Sometimes I play air drums, when at home before a roaring pair of speakers. No one would know it, but I’m not half bad. Except when it comes to jazz. Then it’s too ridiculous even for solitary goofing off. But I’m just competent enough to fake most basic rock beats… most… that is, but those of the most loudly sung drummers in classic rock: Keith Moon and John Bonham.
In categories all their own, it’s no surprise both drummers loved jazz, especially the hyperkinetic Gene Krupa. (Tragically, they also shared an interest in fatal overindulgence.) They took some common influences, however, in very different directions.
For one thing, Moon hated drum solos, that staple of the jazz drummer’s kit. The one exception to his rule may be Moon’s last appearance onstage in 1977, playing percussion in a cameo on Bonham’s solo on “Moby Dick,” one of the Led Zeppelin drummer’s finest moments. “Bonham was known to solo on this song for up to 30 minutes live!” writes Drum! magazine. It’s even said he “sometimes drew blood performing ‘Moby Dick’ from using his bare hands to beat his snare and tom toms.”
The live version above, clocking in at a mere 15 minutes, comes from a 1970 show at Royal Albert Hall. Robert Plant introduces the drummer with his full name, John Henry Bonham, before he even names the song. Then, after a minute of Page, Bonham, and Jones playing the opening riff together, the solo begins.
Bonham leads us in slowly at first, then, with jaw-dropping skill, puts on display what made him “a very special drummer” indeed, as the site Classic Rock writes: “doing things with a bass pedal that it took two of James Brown’s drummers to try and emulate—and they knew a bit about rhythm.”
His “pioneering use of bass drum triplets” is only a small part of his “important discovery that all drumming is just triplets, or should be,” declares Michael Fowler’s reverently tongue-in-cheek McSweeney’s tribute. “The next step, he saw, was in speeding up the beat without losing the basic triplet pattern… flying around the kit with blinding speed, hitting every drum and cymbal in those negligible spaces.”
Bonham’s ridiculously fast and complex patterns—whether deployed in half-hour solos or five-second drum fills (as above in “Achilles Last Stand” from 1979)—“shouldn’t be humanly possible,” Dave Grohl once said. But they were possible for the great John Bonham, born on May 31st, 1948.
“Let’s face it,” writes Fowler, “no one else does or ever will” sound like Led Zeppelin’s drummer. Celebrate his just-belated birthday by revisiting more of his greatest live moments at Drum! and, just below, hear Robert Plant sing “Happy Birthday” to his celebrated bandmate in 1973.