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John Bonham’s legendary drum solos with Led Zeppelin practically had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. His Bonzo nickname was a childhood relic he earned before he found fame, but it perfectly described his playing style. Long before he found international fame, Bonham elaborately tricked audiences at his earliest gigs.

John Bonham performs with Led Zeppelin circa 1970. Some of the drummers first gigs involved Bonham and another drummer tricking the audience.
John Bonham | Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

John Bonham once said Led Zeppelin’s popularity was all because of the music

It doesn’t take much effort to see why Led Zeppelin remains so popular. Songs that are at once heavy yet melodic. Four members who excelled at what they did. Albums crafted to be experiences unto themselves.

Zep debuted at a time when pop music was as much (or more) about the image as the music. Bonham once explained that Led Zeppelin’s popularity stemmed from the band putting the focus on the music. Their concerts were events, and Bonham routinely took center stage with his drum solos.

Long before he played in front of thousands of fans, the drummer proved he had a knack for spectacle. Bonham’s earliest gigs involved tricking the audience to make the overall experience more memorable.

How Bonham tricked audiences at his earliest gigs

Bonham always showed an interest in drumming. Jazz was some of the first music he listened to, but Bonham was later mesmerized by an early rock ‘n’ roll drum-centric song that inspired some of his Zeppelin playing. 

Bonham pounded the pavement to meet and play with other drummers when he decided to make music his profession. He got lucky one night. Bonham was present when drummer Bill Harvey fought with his bandmates and sat out a gig in protest. Bonham filled in but brought Harvey in to share a solo. The pair performed a shared solo multiple times. They put in the work to make it a spectacle for the crowds.

As C.M. Kushins writes in Beast, Bonham tricked the audience at some of his earliest gigs, and they ate it up. He sat in for drummer Harvey at one gig and shared a solo with him. Soon, the drummers decided to toy with the crowds when they shared solos at subsequent shows:

“John would pull me up out of the audience, or the other way around, and we’d do this great drum routine together. Everybody used to say, ‘How did they do that?’ They didn’t realize we had rehearsed it for hours. And it seemed like we were rivals, playing against each other. The audience never realized we were the best of mates.”

Bill Harvey reveals how John Bonham tricked audiences at his earliest gigs

Bonzo had a plant (not Robert) or was the plant in the crowd when he and Harvey shared what seemed to be impromptu solos. The way Harvey tells it, he and Bonham tricked audiences every time.

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Bonham tricking audiences along with Harvey happened around the time he sought out Garry Allcock. Allcock became a mentor, but the big-band and jazz-inspired older drummer once said he never thought Bonham was very good on the kit. He might have been hard of hearing, or he might not have been ready for Bonham’s groundbreaking mix of styles.

Allcock might not have understood Bonham’s skill, but Led Zeppelin did. 

Bonzo’s stick work was equally important to the band as Jimmy Page’s guitar, Robert Plant’s voice, and John Paul Jones’ bass. His chemistry was just as crucial. Page once said the reason Led Zeppelin couldn’t replace Bonham was because of his report with the other members. The band broke up soon after his 1980 death instead of soldiering on with a new drummer. 

Fans got one final drum solo on the farewell album Coda, proving once more that whether John Bonham was tricking audiences or wowing them (or both), he always gave them something to remember.

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