In the fifty years since Led Zeppelin roared onto the scene, much has been made of their being ground zero for “heavy rock.” But since day 1, Zeppelin’s bold amalgamation of blues, folk, and world styles, coupled with their fearless invention, has astounded and influenced musicians from every genre imaginable. Case in point, the three pro drummers we speak to this month about Zeppelin’s classic second album—Mastodon’s Brann Dailor, former Train member Drew Shoals, and Zep singer Robert Plant’s current sticksman, John Blease. While each of these players was intimately aware of the contributions of the band’s drummer, John Bonham, none imagined the circumstances under which he’d one day have to contend with it. Here’s what they learned.
Led Zeppelin II was released on October 22, 1969. Although initially panned by some critics, the album became the band’s first number-one album, dethroning the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Over 12 million copies have since been sold, and the album is acclaimed as one of the most foundational and influential hard rock albums ever released.
Imagine slapping on the headphones that fall afternoon, dropping the needle, and hearing the opening notes of “Whole Lotta Love” for the first time. Thirty-three seconds later, the listener meets the majesty of John Bonham’s famous drum sound and deep pocket, fueled by a lead foot, playing on the very last sliver of a quarter-note’s value, and with such graceful momentum in his hands pushing the songs forward. Bonzo’s touch on the drums was such that he simultaneously caressed and thwacked, creating grooves that told a story.
John Bonham was a rhythmic narrator, and boy did his words carry weight. Led Zeppelin’s name was apropos, as their songs carried seriously paradoxical weight. They were big personalities that emitted an energy as a collective that was intangible—thus the band became untouchable. That’s how Zeppelin was “heavy.”
Led Zeppelin II had no shortage of songs that cascaded the sonic spectrum, be it bluesy, folky, tender, or rockin’, and their stamp left a permanent imprint on music. Solo vehicle “Moby Dick” may have tattooed the drummer’s fate by showcasing his insane ability, but interestingly enough, when you ask drummers about their favorite Zeppelin song, “Moby Dick” often isn’t a top choice. This probably says less about that particular song’s shortcomings than the peerless song chops of the band’s drummer. That’s how John Bonham was “heavy.”
Indeed, although Bonham could solo with the best of them, what truly made him great was how well he played with the band. The interplay between John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, and how Bonzo expertly crafted drum parts, enhanced the songs and cradled Robert Plant’s voice. Each band member was certainly a master of his craft, but Zeppelin didn’t ascend to godlike status because of their individual virtuosity; they claimed the throne because they wrote great music together and because of how they played together, a magical essence that simply cannot be replicated.
To pay tribute to John Bonham on the fiftieth anniversary of Led Zeppelin II, we sought three drummers who are admittedly not Bonham-esque in their playing style, but who can share three unique insights and experiences on how this particular album made a profound impact on their lives.
Drew Shoals was Train’s drummer between 2014 and 2018. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, in the 1990s, Shoals was raised mostly on hip-hop and alternative rock. While he was obviously familiar with Led Zeppelin and respected others’ reverence for Bonham, he hadn’t exactly spent his formative years obsessed with Bonzo or Led Zeppelin. But during Shoals’ time with Train, singer Pat Monahan, who began his singing career doing Zeppelin covers in bar bands in Erie, Pennsylvania, wanted to pay homage to his favorite band. So in 2016, Train entered the studio to record a front-to-back cover of Led Zeppelin II.
Shoals was excited and honored to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but he was also acutely aware of the potential criticism he faced, especially in the age of social media and YouTube commentary. “These are songs that inspired a couple of generations’ worth of musicians to get behind a kit, front bands, and pick up guitars and basses,” Shoals tells MD. “So I was excited but super intimidated. For Pat, this was his way to pay homage to his favorite band. For me, I definitely had that moment of thinking, Oh crap, now everyone’s going to say, ‘This guy thinks he’s better than Bonham!’ which was not at all what I was thinking! I was excited to grow from the experience and just do the best that I could to honor his legacy.”
The idea to cover the album came together quickly, and Shoals had only two weeks or so to prepare for the recording session. Although he had the ability to transcribe every tune, he chose to connect more with the intention of each song, and did so by playing and listening to the record over and over. “I sat with the music as much as I could and tried to internalize the spirit of what the beats were about,” explains Shoals. “And I tried to stay as true as I could to the parts. Doing a deep dive into this album and analyzing everything, it became very clear that Bonham was influenced by jazz, R&B, and early rock ’n’ roll and developed his own sound as a result. That subtle triplet-y swagger he had in his grooves, the slight chatter on the snare, and the steady hi-hats—all that nuance is what stands out. It’s almost like slowed-down James Brown grooves, but in a rock setting.”
