John Bonham was a name in rock music that few could out-muscle. Aside from his imposing figure, Bonzo, as he was affectionately known, was a juggernaut performer and a consummate percussionist. What he delivered in the studio was only dwarfed by the blood, sweat and tears he put into every single night on every single tour. If there’s one thing that Bonham lived for, it was his audience. Sadly, one of the rarest and greatest drummers ever known would succumb to an all too common occurrence.
Following a night of heavy drinking, with many suggesting he had over 40 shots of vodka in his system, Bonham choked on his own vomit and would never get to return to the stage again. It was a devastating moment for his family, fans and the band he had helped rise to the top of the rock and roll pile. Led Zeppelin may have been entering a new and unchartered decade, one in which they would have to adapt, but they were ready to return to what made them rock heroes in the first place — their live show.
The tour of 1980 would see the band have to drastically change their act to match the new values and themes that audiences held dear. Led Zeppelin had been the wild showmen of the rock world during the seventies but, as the music world turned towards the brash and basic staging of punk and new wave (enjoying the employment of real-life talent rather than the upper echelons of rock as before), the band were starting to look as long in the tooth as their now-passe soloing. With 14 nights scheduled for the European summer, Zeppelin needed to streamline their set to make sure they weren’t seen as dinosaurs.
While many groups were trying to add glitz and glam to their work, Led Zeppelin noted the change of styles that punk had enforced and set about removing superfluous moments from their show. This saw the removal of lots of their visual effects, including the smoke, lasers, and even their costuming. For old school fans of the band rocking up in 1980, the experience of seeing them was very different to anything they may have experienced, but Zeppelin had to evolve.
It also meant that the now-well-established ritual of John Bonham’s epic drum solo on ‘Moby Dick’ (usually coming in around the fifteen-minute mark), Jimmy Page’s violin bow guitar solo on ‘Dazed and Confused’, and John Paul Jones’ noodling keyboard intro on ‘No Quarter’ were all cut from the setlist too. Instead, the emphasis was placed back on the songs rather than the individual parts that make them. The tour became known fondly as the ‘Cut The Waffle’ tour.
Sadly passing away on September 25th, 1980, Bonham would never get to go back on tour with Zeppelin and their newly refined setlist. Instead, Bonham’s final contribution to Led Zeppelin’s live prestige would come on July 7th, 1980, with his final song being the potent rock masterclass ‘Whole Lotta Love’. It’s a fitting farewell for one of the true greats.
The song is an archetypal Led Zeppelin tune as it allows all four members of the band, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and, of course, Bonham, to perform to the best of their abilities. Plant’s vocals are magnetic, Page’s guitar like a buzzsaw from heaven and Jones’ rhythm was unstoppable. Even in 1980, with 12 years of playing the tune under their belt, the track takes on a brand new sound. But, underneath it all, is one constant — John Bonham.
The near sixteen-minute version of ‘Whole Lotta love’ you can hear below is the final song John Bonham would ever play live with Led Zeppelin, and it’s a bootleg that is worth revisiting whenever you can. Bonham would pass away only weeks after this recording.