Tuesday, January 29, 2013

ZEPPELIN WEEK: The Portable John Bonham

 David Stern (@sanctuariesnyc) provides his five favorite John "Bonzo" Bonham moments.

Editor's Note: David Stern has been making special contributions to Puddles of Myself for a few years now, including various Puddles of My Podcast appearances and a pivotal part in Nilsson Week back in September of 2012. He is also the primary songwriter and lead singer of the Sanctuaries, who released their first album Annette in 2012 and are in the process of mixing their still untitled second album, which will be released later this year. You can listen to and buy Sanctuaries music here. Though David primarily plays guitar in the Sanctuaries, he started off as a drummer and will always be a drummer at heart.


Hey, Nick!

Oh, hey, what’s up?

What’s the matter?

Um, John Bonham died.

Yeah, I know.  Last week.


He’s dead.  You know, it’s like he’s dead and that-as a result there’s no more Led Zeppelin.

Well, why don’t they just get a new drummer?

What, are you- let’s just forget it.

He walks away.


The above scene from the second episode of Freaks and Geeks, “Beers and Weirs”, hilariously and succinctly depicts the despondency that a young person feels in reaction to the passing of a member of one of their favorite bands.   But the joke hits home so much harder if you—like Nick Andopolis—are a drummer.  Only a drummer can truly understand the emotional complexity in the scene. Is Nick mourning the loss of an amazing band or is he more hung up on Bonzo?  Would he have had the same reaction if another member of Led Zeppelin had died?  Would an equally irreplaceable drummer from another band, say, Keith Moon, be mourned in the same way*?

(*Writer’s Note: Yes, I know, Moon died two years before Bonham and both drummers have been filled in for… but never replaced, since that would be impossible.)

See, John Bonham holds a special place in every drummer’s heart.  He looks down on practice rooms in either an idol-like wall-mounted poster, and exerts his influence through the reverence of drum instructors everywhere; he is a welcomed god, a benevolent force of drumming goodness.  To people behind a kit he was not merely a member of Led Zeppelin, but rather a symbol and an ideal.  As with any mythic figure, the intangibles are impossible to convey, but listening makes it clear that his style represents perfection in three major areas of rock drumming: 

1. Technical ability/Inventiveness – “This motherfucker must be double-jointed or something”, my drum teacher once casually remarked.

2. Taste/Feel – Knowing when and how to use his chops; he is impressive to listen to but never overly flashy or getting in the way of the groove.

3. Fun – This is his hook in young drummers.  “This guy is bashing the hell out of his set.  I guess I want to practice.”

As a drummer, it seemed only fitting for me to write about Bonzo, rock drumming’s Orpheus, during Led Zeppelin week.  It is also somewhat cathartic: Bonham died in 1980, five years before I was born, and—like Nick Andopolis—I’m still not over it.

Here are my five favorite John Bonham moments:

5.  Squeaky “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”

You can have all the chops in the world, but you’re not a great drummer if you can’t handle the basics; and this bluesy slow burner is just one of many examples of Bonham laying down something simple while tastefully incorporating his trademark bombast.  Specifically, I chose this track due to the following piece of drumming trivia: if you listen closely you can hear Bonham’s kick pedal squeaking throughout the whole track.

4.  Double hits in “Over the Hills And Far Away.”

This song, in my book, is one of the ultimate examples of a rhythm section being locked in.  Bonham and Jones (Zeppelin’s true and often-overlooked secret weapon) are especially tight as illustrated by the punctuating sixteenth notes that bookend the first lines of each verse.  My favorite moment comes in the fourth verse (the one after the solo) when Bonham plays two thirty-second notes on his snare before the big crash; instead of the usual “bop-BUM bop-BUM,” you get “bubba-BUM budda-BUM.”  Listen closely—Bonham's playfulness occurs at only this specific moment on the track.

3.  The introduction to “Rock and Roll”

Why did I include the song from the Cadillac commercials? The short answer: it has probably the coolest drum introduction to any rock song ever. So it’s not surprising that this song kicked off every show between ’72 and ’75.  The long answer: Bonham pays homage to the jump-intros of the 50s and cops the beginning of Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’” to create something that at first sounds perplexing.  The secret: he starts on the ‘and’of 3'.

2.  “Fool in the Rain” and the evolution of the shuffle.

Like the introduction to “Rock and Roll” this is an example of Bonham learning from his peers and adding his own flare.  His beat in the verse of the song is very similar to Bernard Purdie’s career-defining beat from Steely Dan’s “Home at Last," which came out two years before In Through the Out Door on their album Aja.  The coolest part is that twenty years later Steven Drozd—Bonzo disciple and drummer for the Flaming Lips—used nearly the exact beat for “The Gash” off of The Soft Bulletin.  Evident by his drumming, Drozd idolizes Bonham and his choice here works perfectly

By the way, if you’re into Steely Dan the beat is known as the Purdie Shuffle but if you were cool in high school you’re more likely to call it the Bonzo Shuffle.

1.  The first beat in “The Crunge.”

I dare you to even try to find a song that starts out in 9/8 that grooves as well as this.  This beat is so badass that De La Soul sampled it but changed it to 4/4 for “The Magic Number” off of the classic 3 Feet High and Rising (this was definitely more work intensive in the late 80s than it is now).  

This is my personal favorite because it is the best example of Bonzo playing something utterly bonkers that only he could dream up that still grooves, still makes you want to dance, and still works in the context of a song.  When I started playing drums, this was a beat that I was inspired by but could not play or even figure out for quite a while.  The first time I ever felt talented or knew that I was a good drummer—at least good enough for my own happiness—was when I conquered it.


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