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John Bonham and the Rise of Led Zeppelin
By C.M. Kushins
Foreword by Dave Grohl
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- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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Beast: John Bonham and the Rise of Led Zeppelin is the first-ever biography of the iconic John Bonham, considered by many to be one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) rock drummer of all time. Bonham first learned to play the drums at the age of five, and despite never taking formal lessons, began drumming for local bands immediately upon graduating from secondary school. By the late 1960s, Bonham was looking for a more solid gig in order to provide his growing family with a more regular income. Meanwhile, following the dissolution of the popular blues rock band The Yardbirds, lead guitarist Jimmy Page sought the company of new bandmates to help him record an album and tour Scandinavia as the New Yardbirds. A few months later, Bonham was recruited to join the band who would eventually become known as Led Zeppelin-and before the year was out, Bonham and his three bandmates would become the richest rock band in the world.
In their first year, Led Zeppelin released two albums and completed four US and four UK concert tours. As their popularity exploded, they moved from ballrooms and smaller clubs to larger auditoriums, and eventually started selling out full arenas. Throughout the 1970s, Led Zeppelin reached new heights of commercial and critical success, making them one of the most influential groups of the era, both in musical style and in their approach towards the workings of the entertainment industry. They added extravagant lasers, light shows, and mirror balls to their performances; wore flamboyant and often glittering outfits; traveled in a private jet airliner and rented out entire sections of hotels; and soon become the subject of frequently repeated stories of debauchery and destruction while on tour. In 1977, the group performed what would be their final live appearance in the US, following months of rising fervor and rioting from their fandom. And in September of 1980, Bonham-plagued by alcoholism, anxiety, and the after-effects of years of excess-was found dead by his bandmates.
To this day, Bonham is posthumously described as one of the most important, well-known, and influential drummers in rock, topping best of lists describing him as an inimitable, all-time great. As Adam Budofsky, managing editor of Modern Drummer, explained, "If the king of rock 'n' roll was Elvis Presley, then the king of rock drumming was certainly John Bonham."
“OK, Dave… you ready?”
Andrea’s thick Italian accent hung in the air of the cold, cavernous warehouse as I nervously took one last hit off my joint, nodded yes, and waited for the sharp, electric buzz of his homemade tattoo gun (fashioned from a salvaged doorbell machine) to fill the room. This was no sanctioned, licensed tattoo parlor, mind you. It was an abandoned post office in downtown Amsterdam by the name of “Van Hall” that a group of punks had squatted in in the mid-’80s, currently serving as a home base for my band Scream during my first European tour at the tender age of eighteen. Not the most sterile setting for such a surgical procedure, but like most fledgling rock ’n’ rollers, I had longed to be branded for years. Within seconds, the burn of the needle sent chills down my spine as it sank into the soft flesh of my right shoulder, but I remained still, focusing on the searing pain while Andrea’s hand gracefully traced the intricate pattern that I had carefully chosen to be my very first tattoo: the John Bonham “three circles” logo.
It’s no coincidence that I chose this iconic design. As I stood inspecting Andrea’s work in the dirty mirror beside us, I reflected upon the fact that this wasn’t the first indelible impression John Bonham had made on my life. His drumming had penetrated much deeper than just a few millimeters beneath my skin from the first time I heard “When the Levee Breaks” at the age of twelve, eventually burrowing into my soul and transforming everything I knew (or thought I knew) about the drums. From that day forward, music was no longer just sound residing between the grooves of a record; it was a form of sublime human expression. The weight and echo of Bonham’s thunderous drums seemed more like a force of nature than an instrument, rolling in hurricane-force waves through my speakers as I listened in awe, never having imagined that a human could create something so mystical. My mind had been opened, and so began a lifetime of trying to translate what I considered to be a language of its own, spending hours upon hours playing along to every Led Zeppelin album, studying each recording like an ancient text, hoping that I might someday channel his feel, anticipate his instinct, and find that sound.
It wasn’t long before I realized that this was totally impossible. Beyond his humbling, superhuman abilities, I soon discovered that there are some things in life that just cannot be replicated or fully understood. Like a fingerprint or strand of DNA, sometimes there is only one. This is most true in the case of John Henry Bonham, and herein lie the mystery and indefinable concept of his “feel.”
Every musician plays differently, we know, but there must be something intangible that differentiates the music written on a chart from what is created by one drummer to the next. Is it the way that each mind interprets a pattern? The internal clock that is defined by one’s physical and emotional construct? The way they see the space between the notes? I have watched many producers try to explain and manufacture “feel,” but I am convinced that overintellectualizing it is futile. It is something divine that only the universe can create, like a heartbeat or a star. A solitary design within every musician that is only their own. I liken “feel” to the cadence of poetry, sometimes comforting, other times unsettling, but always a gift from one soul to another. A romance between the giver and receiver that serves as the punctuation of one’s truth.
