This month marks the anniversary of the death of John Bonham. He is considered by many to be the greatest drummer of all-time and the indelible mark he left on rock drumming is second-to-none. When I look at the legacy of John Bonham I can’t help but draw the conclusion of how unnecessary his death was. It was a tragedy but one that could have been avoided if not for the enabling that took place with Bonham’s drinking. Clearly he had a problem. All the members of Led Zeppelin had their issues but Bonham’s gregarious personality seemed to be dependent on alcohol. Perhaps if the people around him were more conscious of how much alcohol he had consumed that day they would not have left him unattended. Perhaps if Bonham had better coping skills he would not have consumed so much alcohol in the first place. It’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment knowing what the outcome was. Still I can’t help but be disappointed in both Bonham and the rest of the band. What a waste. Here’s a recollection of the evening leading up to Bonham’s untimely death:
In September 1980 all four members of Led Zeppelin had begun rehearsing in preparation for their first tour of North America since 1977, which was planned to kick off on October 17th in Montreal, Canada. The rehearsals took place near Jimmy Page’s Windsor home where the band was staying. It was here where John Paul Jones and Benje LeFevre (Led Zeppelin’s road manager) discovered Bonham’s body, in the morning of September 25th. Bonham had died tragically from inhalation of vomit in bed during his sleep, aged just 32. (John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums, Welch & Nicholls, 2001, pg 120)
In the day leading up to his premature death, Bonham had been on a 12-hour binge drinking session, which began at noon and lasted until midnight, when he fell unconscious. He had consumed an alarming 40 units of vodka. (Welch & Nicholls, 2001, pg 120) The UK’s recommended maximum intake of alcoholic beverages per day for men is 3-4 units. After falling unconscious on a sofa, he was put to bed by an assistant where he could sleep off his drunkenness. The assistant laid him on his side with pillows for support.
John Paul Jones: “Benje and I found him. It was like, “Let’s go up and look at Bonzo, see how he is.” We tried to wake him up… It was terrible. Then I had to tell the other two… I had to break the news to Jimmy and Robert. It made me feel very angry – at the waste of him… I can’t say he was in good shape, because he wasn’t. There were some good moments during the last rehearsals … but then he started on the vodka.” “I think he had been drinking because there were some problems in his personal life. But he died because of an accident. He was lying down the wrong way, which could have happened to anybody who drank a lot.” (Welch & Nicholls, 2001, pg 121)
An ambulance was called in the morning immediately after Bonham was discovered, but it was too late for them to do anything. The police also arrived at Jimmy’s house, but no suspicious circumstances were identified.
An inquest into John Bonham’s death was held at East Berkshire coroner’s court on October 18th where it was determined that Bonham had died from inhalation of his own vomit during sleep which led to pulmonary edema. (Pulmonary edema describes fluid accumulation in the lungs, which can cause respiratory failure.) The cause of death was put down as “consumption of alcohol”. A verdict of accidental death was arrived at and recorded.
Robert Plant describes John’s frame of mind as they drove to their last rehearsal together: “On the very last day of his life, as we drove to the rehearsal, he was not quite as happy as he could be. He said, “I’ve had it with playing drums. Everybody plays better than me.” We were driving in the car and he pulled off the sun visor and threw it out the window as he was talking. He said, “I’ll tell you what, when we get to the rehearsal, you play the drums and I’ll sing.” And that was our last rehearsal.” (Welch & Nicholls, 2001, pg 121)
John Bonham’s family funeral service took place on October 10th 1980 at Rushock Parish Church in Worcestershire. Around 250 mourners attended, made up of family, friends, band mates and other musicians including: Roy Wood, Denny Laine, Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne. Paul McCartney left a wreath and tributes flooded in from fellow drummers including Carmine Appice, Phil Collins, Cozy Powell and Carl Palmer. After the family service, the funeral procession made its way to Worcester Crematorium where the final service was held. (John Bonham: The Powerhouse Behind Led Zeppelin, 2005, pg 199)
Swan Song Records (Led Zeppelins record label started by their manager Peter Grant) issued a statement on December 4th 1980, which addressed the many rumors regarding the bands uncertain future following the death of Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham:
“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.” (Welch & Nicholls, 2001, pg 122)