John Bonham drums Led Zeppelin

John Bonham’s five greatest Led Zeppelin drum tracks

If there was a census of which rock drummer your favourite musicians believed was the greatest, most influential sticksman of all time, there would likely be only one winner: Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. 

He certainly comes out top dog when the critic’s opinions are concerned too, with Rolling Stone anointing him as their greatest drummer in 2016. For additional kudos, that is, if you weren’t already convinced by the opinions of disciples in Dave Grohl, Queen’s Roger Taylor, Rush’s Neil Peart, et al., who all cite Bonham as the player who inspired them most. 

‘Bonzo’ was a behemoth behind the kit, possessing a never-before-seen (or heard) alchemy of power, precision, feel for rhythm, and ingenuity. Imprinting every drum track he performed with personality and virtuosity, Bonham was a steamroller of a character, perhaps even more so off stage than he was when clutching the sticks. Sadly, his penchant for booze killed him at the age of just 32 in 1980, reportedly sinking over a hundred shots of vodka within 24 hours, causing pulmonary aspiration. Given their inimitable chemistry, the band chose to break up soon after.

READ MORE: The Led Zeppelin song Robert Plant admitted was a ‘windup’ for Tolkien fans

Led Zeppelin – despite their outstanding individual merits – were greater than the sum of their parts. They were a band that reimagined the framework of rock music, and Bonzo’s percussive propulsion was at the heart of their godly might.

We’ve taken on an unenviable task of whittling down John Bonham’s finest moments in Led Zeppelin. So, in no particular order, here are his top five drum tracks:

‘Good Times Bad Times’

The opening song of Led Zeppelin’s debut album very much indicated the unique talents of their drummer from the get-go, the astonishing speed of Bonham’s fluttering triplets certainly not going unnoticed. In fact, ‘Good Times Bad Times’ intrigued peers and fans alike, with many believing Bonzo used two bass drums. Taking cues from Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice’s 16th-note triplets, who did use two bass drums, Bonzo trained to deploy the technique with just his right foot. According to Chris Welch and Jeff Nicholls’ 2001 biography, A Thunder of Drums, Jimi Hendrix once told Robert Plant: “That drummer of yours has a right foot like a pair of castanets!”

‘Moby Dick’

In an era of guitar virtuosity (that frequently teetered towards fret-wankery), Bonham ensured drummers were showered with equal amounts of effusive praise. Taking a punt in the limelight himself on ‘Moby Dick’ from their 1969 sophomore album, Led Zeppelin II, Bonzo clobbered the skins with whale-like heft. The four-and-a-half-minute instrumental number is ostensibly a vehicle for Bonham’s three-minute drum solo sandwiched slap bang in the middle, one that even the most stubborn detractors of drum solo’s would (try to at least) air drum along with. A must-listen for budding drummers of any discipline, the essential version was recorded during Zep’s lauded 1970 show at Royal Albert Hall, which was captured on the 2003 Led Zeppelin DVD box set. 

‘Immigrant Song’

When Robert Plant crooned, “The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands” during the verse of ‘Immigrant Song’ from 1970’s Led Zeppelin III, the lyric resonated with Led Zeppelin’s audience so much that they’d refer to the band’s sound as the “hammer of the gods”, in a term of endearment. It was fitting then, that John Bonham crashes into the snare drum on the recording with the otherworldly force of a Norse god. His simplistic, clean part is ‘rock drumming 101’, cutting through the song’s mysticism with metronomic rhythm and awesome precision.

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‘When The Levee Breaks’

With a chest-bursting bass drum and snare sound that’d fill a canyon’s dusty chasm, Bonzo’s contribution to ‘When The Levee Breaks’ reinvigorated the ‘British rock band covering blues staples’ fail-safe, which by that time Led Zeppelin IV came out in 1971, was a tired trope. Given its dominance, Jimmy Page built the song around the drum part. He wasn’t the only artist to do so, either. Because of Bonham’s drums, ‘When The Levee Breaks’ became one of the most-sampled songs ever, with Björk (‘Army Of Me’), Beastie Boys (‘Rhymin’ & Stealin’’), Massive Attack (‘Man Next Door’), Aphex Twin (‘Taking Control’) and Eminem (‘Kim’) and countless others reappropriating his beastly beat. 

READ MORE: How did Keith Moon die? Inside the final days of The Who’s legendary drummer ‘Moon the Loon’

‘Achilles Last Stand’

Although there were diminishing returns with Led Zeppelin’s later albums, they were still littered with moments of majesty. Case-and-point with ‘Achilles Last Stand’ from 1976’s Presence, ten minutes of heavy rock grandiosity that veers willingly into each of the four band member’s progressive tendencies. Showcasing Bonham’s sheer power – and gobsmacking dexterity when it comes to some of the fills throughout – Jimmy Page overdubbed the guitar six times to create a greater sound, matching the imperious drums. Robert Plant later admitted to Mojo magazine that ‘Achilles Last Stand’ is “us at our least charming, and most proficient – a Bonzo track where nobody could even believe a human could do it.”

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