By Steve Newton
Twenty-five years ago tomorrow–on December 22, 1989–Bonham played the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, opening for the Cult. The group was named after 23-year-old drummer Jason Bonham, the son of legendary Zeppelin skin-basher John.
In advance of the concert, Bonham called me from Toronto to chat about his current album, The Disregard of Timekeeping, and his dear old dad.
Here’s the story that ran in the Dec. 22-29 issue of the Georgia Straight newspaper under the headline Bonham Has Four Hearts Beating.
In September of 1980, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died of a heart attack attributed to massive quantities of alcohol. A year before that tragedy–which stopped the much-loved band in its tracks–Led Zeppelin performed a major outdoor concert at Knebworth, England, and Bonham’s 13-year-old son Jason was given the privilege of jamming with Messrs Plant, Page, and Jones during the band’s soundcheck.
“Nobody knew it was me!,” chuckled the young Bonham, on the line from Toronto last week. “Jimmy just turns around and goes, ‘Oh, where’s John?” And Dad was watching from the front.”
Last year Jason had the opportunity to relive that experience when he filled in for his father at a Zeppelin reunion of sorts that highlighted Atlantic Records 40th anniversary celebration at Madison Square Garden. The drumming chops that Bonham Sr. had been teaching Jason since he was four years old–when he bought the youngster an exact replica of his own kit–came in mighty handy, as they did when Jason Bonham played with his dad’s former pal Page on the latter’s Outrider album and tour. Nowadays, the 23-year-old rocker is touring with his own band, simply called Bonham, which brings him to the Pacific Coliseum this Friday (December 22) as opening act for the Cult.
The album that Bonham and his bandmates will be drawing tunes from, The Disregard of Timekeeping, is currently well-embedded in the Billboard top 40, and has sold a half-million copies since its release last September.
Bonham says that the title of the band’s debut album came from a couple of different things. “One is the way my father taught me how to play drums, and the way he played, which was to disregard the timekeeping–throwing the rhythms around and putting a few surprises in there that shouldn’t necessarily be there, but that somehow work. And the other one is that I just got sick of hearing drum machine after drum machine on English radio with all the Stock, Aitken, Waterman blasting out–it’s like everyone forgets about the real heart of music. There’s four hearts beatin’ in this band, and we just try to create it live.”
Joining Jason in the Bonham lineup are vocalist Daniel MacMaster, bassist/keyboardist John Smithson, and guitarist Ian Hattan (who previously toured with Robert Plant in the Honeydrippers). MacMaster, the youngest member at 21, is from Barrie, Ontario, and connected with Bonham through Bad Company vocalist Brian Howe, who heard MacMaster’s demo tape while doing a radio interview in Toronto.
Although there are strong shades of Robert Plant’s vocal style in some of MacMaster’s performances on Timekeeping–particularly the first single, “Wait for You”–Bonham says he wasn’t looking for a singer who could recreate the former Zepman’s pipes.
“The first time we heard him he sounded nothing like Robert. His voice is so versatile from bein’ in bar bands, doing a lot of different covers all the time. So I think he’s stil just finding his own voice, and that the next record’ll definitely be more him. Robert Plant was one of his main influences, though.”
When the band’s lineup was solidified and it came time to find a producer, Bonham considered such well-known names as Eddie Offord and Bob Clearmountain before deciding on legendary record-maker Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd). The Ezrin connection also brought Yes guitarist and jack-of-all-trades Trevor Rabin onto the scene, to lay down the bass guitar on three of the album’s 11 tracks, which allowed Smithson to concentrate on keyboards a bit more. Rabin also arranged and performed the album’s backing vocals.
As far as today’s drummers go, Bonham picks people like Jeff Porcaro, Omar Hakim, and Mel Gaynor as his current faves. And when it comes to skin-bashers from the past, of course he’s very proud of the work his father did with Led Zeppelin. As a tribute to Bonham Sr.’s drumming prowess–but mainly to help publicize the dangers of drug/alcohol abuse–Jason teamed up with fellow percussionists Mickey Currey, Jim Vallance, and Tico Torres on a version of the Zeppelin drum opus, “Moby Dick”. The track was recorded live in Moscow at the anti-drug Make a Difference concert, and is featured on the just-released Stairway to Heaven/Highway to Hell album.
Apart from the great drum sets his dad would give him–and the even better lessons–Jason Bonham says that his childhood as the son of one of rock’s greatest drummers was really quite a normal one, impromptu soundchecks notwithstanding.
“He was just dad to me,” says Bonham. “I never really looked at him as Mr. Supergroup, John Bonham. And I never even realized, until later in life, when I started coming over here [to North America] just how big Led Zeppelin really was.”