John Bonham

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John Bonham
Years active 1963–1980
Status Deceased
Origin Redditch
Music genre(s) Hard rock, Blues rock, Folk rock

John Henry Bonham (31 May 1948 - 25 September 1980) was born in Redditch, Worcestershire, England. A member of Led Zeppelin, he was known for his drum solos and hard hitting styles and became a role model for future rock drummers.

Early career

The son of a carpenter, he grew up near Robert Plant in Kidderminster, drumming objects. His first drum was a bath salts can with wires on the bottom and a coffee tin that his dad rigged with a loose wire for a snare effect, plus his mother's cooking pots. Bonham received his first snare drum at 10, a present from his mum Joan Bonham, and at age 15 his father got him a used, slightly oxidized drum kit. He joined his first band, Terry Webb and the Spiders, at the age of 16 in 1964, wearing purple jackets with velveteen lapels. In 1965, he joined his second band, A Way of Life, and met Pat Phillips at a dance near his home in Kidderminster. At age 17, they were married.

The band became inactive and Bonham, with a new wife to support, had either to make a go of drumming financially or quit. He had met a young singer, Robert Plant, a couple of years earlier when Plant was in a band called Crawling King Snakes, and they needed a drummer. Bonham fitted the bill. Bonham lived quite a way from the rest of the band and transportation costs (i.e. petrol money) stretched the finances of a struggling band to the limit. Within a few months, Bonham had left the band to rejoin the local A Way of Life.

He was completely self-taught as a drummer, and despite this fact, or maybe because of it, Bonham's drumming, the power and the loudness, rapidly became known around the Midlands. Some of the bands wouldn't hire Bonham, since local clubs often wouldn't even book bands that he played with. They said he played too loud. But Bonham gradually developed a lighter touch as well; he stopped breaking drum heads when he learned to play louder with out hitting as hard. He was one of the first drummers to line his base drum with aluminium foil, and was already playing drum solos with his hands when he started out with Plant. He would team up again with Plant when he joined Band of Joy. In 1968, American folksinger, Tim Rose, asked the band to open his United Kingdom tour. For various reasons, the Band of Joy soon disbanded, but Rose remembered Bonham and offered him a gig as the drummer of his band.

Led Zeppelin

For several months, Bonham and Plant lost contact but when Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds) was starting to form a new band that would be Led Zeppelin he linked up with Robert Plant who, in turn, suggested Bonham. In July 1968, after seeing Bonham drum for Tim Rose in Hampstead, north London, Page and manager Peter Grant signed up Bonham.

Bonham's powerful, hard-hitting drumming soon became the signature tune for the band. He used Ludwig drums throughout his career and used 'trees', the longest and heaviest sticks available. He regularly performed Led Zeppelin solos with his bare hands to get a tone out of the drums that couldn't be got with sticks.

On 5 September 1980, Swan Song (Zeppelin's music company) announced a US tour for October. Tickets sold like wildfire and expectations were high. But it was not to be. Ten days after the announcement of the North American tour dates, the band members gathered at Jimmy Page's new mansion on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor for rehearsals. On 24 September, Bonham (or Bonzo as the band members called him) was chauffeured to Page's house. En route, he stopped at a pub for breakfast and downed four quadruple vodkas. During the rehearsal, his drinking continued. Around midnight, he passed out on a sofa and was helped to a bedroom by Page's assistant, Rick Hobbs.

Hobbs left Bonham lying on his side, propped up with pillows, and turned out the lights. When Bonzo hadn't appeared by the next afternoon, Robert Plant's assistant, Benji Lefevre, went in to wake him and found him apparently dead. The ambulance was called but John Bonham, aged 32, had died several hours earlier and was far beyond resuscitation. Weeks later at the coroner's inquest, it emerged that in the 24 hours before he died, John Bonham had drunk forty measures of vodka which resulted in pulmonary oedema - waterlogging of the lungs caused by inhalation of emesis. The death was ruled accidental.

Bonham was buried on 10 October 1980, at Rushock parish churchyard, near the Old Hyde Farm.

The band never really contemplated finding a replacement. Still in shock, it took until 4 December 1980, for the band to announce: 'The loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.'

He is survived by his wife Pat Bonham, daughter Zoë, and son Jason. Jason (born 1966) became a drummer, and appeared at Led Zeppelin reunion concerts, most notably in 1988 and 2007.

Legacy

Besides being considered a role model for rock drummers, Bonham's beat is one of the most heavily sampled sources for drum tracks, such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood's hit 'Relax', and has been extensively used in rap beat compilations. He can be heard (in sampled form) on Power Station and unauthorised early Beastie Boys albums, among others.

Notes