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Thirty Years Gone: Remembering Zeppelin’s John Bonham

Thirty years ago, the greatest hard rock drummer of all time died at Jimmy Page's home near Windsor. New Musical Express veteran Roy Carr was close to John "Bonzo" Bonham and here recalls hanging out with the Black Country hellraiser in Led Zeppelin's '70s heyday.--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Well, this is L.A., so I assume we're being hit by an earthquake. What else could cause the walls of my hotel room to vibrate or an angry, ear-splitting rumble to rapidly grow louder by the second? Anxiously, I rushed out into the hallway to be confronted by other startled hotel guests.

Just when it seems this infernal noise couldn't possibly get any more painful, the lift doors opened and, in a cloud of pungent fumes, out roared a motorbike rider gunning his machine as he quickly disappeared down a corridor.

Ah, we've been expecting you, Mr. Bonham!

The location is the infamous Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Strip--affectionately known by its predominantly rock 'n' roll clientele as "The Riot House." A bolt-hole where anything goes and frequently does.

Here's a for-instance. I returned to my hotel suite late one afternoon to find what seemed to be half the population of Hollywood partying hard. Food was piled high on trolleys and a barman was busily serving up liquid hospitality from a portable bar, while music pumped out from two large speakers. As I pushed my way through the noisy crowd the only person I recognized was a grinning John Bonham--"Bonzo"--standing in the middle of the room with a drink in each hand.

"You should see your face," he bellowed above the cacophony. "Just like home, eh? Don't worry about all this grub and the booze, I've charged everything up to your room. The strippers will be arriving shortly!"

Thanks a million.

Suddenly, I spotted a familiar local hustler trying to attract Bonzo's attention. Dressed in embroidered denim and sporting aviator shades, this scrawny sleazebag regularly hit on just about every British band that came through town with the kind of business propositions that were tantamount to Grand Larceny. Right now, he was getting absolutely nowhere and, in a last minute attempt was trying to impress Bonzo with his newly acquired open-topped imported sports car which was parked five floors below my balcony.

"I've seen shopping trolleys bigger than that," Bonzo scowled in his Black Country brogue. "The man's an a**."

Suddenly, Bonzo noticed a young woman quite obviously the worse for wear staggering towards him. "Quick, where's the bathroom?" she moaned, placing a protective hand over her mouth."

"This way," suggested Bonzo, gallantly leading her swiftly by the arm out onto the balcony. As she leaned over edge, Bonzo offered warm words of encouragement, "Go on girl, let it all go!" Retching violently, she disgorged an almighty Technicolor yawn that gathered momentum as it cascaded down before splattering all over the white leather upholstery of the open topped car below."

"Feel better?" Bonzo enquired. She managed an embarrassed nod and disappeared back into the throng.

Time passed and our hustler friend soon discovered the condition of beloved car and returned to my suite, complaining bitterly: "Some muthaf***er has thrown up all over my f**kin' car. It stinks!...it's complete ruined!....ruined! S**t! S**t! S**t!"

Feigning sympathy, Bonzo put his hand on the distraught owner's shoulder. "Some people are animals...no respect for other peoples' property. If it were me, I'd hunt the bastards down and damage them!"

Led Zeppelin's antics have become legendary. At one time, it seemed to be an unofficial contest between Zep and The Who as to which group could pull off the most outrageous stunts. Whereas the Who came across as mischievous, there seemed to be a darker edge to Zeppelin's escapades.

As a result, all manner of accusations were thrown at these Unholy Barbarians: these took in unsubstantiated allegations of deliberately concealing Satanic messages on their records which could only be deciphered when spun backwards to even more startling tales akin to rape and pillage and drunkenness and drug-fuelled depravity whenever they toured.

"I suppose that all stems from Jimmy," Bonzo mused later, "All that Aleister Crowley black magic s**t, and his friendship with that other nutcase Kenneth Anger. Stupid suggestions about Jimmy making some kind of pact with the Devil, a bit like that Robert Johnson nonsense that insisted that he went down to some crossroad at midnight where he sold his soul to the Devil to become a great blues player. It's all f**kin' bollocks...sacrificing goats, young virgins and conjuring up Old Nick, I ask you.

