Here’s a few jokes about drummers (that I’ve copied straight from some crap website):
What do you call a drummer with half a brain?
What’s the difference between a drummer and a savings bond?
One will mature and make money.
An Indian chief and a cavalry captain climb to the top of a tall hill and look out upon the entire Indian tribe. The captain says worriedly, “I don’t like the sound of those drums.” The chief says, “I know. It’s not our regular drummer.”
Drummers get a lot of stick (that’s not meant to be another joke, though it does work as one) from other musicians. But then so do bass players. And lead singers and lead guitarists and rhythm guitarists and flute players and Liam Gallagher. It’s a wonder bands ever stay together what with all the grief they throw around. Personally I always think rather fondly of drummers. I like rhythm and I like music with a bit of swing and a splash of groove to it. That’s why I like the Rolling Stones so much and why I don’t like Chris De Burgh at all. When it comes to drummers there are really only 2 types: good and bad. You don’t often hear a lot from bands with bad drummers because bands with bad drummers make music that sounds shit. Sometimes the drummer is the best thing about a band. Occasionally the drummer is the only thing about a band. And sometimes a drummer elevates a great band into being an awesome band. John Bonham was one of those drummers.
If you wanted to write about a tight little rock and roll unit you would do well to mention Led Zeppelin. They were about as tight as it comes and although they had plenty of competition no other band really owned the 70’s like they did. As a foursome they were phenomenally gifted: they all brought something to the table, but while they may have been Jimmy Page’s baby it’s Bonham that really offered the extra oomph. So much oomph. I’m not being very original here in saying he’s the best drummer rock music has ever had but since he’s on my mind I thought I may as well offer you a little set list of his highlights. It should be noted that he was far from perfect as a man (his tour nickname was ‘the beast’ and frankly he sounded like the kind of fella you’d jump into a sewer to avoid when he was ‘on one’) but the power and imagination and sheer verve of his drumming is never less than delightful; indeed it’s often awe inspiring. Sometimes I get to the end of a Led Zeppelin song and then realise I’ve only been properly listening to the drums; and that, dear reader, is something to be celebrated. Here’s a personal top 10:
1. When The Levee Breaks. I’m in agreement with Dave Grohl who reckons he could listen to the first few seconds of this song on a loop forever. It’s amazing. A deep, powerful, primordial thump that sounds like nothing else in music (it is a sampler’s wet dream). The sound of Godzilla, stoned, wearing concrete boots going for a gentle stroll. Frankly I could just listen to the echo alone for a few days solid. For a tiny snatch of time he’s all on his own, hanging out there, the need for accompaniment thoroughly redundant, so it’s a jolly good thing that when the rest of the gang kick in they make a bloody good job of it. It is one the most essential rock and roll songs ever, certainly a notch up from ‘Stairway To Heaven’, and must always be played at a ridiculous volume. As the whole thing begins to climax Bonham delivers three fills starting at 5.13, the third of which is so violently beautiful you’d think you were listening to a god. I have goosebumps.
2. Custard Pie. Another perfect song, another perfect beat. Little rolls and bops and plops all over the shop. His play during the guitar solo is measured in vicious and his bass drum work just before the fade out begins is laughably powerful. I’m stealing here but it really does sound like his kit is falling down the stairs. I put this on our wedding reception playlist, not because it’s romantic (I’m told the custard pie in this instance refers to a lady’s ‘parts’) but because I wanted lots of people to hear it. I know, how thoughtful.
3. Achilles Last Stand. Bonham’s version of War and Peace. He must have been exhausted by the end of this. His drums are all over the place in the most clinical way imaginable. OK the military bashing isn’t for everyone but some of his fills are beyond reason: at roughly 2.32 he seems to morph into an octopus for not much more than one second. His playing is the anchor; and the power and the glory. Amen.
4. Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Bonham’s mastery of the bass drum kick was complete by the time this was recorded. A deeply gripping piece of work by a band up against it in more ways than one. It is filled with two forms of expression – silence and rage – and when the silence is broken Bonham’s foot is the hammer.
5. Kashmir. Another epic, perhaps THE epic. Here the drums are widescreen and the horizon is always just beyond reach, as if he alone controls the spinning of the planet and the passing of time. He joins his band mates in a heroic voyage and his drumming sacrifices aggression in place of subtlety and agility and pure groove. If you have 9 minutes left on a treadmill and you’re already exhausted then Kashmir may just get you over the line.
6. Fool In The Rain. It’s not their finest hour but here Bonham pulls out an irresistible funky shuffle – a kind of a samba thing, and proves just how expansive and varied his arsenal was. Taken as a whole the song is bordering on a bit silly but if you let his grace, control and sheer rhythmic artistry be the lead then it will all be worthwhile.
7. The Ocean. Just a boxing match of a drum track, every line ending with a big old punch in the face, sometimes a double jab. That’s him counting in the song, as if you needed telling that without him there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much of a song at all.
8. Since I’ve Been Loving You. Led Zeppelin already had the blues zipped up and this may be the high point in their purest version of the genre. As ever it’s a group dynamic that just sizzles relentlessly and Bonham manages to lay out a savage attack that piles up the mournful momentum and works a bloody treat.
9. In My Time Of Dying. I had so many options it really is ludicrous. I haven’t even chosen anything from their first 2 albums. ‘Physical Graffiti’ is my preferred Zep album and this is their longest ever studio song. Slow to build but once it hits its stride we’re talking all-out war, with JB playing the part of battering ram, heavy artillery and cavalry charge all in one go. “That’s gotta be the one, isn’t it?” he calls out at the end. You’re fucking right that’s gotta be the one, mate.
10. DVD – Live at Knebworth. By 1979 even The Zep had almost run out of steam. Their final studio album was a bit smelly but they had committed to play a couple of enormous gigs in Hertfordshire to warm themselves up for a long awaited return to touring. It shouldn’t work: Robert Plant looks like he’d rather be having lazy sex with something, you barely get a glimpse of John Paul Jones and not only does Jimmy Page look a bit daft in his silk shirt his guitars seem to have conspired backstage that they would all be out of tune. But there is one constant – the man on the drums. John Henry Bonham is mesmerising. Every time the camera flicks to him he is caught in some otherworldly, frenzied trance, performing the devil’s moves, otherwise out of reach to mere mortals. Let this footage be his memorial, a man caressing and flicking and battering his drums like no-one else ever has. Even Buddy Rich. If they’d known what was coming they would have run a mile. A musician’s musician. A bastard and a scholar. There will never be another drummer like him. Trust me, I’m right.
G B Hewitt. 06.06.2019
He died in 1980, choking on vomit after a vodka binge. Hence onstupidity.