When I continue to revisit Bonham over the years I find it’s hard to pin down in simple terms exactly what his allure is, and why so many drummers rate him as the best. Of course he has a demonstrable high level of technical proficiency. But if it were all down to technique then maybe this should be about Buddy Rich.
Look through the archives of rock n’ roll fame and this ceases to be the case. Dave Grohl once said that it’s the inconsistencies in his favourite drummers that made them great. That’s not to herald poor musicianship in a Punk sense, and it definitely doesn’t mean you should deny your technical chops and rudimental practices. What I’m getting at is that every drummer is different; much like every human being is different, different hair, different shapes and sizes. No two snowflakes are even the same. So it’s important to play to your strengths.
Bonham was limited in a sense that he was in a Blues Rock band, the framework within he worked meant he could only push the boundaries so far. Led Zep were very much a band that were born out of the jam and over the years became masters of the ‘live’ feel on record. Despite the odd time signatures and crazy chops almost jazz worthy- you can’t help but notice that in the ‘freak out’ sections they are absolutely winging it. What modern pop act nowadays would have a bridge section with 61 bars? This doesn’t make them bad musicians; to the contrary, it means that they were so in sync as a unit they could almost read each other’s minds.
So what is it about Bonham that electrifies so many people? There is a definitive style to Bonham’s playing. I don’t just mean his blistering Cobham triplets and sextuplets. For me it’s not even the solo in Moby Dick. He has a groove that’s utterly infectious and the delivery of his drum fills excite me in a child like, primordial fashion while tickling me deep in my gut. The placements of his fills are on the surface utterly random and you could say blagged. But that’s the beauty of it, when you start to dig deeper, there is a method to his madness. Although seemingly scattered there is a system that oozes utter class.
He never holds back. He gives the drums a real pounding, but does so with impeccable feel. There is a sense that when he’s about to get on a kit he’s going to attack it with a sheer force that comes from deep within the untapped echelons of the human mind. Producing an ecstatic energy that resonates with the cavemen within all of us. This surely is total drumming, and this surely is why John Bonham is worthy of the title of King Bonzo.
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