To me, the test of a great drummer comes from this short five-second exercise. Close your eyes, hit play, and if you can name them in that time, then they have achieved their “sound.” That I equate to greatness, no matter how proficient. A sonic signature. Their drummer DNA; their fingerprint. And there is no better example of this than the grace and fury that Bonham captured on Led Zeppelin’s eight studio (and four live) albums, recordings that changed the course of drumming history forever.
From the seductive swing of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “I’m Gonna Crawl,” to the charging funk of “Trampled Under Foot” and “The Wanton Song,” to the hypnotic pulse of “Kashmir” and “In the Light,” Bonham’s sound is entirely his own, showing a range of emotion and dynamic that not only dwarfs every drummer who has ever lived but also reveals a deep sense of empathy for the listener. This is heart and soul laid bare for all to hear, a resounding series of confessions from a man who didn’t need a microphone or pen to describe himself, just a drum kit and two sticks (which he would sometimes forgo, using only his bare hands). With every seismic kick and snare, he was transcribing a sort of melodic EKG, giving us a glimpse into what made him tick. His DNA. In so doing, he was offering the listeners a chance to open themselves up to their own raw emotions—lust, fury, pain. That’s where the empathy came in.
I believe that the connection between a musician’s heart and hands can serve as a direct window into his soul, and if that window is opened, their true voice can be revealed. Over the years I have discovered that one can learn more about a person with instruments on than off, finding an intimacy and intuition that can be attributed only to uninhibited musical communication, something Zeppelin clearly had an abundance of. It’s rare, but when found it can eclipse most other connections in life. A language learned by ear. Fortunately, the world was witness to this every time Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham played a song together.
Volumes have been dedicated to Bonham’s power and precision, but to be honest I have never been one for technical introspection. Never mind how a part was played. I would rather know why. What drives a musician to do what they do the way that they do it? Could it be every day that led to that moment? Every word they ever said? Every person they ever loved, feeling they ever felt?
Chad Kushins’s Beast is a deep and entertaining dive into the life of John Bonham, one that walks with him up to and through his days with Led Zeppelin. To read Beast is to add another dimension to John Bonham, shedding further light on what inspired him to play those iconic beats, and serves as a worthy companion piece to his recorded work, which is the greatest story of all. And as we continue on our ongoing quest to translate his language, to decode the magic of his feel, let’s allow his music to serve as the celebration of the man behind the myth, the greatest drummer of all time. After all, there can be only one.
It has been thirty-four years since that night in Amsterdam when I received my first tattoo, and every time I look in the mirror I am reminded of its meaning. Over time, tattoos inevitably fade as the ink begins to blur and bleed. The shallow puncture of a needle can brand only so deep; it’s the heart that is marked forever. And we can all thank John Bonham for that. So, let’s begin.
“We’ve done four already, but now we’re steady, and then they went… 1… 2… 3… 4…”
—Dave Grohl, 2021
A FINAL, RADIANT HOUR
Sunday, July 17, 1977
Two and a half hours into the show, under dozens of hot lights—their multitude of colors burning their beams down upon the four men—thousands of twinkling dots in the vast darkness formed a swaying ocean of incandescence like a sea full of stars. The cigarette lighters among the sixty-two thousand in attendance had been flickering since the music started—since fans first heard the sound of the drums rumbling and watched the pyrotechnics light up the stage. The thunder and the lightning.
The lithe blond front man took to the center of the stage, brushing his damp, curled locks behind his ear with a flick of the wrist. He moved it with a flourish of his left hand before stepping to the microphone. The calls of the thousands resounded in the arena’s echo as an all-encompassing deafening pulse. He was visibly weary. Weary from the previous thirteen songs he’d already performed, from the thirty-nine shows this leg of the tour around America had included, from a lingering limp—the memento of the automobile accident that should have killed him.
“This next piece features a man who needs very little introduction,” announced Robert Plant. “The man who played tambourine on ‘Battle of Evermore’—John Henry Bonham! Over the top!”
The final word repeated electronically through the arena’s PA system, screeching into a falsetto alarm—“TOP-OP-OP!”
John Bonham had long believed that a band’s drummer should be featured front and center on the stage, symbolically leading the other musicians as the ensemble’s engine, while also amplifying the sound of the drums even louder for the crowd. During any given performance by Led Zeppelin, there would come a point in every set list when John would have the opportunity for as long, brash, and kinetic a solo as he desired—the closest thing to becoming the visible nucleus he’d always envisioned. And he used that opportunity for all it was worth: over the course of the band’s nine-year existence, John’s time in the spotlight had evolved from ten minutes to the better part of an hour.
