Watch John Bonham’s Blistering 13-Minute Drum Solo on “Moby Dick,” One of His Finest Moments Live Onstage (1970)

Some­times I play air drums, when at home before a roar­ing pair of speak­ers. No one would know it, but I’m not half bad. Except when it comes to jazz. Then it’s too ridicu­lous even for soli­tary goof­ing off. But I’m just com­pe­tent enough to fake most basic rock beats… most… that is, but those of the most loud­ly sung drum­mers in clas­sic rock: Kei­th Moon and John Bon­ham.

In cat­e­gories all their own, it’s no sur­prise both drum­mers loved jazz, espe­cial­ly the hyper­ki­net­ic Gene Kru­pa. (Trag­i­cal­ly, they also shared an inter­est in fatal overindul­gence.) They took some com­mon influ­ences, how­ev­er, in very dif­fer­ent direc­tions.

For one thing, Moon hat­ed drum solos, that sta­ple of the jazz drummer’s kit. The one excep­tion to his rule may be Moon’s last appear­ance onstage in 1977, play­ing per­cus­sion in a cameo on Bonham’s solo on “Moby Dick,” one of the Led Zep­pelin drummer’s finest moments. “Bon­ham was known to solo on this song for up to 30 min­utes live!” writes Drum! mag­a­zine. It’s even said he “some­times drew blood per­form­ing ‘Moby Dick’ from using his bare hands to beat his snare and tom toms.”

The live ver­sion above, clock­ing in at a mere 15 min­utes, comes from a 1970 show at Roy­al Albert Hall. Robert Plant intro­duces the drum­mer with his full name, John Hen­ry Bon­ham, before he even names the song. Then, after a minute of Page, Bon­ham, and Jones play­ing the open­ing riff togeth­er, the solo begins.

Bon­ham leads us in slow­ly at first, then, with jaw-drop­ping skill, puts on dis­play what made him “a very spe­cial drum­mer” indeed, as the site Clas­sic Rock writes: “doing things with a bass ped­al that it took two of James Brown’s drum­mers to try and emulate—and they knew a bit about rhythm.”

His “pio­neer­ing use of bass drum triplets” is only a small part of his “impor­tant dis­cov­ery that all drum­ming is just triplets, or should be,” declares Michael Fowler’s rev­er­ent­ly tongue-in-cheek McSweeney’s trib­ute. “The next step, he saw, was in speed­ing up the beat with­out los­ing the basic triplet pat­tern… fly­ing around the kit with blind­ing speed, hit­ting every drum and cym­bal in those neg­li­gi­ble spaces.”

Bonham’s ridicu­lous­ly fast and com­plex patterns—whether deployed in half-hour solos or five-sec­ond drum fills (as above in “Achilles Last Stand” from 1979)—“shouldn’t be human­ly pos­si­ble,” Dave Grohl once said. But they were pos­si­ble for the great John Bon­ham, born on May 31st, 1948.

“Let’s face it,” writes Fowler, “no one else does or ever will” sound like Led Zeppelin’s drum­mer. Cel­e­brate his just-belat­ed birth­day by revis­it­ing more of his great­est live moments at Drum! and, just below, hear Robert Plant sing “Hap­py Birth­day” to his cel­e­brat­ed band­mate in 1973.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Makes John Bon­ham Such a Good Drum­mer? A New Video Essay Breaks Down His Inim­itable Style

John Bonham’s Iso­lat­ed Drum Track For Led Zeppelin’s ‘Fool in the Rain’

Kei­th Moon Plays Drums Onstage with Led Zep­pelin in What Would Be His Last Live Per­for­mance (1977)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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