Interview: Jason Bonham on honoring a legacy, the reunion gig that almost wasn’t, and if Led Zeppelin will ever play again
Almost since the day of the official disbandment of Led Zeppelin in 1980, following the sudden death of drummer John Bonham, fans have always fantasized about a reunion between the surviving members with Bonham’s son Jason taking his place behind the kit. After all, at just four years old, he could be seen in the concert film The Song Remains the Same competently twirling drumsticks behind a mini-drum set up.
Those dreams came true, albeit briefly, on two occasions: the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show and the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1995. Both were a bit disjointed and shambolic, and left virtually no one satisfied — in or out of the Zep orbit. Finally, in 2007, the Led Zeppelin did a proper, full-length set reunion at the O2 Arena in London. Jason was finally able to stretch out for an entire show to put on display before over 20,000 fans his dedication to the craft and his father’s memory. The gig later came out as both an audio and DVD package dubbed Celebration Day.
Following an aborted attempt at launching a new band with Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones with a different singer (Robert Plant wanted no part of it) Jason developed a show called “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience,” where he performs the band’s material over the course of about 30 dates a year. Tomorrow, the 2015 edition closes out at the House of Blues in Boston.
Vanyaland caught up with Jason to talk about the idea behind the performance, the O2 show, the toughest songs of his father’s to play …and whether there’s a chance we’ll ever see Led Zeppelin perform again.
Michael Christopher: There’s so many children of legends who spend their entire career avoiding the legacy of their parents or trying to escape their looming shadow. But you’ve done just the opposite, and you’ve really embraced your father’s music. What’s the difference between you and someone like, say, a Julian Lennon?
Jason Bonham: I think a lot of it for me was, obviously, I was very young when I lost my father. And then it was my relationship with the rest of the guys, with Robert and Jimmy and John Paul Jones. When I started to play, more as a professional, at 17, 18 years old, in reality, the first one to take me out on tour — even though I worked with Robert when I was still in school uniform — was Jimmy. In 1987 I started recording the Outrider album with him and then went out on the road with him in 1988, which led to the first Led Zeppelin reunion that I played on officially at the [Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary]. So I think a little bit of it is I’m embracing my father’s legacy, but when I was young and cocky and getting compared you can get a pissed off with it, and it takes to become a bit wiser and realize this is a blessing — not a curse. To be mentioned in the same sentence as my father when it comes to drumming is… I’m very flattered. The show I do is kind of my side work, I do about 30 shows a year when I’m not doing my regular work, and it’s just my way of saying how great I think he is — I never got to tell him while he was alive. I was a typical teenager and just wasn’t impressed [laughs].
Was there any hesitation, not just to go into music, but specifically to become a drummer?
I could play very early; I don’t remember actually being taught, so I just remember being able to play. When I was 10 years old I got my first dirt bike, and then dirt bikes became my obsession, and drumming became just the back-burner. I got to the point where I was number two in Great Britain and sponsored by Kawasaki, so that was a big thing for me, because nobody else in my family did it, and I didn’t have to live up to anybody in that aspect. And it’s a passion I haven’t lost. I’m still riding as much as I can and I always say, “I’m a lot faster than I was,” [laughs] — you know what I mean? The older I get, the faster I was.
But it was really dad’s death that kind of made… I think I was about 16 and I went to a race and I had every problem possible go wrong and it put me out of the championship contention. So I kind of just went, “Ok, I’m gonna focus on my drumming.” Within a couple of years I was working with Jimmy and traveling around America on a private plane.
Were you wary about the comparisons, especially when you were playing with Jimmy and doing the Outrider tour and doing Zeppelin songs?
At that point I wanted a comparison offstage as much as onstage, which I look back now, is very disrespectful. If I could get any kind of similarity, whether I’d be drunk and disorderly and boisterous, without knowing full details, I just thought that’s what the character was. I remember Jimmy saying, “I think you’re copying the wrong John. Your Dad, bless him, was this sweet kind of guy who didn’t really like to tour, he didn’t like being away from his family. He wasn’t getting wasted just because he wanted to go and get wasted.” You’re 20 years old, you’ve got the world at your feet and everyone is comparing you to John Bonham; you can get a bit cocky. But I wouldn’t have had it any other to make me the person I am now. I totally agree with [Robert, Jimmy and John’s] thinking at the time [regarding a Led Zeppelin reunion then], I believe if I’d have been put into that situation with that much money — I would have been dead. I would have never got to the point where I needed to get and get sober.
