As rock’s master miners of heavy metal, Led Zeppelin thrived on testing the pain threshold of their fans with ear-numbing classics like Whole Lotta Love, Stairway to Heaven and Dazed and Confused. Offstage, the four wealthy Englishmen were tested as unsparingly as they tried to handle crises both within—and beyond—their control. Singer Robert Plant was seriously injured in a 1975 car crash; Plant’s son, Karac, 5, died of a virus in 1977. Then last week Led Zep added the name of one of its original members to rock’s grim necrology: Drummer John Bonham, 32, was found dead in bed at the $2 million estate owned by the band’s founder, guitarist Jimmy Page.
The death clouded the future of perhaps rock’s greatest touring act—Zep was scheduled to begin its first U.S. visit since 1977 next week—and left the usual rumors in its aftermath. Bonham had rehearsed with the band well into the night of his death and, according to reports, “A large amount of alcohol had been consumed.” Bonham, not known as a hard-drug user, reportedly choked on vomit in his sleep, though the exact cause of death awaited the results of a full inquest.
The band’s surviving members—Plant, 32, Page, 36, and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones, 34—remained characteristically silent after the tragedy. Security men with guard dogs patrolled their homes, while London papers buzzed with lurid accounts of Page’s reported interest in black magic and the occult.
Inevitably, comparisons were made with the death in 1978 of The Who’s mercurial drummer Keith Moon. Like Moon, “Bonzo”—as Bonham was called—was known for boozing and brawling on tour. He was once convicted of assaulting promoter Bill Graham backstage in Oakland, and another time drove a Harley-Davidson through the lobby of L.A.’s Hyatt House. But, unlike Moon, Bonham was a sophisticated musician whose virtuoso drum solos—he claimed a concert record of 37 nonstop minutes—were unmatched in complexity and stamina. Recently Bonham had been rusticating on 100 acres in Cutnall Green, in Worcestershire, with his wife, Pat, son Jason, 14, and daughter Zoe, 5. Speaking as much for Bonzo’s impact on the rock world as on his own, one village neighbor reflected: “John did a lot of good in this area. Life here will be very quiet without him.”