Moon vs. Bonham
Well, we're going right to the top of the specialty debate department here. This is like Brady vs Manning or Lincoln vs. Washington. If anyone has a preference one way or the other, this is one of those "there is no wrong answer" topics. But i am a drummer, and John Bonham and Keith Moon are drummers, so i'm gonna throw my expertise around here ("'scuse me while i whip this out").
When it comes to the IDEA of great rock drummers holding together great thunderous majestic rock bands, these are the two guys and the two bands. Ginger Baker might have something to say about this, but fuck him. I could elaborate on that, and its a matter of public record that his extended drum solo "Toad" was a huge influence on Bonham and "Moby Dick", but honestly, while Baker was a great drummer, his drumming doesnt have the style, personality, and runaway giddiness of either Moon (runaway giddiness being apparently Moons raison d'etre in life when he wasnt battling booze, existential loneliness, or a personality disorder) or Bonham (when he wasnt battling booze, missing his wife, frightening men or sexually terrorizing women who crossed him while he was drunk and missing his wife, or when he was drumming in a non-runaway giddy style. Note I am mentioning he has a wider palate than Moon. I am foreshadowing here.)
Of all the bands that fall under the classic rock umbrella, The Who were the band that stylistically most resembled the bombast of great classical music. I dont mean Yes or ELP style baroque noodlings, I mean Wagnerian Tchaikovsky-like bombast. Pete Townshend loved himself some anthemic heraldry. Moon was made for this. Sixteenth note rolls all over the set. Bashing on the one. Bashing on the the upbeat, then bashing on the one again. Townshend's big windmill. In later years, accompanied by lighting cues and the occasional explosion. Cathartic shit. You know, I Can See for Miles We're Not Gonna Take It, Baba O'Reilly, Wont Get Fooled Again, The Song Is Over, Sister Disco, Long Live Rock, Join Together, all those big stadium warhorses. Tchaikovsky used cannons for the 1812 Overture, AC/DC used them for For Those About to Rock, We Salute You. Townsend just needed Keith Moon and some sort of bungee material where his own rotator cuff should have been. Forget going deaf, how is Pete Townshend's right arm still attached to his body? But i digress.
Did i mention that for a front man hearthrob with perfect pectorals set off by pepperoni slice nipples, that Roger Daltrey looks very dorky running in place during long solos, because he has duck feet? But i digress. Speaking of dislocating your shoulder, this is my favorite Who clip ever, Young Man's Blues from the Isle of Wight 1970. If you watch in slo-mo (which is hard to do on youtube; I recommend getting the dvd) the one point where Townshend is windmilling harder than anyone i've ever seen (at 4:45 of this clip, but the whole song is great), his shoulder really does appear to dislocate and reattach with each windmill. Its fucking unbelievable.
The other side of the Who bombast is of course punk, rage, rebellion, agression, and HUMOR (Happy Jack, anyone?), all of which are evident in this clip, and which was the secret weapon that Moon and Townshend shared, and part of why they were so watchable. Daltrey does not do his duck feet thing here, so its pretty much a win all around. Plus Entwistle is dressed as a skeleton.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJCXpFy0E5s Heres The Who's inner circle themselves talking about Moon. Boys? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKVcsznBG_IRoger touches on what is probably Moons most memorably unique trait, which is the unexpected things he does behind the structure of the song. He plays fills over the vocals, he plays straight when you think he will fill, he places his cymbal hits in the most unlikely places, building unpredictable patterns of bashiness that take already great songs to whole other levels. Going Mobile and the aforementioned Baba O'Reilly and Won't Get Fooled Again being great examples (can you tell I love Who's Next?). His parts are majestic and/or humorous songs within the songs, fascinating creative expressions of his personality. His solo leading out of electronic break late in Won't Get Footed Again that climaxes in Daltrey's scream may be the greatest drum solo in rock history, not because it's hard to play, but because its so dynamic and dramatic as a compositional link within the song. Many drummers with better chops that have toured with The Who since his death have taken their turns at that solo, but no one has ever topped his version on the record, because of his genius choice of what to play and when.
