If you ask any world-famous drummer to name a handful of their heroes, if Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham isn’t on that list then, quite frankly, they need their head checking. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith is another sticksmith who worships at the church of Bonzo, and he can’t imagine a world without his work.
Bonham’s unique, furious and commanding technique was the pounding heartbeat behind Led Zeppelin. Following the drummer’s premature death under a cloud of cataclysmic circumstances, the band were never quite the same live act without him on the handful of occasions they have reunited. When there’s no Bonham, there’s no Led Zeppelin, it’s as simple as that. To remove any drummer from a group is difficult enough, but Led Zeppelin were built around his prowess, and he was the lifeblood of the band.
Bonham was the powerhouse juggernaut of the group, driving it forward. With his pursuit of percussive perfection, he provided resolute foundations for Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones to add their gallons of flair. Together, they captured the hearts and minds of a generation and generations to come.
Chad Smith, who wasn’t a founding member of Red Hot Chili Peppers, but when he arrived alongside John Frusciante in 1988, they elevated the band to a whole new level. Led Zeppelin were a pivotal discovery in his childhood that would lead him to embark on the wild musical voyage that he’s been on throughout his whole adult life.
“John Bonham influenced me at a very early age,” the drummer wrote in Louder Sound. “I was maybe 10 years old at the time. I was just learning to play drums. To me, that music from the late ’60s, early ’70s, that hard rock blues music, was very influential.
“I liked all the drummers, by people such as Ian Paice, Ginger Baker and Bill Ward – even though Sabbath were so heavy, were a little lighter in their technique than Bonham. It was the sheer power of Bonzo that appealed to me. And his sound! I’d never heard drums with that sound; Page’s production was important of course. Bono had depth and air, and he played so musically. The way he played around those Page riffs with such power, musicality and finesse was very impressive.
“I think Jimmy Page was right to call an end to Led Zeppelin when Bonham died in 1980. Right there, it shows you here’s a guy that’s irreplaceable, both as a person and as a musician.”
The Chili’s drummer then poignantly added: “I’ve been to Bonham’s grave. It’s out in the middle of nowhere in Rushock, a beautiful village in the Black Country. I managed to recognise it because there was a good slew of drumsticks sitting at the bottom of his stone. It made me really sad. Such a waste of life.”
As Smith notes, it’s hard to think about Bonham without thinking about the sadness surrounding his death and how much more he still had to give if we didn’t lose him so early. However, although Bonzo was only here for a short time, how many drummers have had an impact as vast as him? He firmly sits in the pantheon of greats to ever sit behind a drum kit, and the impact that he had on percussionists like Smith epitomises Bonham’s astounding legacy.