What was your mindset going into The Disregard of Timekeeping?
My mindset going into The Disregard of Timekeeping is once we got (producer) Bob Ezrin involved, it was, “This could be a serious project and it will be taken seriously.” At that period of time, I didn’t want to be labeled as just an ’80s artist. That’s why I chose a sort of out of the box producer. It was great, and Bob was very good – he molded that band. We walked in their the first day and he fired the singer. He could be brutal; if did a bad drum take and he knew because I was hungover, he’d press the talk back and say, “Just go home. Come back tomorrow when you can play.”
The show you’re doing know, you cover a lot of the Led Zeppelin catalog, but not just the hits, songs like “Hots on for Nowhere” and “In the Light.” What do you consider some of the more underrated Zeppelin songs?
If it was up to me, we’d be up there for three-and-a-half hours. I just feel that there was so many parts to the band and so many different eras; from the blues side to the acoustic side to the heavier side, the more constructed song side, songs like “The Rain Song.” But if you put “Rain Song,” “No Quarter,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Stairway” and “Kashmir” into a show, that’s almost an hour and 20 minutes. So for me, some of the deeper songs that I really, really adore like “Tea For One” – classic. Presence is such an underrated album, but it is amazing; “Achilles Last Stand,” “For Your Life” – there was a lot on there to offer. So was In Through the Out Door; we did “All of My Love” on the last tour and I was shocked, because I looked online and it was on the list as the “Most Hated Led Zeppelin Song of All-time,” it was amazing how [the audience] all sang it. I would say, from Physical Graffiti, “Night Flight.” I’d really like to put that in the show because it’s such a great song.
What’s the hardest song you’ve had to play?
I think the hardest song to play correctly, because you can play all of them, but playing correctly, “Rock and Roll.” Because it’s the subtlety that you have to kind of watch him play it — not just listen to it — it’s not just 1/4 notes, he’s actually playing 16’s on the snare. [Sings the beginning drum intro to the song] because it’s a Little Richard drum beat, which is where he always said he got it from. And “Fool in the Rain,” to make it swing; its dance-ability, his groove was one of his trademarks.
One of the things you’re known for is your vast knowledge of bootlegs and Zeppelin live performances and how songs were played differently at different times. How do you choose which way to play it live?
What I try to do now, [takes on a mock serious tone] having won a Grammy with my own performance with them [laughs], which is something my father didn’t do which as my mom says, “You got one thing he could never get, he never got a Grammy,” so if I was gonna have one thing… [laughs]. What I try to do is play in his mindset; so it’s his ability to go for it on each night. Nothing is predictable. You keep the fundamentals there, but some of the fills you can change around and I basically take from every year that I remember and put them all kind of into my performance. That makes it a fill as if he was playing today. The way I play “Kashmir” is the way I played it at the O2, so I think of how we played it there – and what I was thinking when I played that version was my dad at Knebworth [laughs]. I kind of use my favorites from different periods.
You’ve played with the guys, what, three times now publicly? What made the O2 so perfect?
What made the O2 so perfect was the preparation. Every other time we really just got together in an afternoon and gone over a couple songs and that was it. For the O2, we blocked out rehearsals for six weeks; Monday through Friday four hours a day. A lot of it was talking as well about how we wanted it to be. We did the first three songs so it was like clockwork, like a first turn crash in a car race. If we can get past the first turn scot-free, then the rest of the gig will be great. That was very important to all of us to be comfortable on those three songs — and it worked. It really did, and it shows in the show.
I think one of the things people forget is the show was actually postponed, because Jimmy had broken his finger. What was that period like for you?
