Moby Dick began life as a modest instrumental showcase for John Bonham: Played live, it took on an epic, often drug-fuelled life of its own

John Bonham onstage in Los Angeles, 1973
John Bonham onstage at the Forum in Los Angeles, June 1973 (Image credit: Jeffrey Mayer via Getty Images)

Viewing again close-up footage of 21-year-old John Bonham performing Moby Dick at Led Zeppelin’s now legendary January 1970 show at London’s Royal Albert Hall is as astonishing now as it was when it first appeared in 2003 on the glorious live DVD collection. Powerful, brutal, pagan. When he gently lays down the sticks a few minutes in and begins playing the drums with his bare hands, it becomes shamanistic. Not just pitter-patter tom-toms, but snapping at the snare, beating the big bass drum, the skins, the rims, the cymbals… Bonzo, as he was known with great affection and fear, performing his showcase live was never just about music. 

Moby Dick may have begun as a relatively modest instrumental filler tucked away near the end of Led Zeppelin II, but live on stage it had already become emblematic of Bonham’s thrillingly belligerent spirit. No vocals, no cheap talk, this was all action, all the time. 

Whenever Moby Dick was performed live in the 70s, it grew like magic beans from the four-minute album track to the 15-minute showcase of 1970; to over 20-minutes by 1972; tipping over 30 minutes some nights by the time Zeppelin were lurching through their final catastrophic US tour in 1977, depending on how much cocaine Bonzo had snuffled. Before playing Moby Dick he would reach down and grab handfuls of coke from a bag at his feet and rub it all over his nose and mouth. 

You could also – if you listened very hard – detect a certain sensitivity in Bonham’s otherwise brutal assault. Something hauntingly tender that spoke to the deep well of emotion lurking at the heart of his personal drum orchestra, his personal madness.

Moby Dick had begun as Pat’s Delight, named after John’s beloved wife Pat. He loved playing the drums in Zeppelin, but he hated touring. He suffered from chronic homesickness, which he dealt with by wrecking everybody else’s life on the road. 

He also became afraid. Home was where John Bonham, proud husband and father, could drive his big red tractor on poplar-lined Old Hyde Farm, his private estate in Worcestershire. Away from the farm, out there zapping around the world’s brightest hotspots, force-feeding his increasingly erratic behaviour into Moby Dick every night, out there on the American road was where he turned into Bonzo. An outraged French label exec dubbed him ‘La Bête’ (The Beast), and his Moby Dick showcase just grew into an even longer psychodrama. 

Bombastic drum solos were now de riguer at all meaningful heavy rock concerts. Cream started it, The Who made a meal of it, then everyone else felt obliged to show-off “the guy at the back that keeps it all together”. The fully realised Moby Dick was only the second time a drum solo had been featured as a track in its own right on a rock album (Cream beat them to it by three years with Ginger Baker’s Toad.) 

Bonzo. The Beast. John Bonham embraced those roles in Zeppelin. But when it came to Moby Dick each night, the masks came off and Bonham made his own strange connection to the universe. 

When their LA Forum show on May 31, 1973 coincided with Bonzo’s twenty-fifth birthday, the 18,000-strong audience forced him to pause his 20-minute Moby Dick while they and the whole band and crew sang him Happy Birthday. “Twentyone today,” Robert Plant announced from the stage, “and a bastard all his life.” Then it was back to invoking angels and demons for the finale of Moby Dick. 

His birthday present from the band was a new top-of-the range Harley-Davidson motorcycle. John didn’t wait to get it home to England. “He just tore up the hotel corridors and made an incredible mess, apparently,” recalled his old pal Bev Bevan, formerly drummer of The Move, later with ELO. “But he paid the bill the next day, then told ’em: ‘Oh, and keep the bike.’ Unbelievable, but that was John.”

Inevitably, Moby Dick was the soundtrack to Bonham’s ‘fantasy sequence’ in the 1976 Zep film The Song Remains The Same. His metamorphosis from his mammoth Madison Square Garden drum solo into cloth-capped farmer and family man (Pat and six-yearold son Jason glimpsed tenderly), followed by drag-racing daredevil. 

The epic saga of Moby Dick reached a bloated and unwieldy conclusion on what would be Zep’s very last US tour in 1977. Some nights, Bonzo’s retitled Moby Dick/Over The Top solo lasted almost 40 minutes. Coming straight after equally lengthy epics like John Paul Jones’s No Quarter, which now stretched to a quasi-classical 30 minutes, for the first time ever at a Zeppelin show there was fidgeting in the audience. Some fans regarded these indulgences as unofficial toilet breaks, or wandered out to the concession stands, waiting for the ‘real’ show to resume. 

Nobody left their seats when Moby Dick roared into life though. On their third night of six at the LA Forum in June, Keith Moon cheerfully wandered on during Moby Dick and proceeded to join in, grabbing Bonzo’s extra sticks and settling down for a genuinely exhilarating drum solo. It was practically the last time Bonzo ever played it. 

By the time Zeppelin next ventured out, on their Tour Over Europe 1980, Moby Dick was no longer in the set. Informally dubbed the ‘Cut The Waffle’ tour, gone were the lasers, video screens, smoke bombs and lights. In their place a stark black backdrop, a greatly reduced PA, and the decision to drop old warhorses like Dazed And Confused, No Quarter, and, most significantly, it was felt, Moby Dick. Post punk, drum solos were strictly forbidden. As were long hair and flared trousers. 

Bonzo died three months later. They said it was booze. Others believe Bonzo died with Moby Dick.

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.