I’ve always thought of John Bonham as having the perfect name for a legendary drummer. Those three plosive syllables seem to perfectly echo the pounding rock beat that defined his career with stadium behemoths, Led Zeppelin. It’s a name in 4/4, and it is evocative of a whole period of music history, a period in which virtuosity was king. And the louder a musician could play, the better.
Bonham was certainly one of the loudest. His style is characterised by his animalistic strength and metrical precision — just listen to ‘Black Dog’, or ‘When The Levee Breaks’. This was a drummer who could compete with the superhuman vocals of Robert Plant and the gargantuan riffs of Jimmy Page without breaking a sweat. He was, to put it bluntly, bloody good at hitting things.
‘Bonzo’ began playing the drums at the age of five, making a kit of containers and coffee tins to imitate his early idols, Max Roach, Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones. The young Bonham quickly latched on to the instrument and became obsessed with it. So obsessed that he began neglecting almost everything else, leading his schoolmaster to write in a report that he would either end up a “dustman or a millionaire”.
By the time Jimmy Page was putting together Led Zeppelin, Bonham had been on the gig circuit for some time. On seeing Bonham drum for Tim Rose at a pub in Hampstead, Page felt sure he was the perfect fit for his new project and eventually persuaded Bonham to join his band. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Bonham is regarded as one of the most pioneering and technically gifted drummers of his age. It must have been easy for Bonham to feel that he was at the top of the pile, but there was one drummer who kept him grounded, one who he believed was the greatest drummer of all time. That man was the pharmaceutical fanatic and raiser of hell, Ginger Baker.
For Bonham, the drummer of Cream, represented the very pinnacle of technical prowess. Bonham once said of his idol: “I don’t think anyone can ever put Ginger Baker down.” Certainly, Baker was one of the earliest drummers to elevate the status of the drum kit, allowing drummers to take centre stage, and even become bandleaders. Bonham has also cited Gene Krupa in this regard alongside a few others, but Baker was the first to do it in a rock context. “People hadn’t taken much notice of drums before Krupa,” Bonham once said, “And Ginger Baker was responsible for the same thing in rock
“[Baker] was the first to come out with this ‘new’ attitude — that a drummer could be a forward musician in a rock band, and not something that was stuck in the background and forgotten about,” Bonham continued, adding: “I think Baker was really more into jazz than rock,” Bonham said. “He plays with a jazz influence. He’s always doing things in 5/4 and 3/4 tempos. Ginger’s thing as a drummer is that he was always himself.”
The two drummers would eventually cross paths, but Baker was never particularly fond of Bonham. Then again, I don’t think Ginger Baker was that fond of anyone beyond his musical idols. In an attempt to flatter Baker, Bonham once said that he believed: “There were only two drummers in British rock ‘n’ roll; himself and Ginger Baker.” Baker’s reaction, he writes in his autobiography, was “You cheeky little bastard!”
Never mind, John.