That, for me, was when I was devastated. When you just said it, I can visualize where I was, the time in the car driving. I just set out from my house in the Midlands in England to go to London – so I was just on my way. I was about three miles from my house and I get the message that rehearsals are cancelled, Jimmy’s broken his finger – and that’s all I heard. So I’m thinking, “It’s not gonna happen. Everything that I thought was going to happen is not going to happen.” I was devastated. Then they said, “Just stay by the phone, we’re trying to rearrange this.” We took a two-week hiatus and went back in to see if we could play, and Jimmy said we would just keep it steady. But yeah, it was a dark time for me, I just thought, “It’s not meant to be. I’m not meant to do this.”
Were you surprised at the accolades you received following the show? Everyone was singling out your performance and how amazing it was.
You’re surprised, you’re grateful… I’m my own worst critic of myself, so there are things I would’ve changed, but as a whole, I was really pleased that I could play that day and have a good gig when it was really necessary. Everything I set out to do, from the tempos to little notations I had, I remember reading a review that said, “Tempos..” and he ticked every box, everything that I was trying to achieve. So I was grateful that people noticed what I was trying to do, and that really made me feel good. I can’t add anything to the greatest drummer in the world, but what I can do is represent him in the best possible way. It’s a tough one, cause you sat in the greatest drummer in the world’s seat, and it’s your Dad’s seat. There’s part of me that was going, “God, I wish he was here to see this.” And then the other part says, “But if he was, you wouldn’t be playing it,” [laughs]. Somebody said to me the other day, “If your Dad walked in the room now and you have to play him three songs from that performance to impress him, Which songs would you play him?” It would be “In My Time of Dying,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Kashmir.” Those three, I’d be happy to sit with him and say, “What you think Dad? Did I do alright?”
You also did backing vocals for that show as well…[Laughs] Yeah, I think that was a ploy to get me to lose my nerves – and that was it. That was a way to distract me from nerves and it actually worked. I think Robert was really smart, especially for the opening song “Good Times Bad Times,” he said, “You can sing really well Jason.” He knew I could sing in rehearsals and had me doing all the harmonies. Like singing “Misty Mountain Hop” live, the harmony is the main vocal, so yeah, I just didn’t have a chance to think about it on the night. I remember [Robert] stood in front of the teleprompter for “Misty Mountain Hop,” and that was there for me — not him! [laughs]
What was your family’s reaction to that show?
It was tearful. Emotional. Very emotional. I remember my Dad’s sister being very emotional about it all. My Mom was just overjoyed, because she knew how much it meant to me to be able to do that. She knew what it was like when I’d see them get back together and do Page and Plant and different things; if I wasn’t involved… there’s just something about being with them that makes me feel like I’m with my Dad. It was very special, I remember not wanting it to end. I really didn’t want it to end. It’s just a bond I can’t describe.
You say how you didn’t want it to end. How frustrating was it then that it didn’t continue after the O2?
I had a personal talk with Robert, and what we talked about was very special, and I totally respect his wishes. It was between us and I’m grateful that we had time to talk about that. Then I got a call from Jimmy’s manager at the time, and we were going to get together and do a side project. So basically me, Jimmy and John Paul Jones got together on a few occasions to see if we could do something. We started writing together, and there was a possibility of a couple of different singers — which has all been documented now. As Jimmy said, “We were never gonna call if Led Zeppelin.” We had a great time; I love Steven [Tyler] and I love Myles [Kennedy] — they were both great. It’s a very special memory in my life.
Speaking of special memories, just the other day I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors when you did “Stairway to Heaven” with Heart. You seemed extremely emotional in that performance. What can you tell me about that?
I was the total surprise for [Robert, Jimmy and John Paul] that day; they had no idea I was going to be there. I remember Dave Grohl comes into the dressing room and said, “They’re not supposed to know you’re here — right?” And I said, “No.” He says, “Well hide quick! John Paul Jones is just about to walk into the dressing room!” I remember, like, diving behind the couch like a Navy Seal as he comes walking in the room. And [Grohl] was like, “All clear.” But when they told me we were gonna do “Stairway,” I’m always a little dubious; it’s like the song you don’t touch. I watched it back when it aired, and you get the “Wow” effect of the choir and all of them wearing the bowler hats in honor of my dad.
In your heart of hearts, do you think you’ll ever play with the guys again?
In my heart of hearts… I do believe we will play together again. It remains to be seen if it will be in public or privately, but I do think we will play again.