Perhaps you live in a town to which the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains The Same comes once every few weeks for the midnight showing. The audience at such events is a rough cross section of Led Zeppelin fans, ranging from students with briefcases to absolute Cro-Magnons with flasks. A very vocal group, they believe in participatory cinema and are apt to cheer their heroes on a first-name basis. Messrs. Page and Plant are obvious favorites, but it’s like Giants Stadium when John Bonham performs on drums and racing cars.
Led Zeppelin has always held a little something for both intellectual and barbarian. You can see it in the movie, in which each member of the group, including their manager Peter Grant, stars in a personal fantasy sequence. The contrast between the soft-focused and metaphysical Jimmy Page, versus the earthy and fast-action John Bonham vignettes says it alt. Unfortunately, Bonham is seldom given credit for meeting Page halfway; rather, he is portrayed like Conan, making thunder and exciting the natives. Several years after his death, articles indicate that Bonham was some kind of thumping idiot. One magazine-length tribute to Led Zeppelin even managed to claim that Bonham pioneered the “excess is best” style of drumming. Rarely do the accolades acknowledge the tremendous control and finesse that Bonham displayed.
And so, for the current article, it was decided that, rather than stretch the facts once more in yards of pop-journalese, credible witnesses would be approached. If it were not possible to interview Bonham, then those who knew him would be sought. And so we spoke with six people whose lives and work were touched by “Bonzo” Bonham: Dave Pegg, bass player with Fairport Convention and now with Jethro Tull, played with Bonham in the pre-Zeppelin years. Carmine Appice and John Bonham played back-to-back when Vanilla Fudge and Led Zeppelin toured on equal billing in early 1969. Phil Carson of Atlantic Records, now traveling with Robert Plant, was a close friend of Bonham’s and frequently played encores with Zeppelin as bassist, allowing John Paul Jones the freedom to double on keyboards. Journalist Ritchie Yorke accomplished a rare feat: He became close to the group and produced a book, recently revised, which remains the definitive history of Led Zeppelin. Eddie Kramer engineered John Bonham on several albums. Cooperating with Jimmy Page, he created a reference standard for drum sounds, just as he did with the Beatles, Stones, and especially Jimi Hendrix. Finally, drummer Dave Mattacks’ path intertwined with Bonham’s over the years, mostly while Dave was with Fairport Convention. He admired John Bonham and, as Peter Grant told me, it was mutual. Dave worked closely with Jimmy Page on the soundtrack to the movie Death Wish II.
Looking back, it seems hard to believe that some of today’s most ardent Zeppelin fans were not yet born when Jimmy Page first had a twinkle in his eye for a new group to replace the ailing Yardbirds. We must roll back a little.
It was July, 1968, the summer of guitarist Jimmy Page’s discontent. He had joined the British blues-rock group the Yardbirds in its twilight years. Personality incompatibility and musical differences were rife. First, bass player Paul Samwell-Smith had left to become a successful musical producer, leaving a gaping hole in the rhythm section. Page, a guitarist by trade, seeking the comradery and meaningful work offered by a name rock group, eagerly jumped out of the relative anonymity of session work to fill the void. His bass posturing is documented on Michaelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up, on which Page actually recorded guitar tracks, despite the fact that it looked as if the Yardbirds were working live in a Windsor club. Eventually, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja got stuck with bass and Page shared the guitar chair with Jeff Beck. But the talented and erratic Beck had difficulty with the arrangement, and after a tour of the United States, he left the Yardbirds for a fruitful solo career.
Meanwhile, the Yardbirds continued, until drummer Jim McCarty and vocalist Keith Relf forsook their blues roots completely (Relf delighted in Gregorian Chants—no slight to him) in a new group, Renaissance. Bassist Chris Dreja took up photography, leaving Page and new manager Peter Grant to plot the future.
It should be remembered that Jimmy Page was something of a guitar king of the British session scene before entering the Yardbirds. His discography numbers in the hundreds and includes the Who, Joe Cocker, Them, Donovan and the Kinks. It was only natural that his next group would reflect the level of professionalism and commitment to which he was accustomed, and which failed him in the Yardbirds. Chris Dreja remembers that Page “worked very hard at fitting in and contributing to the music. Jimmy was, and still is, a very professional player. . . . Unfortunately, Jimmy came in when we needed a rest from it. Also, he was using it as a platform for himself; he was getting into bowing his guitar…”
For his New Yardbirds, Page chose one John Paul Jones on bass, who had worked with John McLaughlin in jazz groups and was well known as an arranger on the session front, achieving considerable recognition on Donovan material. Terry Reid was to be the singer for the group, but was busy and recommended Robert Plant—seconded by Tony Secunda, Procul Harum’s manager. So far, they had a powerful trio consisting of three intense devotees to American blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and all with a striking breadth of talent. A drummer with authority was needed. Quite rightly, Procul Harum’s B.J. Wilson, who had worked with Page on Joe Cocker’s studio version of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” was mentioned, but things didn’t pan out. Robert Plant urged Page and Peter Grant to journey up to Birmingham to see a drummer whose huge local reputation was based on thunderous rock stylings and a mastery of the blues form: enter John Bonham. From this point on, things went quickly.
