By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
It’s crazy to think that John Bonham could have been a carpenter. Or ended up as the drummer for Joe Cocker. It took some convincing for him to join Led Zeppelin, but nothing was going to stop this absolute tornado of a performer from becoming not just a great drummer, but a legendary one.
Bonham, who tragically passed away on September 25, 1980, was a drumming innovator – not necessarily in terms of style or technique, but pure aggression. Before him, little to no drummers pounded away with as much vigor as he did. You not only heard Bonham’s visceral beats, you felt them.
“Bonzo” was also a master of rock “grooves”. The above clip of “Moby Dick” shows how smoothly he intertwined with Jimmy Page’s riffs, and of course there’s the epic drum solo in the middle.
You may or may not know these five interesting stories about Bonham’s early life and career. Either way, they all help you understand how dedicated he was to drumming throughout his life.
1. He began playing coffee cans at age 5
It should come as no surprise that any great drummer started early, but Bonham was a prodigy. He started drumming barely before grade school. His first kit included a bath salts container, coffee cans, and assorted pots & pans, while forks and knives served as his first set of drumsticks.
His mom eventually got sick of the coffee can, gave in and bought him a real snare at age 10 and his first real set at age 15.
2. He never took formal drum lessons
Yep, believe it or not, the best rock drummer ever somehow never took drumming lessons.
That’s not to say that Bonham never took advice or tips from anyone, but he mostly just taught himself to play drums. He was always practicing and looking for the next gig, helping out with school events, and playing in bands with schoolmates.
Garry Allock, a fellow drummer, served as an adviser for Bonham at times. He never gave him an actual lesson but he would show him some things on drum pads at his home – and he also noticed how hard Bonham hit his snare.
3. An engineer once told him he was “unrecordable”
Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (1947 – 1980) during a tour of West Germany. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Bonham recorded early demos at Zella Studios, the same place many other young musicians in Birmingham used. Engineer Johnny Haynes ran the studio, and one day recorded Bonham’s demo.
Well, Haynes wasn’t impressed with Bonham’s loudness and aggression. Technology to reduce audio signals wasn’t yet available so Bonham’s style would overpower the tapes. Haynes told Bonham: “Sorry, you’re unrecordable.”
Well, to say he proved that wrong would be a ridiculous understatement. Bonham said he was “blacklisted” in Birmingham for playing too loudly; my have times changed.
Bonham later sent Haynes a copy of a gold record from Led Zeppelin with a note that read “Thanks for your advice.”
4. His report card once contained the note “He’ll either be a dustman or a millionaire.”
In addition to drums, Bonham also grew up with a keen interest in carpentry and building. So it led his teacher to once write on his school report card that he would “either be a dustman or a millionaire” when he grew up. Well, we all know how that turned out.
We’re sure he would have been great with a hammer, though.
5. He would skip a factory job to play drums for money
Three of the four members of British heavy rock group Led Zeppelin in Embankment Gardens, London. They are, from left to right: singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham. (Photo by Ian Showell/Keystone/Getty Images)
While Bonham did perform in several different bands during the ’60s before joining Led Zeppelin, one of his first times playing drums for money was at a music store near his home. He’d get paid to “demonstrate” the drums, while everyone else thought he was working at a factory.
It’s little tales like these that show nothing was going to stop Bonzo from being the greatest. Rock fans everywhere should be eternally grateful he didn’t go to that factory.
Amazingly, Bonham wasn’t even enthusiastic about joining Led Zeppelin at first. He was like a free agent, fielding offers from Joe Cocker, among other artists. But he decided he liked Zeppelin’s music the most. Again, eternally grateful for that decision.
What other interesting facts do you know or like about John Bonham? Share your thoughts on the legend in the comments.