Bill Ward first saw John Bonham live in the mid-1960s when they were both teenagers. Ward was struck by the fact that Bonzo gave everything to the drums, drinking beer after beer without ever missing a beat. Both Bonham and Robert Plant roamed the Birmingham scene, the birthplace of Black Sabbath, and they all knew each other. That’s how Plant told Tony Iommi about the offer to join a new incarnation of The Yardbirds led by Jimmy Page.
When The New Yardbirds swept the Henry’s Blues House and Mothers club in Birmingham, Tony perked up and asked for an opportunity for his band, which at the time called themselves Earth. After the rigorous audition they were confirmed as companions of Ten Years After. Their guitarist Alvin Lee was so impressed by the future Black Sabbaths that he invited them to open for a show at the renowned Marquee club in London.
In those early days of both bands, Bonham used to appear at Black Sabbath gigs, begging to be allowed to play for a while. According to Tony Iommi, the first time they agreed, Bonzo minced the drums by cracking the heads. “Bill got really mad so after that, every time John would come in and say, ‘Can I play?’ Bill said ‘No’ ”.
The sessions of the first Black Sabbath album were under the influence of marijuana and the incessant review of the debut of Led Zeppelin (1969). Sabbath’s debut feature entered the top 30 in the United States. To mount the transatlantic tour, they signed Frank Barsalona, the agent who months before had opened the way for Jimmy Page’s band in the main American cities. Black Sabbath had a virtually traced itinerary, including three shows at San Francisco’s Fillmore West.
For the next album, the classic Paranoid (1970), they did tinkering and mixing on a 16-track Island Records deck that Led Zeppelin had just used for their fourth title. “After this record no one else is going to compare us to Black Sabbath again,” John Paul Jones had declared.
The last song of those sessions, Paranoid, It caused Geezer Butler discomfort. He told Iommi not to record it because “it is a remake of Communication Breakdown.” The bassist was already suspicious of the resemblance between Rat Salad Y Moby Dick, including the drum solo. “At that time they were our favorite group. It was the only thing we listened to, ”Geezer would say.
Tony Iommi didn’t care about similarities to Led Zeppelin, aware of Jimmy Page’s habit of copying the work of others. The friendship between the two guitar geniuses would only emerge years later.
Susan Snowdon was a well-off girl with artistic pretensions who was friends with Black Sabbath’s manager, Patrick Meehan. Tony Iommi volunteered as a songwriter, but after a first meeting the only thing they came up with was a dinner date. In November 1973 they were married and Iommi chose John Bonham as best man. He was the kind of friend with whom he shared a provincial and working-class origin, a fondness for drinking in clubs, and visiting each other in their respective mansions. Once outside a bar, Bonham showed Iommi his new Maserati. Drunk as usual, he started it until Iommi realized they were going the other way. After a while the luxurious car got stuck on a mound.
The wedding ceremony was stumbled when the drummer discovered that the champagne was only for the toast in honor of the bride and groom and that there was no more alcohol. The left-handed guitarist’s mother saved the situation by inviting Bonzo to have a few drinks at her house in the company of Ozzy, who was also in shock from the lack of drink.
The Prince of Darkness and the Golden God of Rock, the voices of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin respectively, used to meet in their mansions. “I remember one night at Plant’s house – not long after we got back from Bel Air – I taught him how to play Seven Card Stud. It was a big mistake, “Ozzy recounted in his memoirs. “While I was explaining the rules to him, he said he wanted to place bets – ‘just to see how it works, you know’ – and then he kept raising the stakes. I was starting to think how fucking idiotic he must be when he took out a real flash and I had to give him fifty pounds. He knocked me down, the cheeky bastard. “
Ozzy also got along with Bonzo. “He was just as fucking crazy as I was, so we spent most of our time trying to get over each other’s madness.” After the drummer’s spree and nonsense, Ozzy saw himself. “I was trying to win people over with my crazy things (…) But of course, behind the mask there was a sad old clown most of the time. Bonham was the same, I think.
On one occasion they got together to go to a club to drink. Ozzy put the car in and Matthew, Bonham’s assistant, drove. When they left the premises drunk, the drummer got into the vehicle and locked the doors. Ozzy asked him to open up but he got a “fuck you.” The singer stood in front of the car screaming. Nothing. Suddenly Bonham was lucid for a second at the pleas. “Well, then you should go in, right?”
In 1975 Black Sabbath was recording Sabotage, the last great album of the golden age with Ozzy, at Morgan Studios in London, when John Bonham appeared alongside Robert Plant and John Paul Jones. Bonzo wanted to touch Supernaut de Vol. 4 (1972), his favorite. This time Ward gave up the drums although, according to Tony Iommi’s recollections, Bonham did not dominate the song. Ozzy recalls that Led Zeppelin’s interest at that time was for them to sign for the Swan Song label that Led Zeppelin had launched the previous year, but there was no intention of starting a move after a period of serious clashes with management.
They improvised for a while “totally screwed up”, in Iommi’s words. “The tapes are probably somewhere, but I don’t know where.” Ward’s memories differ. “There was a moment during that improvisation when a kind of madness occurred to us and we said, ‘Let’s record something,’ but nothing happened and nothing was recorded.”
In 1980 Black Sabbath was recycled after finishing the 70’s in frank decline. Ozzy had been fired the year before and the new album Heaven and Hell, featuring Ronnie James Dio as vocalist and songwriter, was his best release in five years. Despite the success and the possibilities of a singer with more resources than accompanying the riffs as Ozzy did, Bill Ward felt that the band was no longer the same. Alcoholic and heroin addict, he was suspicious of a version of Sabbath where Geezer did not write the lyrics and without Ozzy in the voice.
In May the group returned for four nights to one of their usual haunts, the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Musicians from Thin Lizzy, Pink Floyd, Rainbow and his old friend Bonzo, who he used to meet along with other drummers like Cozy Powell and ELO’s Bev Beval, arrived at a drum shop in Birmingham. Bonham, by now totally brutalized by alcohol, asked to settle behind Bill as his assistant. Inspired, Ward played beautifully until mid-set Bonham started throwing his legs at him. He was moved to the side of the stage close enough for Ronnie James Dio to hear him say “he’s a really good singer despite being a fucking midget.” Dio cursed him back, Tony Iommi intervened, and they sent Bonzo backstage in hopes of distracting him with drinks. Big mistake. When the show ended, Bill asked her opinion. “It was fucking shit,” Bonham bellowed. Geezer Butler gave the order and they fired him.
Four months later Black Sabbath were on tour in the United States when they were informed in a dressing room of the death of John Bonham. “Good,” Geezer commented.
In the meantime, Bill Ward had quit Black Sabbath. Dejected, he learned from a dealer of his friend’s death. “I was absolutely devastated, crying like hell, because I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan (…) She said, ‘Bonham is dead.’ The first thought I had was selfish. ‘I’ll be next’ (…) ‘I’m right behind you, Johnny. I’m right behind you. ‘