"Most of those stories are dreamt up by groupies like the Plaster-Casters trying to impress other groupies and hangers-on with the most lurid tales they can come up with to make themselves look important. It's like Chinese whispers where everything becomes so distorted to the point where things become pure fiction. Sure, some of stories have an element of truth like me getting legless and falling asleep in doorways, or stripping off onstage and being involved in the shark' incident, but for the most part they're greatly exaggerated...it's a bit like kids in the schoolyard boasting to one another!"

But the shark incident, Mr. Bonham?

During one US tour, Zeppelin stayed at the popular Edgewater Inn--a motor inn where guests can fish the waters of Puget Sound from the balconies to their hotel room. Soon, Zep were casting lines, hoping to hook mud sharks. In the end, all that Bonzo's catch amounted to was a few Red Snappers. What to do with them--cook 'em or throw 'em back? The outcome was that a visiting red-haired groupie with a fondness for bondage willingly participated in a filmed incident whereby the catch-of-the-day doubled as impromptu sex toys!

"Well, a man's got to have a hobby!" chortled Bonzo. "Remember, we're only on stage for two to three hours so what do we do for the rest of the day...when we're not flying to the next gig or have a day off...it's very easy to become bored. But concerning that time with sweet Jackie...again that's a typical example of something being exaggerated out of all proportions. No one got hurt...in fact, she thoroughly enjoyed every minute....a real sporty girl...you should meet her one day, she's a lot of fun!"'

I made a mental note.

But what about the day job? It's a given that John Bonham was the proto-type hard rock drummer. A powerful player, he possessed a technique unmatched in rock. His thunderous signature sound combined controlled lightning fast triplet and speedy bass drum pedal patterns to where the overall effect was of biblical proportions.

His introduction to "Rock 'N' Roll," his immaculate contributions to "When The Levee Breaks" or his show-stopping concert feature "Moby Dick"--few rivals ever came close. Later, Bonzo's distinctive drum sound became sampled by countless hip hop producers.

All kind of theories--some good, others churlish--surround sticksmen, ranging from tired old clichés like "What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians? A Drummer!" to suggestions that most bands are really only as good as the person behind the cymbals and skins. And, there's no argument when stating that it's primarily British drummers who have helped shape the structure of full-tilt rock in much the same way as its greatest guitarists.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," said Bonzo. "Maybe it's because Britain is such a small island that bands don't work in isolation. Everyone gets around to checking out each other. In the States it's different. Bands in New York may never get around to seeing local bands in say, L.A. or Kansas or Florida--their only contact would be through records...and often they don't tell the full story.

"In Britain it's much easier to get to see most groups, so competition between musicians is much more intense. Look at all the great guitar players to have come out this one small country--Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Mick Green with the Pirates, Keith Richards, Peter Green when he was with Fleetwood Mac, Pete Townshend and of course Jimmy...they're the best--you can't mistake one for the other. It's much the same thing with drummers...Keith Moon, Jim Capaldi, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix... nobody can top them. They've all got their very individual styles... I bet it's not like that in Belgium!

"Thing is, a lot of British drummers who grew up in the '60s were as influenced as much by jazz drummers--power players like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey and the blokes who played with John Coltrane, as they were by rock drummers such as Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, the guys who played on all those Motown, Stax and Atlantic records plus Johnny Badanjek with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Carmine Appice with Vanilla Fudge.

"Keith Moon and me are big fans of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and how they could drive their big bands with such passion. Personally, I also dug Louis Bellson...loved that solo he played on that Duke Ellington record 'Skin Deep', which was a jukebox hit. Moonie is a great showman and sometimes the way he plays--like crouching over his kit with that big shit-eating grin on his face--his mannerisms are very similar to those Krupa adopted when appearing in some of those old black and white movies.

"I know there was this joke amongst some drummers that because of the way he attacked his kit that Buddy sounded like a man building a wooden shed, but that was pretty unfair. Buddy Rich had a phenomenal technique and an unbelievable physical stamina. Once he actually played with a broken arm, another time just days after undergoing heart surgery. So what do you say to some stupid bugger who complains about getting a blister on his finger?

