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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to John Bonham

To try and quantify the impact of John Bonham is supremely difficult. To try and reduce that mammoth impact into just six songs is the unenviable task we have set ourselves. That’s because, when you do distil the supreme and bombastic talent of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham into six songs, you get the equivalent of a vodka shot to the eye and a clenched fist to the jaw — a hard-hitting reminder of the drummer’s intoxicating talent.

The drummer will go down in the rock and roll history books as easily one of the best musicians in his field. However, without the backing of his unstoppably talented band, the world may never have got to witness the shaking power and laser-guided precision of his percussion. It’s no surprise that Bonham has gone on to define not only the instrument but the entire notion of what a ‘rock drummer’ should really be.

That’s because when you strip away any fancy grips or patterns or fills, remove any notion of jazz infusion or pure rock revelry, the one thing you need to be a great drummer is the heart. You have to have the guts to go for glory, and that’s something Bonham had in bucket loads. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest drummers the world has ever known, and so we thought we’d take a look at six songs that define his marvellous talent.

Before his untimely death in 1980, Bonham was the band’s powerhouse juggernaut, driving it forward and adding a heavy dose of meat and bones to the Page and Plant’s expertly gilded dinner service. He was the engine of a runaway steam train that refused to stop shovelling coal.

Bonham was a keen learner and never missed a moment to tune up his skills: “John listened to Max Roach, Alphonse Mouzon, Elvin Jones, and a lot of fusion and jazz drummers,” recalled his brother Mick. “That’s the thing that gets me about John Bonham – everybody thinks he was into big drums and hitting them real hard. Bonham was into swing and playing with technique.”

This is what set Bonham apart from the rest. Not only did he have power and precision, but he had style when most hopefuls could only muster two out of the three. Completing the triumvirate made him the best, and these six songs prove it.

Six definitive songs of John Bonham:

‘Good Times Bad Times’ (1969)

The only song to be released from the band’s magical debut album, ‘Good Times Bad Times’ showcases just how much talent the group had within their ranks. The song sees Bonham displaying all the mind-blowing speed and technique of a superhero. He took Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice’s 16th-note triplets to make this one memorable moment for the band. But while Appice used a double kick drum, Bonham trained his right foot to move double speed to complete the technique.

Not only did he double his efforts in that department, but Bonham also demonstrated his unique position within the band too. In a band with one of the best rock singers of all time being backed by one of the best rock guitarists of all time, it can be easy for the rhythm section to take a back seat. This was not in Bonzo’s vocabulary.

On ‘Good Times Bad Times’, he puts the drums on equal footing with the rest of the group and superbly executes every moment.

‘Moby Dick’ (1969)

Not often do instrumental tracks make it into exceptional rock acts’ greatest canon. 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 ‘Moby Dick’ was a warning shot from the band’s 1969 Led Zeppelin II record.

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. Arguably, this song put Bonham out ahead of the rest of the chasing pack of percussionists. It is simply sublime.

The group may well be flourishing on this track but it is Bonham who steals the show and would continue to do it every time the group performed it on stage.

‘When The Levee Breaks’ (1971)

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. It sits on this list for Bonham’s dominating drum sound.

Recorded in a stairwell to gather that muffled and echoing drum sound, Bonham is powerful and commanding on every beat. So much so that Page and the band built the song around it. “That is a straight groove,” Dave Grohl once said of the song, “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.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

‘The Ocean’ (1973)

While many listeners will take Page’s iconic lead line guitar as the main lesson from this 1973, they’d be missing one of Bonham’s greatest performances as a drummer. He not only delivers his traditional dose of body-folding power but also shows off his technical prowess as he effortlessly switches timings throughout the song to create an unhinged tone to proceedings.

It’s a remarkable performance on an equally remarkable song. As well as being one of the brightest moments on Houses of the Holy, it screams loudly about Bonham’s talent and his mercurial style.

It was Bonham’s ability to swing between micro-genre that provided him with the esteem he so rightly received. Drummers are notoriously stubborn musicians but Bonham flowed like the ocean itself.

‘Achilles Last Stand’ (1976)

Another 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 ten-minute monster from Presence a rallying war cry. It’s the exact kind of war cry that would have us picking up our swords and shields.

There are fills on this song that shouldn’t be possible but are because; Bonham.

‘Fool in the Rain’ (1979)

Showing Bonham’s full range of talent, on Led Zeppelin’s swinging ‘Fool in the Rain’ from 1979, the heavy-hitter adopts a lighter touch and produces a groove-laden fill worthy of his Big Band heroes. The song even breaks midway through for Bonham to show off his energised Samba sounds.

It’s here that the real talent of John Bonham is allowed to shine and another reminder that in any other band, Bonzo wouldn’t have been given the same shot at stardom. Sadly, Bonham would never get to live out his halcyon days in the glow of his stardom.

Passing away in 1980, it would be this song that would remain Bonham’s lasting impression on the rock world.