Ask a rock star their favourite song from their back catalogue and, chances are, you’ll get a reply in the form of a head scratch, the type of burning eyes only seen in Sophie’s Choice and an unapologetic shrug. However, if you get specific and ask them for their favourite guitar lick, vocal trill or, in this case, drum fill, and you’ll get an outpouring of different options and viable candidates. When Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was asked to pick out his favourite drum fill from the band’s powerhouse percussionist, John Bonham, he could barely settle on one.
It’s to be expected. Not only because Plant was directly connected to all of the songs in question, therefore, perhaps rendering himself too close to the action to be objective, but because ‘Bonzo’ Bonham was such a gifted drummer that there were too many to choose from. Undoubtedly regarded as one of the finest drummers of all time, for Plant, the notes he didn’t play were as important as the ones he did.
Songs on which Bonham made his name are many and strewn across their catalogue. From the very moments on the airwaves, it was clear that Bonham was far removed from the Ringo Starr or Charlie Watts’ of this world. They had operated with a strict implementation on style and delivery, but for Bonham, it was about interpreting the music at hand and elevating it the best way he could. It means, more so than any other drummer in that period, Bonham became a headline name of the band alongside Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, arguably more so.
“I can often listen to some Zeppelin stuff and go, well, I thought I would be bored with this by now,” Plant told Tony Bacon back in 1988 when describing what it’s like to listen to Led Zeppelin with Bonham’s death in mind. “‘Kashmir,’ say, or ‘The Song Remains The Same.’ It’s the drummer that makes it,” confirms the singer.
Plant is clear in his assessment of Bonham; he was unlike any other drummer around. As the pursuit of rock in its heaviest form became the only game to play in the seventies, drummers tried to get wilder and wilder. Inspired in no small part by The Who’s Keith Moon, drummers had become a focal point of the band. “Bonzo didn’t start flailing around like a demented octopus, like everybody else was doing at the time,” said the singer. “It’s what he didn’t play that made him the drummer that everybody now talks about, rather than what he did.”
However, if you were to put a gun to Plant’s head and tell him to pick out only one song that best showcased the wild talents of John Bonham, then he’d have to pick a lesser-known track, ‘The Crunge’.
Plant describes the song as “like a 5/4 James Brown funk thing” before elucidating on why he loved Bonham’s part so much: “It’s so neat — what Bonzo’s doing is great, and the bass drum,” Plant said. “His work was so overly adequate, so extreme, and yet so understated. There were so many different elements of what he was doing. So a fill would only be there if it was necessary, but when it came, well…”
It may not necessarily be as manic as ‘Moby Dick’ or as steadfast as ‘Communication Breakdown’ but on ‘The Crunge’, Bonham displays everything that confirms him as one of the greatest drummers of all time.