The drummer John Bonham 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 Led Zeppelin, the world may never have got to witness the sheer power and 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, 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 back at Led Zeppelin’s 10 greatest John Bonham songs of all time in celebration of his marvellous talent.
Before his untimely death in 1980, Bonham was the powerhouse juggernaut of the band, 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.
The drummer has become synonymous with his instrument as Hendrix has to the guitar. A virtuoso player, Bonham has been championed as one of the most powerful men to sit behind the kit. That’s not all though, Hendrix himself once accurately described Bonham to his singer Robert Plant in A Thunder of Drums: “That drummer of yours has a right foot like a pair of castanets!” It’s a testament to Bonham’s playing style that he could not only swing his sticks like a Norse god but also delicately play his pedals like he was Lord of the Dance.
So, below we have brought you the very best of John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham’s work with Led Zeppelin and while there is a case for almost every Zep track to be featured, these are the songs which marked Bonzo out as simply the best.
John Bonham’s 10 best Led Zeppelin songs:
10. ‘D’yer Mak’er’ (1973)
Often laughed at from afar, Led Zeppelin’s attempt at both reggae and some poorly-formed Viz-comic-level puns may not be up there in some of the band’s best work. However, one man to escape relatively unscathed was Bonham whose drumming on this is full, fat and ready to go.
The track may have some silly roots, just look at the titular reference to an old Cockney joke, but Bonham is anything but having a laugh here as he gets serious with the kit and lets out some heavy hits.
9. ‘Immigrant Song’ (1972)
There is a right way and a wrong way to listen to John Bonham’s drums on ‘Immigrant Song’ from Led Zeppelin II. The wrong way is to listen to the big and bolshy album track and the right way is to listen to this hammering live take from 1972.
Bonham here showing everybody why he is a God among men when it comes to rock drums and proving that doing it in the studio is all well and good. But if you can’t throw those sticks down on stage then really, what is the point of being a rock drummer in the first place?
8. ‘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.
7. ‘How Many More Times’ (1969)
As well as being the closing track from the band’s self-titled debut, ‘How Many More Times’ is also the last calling card from Bonham as he delivers his own unique brand of percussive power and precision. Ranging from delicate rhythm to monstrously heavy fills, Bonham proves he is a match for anyone on this song.
‘How Many More Times’ may not be the top of everybody’s Zeppelin favourites list but it does allow Bonzo to lay down some insanely heavy fills and that’s why we’re here after all.
6. ‘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.
5. ‘Trampled Under Foot’ (1975)
Allegedly, according to bassist John Paul Jones, this track was written after inspiration from the mercurial soulman Stevie Wonder and his iconic song, ‘Superstitious’, which owes to the track’s funky nature. As such, the song acts as a stark reminder that Bonham wasn’t all power — he was full of rhythm too.
Never missing a beat despite over-flowing snare fills, Bonham is quick to add precision to his power wherever possible, ‘Trampled Under Foot’ is another example.
4. ‘Moby Dick’ (1969)
Not often do instrumental tracks make it into great rock acts’ top 10 lists. 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. It was, arguably, this song which put Bonham out ahead of the rest of the chasing pack of percussionists. It is simply sublime.
3. ‘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 co. built the song around it.
2. ‘Good Times Bad Times’ (1969)
Another cut from Led Zeppelin II sees Bonham displaying all the mind-blowing speed and technique of a superhero as he took Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice’s technique 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, 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 fo 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.
1. ‘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 10-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.