The New Yardbirds toured in Scandinavia in order to fulfill the old group’s contractual commitments, and entered the studio in December, 1968, emerging with an album’s worth of material, a new name (credit Keith Moon or John Entwistle with the ironic “Led Zeppelin”), and probably the most unique and powerful rhythm section in rock to date.
Many drummers can recall vividly when the first Zeppelin album was released. It sent a lot of them to their basements, some trying with two bass drums to duplicate what Bonham had accomplished with a single Ludwig on “Good Times Bad Times.” Bonham was so strong and exact: Who was this guy, and why had we never heard of him? In fact, the story of John Bonham before Zeppelin is quite modest and unassuming.
Bonham was born into a working-class family on May 31, 1948, in the countryside of Worcestershire, England. His father was a building contractor in Redditch and both parents supported John’s early predilection towards drumming, manifested on the usual pots and pans. They bought him his first snare drum and, in his early teens, his first drumset.
His first group was Terry Webb & The Spiders. While in his second group, A Way Of Life, circa 1966, he got married, as did the bass player Dave Pegg. Next, it was The Crawling King Snakes, with Robert Plant, which lasted a few months before Bonham went back to Pegg and A Way Of Life, due to financial considerations. Dave Pegg recalls those early years:
“We used to travel around together. John didn’t drive at the time because he was suffering from a driving ban, so I used to drive him about in my old Renault Dauphine. He lived in Redditch, and I lived in Birmingham and the drive from my house to Redditch after the gig used to be known as the Redditch Bleed because it was always such a long way to go. We’d do pubs and clubs; the group only did about 40 gigs because we were so loud, and we refused to do the top-20. Very often we’d be contracted to do two one-hour spots for about 30 dollars. We’d do the first spot and it was so loud—mainly due to John, who was the loud est drummer I’ve ever worked with—that we’d have to go home. And we’d be so broke—to get to gigs we used to siphon petrol to fill the van up. If we survived the gig and got paid, then we could afford to buy petrol to get back home. But going was always a siphoner.” The band performed Cream- and Hendrix-inspired material. Actually, sheer logistics and financial problems were a chief reason for Bonham leaving Plant and going back to A Way Of Life. The finances were that tight.
With the advent of stacks of Marshall or Hi Watt amplifiers, it was usually the drummer who came begging for amplification. Not so with Bonham. Pegg: “I bought a Marshall 4 x 12 cabinet and a 50-watt top, and so did the guitar player, and it still wasn’t loud enough to keep up with the level that John’s drums were kicking out.” In those days they simply didn’t have enough money to purchase PA equipment and extra Marshall cabinets, but Pegg remembers a resourceful John Bonham: “He said, ‘Well, sod it. I’ll make them.’ His father ran a builder’s business in Redditch, and we went out one day and bought all this timber on his father’s account. Just using a Black & Decker, within two days John had built eight 4×12 cabinets. It was absolutely fantastic. Of course, then we needed something to cover them with. John had a mate who was a furniture upholsterer, and he covered them in orange leather—real leather with lime green speaker cloth. They looked amazing. But, of course, we only had eight 12″ speakers between the guitar player and myself. John said, ‘Don’t worry about that. Just put one in each cabinet.’ That’s what we did, and all the other bands in Birmingham came and saw us, and thought it was fantastic. Of course, it only sounds so good because you’ve got all those cabinets. John was pretty together in that respect.”
John Bonham was reunited with Robert Plant in 1968 in Band Of Joy, which opened for Tim Rose, an American singer famous for a loud, guttural version of “Hey Joe.” Pegg recalls, “I backed Tim Rose with John one night before he actually joined Tim Rose. We did a one-off at a couple of American airforce bases. It was quite funny. I remember that Bonham and I drove down from Birmingham to London in a van with our group equipment that we had borrowed, including the PA, and we rehearsed with Tim Rose in some seedy little rehearsal room in London from 11:00 till 4:00… We got back to Birmingham about 6:00 the next morning and got paid a tenner each!”
