1980 – Drummer John Bonham of Led Zeppelin is foun…

1980 – Drummer John Bonham of Led Zeppelin is found dead in his bed after a drinking binge.

John has left his mark on the music world as being one of the most influential Rock drummers to be copied.

John Henry “Bonzo” Bonham (May 31, 1948 – September 25, 1980) was an English drummer and member of the band Led Zeppelin. He was renowned for his power, fast right foot, distinctive sound and “feel” for the groove. Bonham is described by the Encyclopædia Britannica as “the perfect model for all hard rock drummers that have followed him”.

Life and career

Early years

Bonham was born in Redditch, Worcestershire, England. He first learned how to play drums at the age of five, making a drum kit out of containers and coffee tins, and copying the moves of his idols Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. His mother Joan gave him a snare drum at the age of ten, and he received his first proper drum kit at the age of fifteen, a Premier Percussion kit. The drummer – nicknamed ‘Bonzo’ after the dog in a British comic strip – never took any drum lessons though as a teen would knock on the doors of other drummers and ask for advice.

After leaving Lodge Farm Secondary Modern School in 1964, in between drumming for different local bands. In 1964, Bonham joined his first band, Terry Webb and the Spiders, meeting his future wife Pat Phillips at a dance in Kidderminster. He also played in other Birmingham bands such as The Nicky James Movement, The Blue Star Trio, and The Senators, who released a moderately successful single “She’s a Mod.” Bonham enjoyed the experience and decided to take up drumming full-time. Two years later, he joined A Way of Life, but the band soon became inactive. In desperation for a regular income, he joined a blues group called Crawling King Snakes whose lead singer was a young Robert Plant.

In 1967, A Way of Life asked Bonham to return to their group, and he agreed — though throughout this period, Plant kept in constant contact with Bonham. When Plant decided to form Band of Joy, Bonham was first choice as drummer. The band recorded a number of demos but no album. In 1968 American singer Tim Rose toured Britain and invited Band of Joy to open his concerts. When Rose returned for another tour months later, Bonham was formally invited by the singer to drum for his band, which gave him a regular income.

Led Zeppelin

Main article: Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin in 1969. From left to right: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones.
Led Zeppelin in 1969. From left to right: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones.

When Jimmy Page wanted to start a band in the wake of The Yardbirds break-up, his first choice for singer was Terry Reid. However Reid had already signed with Mickie Most for a solo career. Reid suggested Robert Plant, who in turn suggested Bonham. Bonham had already drummed with Plant, and knew Page from session work, as well as John Paul Jones. Page’s choices for drummer included Procol Harum’s B.J. Wilson, and session drummers Clem Cattini and Aynsley Dunbar. Ginger Baker was also rumoured to be on Page’s list. However, upon seeing Bonham drum for Tim Rose in Hampstead, north London, in July 1968, Page and manager Peter Grant were instantly convinced that he was the perfect fit for the new project.

Despite an intensive campaign to snare the drummer, Bonham was initially reluctant to join the band, as he thought that the Yardbirds was a name from the past with no future. Plant sent eight telegrams to Bonham’s pub, the “Three Men in a Boat”, in Walsall, which were followed by forty telegrams from Grant. However, at the same time he was also receiving lucrative offers from established artists Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe. In the end, though, Bonham accepted Grant’s offer. He later recalled, “I decided I liked their music better than Cocker’s or Farlowe’s.”

During Led Zeppelin’s first tour of the United States in December 1968, Bonham became friends with Vanilla Fudge’s drummer Carmine Appice. Appice introduced him to Ludwig drums, which he then used for the rest of his career. Bonham used the longest and heaviest sticks available, which he referred to as “trees.” His hard hitting style was displayed to great effect on many Led Zeppelin songs, including “Immigrant Song” (Led Zeppelin III), “When the Levee Breaks” (Led Zeppelin IV / ), “Kashmir” (Physical Graffiti), “The Ocean” (Houses of the Holy), and “Achilles Last Stand” (Presence). The studio recording of “Misty Mountain Hop” perfectly captures his keen sense of dynamics, and this is similarly exhibited by his precise drumming on “No Quarter.” On several cuts from later albums, Bonham rather adeptly handled funk and Latin-influenced drumming. Songs like “Royal Orleans” and “Fool in the Rain” are good examples, the latter displaying great skill with a New Orleans shuffle and a samba rhythm.

