John Bonham: Rumble on
When Led Zeppelin played Knebworth in 1979 young Jason showed how he had learned from his father when he played drums during the soundcheck. The rest of the band first thought it was his father playing. Bonham Snr. played well enough on the two UK shows but showed signs of fatigue on a German tour. After three numbers in Nuremberg John was taken ill and appeared unwell for the rest of the tour. It may have been he wasn’t looking forward to returning to the States, afraid of the reception they might get after the Oakland incident.
Rehearsals for the scheduled North American tour were set to take place at Jimmy Page’s home in Windsor in September 1980. On the way there in a car with Robert Plant on the morning of the 24th John suddenly said: “I’ve had it with playing drums. Everybody plays better than me. I’ll tell you what, when we get to the rehearsal, you play the drums and I’ll sing.”
John started drinking at lunchtime and carried on until midnight. He allegedly got through 40 measures of vodka during a marathon 12-hour session. After falling asleep on a sofa he was put to bed by his assistant and laid on pillows for support. The following morning there was no sign of him. John Paul Jones and road manager Benje LeFevre found him apparently unconscious. They tried to wake him then realised he was dead. They had to inform Jimmy and Robert. Everyone was saddened and even angry at the waste of life. Peter Grant went into a depression that lasted several years.
Rumours suggested Bonzo had been taking drugs, but it was drink that had caused his death. Said John Paul Jones: “We had just started rehearsing for America when Bonzo died. It was just at the point where we had all come back together again. We had high hopes it was all coming right. Bonzo had been getting a bit erratic and he wasn’t in good shape. There were some good moments, but then he started on the vodka. I think he had been drinking because there were some problems in his personal life. But he died because of an accident. He was lying down the wrong way.”
It was revealed at the inquest that he died from inhalation of vomit during his sleep ‘due to consumption of alcohol’. An accidental death verdict was recorded and the funeral took place at Rushock Parish Church in Worcestershire on October 10, 1980, attended by crowds of mourners including family, friends and his bandmates. Tributes poured in from Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Cozy Powell and Carl Palmer.
Said Bev Bevan: “It was such a shock when I heard the news on the radio. The funeral was the most traumatic I had ever been to because he was so young and had so much in front of him. His family were utterly distraught and there was much weeping. It was very sad. He was such a brilliant drummer, who knows what more he would have done.”
Led Zeppelin could have carried on with another drummer, as The Who had done after the demise of Keith Moon. But no one could have filled Bonham’s shoes. In December 1980 it was confirmed the group had officially broken up.
Other drummers including Phil Collins and Jason Bonham have played on Zeppelin reunions since. None could hope to match the sheer power, magic and presence of the much-loved man who once told Robert Plant he was the greatest drummer in the world.
As Robert said – he was right.
Words: Chris Welch