Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham Channeled Some Rage for His Blistering ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Drum Part
Stories about Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham usually focus on two things: 1) his brilliant drumming and 2) his wildness on tour. While there’s plenty of material for both areas (see: his clash with The Damned), these tales can lose sight of Bonham’s perfectionism, his attention to craft.
The sessions for “Stairway to Heaven” yielded the perfect example of Bonham reaching for peak performance. In the beginning, Zep’s great anthem presented a rhythmic puzzle in the section before Jimmy Page takes his solo. Bonham had to work through that after learning the changes.
But even after Bonham had mastered his drum part and played it perfectly in the studio, his work wasn’t done. An Island Studio tape operator present for the recording of “Stairway” recalled Bonham channeling some anger to deliver the spectacular drum part you hear on Led Zeppelin IV.
Jimmy Page didn’t accept a perfect take Led Zeppelin did of ‘Stairway to Heaven’
Led Zeppelin fans never got a definitive “Zep in the studio” book because the band kept its production team light. Page produced the albums himself, and the group changed studios and engineers for nearly every LP. But you can piece together recording sessions from various accounts.
After working at Olympic for Led Zeppelin III, the group tackled the untitled fourth album at Island Studios in London. In Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band, Island tape operator Digby Smith recalled the day Zep’s power trio ran through the “Stairway” backing track.
Smith recalled Bonham, Page, and John Paul Jones running through takes without a guide vocal to lead the way. That got his attention right away. “It’s a complex piece of music, a medley of two or three tunes tied together,” Smith said. Yet the band delivered a flawless initial take.
“The first take [was] awesome, no mistakes from beginning to end,” Smith recalled. After hearing the playback in the control room, Bonham and Jones and Robert Plant all agreed it was a keeper. But Page didn’t get on board. “I think we’ve got a better take inside us,” Smith quoted Page saying.
A ‘seething’ John Bonham outdid himself on the following take
At first, Page hadn’t let on why he wasn’t accepting the take. Smith recalled Bonham being the one to press him on it. And after Page described it as “all right,” Smith said Bonham was “fuming.” He got his sticks, walked back into the studio and sat down at the kit.
“I can still see [Bonham] sitting at the kit, waiting to come in [with his drum part], seething,” Smith said in the Zep oral history. “When he finally comes in, he’s beating the crap out of his drums.” After that playback, everyone agreed they’d nailed it. And Bonham acknowledged Page had been right.
“Stairway” is no straight basher for Bonham, of course. While his bottled rage might have juiced the snare thuds and cymbal crashes, Bonham’s swing during the chill parts of the epic song were simply on another level (see: his cymbal work at 4:49). Once again, the drums pushed a Zeppelin masterpiece over the top.