But the most "out there" example I can think of is his drum accompaniment during the long build-up 3/4 of the way through Bargain. It's the most counterintuitive goddamn drum part I've ever heard in a great song. From 4:15 to about 5:15 of this song, you have an acoustic guitar and synth chords building slowly, but its just a bare bones structure and gradual build as more instruments are added, except their drummer is going insane with triplet tom and bass drum rolls, and IT NEVER STOPS, for the whole build, punctuated by these perfect cymbal hits. It makes no sense. There are plenty of opportunities for Moon to play along with the accentuated instrumental parts, but he almosts entirely ignores them. It's like Bobby Brady with talent playing ALONG with a Who song, spazzing out like an idiot, except that that IS the drum part, and it works perfectly.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyv_65o1HDY
Ahh, but in his triumph there are all the qualities that show how narrow (though brilliant, brilliant!) his palate is. Moon almost never used his high hat, because he loved to bash. As Townshend said in the previous clip, all his fills were basically the sound of a drunken englishmen loveably falling down the stairs again and again.
Moon was self taught, and his technique, while it worked for what he was trying to do, was very sloppy and greatly limited his actual drumming range. Don't believe me? Watch this short clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hngmb0pTcMY Obviously not his finest moment, but it's very telling. Moon almost never soloed, because he just didnt have very good chops. The truth is i knew 4 guys from high school who could play better than that. Moon was fast, and moon was insanely creative within the Who milleu, but he was....a one trick pony. He was the greatest one trick pony drummer of all time, and all his other qualities elevate him to top 5 rock drummer ever status, and for many people top 2 or number one. Like I said, as a matter of preference, taking Moon as your favorite is a choice beyond reproach. But as a drummer, as a master of his craft, well, he wasn't a master of his craft. He created the whole concept of crazy fun rock drummer, when Ringo and Charlie were just keeping time, when Dennis Wilson was bipping along with the Beach Boys and the Dave Clark Five, Hermans Hermits, all these cute little drummers (think the b&w clip of Ed Begley jr. on drums in This is Spinal Tap), BEFORE Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell and Bonham himself came along. This increases his legacy even more, since he created the template out of nowhere, but his actual range and limitations were completely intertwined with his Keith Moon personality and persona, for better or worse. Almost entirely for the better, sez I and millions of others, but I gotta call a spade a spade here.
And then there's John Bonham. Before I expound on his mightiness, compare this short clip to the Moon short clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_oxPrz2nH8 Never mind that Robert Plant credits Jimmy Page at the end of that clip - it was the end of a 26 minute song which was Jimmy Page's concert centerpiece. Some people say the clip was slightly sped up. It's possible, but Bonham could play that fast, there's plenty of evidence of his speed elsewhere. Bonham was NOT the fastest drummer ever, not even close, but he could play things that Moon simply couldn't, which is my jumping off point into the Bonham section of this piece.
The difference between Bonham and Moon is that Keith Moon was born to be Keith Moon and John Bonham was born to play drums. There are very very few clips of John Bonham speaking on camera, and when he does, he may as well be a british roadie or generally anonymous working class mate with a twinkle in his eye - the exact opposite of Moon's outlandish personality. See this short clip here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8a8-RE_JYI But Bonham had the biggest, fattest, groovingest, swingingest, bluesiest, most organic, most reliable drum sound in rock history. He used the biggest sticks available. He tuned his drums for the biggest sound, actually lining his enormous bass drum with aluminum foil to make the sound bigger (Moon had a wonderfully huge sound too, but Bonhams...jesus). The way he kept time on the high hat was so fucking fat. His right foot triplets were so fucking fat. His snare drum and tom sounds were so fat. Fucking christ. And it seemed to just come easy to him, seem to spring to a great extent to the physics of his body - long arms, large hands, miraculously supple yet powerful wrists, the way he cocked his elbows at his sides so that every beat he ever hit - tens of thousands of downstrokes of his arms and legs over 13 years with Led Zeppelin, was just right, just hit you in that region encompassing your torso from your heart to your balls.
