The relationship between Robert Plant and John Bonham was perhaps the most solid and genuine friendship within the band. Plant and Bonham had cut their teeth together as starving musicians just outside of Birmingham, England, with acts like the King Crawling Snakes and the Band of Joy. When Plant was recruited by Jimmy Page for his outstanding concert obligations with The Yardbirds, Plant, in turn, recommended Bonham for the drum position.
The two were largely partners in crime, doing early interviews alongside one another and rooming together during tours. In his modern day interviews, Plant often discusses Bonham with a sort of reverence that can only come from a deep, long-lasting friendship. But their relationships wasn’t always pleasant, and the notoriously burly Bonham was more than willing to put anyone in their place if they crossed him, Plant included.
According to the biography Beast: John Bonham and the Rise of Led Zeppelin, the band were touring Japan in 1971 when Bonham went on a booze-fueled bender. Acquiring a samurai sword (because of course, that’s what an Englishman would get when he goes to Japan), Bonham proceeded to slice up his hotel furniture and smack down the door to John Paul Jones’ room. By the time the band got to their gig at the legendary Budokan Hall, Bonham was flying with adrenaline and aggressive confidence.
It was at this opportune moment that Bonham reminded Plant that he owed him money. Apparently, a few weeks before the two took a road trip from England up to Scotland in Bonham’s car with Bonham racking up a hefty petrol bill. He had kept nagging Plant to pay him back (allegedly about £30) and the singer kept putting him off. Backstage at the Budokan, however, Bonham wouldn’t take no for an answer and brought it up again.
Plant was incredulous that Bonham brought up the issue, and the two began to have a row. When words began to escalate, Bonham took matters into his own hands (literally) by connecting his fist to Plant’s lip. Touring manager Richard Cole asked Bonham why he went after the singer, but Bonham was rather blasé about the encounter. “Robert and I have known each other for so long that there’s never any maliciousness in these fights,” was his alleged response. “We just lose our tempers sometimes.”
Plant himself wasn’t one to talk about the fight either. When reporters asked him what had happened backstage, Plant responded: “It’s really none of your fucking business, it’s just between me and Bonzo”. Ever the professionals, Led Zeppelin dutifully took the stage with Plant sporting a fat lip. It didn’t appear to affect his performance, however, as can be culled from the bootleg tapes of that night’s performance.