His famous drum solo, first entitled “Pat’s Delight,” later renamed “Moby Dick,” would often last for half an hour and regularly featured his use of bare hands to achieve different sound effects. In Led Zeppelin concert tours after 1969, Bonham would expand his basic kit to include congas, orchestral timpani, and a symphonic gong. Bonham is also credited (by the Dallas Times Herald) with the first in-concert use of electronic timpani drum synthesizers (most likely made by Syndrum) during a performance of the song “Kashmir” in Dallas, Texas in 1977. Many modern rappers would later heavily sample his drumming and incorporate it into their compositions, such as the Beastie Boys, who sampled “Moby Dick,” “The Ocean,” and “When the Levee Breaks.”
Bonham performing during Led Zeppelin’s 1977 North American Tour
Bonham performing during Led Zeppelin’s 1977 North American Tour

In 1974, Bonham appeared in the film Son of Dracula, playing drums in Count Downe’s (Harry Nilsson) backing band. This was an Apple film made by Ringo Starr. Bonham appeared in an overcrowded drum line-up including Keith Moon and Starr on the soundtrack album. Bonham’s action sequence for the film The Song Remains the Same featured him in a drag race at Santa Pod Raceway to the sound of his signature drum solo, “Moby Dick.”

During his time with Led Zeppelin, Bonham was also an avid collector of antique sports cars and motorcycles, which he kept on his family’s farm called The Old Hyde. He even bought The Plough pub in the nearby village of Shenstone, which shows signs of conversion work to allow him to drive his bikes or cars right behind the bar. This was not, however, the pub featured in the film The Song Remains the Same. It was in fact the New Inn which is currently boarded up, the only clue to its famous past being a picture hanging close to the bar.

As well as recording with Led Zeppelin, Bonham also found time to play on sessions for other artists. In 1969 Bonham appeared on The Family Dogg’s A Way of Life, with Page and Jones. Bonham also sessioned for Screaming Lord Sutch on his album Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends in 1970. He also played drums on Lulu’s 1971 song “Everybody Clap,” originally written by Maurice Gibb and Billy Lawrie. Later in his career, Bonham drummed for his Birmingham friend, Roy Wood, on his 1979 album, On the Road Again, and for Paul McCartney’s Wings on their Back to the Egg Rockestra project.

Death

On September 25, 1980, John Bonham was picked up by Led Zeppelin assistant Rex King to attend rehearsals at Bray Studios for the upcoming tour of the United States, the band’s first since 1977. During the journey Bonham had asked to stop for breakfast, where he downed four quadruple vodkas (roughly sixteen shots, amounting to about 2/3 imperial quart or 700 ml). He then continued to drink heavily when he arrived at the party. A halt was called to the rehearsals late in the evening and the band retired to Page’s house, The Old Mill House in Clewer, Windsor. After midnight, Bonham had fallen asleep and was taken to bed and placed on his side. Benji LeFevre (who had replaced Richard Cole as Led Zeppelin’s tour manager) and John Paul Jones found him dead the next morning. Bonham was 32 years old.

An inquest at East Berkshire coroner’s court recorded a verdict of accidental death, the cause being asphyxiation from vomit. A subsequent autopsy found no other drugs in Bonham’s body. The alcoholism that had plagued the drummer since his earliest days with the band ultimately led to his death. John Bonham was cremated and on October 12, 1980 interred at Rushock Parish Church, Worcestershire. A cymbal sits in front of his headstone in his memory. His headstone reads:

Cherished memories of a loving husband and father, John Henry Bonham Who died Sept. 25th 1980. aged 32 years. He will always be remembered in our hearts, Goodnight my Love, God Bless.

