Led Zeppelin are rightfully rock legends and one of the reasons for that is they had one of the greatest drummers in the world. In the video essay below by YouTube channel Polyphonic, they detail exactly what made John Bonham, or Bonzo, so damn good.

“Led Zeppelin stormed onto the music scene in 1968,” the video begins. “Their raucous take on rock and roll redefined the genre and made them the biggest band on earth for the better part of a decade.”

But while all of the band were talented, one of them in particular was especially brilliant. It was Bonham who laid down the foundation from which the band grew, and came to define themselves from. Bonham was the bedrock for the group’s powerful sound.

Polyphonic illustrates Bonham’s genius by analysing his performances and playing. For instance, detailing how on the opening track, “Good Times Bad Times”, for Led Zeppelin’s debut album he was already defining his style while also forging a new, untravelled path for what drumming in a rock band could mean—a path that would go on to affect and influence pretty much every rock drummer who came after him.

“From the first listen his style was evident.” notes the video, pointing out his use of the bass drum. “Instead of playing the bass clean on every beat, Bonham accents the beats with triplets which spices up the rhythm.”

This way of adding flair to the drumbeat by breaking the rhythm with triplets is something Bonham picked up from jazz musicians. He took influence from jazz drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich applying their techniques to rock music. His method of displacing the beats and accents also took inspiration from blues and funk, notably James Brown.

But what also impressed with Bonham, explains the video, is that he wasn’t just doing this in a vacuum on his own. It was the way he integrated this unusual drumming technique with the other band members’ instruments. So, playing along with Jimmy Page’s guitar riffs for instance, which ultimately helped tighten and heighten the band’s sound, helping them gel.

It all adds up to a fascinating—and quite technical—look at a fascinating drummer. A drummer that Rolling Stone named as the greatest of all time in their list of the top 100.

Writing about Bonzo they said, “On the very first cut of the very first Led Zeppelin LP,  Bonham changed rock drumming forever. Years later, Jimmy Page was still amused by the disorienting impact that ‘Good Times Bad Times,’ with its jaw-dropping bass-drum hiccups, had on listeners:

‘Everyone was laying bets that Bonzo was using two bass drums, but he only had one.’ Heavy, lively, virtuosic and deliberate, that performance laid out the terrain Bonham’s artful clobbering would conquer before his untimely death in 1980. At his most brutally paleolithic, he never bludgeoned dully, at his most rhythmically dumbfounding he never stooped to unnecessary wankery, and every night on tour he dodged both pitfalls with his glorious stampede through ‘Moby Dick.’”

In September 1980 all four members of Led Zeppelin had begun rehearsing in preparation for their first tour of North America since 1977, which was planned to kick off on October 17th in Montreal, Canada. The rehearsals took place near Jimmy Page’s Windsor home where the band was staying. It was here where John Paul Jones and Benje LeFevre (Led Zeppelin’s road manager) discovered Bonham’s body, in the morning of September 25th. Bonham had died tragically from inhalation of vomit in bed during his sleep, aged just 32.

In the day leading up to his premature death, Bonham had been on a 12-hour binge drinking session, which began at noon and lasted until midnight, when he fell unconscious. He had consumed an alarming 40 units of vodka. (Welch & Nicholls, 2001, pg 120) The UK’s recommended maximum intake of alcoholic beverages per day for men is 3-4 units. After falling unconscious on a sofa, he was put to bed by an assistant where he could sleep off his drunkenness. The assistant laid him on his side with pillows for support.

John Paul Jones: “Benje and I found him. It was like, “Let’s go up and look at Bonzo, see how he is.” We tried to wake him up… It was terrible. Then I had to tell the other two… I had to break the news to Jimmy and Robert. It made me feel very angry – at the waste of him… I can’t say he was in good shape, because he wasn’t. There were some good moments during the last rehearsals … but then he started on the vodka.” “I think he had been drinking because there were some problems in his personal life. But he died because of an accident. He was lying down the wrong way, which could have happened to anybody who drank a lot.”

An ambulance was called in the morning immediately after Bonham was discovered, but it was too late for them to do anything. The police also arrived at Jimmy’s house, but no suspicious circumstances were identified.

An inquest into Bonham’s death was held at East Berkshire coroner’s court on October 18th where it was determined that Bonham had died from inhalation of his own vomit during sleep which led to pulmonary edema. (Pulmonary edema describes fluid accumulation in the lungs, which can cause respiratory failure.) The cause of death was put down as “consumption of alcohol”. A verdict of accidental death was arrived at and recorded.

Robert Plant describes Bonham’s frame of mind as they drove to their last rehearsal together: “On the very last day of his life, as we drove to the rehearsal, he was not quite as happy as he could be. He said, “I’ve had it with playing drums. Everybody plays better than me.” We were driving in the car and he pulled off the sun visor and threw it out the window as he was talking. He said, “I’ll tell you what, when we get to the rehearsal, you play the drums and I’ll sing.” And that was our last rehearsal.”

Bonham’s family funeral service took place on October 10th 1980 at Rushock Parish Church in Worcestershire. Around 250 mourners attended, made up of family, friends, band mates and other musicians including: Roy Wood, Denny Laine, Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne. Paul McCartney left a wreath and tributes flooded in from fellow drummers including Carmine Appice, Phil Collins, Cozy Powell and Carl Palmer. After the family service, the funeral procession made its way to Worcester Crematorium where the final service was held.

Swan Song Records (Led Zeppelins record label started by their manager Peter Grant) issued a statement on December 4th 1980, which addressed the many rumors regarding the bands uncertain future following the death of Bonham:

“We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.”

  • Compiled from rockarchive.com / johnbonham.co.uk

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