It still stands as one of the most shocking--and saddest--moments in rock history. The band Led Zeppelin had convened in Windsor, England, to begin rehearsals for an upcoming North American tour. The announcement of the "Led Zeppelin - The 1980s Part One" tour had been cause for much joy and celebration among the band's fans. Zeppelin hadn't toured North America since the ill-fated 1977 run, which was abruptly cancelled upon the death of singer Robert Plant's 5-year-old son, Karac.
While the overall spirit of the band was positive as they prepared for the tour, drummer john Bonham expressed concern about his abilities. According to band biographer, Chris Welch, the drummer was concealing some deep-rooted issues.
“On the very last day of his life, as we drove to the rehearsal, he was not quite as happy as he could be," Plant remembered in Welch's book John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums. "He said, 'I’ve had it with playing drums. Everybody plays better than me.' We were driving in the car and he pulled off the sun visor and threw it out the window as he was talking. He said, 'I’ll tell you what, when we get to the rehearsal, you play the drums and I’ll sing.' And that was our last rehearsal.”
After that first day of rehearsing, Bonham went on an epic 12-hour vodka binge, reportedly taking down a full 40 measures--almost a liter and a half--of the alcohol. After he passed out, his assistant rolled him into bed.
The following morning on September 25, 1980, bassist John Paul Jones and tour manager Benji LeFevre found Bonham unresponsive in his bed. He was gone. Bonham had choked to death on his own vomit while sleeping.
“Benje and I found him. It was like, “Let’s go up and look at Bonzo, see how he is.” We tried to wake him up… It was terrible," Jones is quoted as saying in John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums. "Then I had to tell the other two… I had to break the news to Jimmy and Robert. It made me feel very angry – at the waste of him… I can’t say he was in good shape, because he wasn’t. There were some good moments during the last rehearsals … but then he started on the vodka. I think he had been drinking because there were some problems in his personal life. But he died because of an accident. He was lying down the wrong way, which could have happened to anybody who drank a lot.”
The joy across North America at the news Led Zeppelin was returning was short-lived. Swan Song Records has sent out the press release regarding the tour on September 11, 1980. John Bonham died on September 25, 1980.
John Bonham’s family funeral service took place on October 10, 1980 at Rushock Parish Church in Worcestershire, England. Around 250 mourners attended, including family, friends, his band mates and other prominent artists. Among those who came to pay their respects: Roy Wood, Denny Laine, and both Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne of ELO. Paul McCartney left a wreath. After the family service, the funeral procession made its way to Worcester Crematorium, where the final service was held.
“The funeral was the most traumatic I had ever been to, because he was so young and had so much in front of him," Bev Bevan remembered. "His family were utterly distraught. Who knows what more he would have done as a drummer?”
As questions swirled about the tour, with persistent rumors that Led Zeppelin would replace Bonham to hit the road, similar to how The Who picked up after the passing of drummer Keith Moon.
Instead, an Atlantic Records press release issued on December 4, 1980, made it official:
"We wish it to be known, that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.
- LED ZEPPELIN"