James Hall, The Telegraph | Late in the evening of Monday July 7 1980, the final chords of Whole Lotta Love rang out through the 6,000-capacity Eissporthalle ice rink in Berlin, West Germany. The four members of Led Zeppelin left the stage broadly happy that the last performance of their 14-date European tour – their first in seven years – had gone well. But what they couldn’t have known was that the Berlin date would be their last ever show together due to the death of hard-living drummer John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham just 11 weeks later.
Bonham was found dead on the afternoon of September 25 in a guest room at bandmate Jimmy Page’s house in Windsor after a monumental drinking binge. He’d consumed an estimated 40 shots of vodka the day before as the band were rehearsing for what was meant to be a comeback tour of North America. Bonham had choked on his own vomit. He was 32.
Forty years on from their final concert, Led Zeppelin are still revered as one of the finest hard rock bands ever to have played. But the story of Bonham’s demise is a salutary lesson in the pitfalls of fame, fortune and life on the road. Although the band’s glory days were arguably over when he died, the tragedy brought the shutters down on a group still eager to prove they had a third act in them. His death was “one of the most flattening, heartbreaking parts of my life”, singer Robert Plant said two years later.
Apart from a few reunion shows, such as at 1985’s Live Aid and their one-off 2007 concert at London’s O2, the Led Zep project was over. Yet Bonham’s legacy lives on. He remains one of the most technically gifted, hardest-hitting and celebrated drummers in rock history, constantly vying for the top spot in ‘best ever drummer’ polls with jazz supremo Buddy Rich. Not bad for a carpenter’s son from the Midlands who, in the words of unofficial band biographer Stephen Davis, grew up “hammering things”.
In the months before Bonzo’s death, Led Zeppelin were a band refinding their mojo. A series of setbacks in the late-1970s had knocked them off course. Plant had been derailed by an accident – a 1975 car crash on Rhodes had left him struggling to walk – and an unimaginable tragedy – in 1977 his five year-old son Karac died from a stomach infection. Musically, punk had come along and altered the landscape (although guitarist Jimmy Page has often said that punk’s raw spirit reminded them of their former selves).
Their most recent two albums, Presence and In Through The Out Door, had had their moments but lacked the sheer power of the band’s late-60s and early-70s output of Led Zeppelin I to IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. However a pair of vast outdoor concerts at Knebworth in 1979 had re-energised Zeppelin (official figures put attendance at each show at 100,000, although the band put the figure at four times that).
As soon as 1980’s deliberately modest Tour Over Europe wrapped in Berlin, they were gearing up for their first North American tour since 1977, due to start that October in Montreal. With the new decade came hopes of a late-career reboot.
But underlying issues remained. Lifestyles in the Zeppelin camp had never lent themselves to longevity. This was particularly apt for Bonham. When off the road he was a down-to-earth family man who loved nothing more than pootling about his Worcestershire farm on his tractor. But when touring, Bonzo – the rich, cosseted and bored rock star miles from home and his beloved Massey Ferguson – would live up to his other nickname of The Beast.
And Zeppelin toured a lot, once carrying out six US tours in the space of 19 months. Bonham’s appetite for excess on the road was as colossal as his drumming. Bonzo’s “way of expressing himself was with his hands and his feet”, according to music journalist Mick Wall. This went for rearranging hotel rooms as well as whacking his drum kit.
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