I don’t believe I ever met John Bonham although I’ve certainly had several near misses. Since we were contemporaries and both rushing around the world during the sixties and seventies, I certainly should have done. The first I knew of him was in the late sixties when I learned it was him I heard (and saw on TV playing) on Tim Rose’s tour de force: ‘Morning Dew’ who was touring the UK at the time. However, to be absolutely accurate ‘Band of Joy’, a group he was in with Robert Plant, supported Tim Rose on the first tour, and ‘Bonzo’ got the gig with him afterwards when Tim came back for a second tour and liked the country so much he stayed.
I was still with ‘The Roulettes’ at this time and we had the same Midlands agent (Astra) as Band of Joy and possibly the closest I got to meeting John was when his bandmate Robert, drove a friend of ours, who worked for the agency, to our gig in Worcester and I was led to believe he was also there. Subsequently Mr Plant got himself into trouble with our indomitable roadie, Fred, for daring to drive her there in his Ford Popular – without the necessary legal protection of a UK driving licence!
I’m told John came into my Drumstore but (like when Buddy Rich dropped in) I wasn’t there at the time – I was rocking and rolling elsewhere. Neither was I in the vicinity years after the event when my old boss, Adam Faith sat with Bonzo who told him how much he had liked the Roulettes and had always admired my drumming. As I said, he may well have been at that Worcester gig at which ‘Plantey’ got warned-off by our roadie Fred Wilkinson.
Ok, so much for the plot-laying.
John Henry Bonham was born in Redditch which is in ‘The Midlands’ of England and grew up-there. He went to school in Redditch which is 15 miles from Birmingham, and the internet can helpfully offer us a couple of local secondary schools he might have possibly have attended: Bridley Moor High School or (more likely) Lodge Farm Secondary School. Whichever one it was, its headmaster summed him up in a report as having the potential to “either end up as a dustman, or a millionaire”. I’m sure that The Young Bonham was one of many embryonic sixties’ musicians who received such approbation from teachers at their respective schools.
The Midlands became a real hotbed of musical talent and Bonzo got to play with several of the local movers and groovers who went on to make their mark with the likes of ‘The Move’, ‘The Moody Blues’, ‘ELO’, ‘Slade’ and so on. This was of course before John Bonham settled on the one which, as everybody knows, became the ‘mother lode’.
His first steps towards becoming indisputably ‘The World’s Number One Rock Drummer’ were taken at five years of age by drumming with, and on, various kitchen utensils. He was evidently much taken by Max Roach, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
“When I was five my mother bought me a snare drum. I’ve always been fascinated by drums – I felt nothing for other instruments. Later I played a bit of acoustic guitar but it was always drums first and foremost. I don’t reckon with that jack-of-all-trades thing”.
It wasn’t until he got to 15 that his dad bought him a Premier set. Everything I’ve read about him says he never took any drum lessons but I have a sneaking suspicion he did. Certainly he was advised by local drummers in Redditch but I think I heard a respected drum teacher in Wolverhampton had a hand in his musical development.
His first band was ‘The Blue Star Trio’ in 1963 and a year later he joined ‘Terry Worth and The Spiders’. This gig was followed by ‘The Senators’ in ’64 and ‘Pat Wayne and The Beachcombers’ in ’65. A chap called Nicky James had a band called ‘The Diplomats’ with Denny Laine and John joined up with him. Later that year he was in ‘The Nicky James Movement’ as were Bev Bevan, Roy Wood and Mike Pindar. Next came Steve Brett and The Mavericks with Dave Holland who went on to play with Miles Davis – that band also had Noddy Holder in it. His next venture was with Danny King and The Mayfair Set with Trevor Burton.
By 1966 he was in ‘Way of Life’ which lasted for 18 months before he joined Robert Plant in a blues band called ‘The Crawling King Snakes’. He stayed with Robert Plant when they eventually formed ‘Band of Joy’ and before long they were playing in London clubs like ‘The Marquee’ and ‘Middle Earth’ and touring as support to Tim Rose. They began to record demos in Regent Sound in London’s Denmark Street but these tracks were never released. It was at this time that he began to work in a three piece with Tim Rose who had decided to settle in Britain.
Jimmy Page was playing with The Yardbirds but once they called it a day, he decided to have another band and approached Robert Plant who recruited John Bonham. Bonzo wasn’t the only drummer to be approached to join what were originally to be known as ‘The New Yardbirds’: BJ Wilson, Aynsley Dunbar, Clem Cattini, and Ginger Baker were also in the running. But, once Jimmy Page saw Bonzo playing with Tim Rose at the Country Club in Hampstead in 1968, the die was well and truly cast. Dozens of telegrams were sent to his address in Bloxwich but he was reluctant for a couple of reasons – Joe Cocker wanted his services, as did Chris Farlowe. In the end he decided he preferred the music the New Yardbirds were making and that was that.