John Bonham’s gravestone
John Bonham’s gravestone

Despite media rumors that Cozy Powell, Aynsley Dunbar, Carmine Appice, Barriemore Barlow, Simon Kirke, or Bev Bevan would join the group as his replacement, the remaining members decided to disband Led Zeppelin after Bonham’s death. They issued a press statement on 4 December 1980 confirming that the band would not continue without its drummer. “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.” It was simply signed “Led Zeppelin”.

Family

John Bonham’s younger sister, Deborah Bonham (born 1962), is a singer-songwriter. His younger brother, Mick Bonham (1951-2000), was a disc jockey, author and photographer. John Bonham’s son, Jason Bonham (born 1966), is a rock drummer, who recently played with Led Zeppelin on their one-off reunion show in December 2007, as well as their previous reunion at the Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary show in 1988. Bonham’s daughter, Zoë Bonham (born 1975), is a singer-songwriter and also appears regularly at Led Zeppelin conventions and awards.

Equipment

Drums

Pre Led Zeppelin Kit (?-’68), Ludwig Super Classic Green Sparkle

* Bass Drum 22″x14″
* Floor Tom 16″x16″
* Rack Tom 13″x9″
* Supraphonic Snare 14″x5″

Led Zeppelin Kit (’68/Tour U.S.A), Ludwig Black Diamond Pearl

* Bass Drum 24″x14″
* Floor Tom 16″x16″
* Floor Tom 18″x16″
* Rack Tom 13″x9″
* Snare 20’s/30’s COB Tube Lug

Ludwig Representation kit, Ludwig Thermo Gloss Natural Maple (1969-’70)

* 2 Bass Drums 26″x14″ (Although one was removed as the band thought he was drowning them out!)
* Tom 14″x12″ (Mounted on a snare stand, and then later a Rogers Swivomatic Mount was added.)
* Floor Tom 16″x16″
* Floor Tom 18″x16″
* 14″x6.5″ Chrome Supraphonic 402 Series Snare
* Twin Congas Ludwig 12″
* Cowbell Ludwig Gold Tone

Studio and live Kit (’70 – ’73) (Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy), Ludwig Green Sparkle

* Bass Drum 26″x14″ (Also had an extra bass drum which was kept as a spare)
* Rack Tom 14″x10″ on Rail Consolette mount.
* Floor Tom 16″x16″
* Floor Tom 18″x16″
* 14″x6.5″ Chrome Supraphonic 402 Series Snare
* Ludwig 29″ Machine Timpani (1972+)
* Ludwig 32″ Universal Timpani (1972+)

John was known for telling the band that the Green Sparkle kit was his favourite and Best sounding kit, and it was used on all recordings from IV onwards, excluding Presence where he used the Silver Sparkle kit.

The Song Remains The Same Kit (’73), Ludwig Amber Vistalite

* Bass Drum 26″x14″ (Spare bass drum kept, as these drums were renowned for cracking)
* Rack Tom 14″x10″
* Floor Tom 16″x16″
* Floor Tom 18″x16″
* 14″x6.5″ Chrome Supraphonic 402 Series Snare
* Ludwig 29″ Timpani
* Ludwig 30″ Timpani

Studio Kit (’75) Ludwig Sparkle Silver Finish

* Bass Drum 26″x14″
* Rack Tom 15″x12″
* Floor Tom 16″x16″
* Floor Tom 18″x16″
* 14″x6.5″ Chrome Supraphonic 402 Series Snare
* Ludwig 29″ Timpani
* Ludwig 30″ Timpani

