This article was originally published in The Sting on September 25, 2020.
It was late September of 1980, forty years ago, when Led Zeppelin was preparing to kick off their North American tour in the coming October.
Dad had tickets to see them, and years later, I would discover that many others also had tickets to a Led Zeppelin show scheduled for that year.
The group was rehearsing at guitarist Jimmy Page’s house in Windsor on the morning of September 25 when John Paul Jones, bassist, and tour manager Benji LeFevre went to check on Bonham, at the tail end of a half day drinking binge from the day prior. They couldn’t wake him.
Between noon and midnight on September 24, Bonham had consumed roughly 40 units (a little over 32 oz.) of vodka. When he passed out, an assistant put him on his side with some pillows for support. Suffice it to say it didn’t help.
Jones and LeFevre were now faced with informing the other members of the group, and eventually the rest of the world that John Bonham, unequivocally the greatest drummer to ever live, was dead at 32.
I say he was the greatest drummer to ever live not as opinion, but as bonafide fact. The man could perform a drum solo that would put anyone else (save for maybe Ginger Baker or Keith Moon) to shame.
On How the West Was Won, a live album recorded in 1977, Bonham’s drum solo lasted for just over 19 minutes. A drum solo that long could get boring, but Bonzo never falters. His drum solos “Moby Dick” and “Bonzo’s Montreux” were even recorded in the studio, which was and still is incredibly rare.
Despite the hard pounding grooves on tracks like “Rock and Roll” or “The Rover”, Bonham’s dynamic range behind the kit was apparent too. His drum parts on reflective songs like “Ten Years Gone” or “The Rain Song” show his ability to hold back when needed, even though he was a human-dynamo who could punch out some of the loudest and most ferocious playing you’d ever hear.
But it wasn’t just his playing that earned him notoriety.
In a time where recording equipment in the UK lagged behind the US, drums tended to sound a little tinny, and didn’t sound as good as other instruments in the band. Bonham was the first drummer to make drums sound good on a recording. He knew he had to tune the drum a specific way in order to get the best possible sound to come out. He played with a technique tailored to make a recording sound good.
Led Zeppelin producer Eddie Kramer even said he “could’ve recorded Bonham with the most primitive equipment” and it still would’ve sounded good.
Unfortunately, alcoholism got the better of Bonham in the end.
In the late 1970’s Led Zeppelin dealt with tragedy left and right. The band was unable to tour for their album Presence in 1976 after singer Robert Plant was involved in a serious car crash. Presence was met with mixed reviews, but the band found themselves falling further and further out of public acclaim. In 1977, Plant’s son died at the age of five from a stomach virus.
Faced with tax exile status from the UK, the band was forced to record what would be their final studio album in Sweden. Both Page and Bonham were dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, forcing Page and Jones to write most of the record.
The result was 1979’s In Through the Out Door, probably my favorite Zeppelin album, not because of the sound, but because of how much emotion rings through. That album is the story of four people who were profoundly broken trying to come back. They were trying to do something difficult. They were trying to go in through an out door.
There’s no way of knowing what Zeppelin would’ve done next. It’s speculated that their next album would’ve gone back to their roots: hard driving guitar and drums. 1980 could’ve been the year that Led Zeppelin returned, once again becoming the greatest band in the world.
Fate had other plans.
By the end of September 25, 1980, Dad and all the other fans’ hopes of seeing Led Zeppelin in concert that year evaporated.
A toxicology report was released a few days after Bonham’s death. “Consumption of alcohol” was all it read. The death was ruled an accident. The future of the band had been a topic of conversation for some time, but Bonham’s death was the nail in the coffin.
On December 4, 1980, the band released a statement that was so simple, yet so powerful.
“We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.”
Tony Sheaffer is managing editor for The Sting and writes Friday Groove, a weekly music column.