BY NICOLA GAGE
The NFSA has unearthed a rare interview with the late John Bonham from Led Zeppelin. The interview is a centrepiece of the new authorised documentary, Becoming Led Zeppelin.
It was early 1972 and Led Zeppelin had just released its fourth studio album, featuring the anthemic track 'Stairway to Heaven'. They were arguably the biggest rock band in the world, and preparing for an upcoming tour of Australia.
This is when Australian broadcaster Graeme Berry found himself at the home of Robert Plant. He was there to interview the British band’s lead singer, alongside legendary drummer John Bonham, for Sydney radio station 2SM.
Before his death in 1980, Bonham rarely gave interviews or spoke in public – and if he did, he wouldn't say much at all. But this time was different. ‘In the interview, he really opens up and engages with Berry … uncharacteristically, he seems very happy to talk’, NFSA curator Thorsten Kaeding explains.
‘They touch on many aspects of his career, as well as moments leading up to it … including how he started out in music, where his interests came from, and what he was doing before Led Zeppelin. For a documentary maker, it is absolute gold.’
Graeme Berry had indeed struck gold with this interview. However, as the years passed, the audio tape it was recorded on disappeared. Bernard MacMahon, director and producer of the band’s first authorised documentary, Becoming Led Zeppelin (2021), had heard a bootleg recording on vinyl and knew he had to find it.
MacMahon spent a year searching and, recognising Berry’s Australian accent, contacted the NFSA in 2019.
Researchers were initially unable to find the interview in the collection. That’s when Sean Bridgeman, the NFSA's Access Services Manager, had a win. He reached out to the curatorial team, which was making its way through cataloguing around 8,000 tapes in the 2SM collection, many of which were unmarked or had no identifying information.
‘Curator Chris Arneil had coincidentally come across a tape marked Led Zeppelin: Robert Plant and John Bonham the week before', Sean Bridgeman says. ‘After digitising the tape and conducting research, we confirmed it was the hour-plus interview with John Bonham that Bernard MacMahon had been searching for.’
Watch a teaser clip from Becoming Led Zeppelin (Bernard MacMahon, 2021) released ahead of its premiere at the Venice Film Festival:
After the interview was rediscovered and digitised at the NFSA, it was loaned to the creators of Becoming Led Zeppelin and is a centrepiece of the documentary.
Led Zeppelin is arguably one of the most influential bands of all time, inspiring the hard rock movement of the 1970s that was extremely successful, particularly in Australia.
Becoming Led Zeppelin is the band’s first authorised documentary, and it premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in September 2021 where it gained significant attention.
Thorsten Kaeding says the Bonham recording is a testament to Berry, and his brilliant interviewing skills. ‘It’s often forgotten how successful Australian DJs and music journalists have been internationally’, he says. ‘As with this interview, they were often able to get their subjects to open up in ways that others could not.’
The interview recording is also an important reminder of the work being undertaken to digitise content in the NFSA collection, as Sean Bridgeman explains.
‘There are many items in the collection that are "hidden" or undiscovered – in that we either don’t have enough catalogue information, or they have yet to be digitised. The interview was held only on the original ¼-inch magnetic audio tape, so it was essential we digitised the recording for preservation.
'Magnetic tape formats are at risk of further deterioration, preventing digital preservation, and this is why the NFSA is prioritising magnetic audiovisual formats for its Deadline 2025 project.’
Becoming Led Zeppelin is expected to be released in Australia in 2022.