John Bonham: Rumble on
John Henry Bonham was born in Redditch, Worcestershire on May 31, 1948. His father Jack ran a building company and employed both of his sons, John and Michael. Aged five John began to show an interest in music. He started drumming around the house on a bath salt container fitted with strands of wire on the bottom. After adding pots and pans to his armoury his mother bought him a real snare drum at the age of 10. Then his dad bought him a complete kit. Although he worked for his dad as a builder, he developed his career as a drummer playing with local bands.
The Beatles era was dawning, but John had a taste for the jazz drummers like Gene Krupa, Joe Morello and Sonny Payne. He loved their stick-twirling showmanship. He took lessons but developed his own hard-hitting rock’n’roll style.
“Drumming was the only thing I was any good at and so I stuck at it,” said John later. “I always worked hard all the time. When I was 16, I went into full-time music. But I’d have to go back to the building sites to earn money to live. If there were no gigs, there was no money.”
He began playing with his bare hands, a technique he’d use on Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick. He also developed a fast bass drum pedal technique inspired by Carmine Appice. As he gained confidence he’d go up to a bandleader and say: “Your drummer’s not much good, is he? Let me have a go and I’ll show you.” He’d take over the hapless drummer’s kit, pound it to bits and take his gig. One of his first was with Terry Webb & The Spiders.
In 1965 at the age of 17 he married his girlfriend Pat Phillips. As money was tight they lived in a caravan owned by John’s father. Later they moved into a high-rise flat in Dudley where they were still living when the first Led Zeppelin album was released. Bonzo later joined A Way Of Life, which made demos in a Birmingham studio. He played so loudly he was told he was ‘unrecordable’. He was also told there was no future in playing so loudly. Some years later he sent the studio manager a Led Zeppelin gold disc with a note saying: “Thanks for your advice.”
In 1965 he joined the Crawling King Snakes where he met Robert Plant, who thought Bonzo was a flash whiz-kid. Despite much banter and rivalry they became firm friends. Bonham left the Snakes after a few months to rejoin A Way Of Life. But Plant and Bonham would be reunited in Plant’s group Band Of Joy in January 1967, wearing the new hippy fashion for kaftan, beads and bells. Bonzo quit again in May 1968 when he backed visiting American singer Tim Rose on a UK tour, performing Morning Dew and Hey Joe and earning £50 a week
Meanwhile Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Peter Grant were putting Led Zeppelin together from the ashes of The Yardbirds down in London. They recruited Robert Plant who in turn recommended Bonham for the gig. He took some convincing but within weeks Bonham had joined Page, Jones and Plant in the studio. He told astonished mates back in Birmingham he had just earned £3,000.