Notwithstanding his love for Bonzo, Dave Pegg doesn’t remember Bonham being a particularly fastidious purveyor of the art of drum maintenance. “Drummers are either one way or the other. They either just throw the kit in the back of the car, you know, and treat it like a lump of shit, or the kit is put in cases, pad locked, labeled and touched with a duster. Every drummer I know has been one way or the other. Once Bonham threw his drums out of the rehearsal—out of the pub first-floor window. I’m sure in later years—when he probably only touched his kit during soundchecks—that it was meticulously maintained. Certainly in his youth he wasn’t that interested in it.”
When John Bonham joined the New Yardbirds he completed a lineup which was really, musical similarities to the original Yardbirds aside, a vastly different enterprise. The differences were three-fold: first, management. Peter Grant was not given a fighting chance when he took over the Yardbirds—a group in the throes of disintegration. His considerable skills welded Zeppelin into an organization which showed for the first time that rock musicians could be adequately reimbursed for the fruits of their labors. The record label Swan Song was a manifestation of Zeppelin’s attempt at controlling its destiny. Sec ondly, Zeppelin displayed unerring commitment and loyalty— obvious in the fact that no New Led Zeppelin has arisen. Finally, musically, Zeppelin was stronger. Quite objectively, Zeppelin had more appropriate vocals all of which are evident when you place the first Zeppelin album alongside any Yardbirds record.
Of course, it took the press a long while to appreciate the attributes—especially the American press, still uncomfortable with the idea that groups of Englishmen could come over and popularize indigenous American music when American blues musicians were struggling on their native soil. Hut the music of Led Zeppelin changed over the years. In spite of those who feel that Zeppelin climaxed with their first or second album, their best work was ahead. The fourth album is a marvelous achieve ment, providing truly universal music: It unites the most salient rock and blues elements—recorded to the hilt—with folk and Celtic strains, aided by Fairport Con vention’s vocalist, the late Sandy Denny, in “The Battle Of Evermore.” The writing of Page and Plant increasingly began to display that, while intellectuals tapped their feet, barbarians could be engaged as well. All the while, Led Zeppelin kept to its path of healthy, loud rock ‘n’ roll, but the diversity was obvious.
I remember once being approached by a tourist—a lad from India, who inquired if I had heard of Jimmy Page! It turns out that he had seen Page and Plant at a Calcutta discotheque performing on primitive makeshift equipment during one of their many excursions bent on discovering worlds of music outside the four-to-the-bar. For Bonham, this encompassed a growing mastery of all percussion instruments, including the keyboards and mallets. While it is common knowledge that he performed solos with his bare hands, it has only been recently divulged that he had designs on the entire conventional percussion section. “Bonzo’s Montreux,” off the recent compendium album Coda, displays the width of Bonham’s percussive imagination, coupled with Page’s production skills.
But while Led Zeppelin was a superb forum for experimentation, allowing Bonham tremendous latitude on diverse noise-makers, his calling and his name were made on the traditional American device: the drumset. And John Bonham played, for the most part, a very simple drumkit, consisting of a 14×26 bass drum, a 12×15 small tom—at first mounted on a snare stand and later on the usual Ludwig bass drum rail-mount—16×16 and 16×18 floor toms, and generally a Supra-Phonic 6 1/2X 14 snare topped off with a Speed King foot pedal with a wood or hard felt beater. With today’s drum world set on massive and complex hardware constructions, it is refreshing to note that Bonzo, a heavy player if there ever was one, could make do with placing his Paiste 22″ or 24″ medium ride on the standard Ludwig bass drum shell-mount holder, and could use the Ludwig Atlas line of hardware, which is quite modest compared to the amount of steel built around contemporary drumsets. Flanked by Paiste 18″ (on his left) and 20″ crashes, sometimes a 16″ (further left), and 15″ Sound Edge hi-hats, Bonham produced the patent sound. He augmented this arrangement with a timpani or two and a 38″ gong. In the early years he used Remo Ambassador heads, or the Ludwig equivalent, and changed over to Ludwig Silver Dots or Remo black dots. Similarly, his choice of drumshells, while always Ludwig, changed from wood to Vistalite to stainless steel. He always got that Bonham sound, proving that it ain’t the drum; it’s the drummer. This is not to say that John Bonham was immune to a little drum fever. Carmine Appice tells it this way: “John was freaked out by the Vanilla Fudge albums. One of the things that really freaked Bonzo out was the drumset I had which, at the time, was two 26″ bass drums, a 12×15 marching tom, a small tom-tom, a 16×18 tom, a 22″ bass drum over on its side as the big tom, and a 6 1/2″ snare. I mean, it totally freaked him out as it did a lot of the English drummers. He wanted the same drumset I had. I remember to this day calling up Ludwig and telling them about this group, Led Zeppelin, that I thought was going to be big, and that the drummer wanted a duplicate drumset. Six months later Vanilla Fudge and Led Zeppelin went out together on an equal bill, and we both had the same set of drums—the first maple wood set in rock ‘n’ roll.” You can see pictures of this kit, minus the extra (and for Bonham superfluous) bass drum, in old editions of The Ludwig Drummer. This simple kit layout, in one reincarnation or another, perfectly suited Bonham’s no-nonsense style.
