What if John Bonham hadn't died?
Why couldn’t Rivera get the final three outs in the 2001 World Series? How good could Len Bias really have been? What if the Trailblazers drafted Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden? When it comes to sports, fans can’t resist the urge to play the what-if game; it’s a temptation that can’t be quelled. There’s simply no answer any of these questions, but it still doesn’t stop fans from pondering these lugubrious thoughts. Simply understanding why something didn’t happen isn’t enough; there’s a pathological need to discern exactly why something that should’ve happened didn’t happen.asso
As in sports, the world of popular music is densely populated with its own litany of what-ifs. Most of them just happen to involve dead people, or more appropriately, wondering what would have happened if so-and-so hadn’t died suddenly and prematurely. What would the musical landscape of the '90s have looked like if Kurt Cobain hadn’t died? Where would Metallica have gone musically if a bus hadn’t fallen on Cliff Burton? If John Lennon hadn’t been assassinated, would we have seen a Beatles reunion? My big what-if is what would have happened to Led Zeppelin if John Bonham hadn’t died in September of 1980.
Besides the Beatles, no other band has had as large of an impact on as many people has Led Zeppelin did. Collectively, they’ve sold over 300 million albums worldwide, own six #1 hit records, and their untitled fourth album has been certified 23x Platinum by the RIAA. Led Zeppelin was to the '70s what the Beatles were to the '60s. For a decade mired in punk rock, prog rock and disco, no band mattered more than Led Zeppelin. Even when disavowing the second half of its career, Led Zeppelin would still qualify as the greatest rock band of all time. What further adds to the intrigue of Led Zeppelin is that they didn’t even try to carry on after losing Bonham. The remaining members instinctively knew that Led Zeppelin could not continue without Bonzo, despite the fact that the band seemingly had so much more music to make.
When it comes to the practice of replacing deceased band members, Led Zeppelin and the Who best represent the two conflicting schools of thought. Do you try and replace an integral member, or do you call it quits? Led Zeppelin believed that Bonzo was irreplaceable, and realized that they had no choice but to break up. By contrast, the Who tried to soldier on by replacing Keith Moon, and the results were disastrous. Face Dances and It’s Hard are horrible albums that the world would have been better off without. Seriously, Pete Townshend’s solo album Empty Glass is much better than those, and it only has, like, two ½ good songs.
With the Who however, they were already running on fumes and could no longer sustain the band. By 1978, Moon became a walking bottle of liquor, Roger Daltrey realized he wasn’t good at anything else besides yelling and portraying blind, deaf, and dumb messiahs, and Pete Townshend was finally succumbing to an existentially induced nervous breakdown that had been gestating for nine years. The Who by Numbers, one of the most underrated rock albums of all time, is the sound of the band saying goodbye, while Who Are You is the sound of a band with nothing left to say. Unlike the wise decision bands such as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers made to carry on after a band member had passed away, by even attempting to replace Moon in an ill-fated struggle to keep something afloat long after it had drowned, the Who chose poorly. For proof, look no further than the music that the band made after his death.
Most, if not all, of the intrigue surrounding Bonham’s death comes from the uncertainty regarding the future musical direction of Led Zeppelin. Even though the band’s final two albums, Presence and In Through the Out Door, had more flaws than we were accustomed to, Presence is still an enjoyable album with exciting moments, and In Through the Out Door slowly ingratiates itself onto listeners more than it rightfully should. Neither are irredeemable. Even though 1979s In Through the Out Door is way too synth-heavy, and oddly overproduced (a foreshadowing of 80s music in general), it would have been interesting to see what Led Zeppelin would have done as a follow-up.
According to Jimmy Page, who also produced every Led Zeppelin album, the band “wanted, after In Through the Out Door, to make something hard-hitting and riff-based again”. In all honesty, who’s to say that this really would have happened? After all, with Page in the midst of his heroin addiction, Bonham in the throes of alcoholism, Robert Plant grieving the death of his son, and John Paul Jones seducing his synthesizer, there really was no chance that the band was going to recreate Led Zeppelin II or Physical Graffiti. That's just proof that you can never go home again. That and the fact that the '80s happened.
No '70s band or musician was left unscathed by '80s musical trends. Bob Dylan got his ear pierced and wore a thick leather jacket, the Rolling Stones made shitty dance-rock albums, the Who tried way too hard to be on MTV, and Van Halen tried to become socially conscious. Even though Led Zeppelin probably would have “gone '80s” (just look at Plant’s solo career), it wouldn’t have been to the same degree as other bands. If anything, Led Zeppelin probably would have influenced the decade more than the decade would have influenced them. Page was always a visionary producer who pursued his own musical direction rather than be dictated by the times, and even though the band was clearly on the downside of their career, it would have been interesting to see Led Zeppelin try to rebound and claw their way back to form.
As it stands, the most duress Led Zeppelin endured came while recording Presence. It was around 1976 when their vitality and their very existence first came into question. They responded with the comparatively subpar In Through the Out Door, but for a band as determined as Led Zeppelin, no one knows how they would have even tried to rebound from their creative, critical, and commercial low point. We’ve seen how other bands responded, but not Zeppelin, arguably the most iconic rock band of all time. This mystery only adds to the overall intrigue of wondering what could have been.
Would the follow up to In Through the Out Door been a riff based rocker that Jimmy Page promised? What it have even been a good album? Or, would the band have further developed the proto-'80s sound of In Through the Out Door? Because of Bonham's premature death, all that remains is the question, with no hope of an answer. As tantalizing as it may be, wondering what-if is only a natural response when faced with tragedy. Jimmy page summed it up best: we’re left with nothing but “a springboard for what could have been”.