I first remember hearing about John Bonham as a kid when he died in 1980. It just seemed like another rock'n'roll death, as though the nature of his occupation meant that the odds on dying of a drink or drugs overdose were as high as Chelsea buying their way to success. I really knew little of Led Zeppelin other than the name, which, to me, conjured up images of a huge, mythical creation. Some of us at that school in South London were into other things; I was into the Kraftwerk-filtered-and-waterdowned-London clone that was Gary Numan; others were Mods or were clutching onto the dying embers of Punk; others still were into hard rock or heavy metal, though it was Lemmy from Motorhead who, at that time, was the recognisable face of the medium. A few of the older guys were into Led Zeppelin and they always looked down on us as though they had found a higher source, a visionary muse, which we younger idiots couldn't possibly understand!
How right they were!
John Bonham was born in the Midlands countryside of Worcestershire on 31 May 1948. He got his first snare drum at 10, a present from his mum.
He joined his first band, Terry Webb and the Spiders, at the age of 16 in 1964. 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, and Plant wa currently 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.
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 UK tour.
For whatever reason, Band of Joy soon disbanded, but Rose remembered Bonham and offered him a gig as the drummer of his band.
For several months, Bonham and Plant lost contact but when Jimmy Page (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.
During the band's 1980 European tour, at the Nuremberg show on 27 June, Bonham fell off his drum stool and collapsed after the third song, a warning, perhaps, of what was to come.
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 chauffered to Page's. He had reportedly quit doing heroin, but was taking an anti-anxiety medication called Motival. En route, he stopped at a pub and downed four quadruple vodkas.
During the rehearsal, his drinking continued though this was not unusual for Bonham. 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 assistent, 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 edema - waterlogging of the lungs caused by inhalation of vomit. The death was ruled accidental.
Bonham was buried on October 10, 1980 at Rushock parish churchyard, near The Old Hyde farm.
The band never really contemplated finding a replacement but it took until 4th 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.'
The band were no more.