Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Death By Misadventure- John Bonham

John Henry Bonham & The Biggest Band in the World

By late 1966 the hits had stopped coming for The Yardbirds, and despite an incessant touring schedule they were not financially solvent.  At the insistence of then manager Simon Napier-Bell (who was eager to bail on them) Peter Grant was brought in to take over management for the band. Grant was assigned the difficult task of salvaging whatever chart momentum the band had left and whipping their finances into shape.

Peter Grant cut an imposing figure, standing 6-5 and weighing in at 300 lbs., he pulled no punches when it came to dealing with club owners.  A former pro wrestler, Grant was notorious for using his girth and muscle to get what he wanted from promoters. But, no amount of intimidation could get The Yardbirds another hit single. On the heels of Jeff Beck's departure from the band, they recorded one album "Little Games" it didn't do well.

 Grant had built a reputation as a man who worked tirelessly for the artists he managed and thanks to his business acumen and sharp eye for details, the band was now making money from their concerts.  Grant toured with the band and dealt directly with promoters to ensure that The Yardbirds were actually paid what they  were owed. It was a business model that he would work to perfection as manager for Led Zeppelin.

Peter Grant was also a music visionary, who saw an immediate opportunity for The Yardbirds, not as hit makers, but on the American underground scene. Hard rock was the new style and he steered the band in that direction. As Led Zeppelin's representative, Grant negotiated an unheard of, five year contract with Atlantic Records, convincing the label that albums & live performances were the big moneymakers, not hit singles. 

As 1968 dawned on The British Empire (or what was left of it) The Yardbirds were starting to unravel.  Lead vocalist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty were unhappy with Jimmy Page's increasingly dominant position within the group. The were also dissatisfied with the direction the music was taking. Both would soon leave to form an acoustic rock group called Together, followed by Renaissance, a mildly successful folk rock band.

This left Jimmy Page and bassist Chris Dreja as the remaining members. With contracts already signed for a series of Scandinavian concert dates, Relf & McCarty granted Page permission to put together a band in order to honor the contracts and avoid any legal fallout. Page first approached up & coming, singer/guitarist Terry Reid (who was also managed by Peter Grant), but Reid turned him down.

Procol Harum's B.J. Wilson & Clem Cattini, formerly of The Tornados,  were considered as drummers, though neither was ever offered the job. Terry Reid, however did suggest Robert Plant from The Band of Joy as vocalist. Once on board, Plant recommended former Band of Joy drummer John Bonham to Page and he was also hired.  As the band prepared for the upcoming tour, Chris Dreja dropped out and John Paul Jones was added as bass player.

Prior to their tour of Scandinavia, "The New Yardbirds" as they were now known, landed work as the studio band for PJ Proby's album "Three Week Hero" This album is often touted as being worthwhile because it was Led Zeppelin's unofficial recording debut.  Although, Proby wasn't at his peak anymore and the band's influence is hardly felt or heard in a way that's recognizable as Led Zeppelin.

"Three Week Hero" is a rambling stylistic wreck that lacks direction and range. There's also that unfortunate medley: "It's So Hard To Be A Nigger/Jim's Blues/George Wallace Is Rollin' In This Mornin"  that leaves you second guessing PJ Proby's state of mind and intentions. Jimmy Page had a long & fruitful career as a session guitarist before, during and after The Yardbirds, but this is one turd that he has rightfully disowned.

The Yardbirds officially dissolved upon the completion of the Scandinavian tour, the final impetus being a cease and desist order from Chris Dreja that nixed the use of "The New Yardbirds" name. Unfazed, and with Peter Grant still on board as manager, the group went into the studio to continue working on the album they would eventually release as "Led Zeppelin" They also met at a pub, to brainstorm some ideas for a new band name.

The origins of the name "Led Zeppelin" went back to 1966 and the Jeff Beck/Bolero sessions that included  Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins & John Paul Jones. Then, Page had announced his intentions to form a super group that would include himself, Keith Moon, & John Entwistle of The Who or possibly Stevie Winwood (Traffic) and Steve Marriott (The Small Faces)  Page scrapped his plans once Peter Grant took charge of The Yardbirds.

When John Entwistle first heard of the proposed venture, he dryly remarked "This will take to the air like a lead balloon" (a colloquial British idiom for disastrous results) Keith Moon then jokingly suggested to Jimmy Page that the supergroup should be called "The Lead Balloon"  Two years later the phrase came up again as Page, Plant, Bonham, Jones and Peter Grant kicked around different names for the band.

