Who could dream that the live performance of Led Zeppelin held on August 11, 1979, at the Knebworth Festival was be the last time drummer John Bonham would play live with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones? Bonham’s last live UK performance took place at Paul McCartney’s all-star “Rockestra” charity concert for the people of Kampuchea before his death today, on September 24, 1980.
Recognized by ‘Modern Drummer’ magazine as ‘the best drummer of all time’ John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham died of asphyxiation after drinking.
On route to Bray Studios for an upcoming US tour, Bonham stopped for breakfast where he drank four quad triple vodkas. He continued to drink through rehearsal. The band rested at guitarist Page’s home for the evening, with John going to bed at midnight. The band had placed him on his side.
Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones found him dead the next afternoon (Bonham had choked on his own vomit) at 32 years old.
“John 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. I think he will forever be the greatest drummer of all time.”
Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters
John earned the nicknames Bonzo and The Beast and backed that up with his wild antics. They banned him from British music venues for playing too loud, he was rumored to fly Zeppelin’s Boeing 720 passenger jet The Starship from New York to Los Angeles without a pilot’s license and drove his motorbike in the hotel corridors for kicks.
An angel when sober, a devil when drunk.
A strong family man at home. John took to drinking because it was said he missed his family and home life while touring. His son, Jason, played drums for Led Zeppelin during their 2007 reunion gig at The O2 Arena in London. He has filled in for his late father for Led Zeppelin.
Jason Bonham has gained success with various bands, including UFO and Foreigner.
Legendary live drum solo ‘Moby Dick’ (first named ‘Pat’s Delight’, after John’s wife) became central in Led Zeppelin’s live shows.
The solo lasted for half an hour with regular use of his bare hands, Bonham’s distinctive sound renowned for his speed, power, fast right foot, and ‘feel’ for the groove. A soul drummer by start. His first drum set at 5 was a drum kit of containers and coffee tins. His father gave him his first decent drum kit at age 15.
Bonham’s favorite studio recording drum kit used during his time with Led Zeppelin was The Ludwig Green Sparkle kit. The stainless steel kit is the one he played on at Knebworth. You can hear these drums on “Led Zeppelin III”, “Led Zeppelin IV”, “Houses of the Holy” and “Physical Graffiti”.
He used the Ludwig amber Vistalite kit live and thus the kit most Led Zeppelin fans identify with John Bonham’s drumming. In 2007, Ludwig issued a limited edition drum kit in Bonham’s memory. Before going with Ludwig drums he played on Premier drums.
For cymbals, he used the Swiss-made Paiste “Giant Beat” model until the maker discontinued the line. After, Bonham moved on to the Paiste 2002 and 602 models.
He always used Paiste Sound Edge hi-hats. Paiste recreated and re-launched the iconic Giant Beat range in 2005.
Leaving school in 1964, his headmaster wrote in his last report card “He will either end up a dustman or a millionaire”.
John worked as an apprentice carpenter under his father in between local drumming gigs with Terry Webb and the Spiders, The Nicky James Movement, and The Senators. The Senators later became a blues group Crawling King Snakes, whose lead singer was Robert Plant.
By 1968 Yardbird Jimmy Page was forming the ‘ultimate rock band’. By then, Plant was lined up as the lead singer. Plant wanted Bonham. It took a barrage of local pub messages and 40 telegrams from Page and manager Peter Grant begging him to join the band before he agreed. John was hesitant as Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe had first approached him.
John Bonham’s legendary drumming style and power influenced an entire generation of inspiring rock drummers. To commemorate his talents, Polyphonic did homage in the video below.
It is a perfect breakdown of his drumming style, explained in such a way that even non-musicians can understand the true depth of his prowess ran.
John Bonham was the Rolling Stone 2011 readers’ pick, placing him first among the magazine’s “best drummers of all time”.