Because I’m a lifelong Keith Moon guy, I don’t think that John Bonham was the greatest drummer in rock ‘n’ roll history, but I don’t think he wasn’t, either.
And in the ten years or so that he was Led Zeppelin’s drummer, I don’t think that he ever topped his performance on “In My Time of Dying,” the ancient blues (and secret Bob Dylan cover) that ended the first side of Physical Graffiti.
At just over 11:00, it’s the longest studio track on any Led Zeppelin album, and in nearly every one of those 11 minutes, John Bonham is doing something utterly amazing. So here’s a minute-by-minute breakdown highlighting some of ridiculous things he’s doing.
At first “In My Time of Dying” is just Jimmy Page lazing around with his slide guitar, so it’s Bonham who first brings the song into any kind of focus by smashing his snare and his hi-hat as if to say “let’s get going here!” Page responds with a classic blues riff, and Bonham is all over his snare drum for that point stuttering around the riff until Page waves him off and slows it back down.
This is mostly Robert Plant establishing the mood — SPOILER ALERT: He’s dying — and musically, almost a carbon copy of the first minute: Bonham accents the “Well, well, well, so I can die easy” part, and then stumbles back in towards the end of the minute.
This is probably the most Bonzo-lite minute of the whole song. Since they’ve already established that he’s going to be part of the song, they shut him down after the first few seconds and he stays out of it for the rest of the third minute while Robert Plant wishes for wings that work.
Things start picking up, as Jimmy Page picks up that blues riff once again, Bonzo follows, and suddenly they kick into full gear Page giddying up with the guitar and Bonzo playing off of him with his snare, first echoing what Page is doing his guitar, and then answering it.
The call-and-response between Page and Bonham continues throughout this minute while Plant begs Gabriel to blow his horn and John Paul Jones works his way in into the mix.
Page’s first guitar solo starts here, and Bonham response by going into a funky shuffle beat, laying off of the snare until they all swoop back into the riff and the call-and-response once again.
They’re getting looser and looser here. Bonham’s drum rolls are getting longer and less controlled, especially as Page starts his second guitar solo and he starts working around Jones’ basslines like water circling a drain.
Just when you think they’re going to get so loose they fall apart, Bonham, Jones and Page end the second instrumental break with a tremendous all-hands-on-deck rat-a-tat stop-time part that breaks the song down enough for Bonham to play his first relatively straight beat for the first time, allowing him the chance to thunder around his kit after each line Plant sings.
Back to the slide guitar riff & shuffling drums for a few seconds, until they stop the song so Plant can beg, plead and cajole to either “my Jesus” or “my cheesy” over and over and over until they kick back into the slow straight ahead beat, where Bonham is doing slow rolls fast rolls double-up rolls whatever comes to mind as Plant continues to search for his cheesy.
Just about my favorite John Bonham moment on record is just after Plant asks his cheesy to “take me home.” Bonham has already started the roll early, double quadruple quintuple sextuple triplets on his tattered snare, and lurches forward while the rest of the band stops for a second wondering how the hell he’s going to get out of this one because he’s already going out of time until somehow he pulls up with a crash, and they all stagger into the bluesy riff one last time. Only this time, Bonham is all over his hi-hat, almost slurring the song and emphasizing a completely different part of the riff he had emphasized earlier.
Plant just now speaking in tongues at this point screaming “Oh cho cheena, Oh, cho cheena!” over and over again, Jimmy Page is doubling his slide blues guitar over itself, and Bonzo stops slurring the beat and starts running it over with a truck, hitting every single one of his toms and cymbals all at once until Page signals for them all to stop so Plant can issue his dying cough.
“That’s gonna be the one, it has to be!”
“In My Time of Dying”
“In My Time of Dying” performed live at Earl’s Court, 1975
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