Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ramble On

Restraint. Knowing when to lay out. Knowing what not to play. As Miles Davis famously advised John Coltrane, sometimes it’s best to just “take the horn out of your mouth.”

Which brings us to, incongruously, John Bonham.

Bonzo. Led Zeppelin’s monster drummer. The man who, more than any other, raised the bar on what it meant to be a rock and roll drummer. Of his peers and predecessors, only Keith Moon was as influential (although his stock has dropped precipitously since his death, while Bonham’s has, if anything, continued to rise) and only Ginger Baker as technically advanced.  Bonham’s technique, his style, his sheer overwhelming volume and speed and most of all power, were mindblowing at the time and, perhaps because of his remarkable influence continuing to this day, don’t sound dated.

From the first very, he amazed. Literally: the first track off their first album has Bonham doing things with the bass drum never before heard in rock and roll. Check out the bass drum triplets he starts playing about five seconds in here—since you’re probably listening on little computer speakers it might be a bit hard to pick up, but for drummers at the time, what he was doing with the bass drum was astonishing.

              "Good Times, Bad Times" outro

Later he, more than any other drummer, would go on to popularize that bane of 70s concert going experiences, the interminable drum solo. Sure, he was a star and a stud…but really? 30 minutes for a drum solo? That’s how long the entire Beatles concert at Shea Stadium was. Even the great Bonzo couldn’t make a solo of that length transcendent.

But when you have a drummer as powerful and inventive and plain musical as Bonham, you overlook such trivialities. (Also, you head for the beer stands.) I mean, you could go through any Led Zeppelin album and find who knows how many amazing Bonham moments. The way he takes songs like “Misty Mountain Hop” or “The Song Remains the Same” or “Trampled Under Foot” or “Kashmir” or “Achilles Last Stand” which are already moving forward like a crazed elephant and somehow manages to shove things up a few notches is just unsurpassed. But just check out these intros:

              "Rock and Roll" intro

              "The Crunge" intro

              "D'yer Mak'er" intro

              "When the Levee Breaks" intro

There's little there that's terribly difficult—but that's one of the points. Simplicity is often best and usually more difficult. And play any or all of those for any serious rock fan who grew up in the 70s or 80s and probably even later and they’ll be able to tell you the name of the song those come from, sing the riff that’s just about to kick in and likely even pinpoint where each song belongs on each album. How many other good drummers have that many signature moments in their careers? ‘cuz those four examples? Are just from two albums. Crazy.

Which brings us, in my meandering way, to “Ramble On.” Off their second album, the song’s notable for several things: it’s perhaps the earliest rock and roll song with Tolkien allusions—especially ironical, given that making Lord of the Ring references is shorthand for mocking geeky prog rock groups, while Led Zeppelin is generally the coolest of the cool when it comes to rock bands, and yet they’re by far the most prominent offenders. It’s good to be the king.

Then there’s lovely bass playing by Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon, John Paul Jones, contributing the most melodic, catchiest element of the music, as well as the odd percussive sound during the verses, Bonham tapping on something which has never been conclusively identified.

And finally we have the point of all this, which is Bonham’s playing. Check it:

                           "Ramble On" 

Notice how tasteful and tasty his playing is? That five note drum riff he plays each time his drums enter? The way he plays half a measure, then pulls his snare out for the next half measure, filling the space with a quartet of syncopated bass drum kicks, and then comes back in on the snare double time for a measure. And then he does the whole pattern again. Chorus over, he again lays out for the verses.

When it comes to the brief instrumental solo section he plays it straight, with a nice smattering of syncopated semi-ghosted notes on the snare before a tiny fill leads into him dropping out for the final verse. Another few runs through the chorus and we’re out.

See what he did there? Or rather what he didn’t do? Four and a half minutes and the world’s greatest rock and roll drummer, the spiritual (if not literal) inspiration for the muppet drummer Animal, the most notorious wildman in the most notorious rock and roll band of wildmen, doesn’t even really play a single drum fill. Instead he simply sticks (no pun intended) to his pre-composed drum part. That is, to quote Luke Skywalker, improbable. And yet there 'tis.

It’s this side of Bonham which often gets overlooked in the justly deserved praise for his power. It’s the fact that Bonham wasn’t just an insanely powerful drummer—although he most certainly was that. But he was also a monster musician sharing an unlikely philosophy with the likes of Steve Cropper, Paul McCartney and Miles Davis: just because you can play something, it doesn’t mean you should.

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