Balloon quickly became Zeppelin (Page felt that it conjured up graceful images of a lighter than air behemoth) and Peter Grant in an act of pure genius,  dropped the "a" from lead (he was afraid fans would pronounce it as "leed") Newly launched Led Zeppelin released their eponymous debut album in January of 1969. Structured around twelve bar blues, rapid guitar riffs, moaning vocals and lumbering rhythms, it was an immediate hit. 

John Bonham, known as Bonzo was the key or as John Paul Jones remarked "As Soon as I heard John play, I knew this was going to be great, we locked together as a team immediately." By the time Bonzo joined "The New Yardbirds" he had built up a reputation as the strongest & loudest drummer around. Known for his power, Bonham would line his bass drum with aluminum to give it a cannon-like sound. 

In fact, John was too loud, many clubs wouldn't book the bands he was in due to his high volume approach.  Bonzo was undaunted, but his style did lead to his departure from several bands. In 1964 while playing drums with The Senators, Bonham enjoyed his first taste of success when the band's single "She's A Mod" made it onto the U.K. pop charts. It was the highlight of what was shaping up as a journeyman career.

After the Senators, Bonzo met up with Robert Plant for the first time, when he joined The Crawling King Snakes. However, his lack of transportation and subsequent inability to make band rehearsals led to his being canned. Then, while recording a demo with A Way of Life, one of the many pre-Zeppelin bands he played with, the studio engineer took him aside and told him he was too loud for the studio's equipment.

Bonham soon found himself working with Robert Plant again, this time with The Band of Joy. In 1968, the group was hired to back up American folksinger Tim Rose on his UK tour. Bonham was grateful for the chance, he later stated "I think my first real break was backing up Tim Rose"  That gig was not a success, but, two months later when Rose returned to England,  he requested Bonham as his drummer, giving him some badly needed income. 

Bonzo's musical career was going nowhere fast, his Band of Joy gig was over "Robert and I lost contact for two or three months" Bonham would say. But, better days were just around the corner, first John received offers from Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe, who were both in need of a drummer. Then, he started getting telegrams from Peter Grant, asking him to join The New Yardbirds, (who had just added John's old mate Robert Plant as lead vocalist)

After carefully weighing his options, Bonham chose The New Yardbirds, perhaps persuaded by Peter Grant's 40 telegrams or as he put it "I decided I liked their music better than Cocker's or Farlowe's"  a wise choice, as it turned out. John who used the longest and heaviest sticks available (he called them "trees") was the perfect match for Page & Grant's musical vision.  Later, Bonham would recall  "Before, I played too loud and now I can't play loud enough"

Of course Entwistle was wrong, Led Zeppelin was a smashing success. They stormed the rock music scene like a bizarro version of The Fab Four. Led Zeppelin was Jimmy Page's baby, he was the mysterious dabbler, a follower of the dark arts, an unparalleled rock guitarist. Everything he touched turned to gold and everything he stole turned to double platinum. Jimmy was a living, breathing rock and roll god.

Robert Plant was the front man, the swinging dick. Plant wrote all the band's lyrics, a hippie at heart, his fertile imagination was planted firmly in England's Medieval period. Fancying himself as a new age bard, Plant spun his tales of modern day warriors. He also looked the part, complete with golden locks and an a well positioned bulge to woo the ladies. To the contrary, John Paul Jones was your typical bass player, quiet, unassuming armed with a dry sense of humor.

John Bonham was an average bloke, who lived a conventional lifestyle. He was troubled by the most mundane of circumstances. (marriage, insufficient income, no car, rent payments) Nonetheless, Bonzo held on to his dreams with steadfast determination. He was a rather conservative sort, who could play the ruffian if need be. Alcohol was his drug of choice and by the time he joined up with Grant & the boys, he was probably already in the early stages of alcoholism.

But, it all rested in the huge hands (and fists) of Peter Grant, without him Led Zeppelin would have withered away after the first album. Grant was the unmovable object. He did all the dirty work while his boys basked in the adulation. He got rich of course, but he was also fiercly loyal and dependable. From the time The Yardbirds broke up until the demise of Led Zeppelin, Peter was bound to the band by a mere handshake agreement and nothing else.

One smash album followed by another, nothing less than gold or platinum records would suffice, Led Zeppelin was indeed "the biggest band in world"  Peter Grant's insistence that album sales would trump singles was paying off handsomely for Atlantic Records. So much so, that the band received its own vanity label, Swan Song Records. Their live shows became legendary, selling out venues where ever they went.

Led Zeppelin, now touted as "the heaviest band of all time" toured like barbarians. They became famous for their excessive behavior and legendary appetite for destruction. Trashing hotel rooms (or entire floors for that matter) became the band's trademark. In retrospect, some critics claimed that is was all exaggerated myth making. But of course, only the innkeepers and Zep's accountants known the real truth. 

