John Bonham: Rumble on
The new band proved a magical team. Said John Paul Jones: “As soon as I heard Bonham play I knew this was going to be great. We locked together as a team immediately.”
At first he played too busily and ignored warnings from Page to “keep it simple”. Peter Grant strode over to Bonham and said: “Do you like your job in this band?” The drummer nodded. “Well do as this man says. Behave yourself, Bonham, or you’ll disappear. Through different doors.”
John played his first gig with the New Yardbirds as they were still called in Copenhagen, on September 14, 1968. Bonham galvanised the band and had a lasting influence throughout their recoding career, His dynamic playing perfectly suited such arrangements as Communication Breakdown, Stairway To Heaven, Kashmir, Achilles Last Stand and Trampled Underfoot while his thunderous backbeat on When The Levee Breaks influenced a new generation of drummers.
Meanwhile the flow of hit albums and sold-out concerts meant his world changed overnight. The once poverty-stricken Bonhams could afford flashy cars, a big house and a champagne lifestyle. But he still had to work for a living. Out on the road 21-year-old Bonzo delivered a 20-minute, blood-spattered drum solo every night. And powering up the Zep show from Whole Lotta Love to Rock And Roll left him on the verge of collapse. Then there were the endless trips to Europe, the States, Japan and Australia. He hated flying, which made him physically sick.
Holed up in hotels, the only way for a travelling musician to immunise against the routine was to take a drink or two and perhaps experiment with drugs. John had enjoyed a beer from his teenage days. However, he tended to get boisterous after a few pints, which led to his reputation for mayhem. His pranks soon rivalled those of Keith Moon for outrage and destruction. Anyone getting too close found their clothes ripped and sprayed with lager.
Back home he’d return to normality, raising son Jason and daughter Zoë. He busied himself, running his farm and breeding cattle in the peace of the Worcestershire countryside. The real John Bonham preferred bricklaying, decorating and gardening to carousing in hotel California. Yet there was always a love of danger epitomised by driving his drag-racing car at 240mph in Zeppelin’s movie The Song Remains The Same.
Despite the bravado he confided to friends he suffered from panic attacks before every concert. “I’ve got worse,” he said in 1975. “I have terribly bad nerves all the time. Once we start into Rock And Roll I’m fine. I just can’t stand sitting around and I worry about playing badly. It’s worse at festivals. You might have to sit around for a whole day and you daren’t drink because you’ll get tired and blow the gig. So you sit drinking tea in a caravan with everybody saying: ‘Far out, man.’”
After earning so much money, Zeppelin became tax exiles, which meant living abroad away from home. Then came the series of mishaps that dogged the group and undermined the drummer’s confidence still further. Bonham’s boisterous good humour began to give way to dark brooding and fits of anger. Surrounded by hired security men, he may have felt invulnerable. In fact he overstepped the mark when he joined in an assault on an American security guard at the fateful concert at Oakland Coliseum, California in July 1977. John was arrested along with Peter Grant, Richard Cole and John Bindon after kicking the hapless guard who had offended Grant. It lead to fines and suspended sentences and the group never returned to America.
It was all turning sour and followed by the death of Robert Plant’s son in England it seemed the group was close to breaking up. John was left with more time on his hands and his behaviour became unpredictable.
Said his friend, drummer Bev Bevan of ELO: “He was an extrovert character, a friendly, huggable bloke. But unfortunately the drink just got too much for him. He overdid it and could become quite aggressive. He was similar to Keith Moon. They felt they had to live up to their reputations.”