John Bonham is rightly hailed as one of the greatest drummers of all time. Fusing technique with raw power, his jazz-inflected style of rock ‘n’ roll is some of the most influential ever recorded. The hairy rock titan had a panache when it came to drumming that has never really been matched.
Subsequently, given his impact, countless stories about one of music’s most mythical figures, including how he came to record his part for Led Zeppelin‘s masterpiece ‘Stairway to Heaven’, have become hot property in the years since his death.
Although Bonham thought he’d laid down his part perfectly during the recording sessions for the track in one take, he hadn’t. Digby Smith, the tape operator for the ‘Stairway’ sessions, retold the story in Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band, and it paints a candid image of the late Bonham.
It turns out that one of Bonham’s most dextrous and iconic drum parts was fuelled by something you wouldn’t expect; rage. Each of the band’s musicians, Bonham, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, had completed their takes without a guide vocal, and their dazzling musicianship caught Smith’s attention immediately. Despite it being a complex and meandering song, Smith recalled the band recording a perfect first take. He said: “The first take (was) awesome, no mistakes from beginning to end”.
Listening back to the take, Bonham, Jones and Plant thought that it should be used. However, Jimmy Page did not. He felt the band had a better take within them, but he did not reveal this at the time and remained tight-lipped.
Page described Bonham’s recording with insouciance as plainly “alright”. This, of course, infuriated Bonham who was said to be “fuming” as the discussion unfolded. He grabbed his sticks, re-entered the studio, and sat down at the drum kit. In the book, Smith said: “I can still see (Bonham) sitting at the kit, waiting to come in (with his drum part), seething”.
Hilariously, Smith remembered: “When he finally comes in, he’s beating the crap out of his drums”. Regardless, the take was perfect. Afterwards, everyone in the room agreed, and Bonham even accepted that Page was right in his assertions.
When listening to ‘Stairway’ you wouldn’t think that Bonham’s part was fuelled by the resentment at having to record another take. Even towards the end of the song, when the cymbal crashes ring loud, there’s still a level of restraint to Bonham’s playing, showing just how much of a master he was. When fuming, he still had the nouse to pull off one of the most revered drum takes of all time.