It is an undeniable fact that John Bonham is one of greatest musicians to ever sit behind a drum kit and, if you lined up a row of drummers, chances are that every last one of them would have the late Led Zeppelin sticksman in their top handful of percussionist inspirations. Bonzo tore up the rule book, did things entirely on his own terms which were sometimes unhinged but always brilliant. He reimagined what the art of drumming looked and sounded like and it’s hard to imagine seeking influence from anybody else—but even the great John Bonham was inspired by others.
Bonham’s furious, powerful technique was the pounding heartbeat of Led Zeppelin. Following the drummer’s death, the band were never quite the same live act again. The rare occasions that the remaining members have reunited since his death in 1980 have always been somewhat disappointing. The drummer 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.
In Mick Bonham’s book on his late brother, titled John Bonham: The Powerhouse Behind Led Zeppelin, even Robert Plant conceded that “Bonzo was the main part of the band. He was the man who made whatever Page and I wrote basically work, by what he held back, by what he didn’t do to the tempos. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who could replace him.”
In that very same book contained conversations that Mick had with his brother before his death, a time when John spoke in a relaxed, candid fashion. “I don’t consider that I’m particularly influenced by anyone or anything,” the drummer said before adding. “But when I started playing, I was influenced by early soul. It was just that feel, that sound.
“I’ve always liked drums to be bright and powerful,” he said to his brother. “I’ve never used cymbals much. I use them to crash into a solo and out of it, but basically I prefer the actual drum sound,” he then noted.
“When I listen to drummers I like to be able to say ‘Oh! I haven’t heard that before’. Being yourself is so much better than sounding like anyone else. Ginger Baker’s thing is that he is himself. So it’s no good trying to do what he does,” Bonham frankly admitted.
A drummer like Cream’s Ginger Baker was a character who was identical to Bonham in a plethora of ways, even if their style couldn’t be any more different which remains a testament to both their originalities. Hearing Baker’s drumming style may not have influenced Bonham’s approach but that didn’t mean he couldn’t replicate his greatness in other ways, which he duly did.
There was a slight crossover between the two during their careers, operating at the same time but in extremely different circumstances with Baker living in Africa while Bonham toured the globe in the ’70s. The former Cream drummer never took too kindly to the comparison between them, however.
In his memoir, Hellraiser: The Autobiography of the World’s Greatest Drummer, Baker writes: “John Bonham once made a statement that there were only two drummers in British rock ‘n’ roll; himself and Ginger Baker. My reaction to this was: ‘You cheeky little bastard!’”
Those early soul records were a musical awakening for Bonham and, even though the music he would go on to create would exist in a completely different world to the sounds he was brought up on, that love for rhythm never died.
His vast adoration of different styles of drumming was subconsciously absorbed into Bonham’s DNA as a child and he became an amalgamation of the great percussionists that he grew up on with his own unique ingredients thrown in, a factor which made him arguably the best to ever step foot behind a drum kit.
So who was John Bonham influenced by? In his own mind, nobody. He was utterly unique and wanted everyone to know that.