Drummer John Bonham, often referred to by his nickname “Bonzo,” was one of the most important and influential drummers of the 1960s and 1970s — as a member Led Zeppelin, he was also a bona fide superstar for the last decade of his life and, along with Ringo Starr of the Beatles, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Keith Moon of The Who, and Ginger Baker, one of the most well-known drummers in rock. John Henry Bonham was born in Redditch, England, in 1948. He was a natural drummer, sensitive to rhythm from an early age — he beat pots and pans in his parents’ kitchen, and built his first drum kit out of leftover containers and coffee cans when he was five years old. By the age of ten he had moved up to a real drum, and then later a complete used drum kit that his father bought for him. Like a lot of aspiring drummers of his generation, Bonham‘s musical awareness transcended rock & roll — his idols included such percussion icons as Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, whose careers dated from the 1930s.
He spent most of his youth in Birmingham, England, and left school in his mid-teens, circa 1964, and for a time worked for his brother’s construction company. He played in his first band, Terry Web and the Spiders, in 1964 — subsequently, he worked with a multitude of bands, mostly based in Birmingham, including the Blue Stars and the Senators, of whom the latter saw some success with a single entitled “She’s a Mod.” Bonham was already an extremely powerful player, and had a growing reputation in the midlands as one of the loudest drummers in music. By the mid-’60s, he’d formed his own group, A Way of Life, in tandem with bassist Dave Pegg, later a key member of Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull. After a few months, however, Bonham left — the group continued without him for a time, while Bonham joined a blued-based band called the Crawling King Snakes, which featured a lead singer named Robert Plant. The two became friends, and Plant was very much an admirer of Bonham‘s playing.
Bonham found himself one of the most in-demand unsigned drummers in England, and after brief return to A Way of Life, he went back to working with Plant, this time in a new group called Band of Joy, whose history included a series of demos that didn’t get them a contract, and a string of gigs opening for American folk/blues singer Tim Rose. The group split up, but when Rose returned to England for another tour a few months later, he invited Bonham to play in his band. At approximately the same time, guitarist Jimmy Page, a longtime sessionman who had been playing with The Yardbirds for almost two years, was in the process of assembling a new band out of the ashes of the latter group, which had split up in the spring of 1968. Page and bassist Chris Dreja had The Yardbirds name and a series of gigs in Scandanavia which they were contracted to play — Page intended to meet those obligations, but he had much more in mind for the new band he’d already decided to put together. He recognized that the Yardbirds and the sound they’d generated had gone as far as they could commercially, and he was determined to carry this new musical venture to the next level and beyond. He asked Chris Dreja into the new outfit, and wanted Terry Reid as lead singer, but Reid declined the offer, instead recommending Robert Plant, who accepted Page’s offer. At around this time, Dreja — who’d been with the band since 1963 — decided he didn’t want to continue as a working musician, preferring instead to pursue a career in photography; in his place, Page recruited veteran fellow session musician John Paul Jones. That left the drummer’s spot to be filled — Page had thought of several well-known musicians as possible drummers for the band, including B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum, veteran sessionman Clem Cattini, and Aynsley Dunbar, but Plant urged him to look at Bonham. The guitarist, along with band manager Peter Grant, attended a Tim Rose performance at Hampstead, liked what they heard, and offered Bonham the spot. Bonham actually hesitated to accept at first — Page and Grant weren’t offering as much money to start with as a lot of other outfits interested in his services, but he did finally come around and joined.
The quartet was in place by September of 1968, and following their tour under the “New Yardbirds” name, they took up their chosen new name — Led Zeppelin — and work began on a new album, with a new repertory, under a contract signed with Atlantic Records. The self-titled Led Zeppelin album, released in January of 1969, showed how everything about the group was notched up — the intensity of Plant’s singing, the range and volume of Page’s playing, and the depth and power of Jones’ and Bonham‘s rhythm section. Actually, a good deal of what they did was not new — Jeff Beck, Page’s predecessor in The Yardbirds, had pioneered a similar sound earlier on a series of singles in 1967 and the Truth album in the summer of 1968, but Page and company focused it with laser-like precision. Moreover, whereas Beck’s band, as represented on Truth, had been something of a work in progress, with the work of four different drummers (including Cattini and Dunbar, two of Page’s early candidates for the spot) represented, Led Zeppelin arrived fully formed, and that went double in the drumming department. Not that there wasn’t room for growth and advancement — Bonham’s playing was as loud and forceful as ever when they started, but he took another step up following Led Zeppelin‘s first tour of the United States, on which they opened for Vanilla Fudge; their drummer, Carmine Appice (later to be a Jeff Beck alumnus), turned Bonham on to Ludwig drums, which became his instruments of choice for the rest of his life.