To look at Bonham’s style, we have to understand its musical environment. England by the mid-’60s was an absolute stronghold for certain forms of American music. It seemed to go two ways: First, there was mainstream pop, including all that surf music by the Beach Boys, Ventures, Jan & Dean; the English digested this and tossed it back to America in cute groups like Herman’s Hermits, Gerry & the Pacemakers, and the Searchers. (For that matter, there were some who would have cleaned up the Yardbirds in such a way.) The other direction was fueled by the insatiable love for American jazz in any form—Dixie, bop, Miles, or the blues. English bands like the Graham Bond Organization incorporated elements from all of these John Bonham may not have owed much to the pop music of his day, but he did a careful study of the typical 12-bar blues, through close listening to original recordings and to Ginger Baker. By the time John Bonham joined his first pro group, Ginger Baker was something of a star in England. A marvelous timekeeper in the Phil Seaman matched-grip tradition, Ginger could play in any time signature and always punctuated with rude little surprises. John Bonham took to Baker’s inherent straight-8th feel, to his urgent, open and ringy bass drum work, and to his flashy stage presence. Bonham recalled that “people hadn’t taken much notice of drums really before Krupa. And Ginger Baker was responsible for the same thing in rock. Rock music had been around for a few years before Baker, but he was the first to come out with this ‘new’ attitude—that a drummer could be a forward musician in a rock band…I thought [Ginger] was fantastic when he played with the Graham Bond Organization.”
Ritchie Yorke talked to Bonham about his influences several times, noting that “he had an incredible respect for Ginger Baker’s talents. There’s no question about that. I don’t think he was particularly impressed by any other contemporary drummers who evolved in the post-Cream era.”
Phil Carson spent many an evening at Bonham’s house, listening to music on the family jukebox or stereo. “John had a very broad taste in music. He would listen to a lot of Motown music. Some of the ’60s English groups he thought were very good. He particularly liked the Trogg’s ‘Wild Thing.’ ” Bonham reiterated his love for Motown music on many occasions and also expressed respect for the simple, fat sound of Al Jackson.
Dave Pegg remembers John being somewhat struck with Carmine Appice. “He did listen to Beck, Bogert & Appice, and in the earlier years to Vanilla Fudge on their first American tour and he was impressed by Carmine.” Pegg, however, doesn’t feel that much can be gotten out of searching out particular drummers who influenced Bonham’s style, an attitude shared by Phil Carson. Pegg: “I mean, he was playing the way he was when he was 16 or 17 years old. All the traits that formed his style were visible on the first Zeppelin album.”
Carmine Appice feels strongly about his impact on John Bonham. “Bonzo was freaked out because I was his hero. He said, like, ‘Man, I got all my licks from you,’ and as the [Zeppelin/Fudge] tour progressed he saw how I did all the things I did, like the twirling, grabbing the cymbal on the left side, and just the natural attack of the drums and everything. At that time, I was basically your ‘power drummer’; Moon was a good rock drummer, and so was Baker, but they weren’t really power drummers.” There may well be something in Carmine’s assertion that some of Bonham’s best-known fills were lifted from Vanilla Fudge tunes—for example, the broken bass drum triplet in “Good Times Bad Times.” Carmine explains, “I’ll tell you exactly where he got it. He got it off the third Vanilla Fudge album in a song called ‘That’s What Makes A Man.’ Those triplets are all over that, and that was done and released in June ’68, which was a good nine months before the Zeppelin album came out. The whole thing where Bonzo got his style is still on record, thank God.” And further, “A direct cop which, you know, I felt a little ripped off but proud about, was my thing at the end of ‘Shotgun’—the little break: ‘butaba bu taba butaba.’ If you listen to that, and listen to the end of Zeppelin’s ‘Rock And Roll,’ you will hear an awful lot of similarity.”
More interesting than who influenced whom, especially when we get to these grey areas, is trying to nail down what it was that Bonham did himself. Although putting someone’s style in words is not easy, it may not be impossible. The first key word to Bonzo Bonham’s way of playing drums is “simplicity.” Any artist must choose, select, and discard those elements which disguise his intent: Bonham’s art was the combining of execution and tuning such that one note served in place of ten. Thus, oftentimes you hear Bonham sitting on a wide quarter note on 1 and 3 of the bar, snare on 2 and 4, and letting the sheer moment of placement and power of sound carry that enormous pulse. Bonzo never gave us the hosing that some of the fusion drummers did in the mid-’70s; rarely does self-indulgent, unnecessarily busy playing wear well with time.