"It was from drummers like them that I learned how to develop speed on the bass drum and perform clearly defined solos that hopefully make sense. The thing is that far too many drummers don't know how to get the best out of their kit--some sound as though they've never bothered to properly tune their individual drums since they took them home from the showroom. You've really got to work on getting the best possible sound out of your set up, and that can take time. It's just not what a drummer plays, but like with guitarists it's easy to distinguish say Keith Moon from Ginger Baker not by just what they play but their individual sound--and that's what I've always strived to achieve."

Though Zeppelin never exactly flooded the stores with albums, they didn't take too long in the studio to achieve the desired results.

"We record a lot of stuff live in the studio, but we're not into doing take after take after take. If you do that then it can become a real problem deciding which one to go with. As long as the basic tracks are satisfactory, then any additional work can be done at a more leisurely pace. And, we're not about to release anything until we're all totally satisfied that it's as good as we can possibly make it."

Meanwhile, it appears that the bootleggers try and bridge the gap with releases like the widely available Live On Blueberry Hill.

"Yeah, I know that one. Along with Dylan, the Stones and the Grateful Dead, we are supposed to be the most bootlegged band around. I'm a bit ambivalent about bootlegs. Nobody is about to buy a bootleg in preference to any of our official albums. My problem with bootlegs is that the sound quality is often far below our standard and, because most of them are recorded at a concert by some f**ker with a hand mic. Also, they might include things we've played live but have not put out on record and that can spoil future plans we might have for our own live album. And we don't receive any royalties from any of those things--b**t**ds!. Warning, don't ever let Peter Grant catch you recording a show--you'll regret it for the rest of your natural. Knowing Peter, he'll probably shove the microphone right up your a**!"

Throughout most of the '70s, Led Zeppelin was arguably the biggest band in the world. This distinction having been achieved by being watchful of supply and demand and building their reputation purely on the strength of just their official albums and live appearances. Not for Zeppelin regular television guest shots. Similarly, they restricted press interviews to a minimum. In this way they preserved their mystique while at the same time added to the allure. Nevertheless, by the time of the release of their fourth studio album, Zeppelin was cautious of the growing culture of celebrity--and the possible dangers.

"We're not like...er, the Stones and Mick Jagger, Elton John, Rod Stewart or even Alice Cooper for that matter," Bonham pointed out. "They become bigger than their music and we never want that to happen to Zeppelin." He begins to laugh, "Sure, Percy is a golden rock god, but he doesn't get his pretty face blasted all over the papers. He wouldn't want that, or maybe he secretly does? But, what I'm saying is we've never been into that whole showbiz aspect of rock."

That was partly the reason that there was no indication of either a title or band name on the original cover of their fourth album when it hit the stores in November 1971--just four symbols.

From left to right, these symbols each represented Page, Jones, Bonham and Plant. It was suggested that the decision was a two-finger salute to those who regarded the group as overrated, while other saw this as inspired marketing to where it became a continual talking point and generated sustained interest. Subsequently, the album was dubbed Four Symbols, IV, Untitled, Zoso, Runes, Man With Sticks. Eventually it was just referred to as The Fourth Album.

"People are always moaning about something. I'll give you an example. When in 1971, we retraced our very first UK tour in 1968--and charged the same ticket price, there were complaints from all those who couldn't get in-- was done with good intent, but sometimes it seems that you just can't win!"

Though Led Zeppelin has justifiably been proud of their reputation as world-beaters, they can also be self-effacing. Once, when about to embark on a Scandinavian tour in 1970, descendants of airship creator Count Von Zeppelin threatened litigation over use of the family name, they avoided legal complications by appearing as the Nobs. A second occasion was just as bizarre.

On a visit to Japan, a lavish reception was thrown in honor of the distinguished visitors. The host, who had carefully been rehearsing his speech suddenly became over excited by the sense of occasion and blurted out, "Radies and Gennamen....RED ZEPPERIN!"

Within hours, everyone one on the tour proudly sported a fresh new T-shirt boldly emblazoned "Red Zepperin." "Personally speaking," Bonzo once admitted to me, "we should have continued as the Nobs--st think what our album covers could have looked like!"

*

Post Script

On September 25, 1980, John Bonham died, aged 32. Having consumed the equivalent of forty measures of vodka that day whilst rehearsing for an upcoming tour of America, his death was attributed to pulmonary edema. No drugs were found during his autopsy.

Read more classic Led Zeppelin articles at www.rocksbackpages.com. Over 16,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 40 years.

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