The first Led Zeppelin album, released in early 1969, topped the charts, and Led Zeppelin II, released eight months later, was even bigger, riding the number one spot for almost two months — both albums, along with Led Zeppelin III (which, being somewhat more experimental, did not sell as well) were recorded and released amid 30 months of near-constant touring, across which the group ascended from support act to headliners, and from auditoriums to arenas. When the smoke cleared, they were established among record buyers and concertgoers from junior high to college age as one of the top musical attractions in the world, ranked alongside The Rolling Stones and The Who. Moreover, because of the group’s strategy of almost entirely avoiding the release of singles, it was impossible not to be immersed in their total sound, including Bonham‘s playing, if one owned any of their music — they sold their music by the album, and one bought in for the whole package, even if the interest stemmed from a single song, perhaps even one of the folkier numbers that turned up increasingly in their repertory after the first two albums. Across the ensuing decade, the band ruled the heavy metal landscape, and Bonham‘s drumming was a key part of their appeal. His most basic playing, exhibited on early classics such as “Whole Lotta Love,” had an explosive power that was larger-than-life (even next to Plant’s singing and Page’s soloing), especially in tandem with Jones’ bass work, and in later years, when he added orchestral tympani and other, more exotic and advanced percussion devices to his array, it only added richness to the power and articulation that he already exuded. He was as well known as Page or Plant, and his featured spot, the sometimes 45-minute-long piece best known as “Moby Dick,” was a recognized musical reference point far beyond the ranks of their fans (enough that it could be satirized in This Is Spinal Tap). He could also play with admirable restraint and great effect as well, as on “Bron-Y-Saur Stomp,” and his more circumspect presence on some of the band’s middle-period folk-based material, such as “The Rain Song” from Houses of the Holy, is welcome. But Bonham‘s great musical virtue was his raw power — Ginger Baker could generate polyrhythms that teased and dazzled the listener (even next to Eric Clapton‘s solos and Jack Bruce’s thunderous bass); Bill Bruford, whether in Yes or King Crimson or any of the bands that followed, could make his drums seem to sing (and very sweetly, at that); Carl Palmer exuded almost unnatural speed behind his kit; and Keith Moon played his drums like an orchestra accompanying The Who. But whether it was the bass, the snare, the cymbals — even the symphonic gong, which he added to his sound a couple of years into the band’s history — that he was hitting, Bonham played with the power of a pair of pile-drivers. Not coincidentally, he used some of the heaviest sticks around, and he never gave up that attribute of forcefulness, even when he added synthesized drums to his array of sounds in the late ’70s.
Amid all of his success, and the musical and personal fulfillment that came from playing in front of arena-sized audiences and selling tens of millions of records, Bonham was — as much as anyone in rock & roll — burning the candle at both ends. In addition to such indulgences as collecting vintage sports cars and motorcycles in his spare time, he tended to push himself hard in other areas of life. In the fall of 1980, Bonham had been a dozen years a member of Led Zeppelin and was still only 33 years young. He was also known as a man who loved his alcohol. On September 24, he downed somewhere over three dozen straight shots of vodka in just a few hours. He died in his sleep later that night, apparently choking on his own vomit from a sandwich he’d eaten amid the drinking. Left to grieve his loss and ask why were his wife, two children, many friends, and tons of fans. Led Zeppelin — perhaps looking at the travails of The Who, who had lost their drummer, Keith Moon, a couple of years earlier and, with him, their sound and their group identity and cohesion — didn’t recover, and called it quits within three months. Officially, the band never worked again after 1980, the surviving members going off to their solo projects and various reconfigurations (often reviving elements of Zeppelin repertory), and Page overseeing the eventual remastering of their library across the 1990s. There were archival releases, including several box sets, a set of BBC performances, and a live collection in the early 21st century, but Bonham’s death was effectively the end of the band. The surviving members did appear together, however, in a performance honoring the 50th anniversary of Atlantic Records; and in 2007, a one-off Led Zeppelin performance was announced, for a concert honoring the memory of Atlantic Records president and co-founder Ahmet Ertegun — with Jason Bonham, John’s son, in the drummer’s spot — to take place in London in November of 2007. – Bruce Eder & Charlotte Dillon