“John Bonham is the greatest rock drummer of all time. Bonham played directly from the heart.” – Dave Grohl
To be a part of one legendary band is impressive, to be a part of two is kind of greedy. However, Dave Grohl’s contribution to modern rock music is wholly unrivalled. Either as the frontman for Foo Fighters or as the percussive powerhouse in Nirvana, Grohl knows a thing or two about music. We recently brought you a list of his favourite drummers and while it’s packed with stars, one man reigned supreme, Led Zeppelin’s Bonzo, AKA John Bonham.
With his knowledge of drumming and his love of Led Zeppelin firmly asserted, you can imagine our happiness when we came across this list of Dave Grohl’s favourite John Bonham Led Zeppelin songs on Foo Archive. In a piece originally written for MOJO some years back, Grohl picks out Bonham’s greatest moments with the band and it makes for a stellar playlist.
For Grohl, Bonham really was the beginning of something special, “Led Zeppelin, and John Bonham’s drumming, especially, opened up my ears.” Before that, Grohl had been a hard and fast punk rocker, “I was into hardcore punk rock; reckless, powerful drumming, a beat that sounded like a shotgun firing in a cement cellar.” It’s a style that Grohl undoubtedly took into his own work.
It was another record that sparked something inside Grohl however, “When CDs first came out in the 80s the first one I listened to was Houses Of The Holy. It changed everything. I played that CD thousands of times. I listened so hard I could hear the kick drum pedal squeaking!” It began a journey for Grohl that would lead to some of the highest points a rock star can hope to achieve.
A self-taught musician out of the punk handbook, there’s a certain parallel to be drawn between Bonham and Grohl, “What I play comes straight from the soul – and that’s what I hear in John Bonham’s drumming. I’ve watched Bonzo on the Led Zeppelin DVD and it looks like the film has been speeded up because he’s playing so fast. I don’t know anyone who thinks there’s a better rock drummer than John Bonham: it’s undeniable!”
With such a glowing endorsement ringing in our ears, what better time to make our whole head shake and listen to some of John Bonham’s best Led Zeppelin songs according to Dave Grohl.
John Bonham’s 10 best Led Zeppelin songs according to Dave Grohl:
‘Achillies’ Last Stand’
Taken from 1976’s Presence, 1976 it’s a big hitter but from later in the band’s growing career, it’s a clear indication that Bonham’s talents were far from on the wane in the later years of his life. The drummer still possessed all the rhythm and technique which had seen him grow in majesty as one of the world’s best.
But now he came complete with his own unique arsenal of artillery, machine-gun quick fills were punctuated with RPG heaviness and made songs like the 10-minute monster a rallying war cry. There are fills on this song that shouldn’t be possible but are because; Bonham. While we marvel at how loud and magnificent the sounds are, Grohl offers up some insider info, “You can tell he’s taking chances as the tape rolls,” Grohl said. “There’s an amazing kick-drum pattern that propels the track. And there’s one fill right after the first verse that just doesn’t sound humanly possible.”
‘Kashmir’ is a huge fan favourite among diehard Led Zeppelin fans and Grohl is no different. On this track, it’s the confidence of Bonzo that captures his attention. “Bonham knew when to step up and shine,” he proclaims, and it’s hard to disagree with, his thundering power only matched by his style.
“I love the way he lays the snare in there. It’s a straight backbeat throughout the song until he pulls off a signature kick-drum triplet. he’s signing the cheque right there: ‘Love, John Bonham’.”
‘When The Levee Breaks’
By 1971 the act of English rock bands taking on old blues cuts was becoming an overdone thing. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had already strangled much of the Delta blues for their finest tunes. Yet, Page, Jones, Plant, and Bonham took on ‘When The Levee Breaks’ with a renewed vigour.
