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John Bonham: 1948-1980

Known as ‘Bonzo,’ Led Zeppelin’s drummer was the ultimate room destroyer

John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.

John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

John “Bonzo” Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin since the group’s inception twelve years ago, was found dead in bed on September 25th after a night of drinking at Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page‘s house in Windsor, about twenty-five miles outside of London. Bonham, whose “physical exhaustion” reportedly caused the cancellation of one German gig on the band’s recent European tour, was thirty-two years old. Following his death, Zeppelin reportedly called off a North American tour that was to have begun in Montreal on October 17th.

Perhaps the most powerful drummer in rock, Bonham was a hard-living, often abrasive man, especially when touring. Off the road, he lived contentedly with his wife, Pat, and their two children in a farmhouse in Cutnall Green, Worcestershire, the rural area near Birmingham where Bonham was born. On September 24th, however, he and Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones were at Page’s luxurious home, where, according to a local police spokeswoman, Bonham “had obviously been drinking a lot during the evening. He was put to bed just after midnight by Jones and one of the house staff.” When Jones checked on Bonham at 1:45 p.m. the next day, he was dead. A subsequent autopsy proved inconclusive, and at press time, pathological tests were still being conducted to determine the exact cause of death.

The Zeppelin camp had no immediate comment on Bonham’s death, which was the latest in a long line of Zeppelin tragedies: Plant’s near-fatal car crash on the Greek island of Rhodes in 1975; the death of Plant’s five-year-old son, Karac, two years later; the 1976 death of Keith Harwood, the group’s twenty-seven-year-old engineer; and Bonham’s auto crackup in 1977, in which he broke three ribs.

Former Swan Song Vice President Danny Goldberg, who now heads Modern Records, has vivid memories of Bonham. “He was the ultimate rock & roll bad guy,” Goldberg says semi-affectionately. “He somehow felt that he didn’t have to abide by any social rules at all. The band used to call him ‘The Beast.’ He was the ultimate room destroyer.

“But he had this incredible talent,” says Goldberg. “I don’t think there’s ever been anybody like him. As brilliant as Jimmy Page is, Led Zeppelin will never be the same without John. It may be better, it may be worse. But there’s no one else in the world who can play drums like that.”

This story is from the October 30th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone. 


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