Not long after the band, now known as Led Zeppelin, went off to do gigs in Copenhagen and Stockholm. On their return they played at the Marquee before going in to Olympic Studios in Barnes to complete tracks for the first album which took them 30 hours. They then flew off to the States to tour with Vanilla Fudge and opened in Denver on Boxing Day 1968. That tour was very much the beginning for Led Zeppelin and since their album was not released until half-way through it, their stage act mostly consisted of blues standards like “Killing Floor”, “You Shook Me”, ”Train Kept A Rollin’ “ along with The Yardbird’s “For Your Love”. It also had “Communications Breakdown” (from the new album and inevitably included Bonzo’s ubiquitous drum solo: “Moby Dick” aka “Pat’s Delight” (named after his wife).
This tour was where he first met Carmine Appice who introduced him to Ludwig drums where he stayed for the rest of his career. Carmine was involved at the time with persuading Ludwig to make drums and support systems which were able to stand up to the kind of battering he was giving them. It was a natural progression and inevitable that John Bonham, with his equally hard-hitting technique would benefit too. That said he preferred Rogers Swivo-matic stands and hi hat pedal although he loyally stuck with Ludwig’s ‘Speed King’ bass drum pedal – even though it famously squeaked on recordings!
He certainly started with Premier but there are websites talking of him having a green sparkle Ludwig ‘Super Classic’ very early on in his professional career and a red sparkle Trixon Luxus. He certainly used a sparkling Slingerland for the first Led Zeppelin gigs in Scandinavia which was thought to be a rental. But since it turns up for the gigs at The Marquee before the band went to America, it’s likely to have belonged to the original Yardbirds.
What we do know is that half-way through those first US gigs with Vanilla Fudge (where he used a rented Ludwig set with a 400 snare drum) Carmine Appice hooked him up with Ludwig. Bonzo then took delivery of an identical natural maple lacquered kit to Carmine’s – including two bass drums and a 402 snare drum. The two bass drums were seldom used because Jimmy Page didn’t like the way Bonham played with them and of course in the long run, John Bonham certainly didn’t need them.
There are also pictures of Bonzo playing a stainless steel set, and a gold sparkle set before moving on to various Vistalite sets including the famous see-through amber one and the solid black and solid white spiral version.
In “The Song Remains The Same” (and in a photo taken at a Paul McCartney session) we find him sitting behind a white Staccato set with black interiors. He may have started out with Zildjian cymbals, like his heroes Buddy and Gene, but he felt Paiste cymbals were louder and he switched to their 602 and 2002 lines – 14” hi hats, 16” and 18” crashes, and 20” or 22” rides. Eventually he added firstly three gongs in various diameters (29”, 36” and 38”) and of course timbales, congas and even the odd tympani.
Even though he was frequently to be found rushing back and forth across the Atlantic, John Bonham also found time to do sessions with other people – some of whom were somewhat unexpected – like Lulu. He began by doing sessions with The Family Dogg, Screaming Lord Sutch (and Heavy Friends), Roy Wood and Paul McCartney’s ‘Wings’.
Bonham’s ‘sigil’ of three intersecting circles for Led Zeppelin’s 4th album was something which always caught the eye. It was painted on his bass drum and is generally accepted to signify “Man, Woman and Child”.
John Henry Bonham (aka John ‘Heineken’ Bonham) died on September 25th 1980 from inhaling his own vomit after starting his day drinking 16 shots of Vodka for breakfast. By the end of the day his stomach contained 40 shots of the distilled juice of the potato and he was dead.
Like Moonie’s death, Bonzo’s was nothing short of an avoidable tragedy although, in his case it effectively put paid to the career of Led Zeppelin whereas the surviving members of The Who march steadily on. Of course John’s son Jason played with the band and made a good fist of it. However the others don’t appear to have the appetite for it any more.
We talked about Led Zeppelin being the ‘mother lode’ and frankly the superlatives, as far as record sales go, are seemingly endless. They made a grand total of nine studio albums, four live albums and wanted nothing whatsoever to do with singles – even though (possibly to do with record company insistence) they ultimately released 16 of them! They also put out eight downloads, and its worth noting that these releases included five diamond-selling albums for sales of more than 10 million each!
To be honest I don’t have any particular favourite Bonham tracks although I’m partial to the intricacies of “Kashmir” and to the sentiment of “Squeeze My Lemon”. Even the greatest of the blues artists couldn’t do double entendre as good as that!
I came upon a quote about Bonzo from Dave Grohl which said:
“John Bonham played the drums like someone who didn’t know what was going to happen next; like he was teetering on the edge of a cliff. No one has come close to that since, and I don’t think anyone ever will. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time.”
The mould was well and truly broken when he died and all the stories of rock and roll excesses, extravagances, over-indulgences and prodigious feats of drumming have all passed into folklore. As Dave Grohl intimated – we won’t see his like again!
Buddy Rich once went to a Led Zeppelin gig and having heard John Bonham play, derisively announced: “Anybody could do that”! However with disrespect, I beg to differ. There are an estimated two million ‘mere-mortal’ drummers in the world who, having tried to emulate John Bonham would wholeheartedly disagree!
© RJ Henrit