It was 40 years ago today (September 25th, 1980) that Led Zeppelin's John Bonham died of pulmonary edema, which is fluid accumulation in the lungs. The legendary drummer was just 32-years-old, and found dead by Zeppelin sound technician Benji LeFevre and bassist John Paul Jones. The clinical cause of death was asphyxiation from vomit and an autopsy found no other drugs in his body. Bonham was cremated on October 10th, 1980, and his ashes were buried at Rushock Parish Church in Droitwich, Worcestershire.
Led Zeppelin was set to begin its next North American tour on October 17th, 1980 inMontreal. On December 4th, the band issued a formal statement announcing their split, which read: “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend, and the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.”
Back in 2018 when pressed about Led Zeppelin's upcoming 50th anniversary, a somewhat somber Robert Plant explained to Mojo that Bonham's death still cast a long shadow, saying, “It’s 50 years, but it’s not 50 years — it’s 38 years of darkness for a family. So all that hullabaloo is great, and I’m sure there’ll be some great things to come out of it. . . I really can’t wait to hear (the archival releases) — I might even get a free copy.”
Bonham, who is regarded by most as the greatest rock drummer to ever sit behind a kit, got his start playing with Robert Plant in the Band Of Joy, and when invited by Plant to join Zeppelin, then called the New Yardbirds, he was reluctant to do so because he had just landed a steady gig playing with folk singer Tim Rose.
Robert Plant has always reminded fans and followers clamoring for a Led Zeppelin reunion that the loss of John Bonham goes far deeper than a band needing a new drummer in order to play: “Well, Bonzo and I, we'd been through so many things before the 'big time.' We kinda read each other like books — we were like brothers. But in reality, and physicality, and spiritually, losing John, obviously we. . . everybody got together and said, 'This can never work again.' Our real concern then was to kind of protect (his wife) Pat and the whole family from this kind of surge of media stuff. And it's so debilitating really, and I experienced that a couple of years before that, myself. And to lose John was criminal.”
John Paul Jones told us that when he and John Bonham first connected as a rhythm section, he knew immediately that history would be made between them: “When I first played with Bonzo, I immediately knew. 'Cause there's a lot of guitarists, and there's a lot of singers. There are less bass players, and there aren't that many drummers — who are really good. And when a rhythm section recognizes each other, when you find each other, you go, 'Wow! Right! OK!' And Bonzo and I immediately recognized each other as we knew what we were doing, and we clicked.”
Jimmy Page admitted to us that he knew from the beginning that the magic surrounding Led Zeppelin wouldn't last forever: “I said, basically around the time of the first album, it's all a race against time, and I think it is. It still is. It still is a race against time and trying to do good work and improve on what you've done. It's more difficult as you get older because you know your days are numbered, really. Within Zeppelin we had this amazing vehicle that we could continue and continue and just come up with amazing things — which fortunately we did continue, and we did come up with amazing stuff. But I still thought it was a race against time. I had no idea how prophetic it would be with the loss of John Bonham.”
E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg is no stranger to playing with power — or nowadays, with his big band ensembles, with swing. He feels that John Bonham was capable of many different styles — not least of which was swing: “Anyone would, I think, be hard pressed to disagree with me to say that John Bonham didn't swing — incredible! You don't need to be a jazz or a swing drummer to swing. It's really about the lightness with which you play.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith told us that he became an instant Bonham acolyte the first time he heard him: “Bonham is the greatest rock drummer. He just is, hands down. Like as when people say Buddy Rich is the greatest drummer, technically, y'know, the greatest drummer ever? John Bonham, hands down, greatest rock drummer ever. Sound, he played those songs, everything he did was just, y'know, just felt good and it's just incredible. So for me, Led Zeppelin is my favorite band.”
Jason Bonham has honored his father throughout his career — not only subbing for him at such high profile Zeppelin reunions as the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert in 1988 and 2007's concert at London's O2 Arena — but also with his own band, Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Evening. He says his greatest regret is that he never got to play live with his dad: “We never got to that stage. I mean, I have a teenager now, and time and again, she drives me mad. Y'know, I never got to that point. My dad left me when I was. . . Y'know, my God, he was God to me. Every word he said was the gospel.”
Jason Bonham told us that playing drums is what keeps him tied to his father who died when he was only 14: “I have a helluva lot to live up to. A lot of people say, 'What's it like, y'know, you're the son of John Bonham!' And I say, 'Y'know, what? It's kinda cool, 'cause he was such an icon in such an iconic band.' It just gives me enough get up and go to say, 'Y'know what, I just wanna make him happy and prove to him and show him that, Dad, you've handed me down a business.' Y'know, like some fathers they hand them down their work — even though he wasn't there to hand it down to me himself, to me, I feel — if anything — he left me at such an early age, but he gave me a career.”