Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bonzo’s Legacy Lives On

It was 30 years ago today that the rock world, and an admittedly fanatic teenage music lover (me), was stunned to hear of the sudden death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. It was a tragic and rather pathetic end for the man (having choked to death on his own vomit after an all-day drinking binge). It happened around what were supposed to be rehearsals for the band’s triumphant return to North America following a three year absence and the tragic death of singer Robert Plant’s 5-year-old son that had nearly ended the group’s glorious run. Overnight, Bonzo’s death snuffed out the light of the dominant rock band of the 1970s.

Though clearly shaken, yet persevering through radically changing times in the music business, Led Zeppelin was showing signs of reinvigoration and optimism about the prospect of rebirth and resurgence in the new decade. Nevertheless, despite the band’s successful string of streamlined shows throughout Europe during the summer of 1980, beneath the facade there were still some signs of trouble, notably Bonham’s and guitarist Jimmy Page’s ongoing drug addictions.

I distinctly remember hearing the news of Bonzo’s death on that fateful Thursday at the end of September 1980. It was late morning and, being in boarding school at the time, I was walking down the hallway of my dormitory, passing a classmate’s open door. A radio was on inside (rather loudly, as was the norm). The voice of a Philadelphia rock station’s D.J. drifted out into the hall and I caught the words: “... dead of Led Zeppelin.”

I stopped in my tracks and listened for more details. “Who?!” my mind raced. But it was the end of the bulletin and no more information was forthcoming. I bolted down the hallway to my own room and turned on my stereo and frantically scanned the dial for other news reports. (There was no internet providing real-time updates on breaking news in those days. Hell, there were no personal computers!) It wasn’t long before I got the full story, such as it was. Details were scant other than that the drummer had been found dead at Page’s home and an autopsy was being performed to determine the cause of death.

Even then, I had little doubt that, unlike other bands, the death of any member would mean the end of Led Zeppelin. I was gravely disappointed at the realization that I would never get to see my favorite band play live – tickets for fall shows in Chicago were already on sale and dates were planned for Philly. But I was also reassured by the belief that the band would not compromise their ideal and taint their legacy by carrying on in some lesser form – which, without Bonham, it would inevitably be. And I’m glad that to this day they (more or less) have stayed true to the declaration that they “could not continue as we were” that came that December.

While Bonzo’s untimely passing abruptly ended Led Zeppelin, his reputation and stature as a rock drummer have only accrued interest over the years. There’s no doubt that his contributions to the band’s sound and success are more appreciated today than during the group’s heyday.

And while we must admit that if even a portion of the many sordid accounts of the road antics on Zeppelin tours during the late 1960s and early ’70 are to be believed, the guy was clearly a bad drunk capable of not only being obnoxious, but outright abusive to those who might be unfortunate enough to cross his path. That said, his intimates (bandmates and friends alike) have remained quick to pay tribute to the Dr. Jekyll side of Bonham’s persona: The loyal friend, loving family man and, ultimately, insecure performer.

Personality flaws aside, his legacy is based on what he did as a musician. His spirit lives on in the tracks. Forget the lengthy drum solos. Those were de rigeur at the time, and Bonzo’s was more impressive as a visual spectacle in concert (and a much needed respite for his bandmates) than as a demonstration of superlative technique. It was in the rest of Led Zeppelin’s catalog that John Henry Bonham’s vitality, taste and technique really shined.

The drum lessons embedded in the Zep canon range from bombastic bashing to subtle nuance and touch; in other words, it was all about feel. As Robert Plant has aptly stated, Bonzo was Zep’s secret ingredient. “He put the sex in the grooves,” Plant says. And, if you have any appreciation for James Brown, you’ll know exactly what he means.

