There was absolutely nothing ‘normal’ about John Bonham when he got behind a drum kit. Offstage, Bonham was certainly a rock star; he downed drinks and caused mayhem like every repugnant rock ‘n’ roll pastiche you can think of. But what set the drummer apart was that when he did get on stage, he delivered lorry loads of blood, sweat and tears, often sacrificing his health for his art. He was a powerhouse percussionist that kept the furnaces of the Led Zeppelin train burning — he propelled the band to stardom and ensured they could always back it up. As we say, there was nothing ‘normal’ about John Bonham.
Equally, the way Bonham learned how to play the drums was proportionately strange. Learning to play the drums during the fifties and sixties was not usual for kids to do, and Bonham had already put himself out there by even considering the instrument. What’s more, when it came to the time to be taught, Bonham once again rallied against the societal norms and chose a different path for himself.
While for many who pick up an instrument, the opportunity to be a guitarist or keyboardist is engrained in our minds. But for Bonham, being a drummer was just a natural thing and came to him when he was only five-years-old. Speaking with his brother Mick Bonham, the late Led Zeppelin star opened up about how he became a drummer: “I’ve wanted to be a drummer since I was about five years old,” he said. “I used to play on a bath salt container with wires on the bottom and on a round coffee tin with a loose wire fixed to it to give a snare drum effect. Plus, there were always my Mum’s pots and pans.”
That’s all well and good — pretty usual thus far. The slightly strange events begin when you realise that he practised for five years with only one drum: “When I was ten, my Mum bought me a snare drum,” he explained. “My Dad bought me my first full drum kit when I was 15. It was almost prehistoric. Most of it was rust.” Considering by the time Bonham picked up his first kit, it was 1963, and The Beatles were now taking over the world, the fire must’ve been stoked in the teen.
Despite this, the reality of trying to be a “rock drummer” in the early sixties was never far away from disaster, as Bonham continues: “When I left school I went into the trade with my Dad. He had a building business, and I used to like it. But, drumming was the only thing I was any good at, and I stuck at that for three or four years. If things got bad, I could always go back to building.” For Bonham, being a drummer wasn’t just a fad or even a vocation; it was his way of life: “I was so keen to play when I left school, I’d have played for nothing. In fact, I did that for a long time, but my parents stuck by me. I swore to Pat that I’d give up drumming when we got married, but every night I’d come home and just sit down at the drums. I’d be miserable if I didn’t.”
With few rock drummers out in front of him, Bonham’s icons largely came from the jazz era. Within jazz are some of the most gifted drummers of all time, including Art Blakely and Buddy Rich. These percussionists were serious musicians, the kind who had studied and trained in the art of music, and they were treated with great reverence for it. But for Bonham, learning how to play the drums as they had was never on the cards: “I never had any lessons,” he continued. “When I first started playing, I used to read music. I was very interested in music. But when I started playing in groups, I did a silly thing and dropped it. It’s great if you can write things down.”
Bonham effused about how the drums made him feel: “I’ve always been obsessed with drums. They fascinate me. Any other instrument – nothing. I play acoustic guitar a bit. But it’s always been drums first and foremost. I don’t reckon on this Jack-of-all-trades thing. I think that feeling is a lot more important than technique,” proclaimed Bonham, offering some sincere advice. He goes one step further to say: “It’s all very well doing a triple paradiddle – but who’s going to know you’ve done it?”
Adding:” “If you play technically, you sound like everybody else. It’s being original that counts.”
With that ringing endorsement of pursuing your own originality reverberating around our ears, there’s still always time to revisit a master at work for inspiration. Check out John Bonham on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Moby Dick’ below.