Mastodon’s Brann Dailor recently spoke to us about his band’s cover of “Stairway to Heaven,” which appeared on Led Zeppelin IV, recorded as a tribute to their manager, Nick John, who passed away from pancreatic cancer earlier this year. Mastodon is known primarily for their intense genre-bending brand of metal and classic prog, with Dailor leading the charge with fierce intensity, blazing single-stroke tom fills, and ghost notes galore. The band’s late manager was a Led Zeppelin fanatic and always affectionately referred to Mastodon as “his Led Zeppelin.” We asked Brann why their manager drew such comparisons, when the bands don’t have much in common on the surface. “He had it worked out in his mind as to why we were his Led Zeppelin, but I think that he thought that we were four very individual characters, and that for some reason the sum of all our parts is what made Mastodon special,” says Dailor. “Something about our musicianship, and he felt that we were a sincere group of guys who, when we got in a room together, there was something magical that happened. That’s what he felt was so special about Zeppelin.”
As for Dailor himself, he was introduced to Led Zeppelin II as a toddler, but he was more enthralled at that time by Jimmy Page’s guitar alchemy. “My mom was in a cover band when I was a kid, and they did some Zeppelin covers, including ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Ramble On,’” reminisces Dailor. “Most of my musical memories as a child are my mom’s band rehearsing in our basement. In particular, I remember ‘Whole Lotta Love’ because of the mid-section guitar swells and wails—eeerrrnnnn! That was something my young ears latched onto. Oddly enough, even though I was drawn to the drums from a young age, I don’t even remember ‘Moby Dick’ being something that caught my attention until I was a teenager, when I saw the live solo of Bonham. Then my jaw dropped.”
John Blease has been playing drums with Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters since May 2018. Getting the gig with Plant wasn’t sealed by any attempt to be a Bonham clone. In fact, it was his roots in jazz and his deep connection to the history of Zeppelin’s songs that made him Plant’s first choice. Blease always had an affinity for Led Zeppelin II and considers it an honor to be part of the Zeppelin lineage in a small way. Robert and the band always incorporate Zeppelin songs into their live shows, and in true Robert Plant fashion, the songs and arrangements are continually evolving. “We play quite a lot of the songs off of Led Zeppelin II,” says Blease, “so it’s probably easier to say what we currently don’t do, which would be ‘Heartbreaker,’ ‘Moby Dick,’ and ‘Living Loving Maid.’ Although we do play a lot of the songs from the album, we don’t play them like they were then. They’ve evolved. Robert’s not interested in recreating the past. He’s all about being inspired in the now, and he wants to be surrounded by musicians he feels will inspire him and offer up new ideas.”
The desire to seek inspiration is a large part of what made the songs on Led Zeppelin II so meaningful. The band was not only influenced by music but by landscapes. When you listen to “Ramble On,” you can envision the lush scenery of Tolkien’s shire. Zeppelin didn’t just blow your mind musically, they took you on an earthly journey. They were individually elemental and collectively otherworldly. “I think perhaps that’s what’s important about bands like Zeppelin and albums like Led Zeppelin II,” says Blease. “They were absolutely fearless in their choices. Music is a living, breathing thing. Listening to albums like Led Zeppelin II makes me remember all the good things about life.”
Super Deluxe II
In 2014, Rhino Records issued remastered and expanded versions of the first three Led Zeppelin albums, including this Super Deluxe Edition of II, which includes the two-CD edition, the double 180-gram vinyl LP pressing, access to downloadable high-def digital audio, a hard-bound eighty-page book, and a high-quality print of the original album cover. While the improved sound quality is notable and the extra tracks are quite interesting to hear, the book is perhaps just as illuminating, containing as it does a wealth of previously unseen photos, including fascinating shots of Bonham and his bandmates in the studio. One in particular shows bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones on bongos, singer Robert Plant on tambourine, and Bonham on congas, putting down a live percussion take at A&M Studios, perhaps for overdubs on “Whole Lotta Love.” Another is a wide-angle view of Olympic Studios, showing John’s unmanned four-piece drumkit, adorned merely with hi-hats, a crash, and a ride cymbal. One message, at least, is clear: with the right musicians, it doesn’t require a ton of gear to create a massive, historic rumble.