So, in honor of the 30th anniversary of Bonzo’s passing, here are my 30 favorite Led Zeppelin drum tracks. With the exception of the unparalleled powerful drum sound captured on Led Zeppelin IV’s “When the Levee Breaks,” it’s likely that even more impressive examples of Bonham’s talent could be culled from the hundreds of live Zeppelin bootlegs floating around out there. (For example, give a listen to “The Song Remains the Same” from the L.A. Forum in 1977.) But to avoid sounding like a Deadhead, I’ve confined this list to the readily accessible studio recordings:

1. When the Levee Breaks (LZ IV) – Undoubtedly the most sampled drum beat of all time. Thanks to the sharp snap of Bonzo’s wrists and Page’s production wizardry, this drum sound is unsurpassed!
2. Achilles Last Stand (Presence) – Nothing short of epic. In fact, every song on Presence has incredible drumming (it being Zep’s funkiest album overall), but this is the pinnacle – almost prog rock!
3. In My Time of Dying (Physical Graffiti) – Along with his fellow bandmates, Bonham took blues into another dimension on this song.
4. Rock and Roll (LZ IV) – Bonzo started out playing the intro to a Little Richard song and it took off from there.
5. The Wanton Song (Physical Graffiti)
6. How Many More Times (LZ I) – The climax of the band’s debut album, this left no doubt that here was a new force to be reckoned with.
7. For Your Life (Presence)
8. Fool in the Rain (In Through the Out Door) – Yes, he could even do samba.
9. Good Times Bad Times (LZ I) – For the high-hat and tom-tom work alone. This was an arrival announced!
10. Poor Tom (Coda – outtake from LZ III sessions) – Proof that even on an acoustic blues track drums can rock.
11. Trampled Under Foot (Physical Graffiti) – The bass, clavinet and electric guitar ride Bonzo’s relentless groove with joyful abandon: Simple funk perfection.
12. The Ocean (Houses of the Holy) – Crisp, sure-shotted drum sound, plus the added bonus of Bonham’s vocal intro.
13. Whole Lotta Love (LZ II) – That quintessential guitar riff and the lead break just wouldn’t be the same without Bonzo’s beat.
14. We’re Gonna Groove (Coda – outtake from LZ II sessions) – Zep opened many 1970 shows with this Ben E. King tune.
15. Walter’s Walk (Coda – from the Houses of the Holy sessions)
16. Kashmir (Physical Graffiti)
17. D’yer Mak’er (Houses of the Holy) – Reggae meets ’50’s doo-wop with Bonzo’s crisp pounding holding it all together.
18. Bring It On Home (LZ II) – For the fast part of the song.
19. The Rover (Physical Graffiti)
20. Four Sticks (LZ IV) – Legend has it Bonzo struggled with the drum track on this tune until he angrily grabbed two drum sticks in each hand and banged it out: Hence the title.
21. Royal Orleans (Presence)
22. Hots on For Nowhere (Presence) – The drums mirror the guitar in a unique and fanciful dance.
23. Candy Store Rock (Presence)
24. Out on the Tiles (LZ III)
25. Dazed and Confused (LZ I)
26. Down by the Seaside (Physical Graffiti)
27. Sick Again (Physical Graffiti)
28. Tea for One (Presence) – Even on an understated slow blues, Bonzo played just what was needed, no more. He didn’t need more than a cymbal and a snare.
29. Moby Dick (LZ II) – Not the bloated 25 minute live version, but the succinct studio version, especially for the fills around the opening and closing guitar riff.
30. Bonzo’s Montreaux (Coda – between album studio experimentation) – Yes, it’s a drum solo, too, but the harmonizer’s effects on the steel drums give it some melody. When released years later it almost sounded like new wave art rock!


  1. Five of PRESENCE's songs make the list and not one of them is Nobody's Fault But Mine? Bonzo's beat displacement on the and of four alone ought to be enough to secure a slot for this song; plus there's an entire secondary internal rhythm going on too.

    I think your list is good regardless, and some nice photos of John Henry too!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Darryl. Point well-taken, you make a good case for "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Problem is, what song does it bump off the top 30? I can (reluctantly) think of a few candidates. What about you.

    Suffice to say, as great as he was on all the Zep albums, I think Bonzo was at his best on Presence (and PG, too).