All this said, the man was capable of a fill or two. At first he explored the triplet: A favorite blues fill was a string of triplets—the first of each group of three on the snare, and the last two on bass drum. Bonham, to put it lightly, had a heavy right foot. One cut which particularly displays a smooth, consistent Bonham is “Poor Tom” from Coda, with John, both hands on snare, working a sort of straight-8th shuffle. In “D’Yer Mak’er” we have hats off to reggae with the explosive Bonham smiling at the traditionally polite and subdued Jamaican timekeepers. Especially important is Bonham’s contribution to “No Quarter” (especially off the soundtrack to The Song Remains The Same; also on Houses Of The Holy). Here, he is working without bass guitar. Talk about bottom end—Jones on bass pedals and Bonzo on 26″ bass drum! It’s nice to hear Bonham coloring a little more around the high-end here, bouncing quasi-Tower of Power hi-hat splashes off the piano figures. For a man who once said, “To me, drums sound better than cymbals,” Bonham had pretty refreshing cymbal work. Actually, though, when we think about Bonham we are more likely to remember drums than cymbals. Here again we have the Ginger Baker influence. Both Baker and Bonham had the habit of playing extended solos with the snare releases in the off position, going for that African/ Krupa dark sound. Bonham’s twist was his ability to perform solos with his bare hands. He explained that, “It wasn’t so much what you could play with your hands; you just got a lovely little tone out of the drums that you couldn’t get with sticks. I thought it would be a good thing to do, so I’ve been doing it ever since. You really do get an absolutely true drum sound because there’s no wood involved.”
So much of the trademark “John Bonham Sound,” the object of a lot of fuss these days, was quite simply John Bonham. We have all become accustomed, especially in the studio environment, to allowing all sorts of perverted acts to be done on our drums in the name of getting this or that sound. And oftentimes, as the engineers will tell you, we have to do a lot of these unnatural things to our drums because, maybe, we don’t hit the snare quite consistently, thereby causing all sorts of buzzing and rattling. And maybe they’re sticking all kinds of extra mic’s around us because we don’t know how to play our kits in the proper balance.
Well, the “John Bonham Sound” is the way John Bonham tuned his drums, plus the way he hit them, and finally, the way in which they were recorded. And speaking about the latter, in light of all the recent talk about distant miking and the “Sun Records sound,” you couldn’t take the average drummer and get that sound because most drummers don’t have control over their drums.
There are probably many recording engineers out there who would love to confirm this. Fortunately, we have Eddie Kra mer on hand. If you’ve ever marveled at the spectacular sounds on Jimi Hendrix’s album Electric Ladyland, you should know that it was Eddie behind the board, interpreting Jimi’s ideas and thinking of ways of best translating them onto tape. Eddie has a knack for getting incredibly big and lifelike drum sounds. He loves the drums. You can hear it in his presentation of Mitch Mitchell in “1983,” or in John Bonham in “D’Yer Mak’er.” One reason Eddie believes he is so successful is because, as he puts it, he rarely seeks to implant his will on the artist. Rather, he works around the artist, providing “the platform or the impetus with which to express a musical opinion.”
I talked to Eddie about his fairly identifiable drum sound, which is marked by its openness, liveness, and spontaneous feel, all stemming from a classical background and a classical technique of miking based upon the notion that distance makes depth. “If you want to refer directly to Bonham, you could record him in one of two ways. One way was completely distant with three mic’s, which I’ve done. ‘D’Yer Mak’er’ was a three-mic’ job where the mic’s were just in the room and specifically placed—I’m not going to say where— fairly distantly. Even though he was the loudest drummer I’ve ever recorded, his sound was so complete that it didn’t need any attention to the finer, closer-miking technique in that particular song because of what he generated in the room, and he was in a room all by himself.”
We are not talking about Bonham placed in a closet-sized drum booth, a point which Eddie confirmed: “No, no, I never use drum booths, or at least very rarely. I much prefer the method where the drummer is in a separate room, basically for the acoustics. It can be a room, a hallway, a concert hall, a stage, a back room, an alleyway—any place where I can get a great live drum sound.”
The other way of recording Bonham, more obvious on the second Zeppelin al bum, was close miked—not too close—with room mic’s for depth and ambience. This approach was used when particular tunes warranted more discrete focus on particular kit sounds, or when ideal rooms (high ceiling, lots of wood and plaster) were not to be had.
For an engineer, surely the approach to a Zeppelin mix would be affected by Bonham’s larger-than-life drum sound: “I would usually work with the foot and the snare, and the room mic’s, if there are room tracks. I would get the drums as huge as I possibly could and try to fit everything around it. [laughs] One thing I remember Bonham saying to me, which I was very flattered about, was, ‘Oh well, Eddie’s coming; I don’t have to worry about the drum sound.’ And he always used to give me a big bear hug and say, ‘You’re going to give me a good sound today, aren’t you?’ in a funny, threatening voice.”
