Popular culture is brimming with tales of chance meetings between musicians that would then go on to have a definitive impact on the course of the industry as we know it. Across popular music’s timeline, there are numerous stories of one soon-to-be-iconic artist meeting another, with their fabled convergence going down in history as being a pivotal moment in the development of a specific genre. If we look at some of the most iconic examples, we quickly heed that the majority of our favourite bands have been formed, or at least formed in some part, by chance meetings.
John Lennon met Paul McCartney at a church fete, Dave Grohl met Nirvana through mutual friend Buzz Osborne, and Peter Green would only come into Mick Fleetwood’s orbit through the insistence of Fleetwood’s pre-Fleetwood Mac band leader, Peter Bardens, that they give him a go, as at first, Fleetwood was unsure of Green’s musical ability.
It seems as if popular music, like anything in life, owes much of its brilliance to the inherent haphazard nature of life, and that without many of these chance encounters as described before, we would not have been given some of the most extraordinary musical combinations the world has ever seen. In fact, the list is endless, and we could spend all day discussing how popular music is greatly indebted to chance, but that is a story for another day.
It turns out that another iconic band also had their roots formed by chance. This was none other than esoteric hard-rock masters Led Zeppelin. To recount this tale, we need to cast our minds all the way back to 1965. The ‘British Invasion’ was in full swing, and The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones were the biggest acts of the day. However, we do not find protagonists amongst the glamour of the American touring circuit; instead, we find them deeply embedded within the rock ‘n’ roll circuit of the grey, heavily industrial west-midlands. Here we find future Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant fronting the Kidderminster-based blues outfit, The Crawling Kingsnakes, who were playing a show at Birmingham’s iconic venue, the Old Hill Plaza.
During this show, where the rest of the lineup has been forgotten in discourse, Plant was also the master of ceremonies. In between one of the sets, he came into contact with a member of the audience, who he had noticed looking rather displeased at the front of the crowd whilst he was playing on stage with the band.
In 2018, Plant recalled the event. It turns out this man was none other than the legendary John Bonham, who was a then-unknown upstart. Plant said: “So I was playing at the Plaza and saw this guy in the crowd looking up, sort of scowling, he said to me ‘you’re alright, but you’d be a lot better if you had the best drummer in the world behind you.'”
Plant continued: “I said, ‘yeah yeah, and I suppose you’re him?’ He said, ‘yeah.’ And I said, ‘Okay, good, well that sounds alright. But where do you live?’. He said ‘Redditch’. And I said, ‘So you’ve got a sense of humour then. But Redditch is like 25 miles from where we live. We can’t afford the fuel to go and pick you up. So if you want to try it out, these are the songs we do, just come along and play, but you make your own way there’.”
Although Plant gave this account on air, there exists another record of what he actually said to the self-assured Bonham. Allegedly, Plant said to Bonham: “I don’t care if you’re Buddy Rich, I’m not picking you up from Redditch.”
However, that’s irrelevant. The rest, as they say, would soon become history. Bonham swiftly joined The Kingsnakes. Before too long, the band split up, and Plant joined the brief project, Listen, who then also broke up after a handful of singles were released. Later, Plant formed the Band of Joy in 1966, and the band’s third incarnation would see Bonham join the fold.
Again, the Band of Joy didn’t last long, and by 1968, Plant was asked by Jimmy Page to join Led Zeppelin, who, upon agreement, suggested Bonham as the drummer. As of that moment, Led Zeppelin would go on a prolific run, where each of its four members increasingly marked themselves out as individual geniuses. Embodying everything that was both good and bad about rock ‘n’ roll, the band’s history is so dense, it is screaming to be made into a biopic.
Of his chance meeting with Bonham and their relationship moving forward, Plant explained that there was “never a dull moment really, until 1980”. Although he passed away tragically in 1980, John Bonham is widely hailed as one of the most influential drummers of all time, with everyone from Dave Grohl to Joey Jordison citing him as an influence.
It is dizzying to think that, without Bonham’s attendance at that Kingsnakes show all the way back in 1965, he would probably not have become the legend we know today. This is a clear testament to the defining role chance plays in all of our lives.
Listen to Robert Plant recall his first meeting with John Bonham below.