Bandmates Plant, bassist John Paul Jones, and leader in both guitar and overall creative direction Jimmy Page didn’t mind backing down for so long a hiatus; it would mean a good twenty minutes backstage to sit down, catch their breath, grab a cigarette, or knock back a few swigs before again being on public display. But first, Page would lead into John’s solo with two scorching rounds of “Out on the Tiles,” the spotlight revealing Page’s own presence behind Plant in unison with the first explosion of the guitarist’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard, a warm, brown contrast to the blaring sight of his “poppy” white-dragon jumpsuit—the “heroin suit.”
From there, John was on his own.
Tonight would be no different. As he launched into what would be a twenty-four-minute rendition of his famed solo, “Moby Dick,” John was unaware that it would be one of the last times American audiences would have the chance to see him in all his brazen glory. And while there were always detractors who shunned John’s legendary marathon solos, accusing both him and the entire band of self-indulgence, most would stand in awe of the human firework dominating their senses. That had always been the point of the song, John’s own concoction that not only displayed his own abilities and virtuosity, but also demonstrated for fans, critics, and scores of jealous fellow drummers just how innovative his technique could be.
He had been working on the extended solo for years, cribbing a few licks from Art Blakey and moves from Gene Krupa, while adding his own signature rapid-fire paradiddles into a shotgun speed, making for an almost trancelike spectacle once he really got rolling: forsaking a traditional linear pattern for his own layered style, working his booted feet into double-kicks for a brash filler that was more like controlled chaos. As John smashed clockwise in lightning circles around the kit’s toms, he added a foot ostinato faster and faster, bringing Pat’s piece to a climax like a flow of power. Halfway through, John would throw the sticks and take to the toms with his hands, leaving his body drenched in sweat and his hands smeared with blood.
When John fell in love, it was fun to entertain the soon-to-be Mrs. Bonham with the one-man show, so much to her amusement that John had originally named the track for her. When Led Zeppelin took off, he’d played “Pat’s Delight” at every show. Jimmy loved it, too. By the time the mysterious guitarist-cum-producer opted to add the song to the group’s second album, John had renamed it to match young son Jason’s own innocent observation. Indeed, the thunderous solo was, as the child had claimed, as big as Melville’s mythic whale. “Moby Dick” became a near-instantaneous drumming classic.
By Led Zeppelin’s 1977 tour of North America, John had refined it into a massive performance piece, integrating electronic elements and extended portions and allowing the modernized tension lugs of his recently acquired stainless-steel Ludwig to get even louder. Hearing the new sound before heading out on tour, the band had renamed the song once again: “Over the Top.”
The title was more than appropriate for the song; it spoke volumes about John’s style—and the band itself. The group’s notorious penchant for hard partying and even harder living was slowly catching up with them all. This tour, their eleventh across the United States, had seemed doomed from the start: the grounding of their beloved Boeing 707, The Starship… the latest album not selling as well as the others, much to everyone’s chagrin… the riots in Cincinnati and Tampa… Jimmy’s “food poisoning” and the canceled shows…
It seemed as though the only thing right this time around was the money, always the money. Their manager saw to that—all six feet and three hundred pounds of him—and anything that could even be attributed to a dollar sign he strictly monitored with the help of his notorious henchmen.
But the worst of the tour—Led Zeppelin’s final one—was yet to come. In only a few days, Robert Plant would be called on the road and notified that his five-year-old son was dead—and John would be arrested in America for the first time, facing criminal action for letting his rage get the best of him. At one time, he thought, this country had loved us.
As John played his solo, none of that existed: not the sins of the past or the crimes yet to be committed. For tonight, there was only the music—the playing, the rising storm that had brought John to America from the quiet English village where he was known simply as the affable carpenter with a love of cars and designer suits.
Tonight, there was only this—the final, radiant hour when the music and its power could still keep a beast at bay.
The Flight of the Rocket
MAY 1948−DECEMBER 1965
It was as if by predetermination that John Henry Bonham III was born to work with his hands.
Every element of his being spoke of hard labor. Twenty-six hours of it to push him out, and only then for his heart to immediately stop beating. The on-duty doctor had already left for the day, driving nurses into a frenzy to find a fill-in. When one was finally found, the infant was revived. And so, on May 31, 1948, John Bonham was born and died and was born again in Redditch, Worcestershire, in the Midlands of England. He had been born with what was considered an extremely enlarged and bruised cranium. The day nurse told the child’s parents, John Henry II (Jack or “Jacko” to his closest mates) and Joan Isobel, that their son’s survival had been a miracle—a ten-pound, four-ounce miracle.
