Remembering Led Zeppelin’s drumming genius John Bonham 40 years on

Forty years ago this autumn, the world lost one of the greatest and most influential rock drummers in history, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
Deborah BonhamDeborah Bonham
Deborah Bonham

For his sister, the blues-rock singer-songwriter Deborah Bonham, 14 years his junior, there is always angst as the anniversary of his death approaches. She admits she much prefers to remember the birthdays.

“But in reality, John’s life in music touched so many millions of people for the better that that’s what you have to remember,” says Deborah, who lives at Woodmancote.

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“And somehow that’s got to rise above your own personal feelings. There are millions of people out there that loved John, and that is marvellous to know.”

Two years ago, a memorial statue was made for John in Redditch in Worcestershire and secretly installed at 1am on what would have been his 70th birthday.

“John never really left Worcestershire. He lived there until he died. He was well and truly a Worcestershire lad, a Midlands boy.

“They were thinking of organising a concert for his 40th anniversary, but instead they have decided to do a candlelit vigil in Redditch which, I think, is absolutely beautiful.

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“John was just a beautiful soul. I have met so many different people who have said that John helped them in different ways. I am not saying that he was an angel. Of course, he wasn’t. But so many people have said to me ‘Oh, John helped me’ – young people at concerts or whatever.

“He was a really, really good man. He was a family man. He was the big brother who would tell me off regularly as I got older. I would leave school and get on the train and go down to London to Swan Song (the Led Zep offices), and somebody would ring him and say ‘Your little sister has turned up here again’ and a car would arrive to take me back. I would have been 16 years old, I guess, and I totally get why he would tell me off now. But I didn’t back then!”

As for his skills as a drummer, as Deborah says, they are not skills you can define; you just have to accept that they are God-given: “He had soul in his drumming – outrageous soul. And you can’t learn that. He had the technical ability. Every day he played so that he had the technique, but you can have the greatest technique but if you haven’t got the soul, it just doesn’t come across. John just had it. He very much loved the older drummers, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and he also loved the Motown drummers.

“But I think it was just already within him. My mum would say that before he could walk he was sitting there with pots and pans and banging them. He was always going to be a drummer.

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“But what he had was just undefinable. People say ‘What do you mean by soul in a drummer?’ but it was just something he had. I don’t know what. It just all came from within, and you could feel it through the rhythm he was keeping.”

In a different style, Richie Hayward in the band Little Feat had it: “They came together later than Led Zeppelin, but Robert Plant and John almost championed the band, and I really got into them too.

“They became one of my favourite, favourite bands. Sadly Richie has now passed, but he was another just really amazing drummer with soul, but really I would say that John was out there on his own.”

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