The presence of a capable and sympathetic engineer was mandatory when recording Bonham: He was loud, he didn’t tune his drums baggy and loose, and he wasn’t accustomed to changing his approach in the studio. Eddie Kramer: “Bonham was loud, period. No, it didn’t pose any difficulties in recording him; rather, it enhanced it. He tuned the kit the way he heard it: front skin on the bass drum, tuned to the point where it sounded like a timp if you just touched it. But when you hit it with a wooden beater! He was a bricklayer, and he had a lot of weight in his legs; he hit it bloody hard, and that, to me, is the art of his drumming. He kicked the shit out of the drums. But yet, at the same time, he could be very delicate, too. His dynamic range in his solo was amazing. In the movie you can get a very good idea about what he was doing with his hands— the famous hand solo. He was not really hitting the drums very hard with his hands, you know. He was using his foot to make a lot of those big crashes. So it was an illusion that he was creating there.
“He was absolutely amazing in the studio. I know Jimmy would show him some tricky sort of timing things, where the beat would turn around, and he would get it immediately. He would just walk right into it. He’d be a little puzzled at first, but it wouldn’t take him very long to lock into it.”
Eddie is very careful about drums, and realized during our conversation that he may have caused some confusion with his observations on Bonham’s bass drum tensioning. “When I say that he tuned it like a timpani, the tuning is ‘concert’ in tonality; by that, I mean if you just touch a concert bass drum—one of those gigantic 30″ ones—it just resonates like crazy. It was the same basic thing, scaled down, with Bonham’s drum. You could touch it very lightly and it would ring like crazy. Touch it gently and it would resonate and ring, but if you hit it hard with the right amount of attack and with a wooden beater, it gave you the most incredible crack, plus a tremendous low-frequency ‘oomph,’ which was probably the secret of his bass drum. What those various elements were, the particular head, the tuning—a lot had to do with the way he played it. The weight and attack of his foot was amazing. He had an ability to attack the drums without seeming to attack them physically, even though the sound emanating from them was huge.”
I often wondered how Bonham would adjust to the studio environment where, perhaps, discipline and precision were more important than in live settings. How would a guy like Bonham react to the usual engineers’ instructions? Eddie: “With Bonham there would be no necessity to give him instructions, retune his drums, or change cymbals, because he had his sound together. His drums resonated like crazy; the snare reverberated around, but I never bothered about that because, you see, I treated the drums as a whole unit, rather than as individual things. Sure, the snare has to sound good and the toms have to have a reasonable sound, but it’s the overall impression that the drummer is giving you in Bonham’s case. He was never a problem for me to record.”
Did you ever wonder what it would have been like to sit behind Bonzo’s drums, tuned and set up to his taste, or what would have happened to your drums if he played them? Dave Mattacks had both experiences and lived to tell the tale. “I remember going to see them once in rehearsal, and John was using a stainless-steel kit. I remember going up and trying the drums. When I played them they sounded like four tin cans. He had both heads on the bass drum, fairly tight, and the snare drum was up as tight as it would go. He was using a 26″ bass drum, a 12×15 tom, and an 18″ and a 20″ floor—or 16” and 18″—and a 61/2X 14 snare drum. I think he was using the Silver Dot Ludwig head. I’m pretty sure he was using 2002 Paistes because they were the only ones that didn’t crack for him, and a Ludwig Speed King pedal. I mean, at the end of the day it’s all irrelevant: It’s how you tune them and how you hit them.
“A long time ago Fairport was playing the Troubador in Los Angeles. Zeppelin had just played a big gig up in town and they came and sat in. Jimmy and Richard Thompson were on the stage together and John sat in on my drums. I remember get ting off stage, hearing him play and thinking, ‘Oh, they don’t sound very good.’ He was beating the shit out of them; he played great but the drums didn’t sound too hot. I got back up and it was my lovely Super Classics—heads all dented!”
Carmine Appice also had a crack at the drumset which he had obtained for Bonham in 1969. “His kit felt pretty much like my kit except he kept his toms a little tighter than mine, and he used the straight Ambassador head, or Ludwig equivalent. He also recorded with those. And he always recorded with the front head on; we never took the front heads off the drums in those times. In those days that’s how you got the explosion.”
