Music

Bonham and Bullick getting the tone right

Acclaimed Belfast-born guitarist Peter Bullick and his musical partner and wife, singer Deborah Bonham - sister of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John - talk to Richard Purden about their new album, paying tribute to Mark Lanegan and why you should never meet your heroes...

Deborah Bonham and Peter Bullick's eponymous album Bonham-Bullick is released this month.
Richard Purden

THERE are only a select few guitar players who can achieve the Paul Kossoff tone and it's apparent from the first note of the new Bonham-Bullick album.

Peter Bullick summons Kossoff's spellbinding style on the opening track See You Again, originally by Bernard Fowler. The Belfast musician has even played an original Les Paul belonging to the late guitarist (who died tragically in 1976 at the age of only 25) when joining Free frontman Paul Rodgers for a tour as Free Spirit in 2017.

Bullick previously lived in the Stranmillis area in a musical home with his elder brother.

"It was drummed into me from a young age," he suggests, "I was drawn to tone more than a lot of notes, if you get the tone right you don't have to play a lot of notes.

"Growing up I listened to Kossoff, Peter Green and Johnny Fean (Horslips) they were all Les Paul players. It's not something I deliberately do but as a kid from the age of about 7 to 11 I was absorbing all these players and making up guitar licks naturally."

Significantly it was that guitar tone that drew in Bullick's wife and musical partner Deborah Bonham.

"That's how we met, I was at a wedding where I knew the groom and Pete knew the bride," she explains.

"He was playing in the band Paddy Goes To Holyhead, I was at the back of the room and heard this note. I had never heard anyone play a note like that before."

Bonham is the younger sister of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John 'Bonzo' Bonham and like her brother behind the kit, she is a powerhouse vocalist. The duo's forthcoming album features interpretations of songs spanning seven decades that include familiar classics alongside lesser-known gems, among them a version of Mark Lanegan's Bleeding Muddy Water from his 2012 album Blues Funeral.

It's an arresting listen that stops you in your tracks, particularly after the recent death of the singer.

"Mark was on my radar because of (Zeppelin bassist) John Paul Jones (who appeared on Lanegan's 2020 track Ballad of a Dying Rover)," explains Bonham.

"I loved the Blues Funeral album and it just got me. I wanted to do a version of the track and Mark was still alive at that point, I had it on my shoulders to do him proud but he didn't get the chance to hear it."

Lanegan died after a long period of illness in February, aged 57. "When we did it I felt like something was happening, I sat back and listened to what we were doing and I had goosebumps," says Bonham.

"I was listening to the track thinking, 'Wow,' and forgot it was us doing it which has never happened before.

"I'm sad Mark will never hear it, I think he should have been recognised more."

Bonham adds that the point of the record was to bring a fresh translation of each song: "You have to have a deep love and respect for the artist and we do on every track but you also have to bring your own thing because they have done their best version. It was very challenging, it pushed us and we went further than we ever would".

It's 50 years since David Bowie released his breakthrough album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars featuring It Ain't Easy. Although well-known to many rock fans through Bowie, it was written by American musician Ron Davies.

"I wasn't familiar with the Bowie version but knew the original Ron Davies track," says Bonham.

Bullick took his cue from Spiders From Mars guitarist, arranger and fellow Les Paul player Mick Ronson, and the blend of influences and what the duo bring has all helped bring a fresh creative spark to the track.

It's often said 'Don't meet your heroes' and in the case of Bullick meeting Glasgow-born Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson it turned out to be true. Bullick had modelled his first black Les Paul to resemble Robertson's.

"I said, 'Recognise this Brian?' because it looked like his but he was a bit worse for wear and dropped the guitar taking a chunk out of the headstock. I went from idolising him to wanting to strangle him, you've never seen someone turn so quick. He was with Lita Ford, who I didn't want to fight," he says laughing now.

Led Zeppelin have enjoyed several significant connections with Northern Ireland - their first live performance of Stairway to Heaven was at the Ulster Hall while the album sleeve for their 1973 album Houses of the Holy was shot at the Giant's Causeway.

The location proved to be a significant place of pilgrimage for Deborah in memory of her late brother who died in 1980.

"I loved the Giant's Causeway by the North Atlantic water with the wind blowing. It was a real moment for me and my older brother Michael," she says.

The Giant's Causeway has been a place of pilgrimage for Deborah Bonham in memory of her brother John and the Led Zeppelin album cover Houses of the Holy which was photographed on the famous rock formation.

The Giant's Causeway is also featured on a John Bonham sculpture designed by Mark Richards, who has created several respected works around Ireland and elsewhere.

"We didn't want the statue to be John just standing there. It was decided we would use a live shot while the bottom half of the sculpture is the rock formation from the Giant's Causeway where people can sit and have their picture taken."

The statue in Bonham's home town of Redditch, near Birmingham, has also helped raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

"He was a big family man and John would have been uncomfortable with the idea of a bronze effigy, so the fact that it's beneficial for kids would have made him very proud," says his sister.

Led Zeppelin's vocalist Robert Plant visited the statue in 2019 and posted a poignant picture of him looking at the sculpture via his Instagram account. "There's so much about John as 'the wild man of rock' and 'the beast' but that wasn't the man at home," adds Bonham.

"John's issues were being away from his wife, kids and family. It was a big deal but he also loved being in Led Zeppelin and playing the drums; the roller coaster was tough and that was why he got a reputation."

Plant, who last joined Bonham and Bullock for a version of When The Levee Breaks on St Patrick's Day 2017, often talks with great affection for his old band-mate. "Yes, it's in the way Robert talks about John you get a sense of his massive heart, he was special like that," says Deborah.

Deborah Bonham and Peter Bullick's album Bonham-Bullick is released on April 29.

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