As Led Zeppelin toured across American in 1977, they were at the very zenith of their loutish and arrogant glory. The band arrived in Oakland, Ca. for a July 23rd. show at The Days on the Green festival at the Oakland Coliseum. For years Peter Grant had relished his role as the bully who made promoters squirm, now he faced a worthy adversary. The Days on the Green was a Bill Graham promotion and you could cut the tension in the air from the moment Led Zeppelin and crew arrived.

Robert Plant later recalled that "It was one empire-builder and marauder moving into an area where there was already an empire with some kind of Tatar head" It was a classic case of immoveable force meets immoveable object. Almost immediately Led Zeppelin's entourage roughed up one of Graham's roadies.  Another roadie caught Peter Grant's son, pulling nameplates off dressing room doors, he admonished the boy and took them back.

This led to Peter Grant and John Bonham tracking down the roadie (Jim Matzorkis) They accused him of roughing up Peter's son and then knocked him around a bit.  Graham eager to quell the hostilities (there was an estimated crowd of 70,000 plus expected) tried to broker a deal with Peter Grant and the band members. He suggested a face to face with  Matzorkis to clear up any misunderstandings.

Grant agreed and accompanied by John Bindon and Bill Graham went to a Winnebago where Jim Matzorkis was waiting. As they entered the vehicle, Graham was grabbed by several Led Zeppelin crewmen and pushed out the door. Graham would later say that "Grant took his fist with the fingers all covered with rings and smashed Jim in the face" Grant and Bidon then proceeded to deliver a brutal beating to Matzorkis, which ended only when he managed to escape by smashing the door open and running for his life.

Graham's staff was up in arms and ready to take revenge. Bill on the other hand, was unwilling to take any risks that could lead to either of Led Zeppelin's two shows being cancelled. He urged them to be patient. Graham decided to press charges and told his staffers that if he was unsuccessful,  he would send 25 of his own men to New Orleans (the next stop on the Zeppelin tour) to even the score with the band.

Charges were filed after the second show against Peter Grant, John Bidon and John Bonham, all would avoid going to trial by pleading no contest, a settlement was reached in civil court. It wasn't the payback that Graham's roadies had wanted, but Bill declared it a victory anyway saying "It was like Nazi Germany, where people believed that might made right"  Except that in this case, the Nazis didn't really get their  comeuppance.

After departing from the Bay Area, Led Zeppelin arrived in New Orleans, to the tragic news that Robert Plant's son Karac had succumbed to a stomach virus. The rest of the tour was immediately cancelled. The worm had turned, bad luck and trouble seemed to dog the band after that. (Plant suffered a serious car accident that left him hobbled, Page became addicted to heroin, Bonham's alcoholism continued unchecked)

Three years after its predecessor "Presence", "In Through the Out Door" was released in 1979. It sold well, but it was becoming obvious that Led Zeppelin had peaked. Punk rock and New Wave were all the rage, bands like Zeppelin were now ridiculed for their ponderous musical style and rock star posturing. Led Zeppelin, like the dinosaurs they were being compared to, was in danger of becoming extinct.

All that was about to change, a North American tour, the first since 1977 was scheduled for the fall of 1980. In preparation for the grueling task, the band was rehearsing at Bray Studios. On Sept. 24th. John Bonham was picked up by one of the band's assistants. They stopped for breakfast, which (for Bonzo) consisted of four quadruple vodkas and one bite of a ham roll. At the studio, Bonham continued to drink heavily throughout the day's rehearsal.

Sometime before midnight, the band called it a day and retreated to Jimmy Page's home in Windsor. After several more drinks, Bonham either fell asleep or passed out. He was taken to a bedroom and placed on his side. At about 2 p.m. the following day, John Paul Jones and the band's tour manager checked in on him.  John was on his back and unresponsive, John Paul Jones checked and discovered he was dead.

The cause of death was asphyxiation, which means he simply choked on his own vomit, having rolled onto his back sometime during the 24 hours he was left unattended. A coroner's inquest declared it was an accidental death, no other drugs were found in his system. The report theorized that John Bonham had consumed over 40 shots of vodka during the final day of his life.  John Henry Bonham, aka Bonzo was just 32 years old at the time of his death.

After John Bonham's death, there were rumors that either Cozy Powell (Blackmore's Rainbow, Jeff Beck Group, he later played on Robert Plant's Pictures at Eleven album) Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Cactus) or Simon Kirke (Free, Bad Company) would stand in for Bonham. Ultimately, the decision was made by the band not to continue without Bonzo. Although, Bonham considered Ginger Baker to be the very best, the general consensus of rock music fans, is that John Bonham was the greatest rock drummer of all time. It's hard to argue with that. 

Peter Grant