Despite the numeral, while John was named for his father, he was not named for his grandfather. Eschewing chronology, the young parents took as a namesake the newborn’s great-great-great-grandfather. The first John Bonham had died in 1871; Jacko Bonham was born in 1918, exactly two hundred years after the first Bonham—Thomas, of Oxfordshire—appeared in Midlands records. Jacko was also the youngest of three sons, all born and raised in Worcestershire. Their father, Albert, had been one of eight. Indeed, the roots of the Bonham family bloodline were as permeated into the Midlands soil as the blood-red clay sediment of the nearby River Arrow, the oft-flooded vein of the greater River Avon.
The Bonhams’ hometown of Redditch held much in the way of superstitions but was largely unaccustomed to such miracles. History’s first mention of the town harked back to the Middle Ages, forever linking the land with the spread of the Black Plague. Centuries before, the Romans had cut a road through the region, using the path as the main thoroughfare across the occupied city of Alcester. During the modern era, the ancient road had long since become known as Iknield Street, the Roman path swallowed up by sections of the A38 M5 motorway. Beginning at Bourton-on-the-Water and ending at Rotherham, where once essential salts had been carted by caravans, now trucks hauled freight. Likewise, the Roman city of Alcester had eventually been rechristened as Derby—then, finally, Birmingham.
Located only ten miles south of Birmingham and southeast of Kidderminster, the industrial town lay in the very center of the Black Country—those areas north and west of Birmingham so named for the dense soot and smog that would billow from the endless sea of factory chimneys, casting an ever-present dark pall in the sky. As early as 1830, the Black Country’s 130 square miles of lush countryside had already been transformed into a landscape defined by mines, foundries, and factories—a consequence of sitting upon the thickest coal seam in the country.
Although the glory days of the Black Country’s mining industry had passed by the time John Henry III was born, laborers were still proudly hewing coal out of the land’s rich earth. Iron and steel were worked intensively in local factories for decades, until glassmaking eventually took over as the region’s greatest export. To many, the blood and sweat decanted within the Black Country had funded the wealth and luxury of the British Empire: the anchors and chains of the RMS Titanic had been forged in the fires of the nearby town of Netherton, while the ship’s famed glass and stemware were molded in nearby Stourbridge. At the same time, Redditch had blossomed as the center for needle making and fishhooks. By the birth of the third John Henry Bonham, the production of such gear had become the very lifeblood of the town he called home. It had been through the town’s laborious roots that Redditch remained prosperous during some of its most economically harrowing years following World War II. In 1939 Redditch found itself the temporary home of “the Erie Hammer,” a four-hundred-ton piece of state-of-the-art machinery constructed across the Atlantic Ocean in America and shipped to the Midlands piece by piece. Newspapers had deemed the monolithic construction, used by the Allies to quickly manufacture the pistons of England’s aero engines, “the largest hammer in the world”—one whose size and power could rival even that of Mjolnir, the chosen weapon of the Norse god of thunder, and whose abilities had helped slay the Axis armies.
Indeed, nearly a decade before the birth of John Henry Bonham III, Redditch had already been home to a hammer of the gods.
THE BONHAMS LIVED IN A SMALL THREE-BEDROOM SEMIDETACHED house in Hunt End, a village district just on the outskirts of town and about twenty miles from the larger city of Brum, as locals lovingly referred to Birmingham. Jacko was a carpenter by trade and owned and operated the family’s construction firm, J. H. Bonham & Son, a long-standing company stable enough for the family to remain relatively comfortable throughout much of John’s youth—a rarity among the primarily blue-collar community. However, all members of the Bonham family pitched in—Joan (née Sargent) worked as the manager of a small local newspaper shop, while both John and younger brother Michael (Mick) worked alongside their father as soon as they’d both reached their teens.
“As kids, we went to the building sites, because of our granddad’s firm, which dad and our uncle Ernie ran,” brother Mick Bonham recalled years later in his posthumously published memoir. “They seemed like mega-playgrounds, and me and John were always messing around there.” There would be many more such playgrounds for the Bonham boys to enjoy throughout their youth. With the end of the Second World War, the Black Country’s landscape was forever changed—Redditch included. Although the war had been won, its aftereffects could be felt by hundreds of families. The rationing of foodstuffs, such as meat and dairy, continued throughout Britain until 1954, when the Bonham boys were already in grade school.
