Today is John Bonham’s birthday! I don’t have very many traditions, but celebrating Bonham’s birthday is something I try to do every year. Since I was a wee-lad I’ve been a Led Zeppelin fan, but I had kinda drifted away from the band until about 8 years ago when I was driving to work and I heard “Moby Dick” on the radio. Being an instrumental, I had kinda overlooked “Moby Dick” in favor of the catchier, guitar-centric Zeppelin songs. For some reason, hearing “Moby Dick” that night was like a revelation, and helped jumpstart my love of Led Zeppelin. Like most people, I grew up thinking that Jimmy Page WAS Led Zeppelin, and while Zep certainly is Page’s band…it was Bonham and his drumming that made them truly special. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of drummers, but nobody touches “Bonzo” (as Bonham was often called). It’s no secret that the way Bonham achieved his famous sound was by beating the ever-loving-shit out of his drums, but Bonham was more than just a burly oaf who wailed on the drums. The man was a force of nature, he played with a massive amount of intensity yes, but he also had a raw/spontaneous nature about his drumming that can only be described as “organic.” Every note seemed both thought-out and done entirely on instinct, and his ability to do that is the true secret of his genius.
John Bonham brought drumming into the rock ‘n roll spotlight. Before hearing Bonham, I did not really consider drums. Sure, w’d all miss them if they weren’t there….but drums were usually mixed way down prior to Zeppelin. In fact, one of Zeppelin’s major contributions to rock music was how they recorded their drums. Rather than record Bonham in a small, closed off little room (thus limiting the scale/scope of his thunderous sound), Zeppelin recorded Bonham’s drum parts in large, high-ceilinged rooms (even using a stairwell). Before I heard “Moby Dick” I the idea of a drum-solo (let alone an entire song that’s basically just the drums) seemed ridiculous. The only other famous drum-centric song that I could think of was “Wipeout,” which is more novelty than anything else. “Moby Dick” is an epic masterpiece. I’ve read accounts of Bonham playing this song for nearly 40 minutes during some of Zeppelin’s tours–the man had stamina (could you drum for 40 minutes straight?).
Earlier this month, I saw a symphonic tribute to Led Zeppelin put on by the St. Louis Symphony and a rock band led by singer Randy Jackson (of the band Zebra). The show was pretty good, and the drummer did an admirable job covering “Moby Dick,” but even with an entire symphony, that tribute band couldn’t match Bonham’s volume and intensity. Bonham was a notorious partier, who lived a larger-than-life existence and ultimately he paid the ultimate price. And while he was a bit of a weirdo, he also loved his son and his friends. And in the end, that’s enough for me.
Today is John Bonham day, celebrate by listening to some Led Zeppelin and have a pint for John.