When it comes to traditional songwriting, as has been the case in countless successful bands and acts, a band may have a primary songwriter who will sit in their bedroom, kitchen, or wherever it may, and revel in a moment of inspiration. The songwriter would then bring his or her skeleton structure of the song to the rest of the group, and the band would write their parts around that. While the band may receive credit for ‘the performance of’ a particular song, the songwriter is typically the person who created the definitive structure. Theoretically, that structure can be dressed up any which way they please, but the basic spirit of the song remains.
When talking about the legendary English band, Led Zeppelin, this approach goes right out the window. While Jimmy Page was the leading creative engine behind the songwriting, the band worked together as a cohesive team to create their iconic songs. That’s not quite uncommon either, but what separated them from bands that did the same thing, was that Zeppelin’s drummer was consistently given songwriting credit.
With their eponymous debut 1969 record, John Bonham received more songwriting credit than Robert Plant, himself. While this was due to Robert Plant’s preexisting contract with another label which stopped him from receiving any credits, Bonham consistently got credit on all the following records.
The group had an improvisational element to them that encouraged everyone to play together and write. The kind of music that Zeppelin were doing, wouldn’t have worked with just one person doing all the writing.
“When you’re in a group, you’re trying to bring out the best of each member, in that moment. We managed to bring something good out of each other,” Jimmy Page said in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Bonham proved his songwriting value on the very first album with ‘Good Times Bad Times’. Zeppelin’s music is extremely rhythmical, which Bonham plays an intricate part in.
Page added, “I haven’t met anybody who can play that all the way through, with that swing and approach. That’s what one should be listening to: the inspiration he had on other drummers, on this and that movement in rock, not the fact that he drank too much.”
In the interview, Page was of course referring to Bonham’s vice as well as his innate talent to provide thunderous drums for extended periods. The vice, which would eventually kill the drummer, was that he drank too much.
It would seem that one can find an inkling of inspiration from any place if you look closely enough. Page said in an interview in Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, that before ‘Out On The Tiles’ became the song it is today, it first started as a jam. Bonham would sing a drinking tune, and Page modelled the guitar part to fit his singing.
I don’t think it it’s so much of a case of other bands not having drummers who helped write their parts – and contribute to the overall arrangement of the song – than it is Led Zeppelin merely recognising the fact that drummers do play an important part in the composition and expression of a track. That’s if one recognises the importance of rhythm and tempo, to begin with.
Arguably, one of Bonham’s most cataclysmic contributions is his involvement in writing ‘Kashmir’. Once, Robert Plant remarked that he wished Led Zeppelin were remembered more for ‘Kashmir’, rather than ‘Stairway to Heaven’. “It’s so right; there’s nothing overblown, no vocal hysterics. Perfect Zeppelin,” Plant commented in Louder Sound.
While ‘Kashmir’ found its origins in Robert Plant’s lyrics about driving in Morocco with no end in sight; the music was written in tandem by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. “It was just Bonzo and myself,” Page said.
“He started the drums, and I did the riff and the overdubs, which in fact get duplicated by an orchestra at the end, which brought it even more to life. It seemed so sort of ominous and had a particular quality to it. It’s nice to go for an actual mood and know that you’ve pulled it off,” Page added in Louder Sound.
In short, if it weren’t for John Bonham’s drumming, what would any of Led Zeppelin’s have been? Great melodies and ripping guitar solos, but without its core foundation and unique rhythm, the song does run the risk of becoming monotonous.