The Bonham explosion was not so much the product of particular drums, heads, and shells, but of that particular human touch. Mattacks saw a graphic illustration of this. “I was over at Bonham’s house in the early days. There was a jukebox in one corner and a little Ludwig kit with an 18″ bass drum. I asked him a question about some riff or other. I understood what he was saying when he explained the riff, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. Understanding the riff became totally irrelevant. I was sitting and listening to this guy play an 18″ bass drum, and it was exactly the same sound as on a Led Zeppelin record! It was, like, a 4x 14 snare drum, an 18” bass drum, an 8x 12 and 14x 14, and he said, ‘Oh, you mean the thing on blah, blah,’ and that sound came out. I just couldn’t believe it; it was that drum sound from this toy drumset! The bass drum had the front head on, and the playing head and the other head up tight. I know if I tried playing a drum like that it would just go ‘bing,’ but when he played it, it was his sound, which proves the theory that most good musicians carry their sound with them. Whatever you sit down and play becomes your instrument.”
Indeed, how Bonham tuned his drums and hit them is what his imitators should be studying. Many people assume that loud drummers must be lifting their hands high above their cymbals, cutting each stroke with a long arc downward. Ritchie Yorke found this absent in Bonham’s playing, although prevalent in the heavy metal field. “He always fired from a very low position on the snare. It always used to amaze me about John; nobody else could get such a hell of a whack. He would have the stick only six inches above the drumhead and just whack it into the snare so hard, it was just unreal.”
Mattacks noticed that whereas sometimes John did “lift his hands up high, it has nothing to do with how hard you hit it; it’s the way you hit it. There are drummers who can get bigger sounds out of drums than people who hit them harder: Let’s put it that way.”
Bonham had thought about all this: “You can hit a drum hard,” he remarked to Ritchie Yorke, “if you take a short stab at it and the skin will break easily. But if you let the stick just come down, it looks as though you’re hitting it much harder than you really are. I only let it drop with the force of my arm coming down.”
A theory which many subscribe to is that people’s playing reflects their personality traits. Not an earth-shaking proposition, granted, but if true we should be finding, in John Bonham, a basically simple, unambiguous and untroubled individual, sensi tive and thoughtful without intellectual pretension, and with flashes of humor and hyperbole.
Ritchie Yorke is inclined to agree. “Bonham was a very uncomplicated guy. He was not into some new civilization; the mystery wasn’t with Bonham. He was not an easy guy to get to know—a very violent guy in some respects. John was a country boy from the north of England; they settle things with their fists. It was always wild and John Bonham was always one of the prime movers in anything that was going on.”
Phil Carson, because of his friendship with the Bonham family, made it past the facade. “John was a really nice person—very warm-hearted person, you know and a very quick wit. People don’t realize he was a very funny man, in a British sense of humor. It doesn’t always translate everywhere across the world, but the British do have a certain style of humor and John was right up there with the greatest in his speed of wit. It was a dry humor. He had a very fast mind, which expressed itself in his playing, too.
“At home, John was very much a family man. He invited me to his house on numerous occasions. He liked to go up to his local pub and just be part of the community, rather than be with people who, by good fortune, had the biggest houses and best cars. He and his wife, Pat, always had that ability; they were able to be part of the ground on which they sat. John was really fortunate; he had a really good home life and a charming family.”
John’s collection of cars and his passion for fast automobiles are well known. Eddie Kramer discovered another side during a conversation with Page. “Apparently Jimmy went to his house and John showed him his marvelous collection of antique miniatures of some kind—extremely delicate—the complete antithesis of what one would expect his personality to be. You know, bricklayer turned rock ‘n’ roll drummer, the baddest rock ‘n’ roll drummer in the world, and yet, there was this other, delicate side.”
But it did go the other way, a little too often, in retrospect. Pegg: “He did drink an awful lot. Lots of times when I met up with him in America we’d go out. He was very fond of his glass of ale. I don’t know. I think being away from home does it to people. Some of us tend to crack more easily than others.”
Carmine Appice adds that “he was basically a good guy, until he got drunk. Once Bonzo got drunk he lost control of what he was doing. He drank all the time. English people drink all the time. That’s one of their social habits.”
I tossed this at Phil Carson, along with general allegations made over the last few years that Bonham was an alcoholic. “John was never an alcoholic,” Phil responded. “An alcoholic is someone who can’t deal with alcohol. John just enjoyed a drink. You know, people don’t really understand; there are certain areas of Eng land where the normal working-class chap will go out and consume ten pints of beer in a night, and not think anything about it. That’s the way life is in the Black Country in the Midlands of England or in Newcastle. That’s the entertainment. It’s traditionally been that way. You tell the average person that the consumption is seven pints of beer every evening and they think, ‘My God! He’s an alcoholic!’ It’s not actually true. It’s just a different dietary process. John was more of a beer drinker than anything else.”
