phone in a half-pie decent Moby Dick from time to time – but I’m glad there has been no long, lasting Led Zep reunion.
Well, that’s how I see it anyway. And I have to figure I’m not alone. Robert Plant would agree, I’m sure…
What are your thoughts? John Bonham – great rock drummer, or overrated? Do you think he’s a huge part of the Led Zep sound or would he be easily replaceable? Do you remember first hearing him? And do you have favourite Bonham licks and grooves? (Obviously When The Levee Breaks deserves a mention. As does Black Dog and Four Sticks).