Final Touring Kit (’77-’80), Ludwig Stainless Steel

* Bass Drum 26″x14″
* Tom 15″x 12″ Mounted on Bass Drum with a Ludwig Rocker Tom Mount, because his usual rail mount couldn’t fit a 12″ deep tom on the Bass Drum. (Changed to a 14″x10″ Stainless Steel tom with classic lugs for the Europe tour of 1980)
* Floor Tom 16″x16″
* Floor Tom 18″x16″
* 14″x6.5″ Chrome Supraphonic 402 Series Snare

Cymbals
John Bonham played Paiste cymbals. He used Paiste Giant Beat cymbals until 1975. The Paiste Endorsement Agreement shows he experimented with cymbals including the 602 series before changing to a complete set of what is now the 2002 series in ’75, which he used for the rest of his career. His setup:

During the time his setup consisted solely of giant beat cymbals (1968 – 1971):

* 15″ Paiste Giant Beat Hi-Hat
* 18″ Paiste Giant Beat Crash / Ride (On Left)
* 20″ Paiste Giant Beat Crash / Ride
* 24″ Paiste Giant Beat Crash / Ride
* 38″ Paiste Symphonic Gong

During the time his setup was mixed between Giant Beat and 2002 cymbals (1971 – 1975):

* 15″ Paiste 2002 Sound Edge Hi-Hat
* 18″ Paiste Giant Beat Crash / Ride (On Left)
* 20″ Paiste 2002 Medium
* 24″ Paiste Giant Beat Crash / Ride
* 38″ Paiste Symphonic Gong

During the time his setup consisted solely of 2002 cymbals (1975 – 1980):

* 15″ Paiste 2002 Sound Edge Hi-Hat
* 18″ Paiste 2002 Medium (On Left)
* 18″ Paiste 2002 Crash
* 20″ Paiste 2002 Medium Ride (Formula 602)
* 24″ Paiste 2002 Ride
* Sometimes a 16″ Paiste 2002 Medium under, and to the right of his 20″ (as seen in Knebworth 1979)
* 38″ Paiste Symphonic Gong

Drum Heads
For his wood drums, Bonham always used Remo coated emperors (or Ludwig equivalent) on all of his batter heads, while using coated ambassadors on the resonant head, and the batter head was always tuned medium-tight, (almost jazz like) and the resonate head was always tuned way up, for a nice full, round sound. He never put pillows or other laundry in the bass drum and he only used a felt strip on the batter side from time to time. The bass drum heads were also tuned a lot higher than one would think. Some have claimed he used to make “Ritchie Rings” cut out of old drum heads for his front bass drum head, but this anomaly is simply the surrounding light producing a shadow from the hoop on the white drum head producing the ring effect (you can produce the same effect with a front bass drum head, as long as the head is coated).

On the vistalites he used Remo CS black dots on the batter side of the toms and the bass drum and clear ambassadors on the resonate side. The snare always had a coated emperor on the batter side and an ambassador or a diplomat on the snare side. He sometimes used a Gretsch 42-strand snare wires to fatten the snare sound.

Bass Drum Pedal
Bonham used Ludwig Speed King Pedals (with tight spring tension) throughout his career. His trademark bass drum “triplets,” most notable in Good Times, Bad Times, were done with a single bass pedal, and not a double bass pedal. Unlike some contemporary drummers, Bonham did not use a double-bass drum kit. He did once own one (it was featured in the demo “Communication Breakdown”), but removed it from his kit when the rest of the band decided it was drowning everything else out.

Tribute Kit

In 2007, Ludwig and drum-builder Ronn Dunnett came together to make a limited edition kit in Bonham’s memory. These stainless steel kits are the same as the one Bonham himself used on the last Led Zeppelin tours in the 1970s. Additionally, Ludwig currently offers various “Zep Kits” in their Vistalite, Classic, and Accent lines, with 26″ bass drums, a 13″ or 14″ tom mounted on a snare stand, some times he used a mounted rack from the bass drum, and 16″ and 18″ floor toms.

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