May 31 marks the birthday of John Bonham, the late drummer of Led Zeppelin, who totally influenced and changed the rules of hard rock and roll and contemporary blues with his power, wallop, speed, a right foot as fast as Mercury, and an almost athleticism on his drum kit, which to this day is regarded by some as the greatest techniques and posturing ever put forth on that musical instrument.
Born in 1948, in Redditch, Worcestershire, England, Bonham began playing percussion at five years old, beating on a makeshift drum set made out of containers and coffee tins, doing his best Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich imitations, who were two of his idols. His mom gave him his first snare drum when he was ten. He got his first real kit, a Premier Percussion set, from his father five years later. Bonham never had any formal training of any kind, except for the countless records he listened to growing up. When he was in school, his headmaster wrote once on his school report card that “he will either end up a dustman or a millionaire.” After school, working a day job as an apprentice carpenter, he tooled around in various local bands, eventually joining a one called Crawling King Snakes, which featured Robert Plant on lead vocals. The two of them eventually formed Band of Joy.
By the late 1960s, another British band, high profile rock/blues combo The Yardbirds, was breaking up at that time. Their guitarist Jimmy Page was forming a new band and asked Plant and Bonham to join him. Finishing the quartet by adding bassist John Paul Jones, they became Led Zeppelin and eventually became one of the biggest bands on the planet, on par with The Beatles or Rolling Stones and even surpassing and breaking both aforementioned bands’ attendance records and album sales as the 1960s passed into the 1970s.
Each member of Led Zeppelin had their own distinct style and musical verve which created a chemistry that was at once highly successful and extremely one of a kind. Plant’s banshee wailings and emotional soulful vocals by way of Janis Joplin and early American blues artists; Page’s fast and furious, yet hauntingly quiet and tasteful guitar passages; Jones’ staid yet punchy and downright bottom end bass lines all meshed perfectly with one another, all circulating around the nucleus backbeat set forth by John Bonham.
Bonham attacked his kit and the Zeppelin catalog of songs with a fervor and urgency not seen on the instrument in its past history. He had the uncontrollable control of a Keith Moon (The Who), but unlike Moon, Bonham played on a simple five-piece kit, and avoided all the pomp and “circus”-stance that was Moon’s bizarre court jester antics stock in trade. Bonham didn’t need an artillery of drums like a Moon or a Carl Palmer (ELP) or a Ginger Baker (Cream), he played on a kit that was almost like one found in a jazz band, unassuming, non-flashy, yet he drew sounds from it that equaled if not bettered all his percussive contemporaries. From the dirty hammer on anvil thunder drum lines of “Moby Dick,” “When the Levee Breaks,” “The Crunge,” “Out on the Tiles,” “The Rover,” and “Achilles Last Stand,” to “Black Dog,” “In My Time of Dying,” “Kashmir” (which Bonham co-wrote), and “The Wanton Song” the list is endless. The Bonham style had a gold standard that never, ever lost its sheen and had rust on it, from Led Zeppelin’s self-titled 1969 debut album to their final one, 1979’s In Through the Out Door, it was all stellar. And even though on In Through the Out Door a bit of the quality of Zeppelin songs suffered some, the drumming of Bonham didn’t, even taking his style to newer heights on that release by employing shuffle beats and samba rhythms on “Fool in the Rain” and almost even attempting four on the floor disco turns on “Carouselambra.”
Bonham’s personality was like he played; he remained a simple Englishman, but was a charismatic force of a man to be reckoned with. He avoided the rock and roll trappings of its lifestyles with its excess and decadence, preferring to live a life of driving race cars and working on his farm even during Zeppelin’s highest peak of success in the mid 1970s. You can see some of Bonham lifestyle portrayed in their 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same during Bonham’s lengthy drum solo (some of it played with his HANDS).
The Led Zeppelin train of wild, dizzying success came to a screeching halt on September 25th 1980, as Bonham, always a heavy drinker but of the blue collar kind, died of accidental asphyxiation after consuming FORTY shots of vodka the following evening and choking on his own vomit. Instead of replacing him, which everyone in the band and the world knew would be impossible, Led Zeppelin broke up and by doing so, put themselves and John Bonham, who they had affectionately nicknamed “Bonzo,” into that cemented legendary status of rock and roll’s immortality.
Play your favorite Zep songs all day today, or your favorite albums, or all of them. They all still stand the test of time, they are almost all still constantly rotated on classic rock and now streaming website radio to this very day. Hearing the jaw-dropping grooves from John “Bonzo” Bonham never gets old, never gets tiring, never stops inspiring. Here’s a raise of a glass of ale to you, Bonzo.