There were no drugs involved in John Bonham’s death, nor was Bonham ever a habitual drug user of any sort. Carson continues, “It was just an unfortunate thing. It is terribly true to say that it can happen to anyone. You’re a musician, and you probably drink a little at the gig. Have you ever awakened at night feeling ill? It’s just a terrible accident, and it has nothing to do with alcoholism or anything else.”
Led Zeppelin had been preparing to embark on an American tour when John’s death on September 25, 1980, sent its shock waves out. He died in his sleep, poisoned by overindulgence. Perhaps Bonham was drinking a few more to rid himself of a case of nerves; after all, over the last five years Zeppelin had drastically cut the frequency of album releases and live engagements. Perhaps it was the result of a beer drinker downing too much hard liquor (alleged to be something like two bottles of vodka). What is certain is that Bonham’s health was not on the decline, aside from a short-term stomach disorder medicated with a banana potion, and there were no heart attacks or major upsets. Certainly, if anything, John Bonham’s playing was better than ever.
Bonzo has left a family, including one Jason Bonham, now in his late teens. Jason went into the studio with Robert Plant and guitarist Robbie Blunt to drum on some demos, and apparently the resemblance to his father is staggering. Even at an earlier age Pegg spotted it. “I’d go over with Dave Swarbrick [violinist, Fairport Convention] quite a lot, and Jason would have learned our repertoire. Jason could play all the Fairport stuff, and he looked just like his dad—the facial expression. He’d be really heavy on the big bass drum sound.”
Aside from a charming family, left adequately provided for and closely watched over by Peter Grant personally, Bonham has single-handedly fashioned a whole, heavy rock style of drumming, known for its thunderous sound, and while many struggle to keep it alive, in fact, it died on September 25, 1980. As Mattacks puts it, “There are a lot of Tarzan-like figures out there beating the shit out of large drums, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s the only one who did it successfully. The sound that everyone is trying to emulate is that one microphone sound. What everyone is doing these days is close miking and using ambient mic’s—a lot of ambient mic’s—to fill out the sound. But if you get the right room and, more importantly, the right player with the right tuning, you can do it with just one or two mic’s.
“What made John unique was that not only did he play properly, but he had the power. And that’s what made that drum sound so huge. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. He’d never get the gig with Bill Evans, but he really knew how to tune a drumkit. He had really good technique, and it was getting better and better. He’s in a one-horse race and no one, but no one, gets anywhere near him; I’m including my self obviously. I don’t even sniff that kind of stuff.”
Eddie Kramer recorded Led Zeppelin in some of the most ideal circumstances and in some of the most adverse, from the Stones’ house, Stargroves [tracks on Houses Of The Holy and Physical Graffiti], to little eight-track, New York studios with Bonham in a drum booth, no less [second album], always managing to get a sound. “I’ll tell you what comes to mind about John: determination, a tremendous amount of guts, willingness to please, great personal satisfaction in having mastered a difficult fill or passage. He’d come into the truck, or into the studio control room, or wherever it was being recorded, saying, ‘Wow, that’s really great,’ and getting off on it. He was a man of humility, at times, even though it seems hard to see that, but he really was. And he had just a thorough enjoyment and great pleasure in what he was doing. He just enjoyed the hell out of playing the drums. From what I can surmise, he enjoyed participating in that band and giving it the kick in the ass. He enjoyed his function as a drummer, I think, and his ability to push the music along. In Stargroves I can remember watching his face during playbacks. When we’d get a great take his face would light up just like a child’s face. I can remember him, Page, Plant and Jones out on the lawn listening to playbacks of ‘D’Yer Mak’er’—all walking like Groucho Marx, in sync, with back steps and forward steps in time to the music, like kids. The thing I want to emphasize more than anything else is that we had so much fun making those records. We’ve gotten too serious in our attitude towards recording. It’s become so much of a science that it’s unfortunate. Something has been lost along the way and I rejoice in the memories of the days when it was more fun.”
On this nice, human note we come close to the end of our tribute to John Henry Bonham, a working-class boy who rose from the ranks, seizing upon the basic democracy inherent in rock music—the folk music of our age—which combines elite technology with the basic right of expression. Like so many others, John Bonham grasped the sticks and kept to it through years of financial hardship; had he not, he would have been queuing for the train into Birmingham’s factories or building houses with his father today. He didn’t possess a clear artistic vision, and he did not play with an awful lot of forethought or schooling, but the things he did on his instrument have transcended the mediocrity inherent in rock music.
And so, James Patrick Page was enormously successful in creating a whole new musical form: “heavy metal”—a labeling which later work suggests he would have gladly shaken, and John Bonham was right in there on the ground floor. Would be inheritors of his unique and powerful presence abound: The song remains the same and only the players change. But the contenders struggle in vain, for John has carried his sound and touch elsewhere. Brother John is gone.