Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Book Review: John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums by Chris Welch and Geoff Nichols (Led Zeppelin drummer biography and analysis)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Ask any aspiring drummer for his influences, and odds are the name John Bonham will appear on his/her top five list. Voted the second most influential drummer ever by Rhythm readers (only Buddy Rich was higher), John "Bonzo" Bonham's effect on modern drumming (especially hard rock and heavy metal) cannot be overestimated. Not bad for a working class bloke from Redditch in a band that was only recording for a decade.

Unfortunately, John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums is only partially successful in capturing that in print. The book is divided into two portions: rock journalist Chris Welch covers the biographical portion while drummer/writer Geoff Nichols analyzes Bonham's style.

Welch is thorough, I'll give him that. He combines research with personal experience to give a full readout of the important events (musically speaking, primarily) in Bonham's life. However, he utilizes such pedestrian prose that his portion is only interesting from an informational standpoint. I can't see myself reading his chapters over again.

Nichols, on the other hand, writes with such passion for the instruments and with such a true appreciation for Bonham's oeuvre that his two chapters of analysis are a joy to read. John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums will be going on my music reference shelf on the basis of his input alone; specifically his coverage of each album individually and his picking out of representative songs on which to focus.

As a fan of Led Zeppelin, I appreciate Welch's depth of research and I feel I learned a lot about Bonham's place in the band's legacy. However, Geoff Nichols' analysis taught me more in the way of Bonham's place in the creation of the band's sound. As a drummer, I find that infinitely more valuable.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Black Ice by AC/DC

There are few things in this crazy world that you can really depend on, but the sound of an AC/DC song is one of them. Since their beginnings in the early 1970s, their sound has changed very little — even through a change of frontmen that, in retrospect, was more drastic than it seemed at the time — except that more modern producers have removed the tinny sound of their early records and replaced it with a deeper one that truly does their music justice.

Now, I'm not saying that AC/DC are the best band ever, but they're certainly one of the most consistent, and Black Ice is just one more example of this. Of the fifteen songs on this, their first studio album since 2000's Stiff Upper Lip (and the first to feature lyrics by vocalist Brian Johnson since 1988's Blow Up Your Video), only a couple are not up to the level of their brethren. The rest of the album is a solid lineup of concert anthems, the kind of rock n roll at which the boys from Australia have always excelled.

Johnson's comment that "we found out what we were good at, and that was rock n roll" may have been what inspired the group this time around, given that there are three songs on Black Ice with "Rock n Roll" in the title (and one called "Rocking All the Way"), including the first single, "Rock n Roll Train," whose chorus actually says "Runaway Train." (But God forbid someone confuse them with Soul Asylum!)

The lyrics have never been the high point on any AC/DC album (except, as stated above, when it comes to their consistency). This time, if anything, they are a bit tamer than usual, with what seems to be much less innuendo (possibly something to do with the album being primarily available through Wal-Mart in the U.S.). But arena-rock songs aren't about intelligent words, anyway, to wit this verse from "Rock n Roll Train":

One hot Southern belle
Son of a devil
A schoolboy spelling bee
A schoolgirl with a fantasy

Those words don't mean anything, but when Johnson wails them, well, you just want to wail right along with him. Luckily, the musicianship on Black Ice is strong enough to carry the album. Though it's the heavy-metal/hard-rock listenership that most fully embraces them, AC/DC has always been, at its heart, a blues-rock band, and several songs bring this right to the front. Witness the riff on "Decibel" that sounds lifted right from Beale Street, with Johnson surprisingly deft at using his lower register vocals in accompaniment.

In fact, most of the second half of Black Ice is saturated in blues rock, and it's so far my favorite portion. Don't get me wrong: I love a good fist-pumping riot as much as the next guy, but there's just something about that white-boy blues that brings it on home for me. There's not enough "Stormy May Day" to go around in my opinion — Angus uses a slide(!) and reminds me of Led Zeppelin's "In My Time of Dying." (Incidentally, "Skies on Fire" reminds me of another Jimmy Page track from his best solo album, Outrider.)

But whatever you think of the band's style, if you're a fan, you'll be enthralled by Black Ice. Even my three-year-old son is already a fan of "the train song" and "Big Jack" (which he thinks is actually about Big Jet from Little Einsteins, and I don't correct him because I think it's cute), so there's another potential fan on the way up. Luckily, the odds are that, by the time he's old enough to pay money for his own albums (in whatever form they're available by then), AC/DC will still be playing the same kind of hard rock grounded by Phil Rudd's journeyman 4/4 beat, Chris Williams's unwavering bass, and Malcolm Young's invisible rhythm — and I'm really glad they are.
Related Posts with Thumbnails