During John and Mick’s earliest years, many of the cities and towns throughout the Black Country still bore the scars from six years of warfare: as a major manufacturer of munitions, the Black Country’s industrial nucleus had been a prime target for German bombs. Although Redditch had been fortunate in retaining most of its inherent natural beauty, many of its sister communities were punctuated by the sight of blasted houses and the shells of abandoned buildings. It was an everyday occurrence for children playing in the streets to find the tail ends of used bombs and shards of jagged, burned shrapnel.
THE BONHAM BROTHERS WERE SENT TO THE NEARBY WILTON HOUSE Private School on Worcester Road, complete with high expectations of its students and a strictly enforced uniform that Mick recalled “was brown, white, and blue stripes with a cap to match.” Two years Mick’s senior, John began his formal schooling in 1953, all the experience primarily consisting of “three classrooms with three lady teachers and a matronly headmistress who,” Mick later claimed, “luckily for us, didn’t believe in slapping young children if they were naughty.
“We used to have to walk past another school at the bottom of our road, called St. Stephen’s,” Mick remembered, adding that the boys’ daily route always led them through the center of town before winding up at their home at the end of Easemore Road. “We went to the posh school, and they were slumming it. Of course, the kids would shout out, ‘Got your pajamas on?’ Our John would say to me, ‘Come on, kid, let’s have a bit of this’—and there’d be ten more of them!… We had to run the gauntlet every night.”
It was generally understood that no matter the sticky situation, the Bonham brothers stuck together. “We had our fair share of fights,” Mick later explained. “But all brothers do. One minute you love each other, and the next minute you are knocking the hell out of each other.… When we worked on the building sites, we often had fisticuffs, and he sacked me more times than he sacked anybody else.
“When we were at school together, John might have been kicking the hell out of me, but as soon as somebody else came near me, the two of us would have a go back. He’d stick up for me every time.” Mick and John took to calling this new phase of neighborhood bullying the “start of the Hard Fights”—and it seemed it would never end.
IN 1960, JOHN WAS SENT TO LODGE FARM COUNTY SECONDARY School, beginning four years of intensive studies under Headmaster Gordon Antiss, a particularly strict disciplinarian, “a tall, lean man who ruled by the cane”—once telling young John that he “would probably not even make a good dustman.” The younger Mick, on the other hand, was enrolled in the nearby Ridgeway School. It was both a luxury and a necessity for the brothers to attend such prestigious private schools, as the new decade also saw a noticeable rise in the Black Country’s population and an overcrowding within the school districts. Only a few months before John graduated in 1964, Redditch had been officially declared a “new town” by the British government’s New Towns Act of 1946, a law that sought to relocate the families of poor or bombed-out housing following the war. The New Towns mandate caused Redditch’s population to increase dramatically during the Bonham brothers’ adolescence, rising from thirty-two thousand to around seventy-seven thousand throughout the towns of the Black Country. Nearby housing developments such as Church Hill, Matchborough, Winyates, Lodge Park, and Woodrow were created to accommodate a large overspill from the industrially expanding Birmingham. Redditch had been envisioned as a flagship town and was constructed using new methods of urban planning: all the main roads were banked to reduce noise to the new housing estates, and the whole town of Redditch was landscaped. It only helped that nationally, the economy was on an upswing and wages for skilled labor increased. A rush by the British to be socially upwardly mobile left a void for unskilled workers that was filled by successive governments with immigrant labor from around the Commonwealth. With these workers populating the steel mills and factories—and automotive plants, as well—the towns and cities of the Black Country soon ranked among the country’s most multicultural areas. For the first time in its history, the Black Country became host to families from the Caribbean, India, and Pakistan—creating a true melting pot and affirming Birmingham’s status as the most populated city in the United Kingdom outside of London.
Under the new law, the Bonham family prospered; luckily for Jacko, the influx of new families necessitated the construction of new homes. Atypical of the times and especially within their own community, this meant that the Bonham boys enjoyed a comfortable existence, complete with their private school tuition and three holidays a year. Young John Bonham was brought up with the expectation that he would one day enter the family construction business, settling down to “a proper job” that would guarantee the type of stability that eluded so many others in their region, but had blessed the Bonhams.
John, however, was already thinking quite differently, later recalling, “I was determined to be a drummer as soon as I left school. I was so keen, I would have played for nothing. In fact, I did for a long time. But my parents stuck by me.”
"C.M. Kushins gives us a wild, behind-the-scenes look at one of the greatest rock bands ever, and brings John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham back to life in this well-written rock classic."
—Peter Leonard, Bestselling Author of Voices of the Dead
- On Sale
- Dec 6, 2022
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Hachette Books