Recorded in a stairwell to gather that muffled an echoing drum sound, Bonham is powerful and commanding on every beat. So much so that Page and co. built the song around it. “That is a straight groove,” Grohl confirms, “It’s incredible to have a rock drummer that powerful, that crazy, that bad-ass, but with a groove so smooth. It’s so purely human, so fuckin’ smooth, man! It’s pure chocolate fuckin’ sex.”
There is a right way and a wrong way to listen to John Bonham’s drums on ‘Immigrant Song’ from Led Zeppelin II. The wrong way is to listen to the big and bolshy album track and the right way is to listen to this hammering live take from 1972. “This live version just comes right out of the gate,” confirms Grohl.
In the live track, we get a real sense of Bonham’s commitment to putting on a show, “You know that people’s jaws would have dropped. Bonham is really pushing it. He’s either drunk as hell or he’s just having the time of his life.”
1982’s Coda isn’t the first port of call for many Led Zeppelin fans but being the superfan he is, Grohl was more than happy to trawl the compilation album and select this rarity from the Led Zeppelin III sessions.
The song is, for him, a real party-starter, “It makes me want to throw on a pair of cowboy boots and do a jig on a sawdust floor. It’s got a nice country swing.
“Bonham could play pounding rock but he was just as good playing weird Meters honky-tonk shit.”
“For a big white man from England, he was pretty funky. It’s a fast-forward funk beat with another machine-gun roll – so quick across the drums. His sense of funk and feel were so natural.” Though it’s true the big man had some swaying hips on him, the song’s origination may have something to do with this funky beat.
Allegedly, according to bassist John Paul Jones, this track was written after inspiration from the mercurial soulman Stevie Wonder and his iconic song, ‘Superstitious’, which owes to the track’s funky nature. As such, the song acts as a stark reminder that Bonham wasn’t all power — he was full of charisma too.
“Bonham’s sense of dynamics is such an essential part of Zeppelin’s songwriting,” says Grohl of the 1973 song from Houses of the Holy. “He’s like one big volume knob – he takes it up and down, and that is something that few drummers understand,” Bonham added texture to every song he played on and should rightly be seen as one of the four wheels that propelled the band.
The thing with Led Zeppelin was that they had one of the most unique drummers in the world, “Every producer and drummer in the world has tried to recapture the John Bonham sound, but it’s impossible. Drums are an acoustic instrument and how they sound depends on how you touch them.”
‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’
Taken from the band’s 1970 record Led Zeppelin III, ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ shows off Bonham’s stylistic side. Though he’s famed for his powerhouse percussion, he could throw his shoulder into it, too. “The swing in that song – it’s just so sad and beautiful,” says Grohl of the song.
For the former Nirvana man, this is why Bonham is so important and influential, he proved that the drums could be just as expressive emotionally as any other instrument. “The drumming, it breaks my heart,” he continues, “It’s such passionate, feel playing. The way he plays on ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You,’ it sounds like John Bonham’s got the blues.”
‘The Wanton Song’
Taken from the band’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, ‘The Wanton Song’ may not be the top of everybody’s favourite Led Zeppelin song list, but it certainly packs a punch. And it’s all influenced by Bonham’s muscle power.
The track was born out of jam sessions and sees three members of the group pushing one another musically to be harder and faster than the other. “There are not many riffs better than that,” suggests Grohl. “It sounds like all three guys – Bonzo, Jimmy and John Paul – are trying to be John Bonham in the way they play this song. It’s a wicked beat – something to fight or shake your ass to.”
Not often do instrumental tracks make it into great rock acts’ top 10 lists. But not often do they include a three-minute drum solo from one of the greatest drummers to have ever lived. Bonzo’s solo in the Led Zeppelin II track ‘Moby Dick’ was a warning shot from the band’s 1969 Led Zeppelin II record. Or as Grohl puts it, “Drum solos are usually just wank, crap, but the one in ‘Moby Dick’ is the greatest drum solo of all time.”
It was the first shot at the feet of all the other jazz, rock, and R&B drummers out there that Bonham could do it all. And then some, “What can I say? Fucking ‘Moby Dick’, man!”