Here's one example, his isolated drum part from Fool in the Rain:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14GYov0EdyQNow, it's not that Moon wouldn't do that beat, it's that Moon couldn't do that beat. Moon did not always keep steady time. Moon made mistakes all over the place. Moon attacked the drums but never came anywhere near mastering them. What's more, NO ONE ELSE could play that beat THE WAY Bonham played it. They could get the notes, and many could even get the swinging feel, but no one else has ever had the dynamics of Bonham, the organic sense of it being so loose, yet JUST RIGHT, that makes the body wiggle and the heart race a little faster. Bonham got exactly what he wanted from the drums, because the drums themselves seemed to cower before his will and his groove and his attack. There are quotes from other musicians about seeing Bonham sitting down behind a toy childs drumset, and somehow generating that unique Bonham sound.
There is something ancient and elemental in John Bonham's sense of drums, something caveman like, something huge and mountainous and mysterious, something that is of the earth and life itself. It cannot be duplicated, has not been duplicated by any other drummer, not even the great ones, anywhere, ever. The best example I know of this phenomenon is the live Knebworth perfomance of Kashmir. This is a long epic song, yet so simple. Its the ultimate testament to the Bonham magic, a simple mid tempo beat, yet it's so hypnotic, so grooving...it seems to rise up from deep below the earth. I'm sorry to keep using the earth metaphor, but it really is alway what i think of when i hear Bonham. If the earth itself played drums, it would John Bonham.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW_WLxseq0o
I started playing drums when I was 11, after hearing Tom Sawyer by Rush at a friends house. Five years later I got into Led Zeppelin and Bonham, and my awe, my raw animal reaction to the band and his drumming, has not changed to this day, and it never will. I remember as a teenager listening to Bonham just wailing on some fill or cymbal hit and literally feeling that I could run through my bedroom wall. The only drummer I have ever seen that compares to Bonham is Danny Carey of Tool. Carey has that same machine-like yet organic flow as Bonham; Carey is a big strong man like Bonham, bigger in fact; Carey actually has more intellectualy high level challenging drum parts than Bonham or just about anyone else, but Tool as a band lacks the fun of a Led Zeppelin or The Who, and lacks the groove and swing that Bonham had more than any other drummer ever has. Bonham played the blues, played rock and rockabilly, shuffle, some jazz stylings, down home traditional folk feel, various percussions and hand percussions, congas, mallets, tympani, gongs, and always just right, always with that great feel. Bonham just makes you feel good. There is a quote from Robert Plant in an interview when asked something to the effect of "what is Led Zeppelin all about?" His response is basically "Forget everything and have a good time." Like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QM5NkLnVzVY
One of the things that is so key to the above clip is that Bonham is grooving SO HARD that the rest of the band (the other 3 virtuosos) have the absolutely most solid, most swinging ground on which to get their rocks off. Bonham was the ultimate safety net. Again, this quality of his playing leaves Moon, and everyone else, far behind. And at the end Bonham goes buck wild to put the cherry on top of the song and 200,000 people go berzerk, because they feel so alive, so communal, and so in the moment. I am finding it hard to resist the temptation to link clip after clip of Bonham's magic to this essay, so I'll just do one more. The final piece of Bonham's genius is the way he is integrated with Page, Plant, and Jones, into the ultimate improvisational telepathic, chances taking, go out on a limb and saw it off behind, yet somehow never crash and burn, band.
I think Led Zeppelin is the ultimate live band. The Who were a great great great live band, but they were nowhere's near as cohesive as Led Zeppelin, took nowhere near the 4 way journeys that Led Zeppelin did night after night, and that is partially because of the limitations of Keith Moon. Anyone who has seen The Who in recent years with Zak Starkey (who can "do" Keith Moon, but be more reliable) knows what i mean. There have been other great "Jam Bands" (The Grateful Dead, Phish), and other great heavy bands (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Tool) and other great boogie down rock bands (The Stones), but no group ever combined all these elements to just absolutely blow the roof (or the sky) off wherever they played by combining energy, fun, groove, virtuosity, and whatever mysterious quality they had that vibrates the very atoms in the air and the blood pumping through your body like Led Zeppelin. Watch how the boys go on a journey in the clip below. This is not the first song you may think of when you think of Led Zeppelin, but trust me, you should watch this whole clip. They play the fucking dog dick out of this song.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yO_EgW1zxWQ
When Bonham died from drink, much as Moon more or less had, the other fellas packed it in for most of the next 3 decades, because no one, NO ONE, could give them that backbone that allowed them to BE Led Zeppelin like John Henry Bonham. The King is dead. Long live the King.