55 Years of Smashed Guitars

Auto-Destructive-Art and counterculture

Thursday 20th June 2019

In June 1964, having recently reverted back from their shortlived alter ego of the High Numbers, The Who played a gig at the Railway Tavern in Harrow. The otherwise unremarkable gig became a famous event in the history of British counterculture when Pete Townshend accidentally broke the headstock of his guitar on the venue's low ceiling leading to him destroying the entire instrument by stamping on it. The moment has since been cited as the beginning of the rock'n'roll trope of destroying instruments on stage, with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Paul Simonon of The Clash to Nirvana getting in on the act.

Such was the fans' positive response to Pete Townshend's shattered 12-string, that it became a regular element in The Who's sets. By 1967 drummer Keith Moon had got in on the act, loading his bass drum with explosives, leading to the infamous incident during their US television debut when the explosion resulted in shrapnel wounds for Moon and partial deafness for Townshend, not to mention leaving Bette Davis mildly unconscious in the audience.

The same year saw Hendrix set fire to his Fender Strat at the Monterey Pop Festival, hoping to outdo The Who's demolition earlier on the same billing.

The behaviour was also recreated on screen in the 1966 British film 'Blow Up', which featured a scene in which The Yardbird's Jeff Beck destroyed a guitar in a very similar fashion to that of Townshend at The Railway Tavern.

Despite the apparent accidental beginnings of Pete Townshend's trademark smash-up he later claimed that it was an expression of Auto-Destructive-Art (ADA) inspired by the artist, Gustav Metzger. A founder of the "Destruction in Art Symposium" (DIAS), Gustav Metzger's own inspirations included his frustrations with greedy art dealers and the destruction he had witnessed as a child in wartime Europe. His own ADA work in the early 1960s included nylon canvases sprayed and spattered with hydrochloric acid and systematically dropped/broken sheets of glass. The DIAS manifesto became a reoccurring source material in the counterculture around the world, with notable examples including Yoko Ono's 'Cut' which involved Yoko Ono sitting in The New York Museum of Modern Art while inviting an audience to cut away her clothes with scissors.

It is worth noting that The Who were not the first band to break an instrument on stage. Charles Mingus reportedly destroyed a pricey double bass during one New York performance at the Five Spot Café jazz club, and country singer Ira Louvin had a reputation for smashing his mandolins when they went out of tune, but these examples, along with a few others, seem to be attributable to artistic temper rather than artistic expression.

A decade after The Who and Hendrix competed for the biggest bang, punk also had some key moments of ADA. Townshend's mates, Sex Pistols, didn't destroy their own instruments but instead destroyed those of Eddie & The Hot Rods who they were supporting at the time. The most notable punk example though is surely the moment captured in a photo by Pennie Smith, of Paul Simonon swinging his Fender Precision Bass, which in turn became the iconic cover of The Clash's 'London Calling'.

Nirvana were also known for destroying a fair amount of equipment through their short but eventful '90s heydey. Despite the helpful publicity that Nirvana's on-stage behaviour garnered it was perhaps a sign of changing times that their label boss, David Geffen, was starting to worry about how many dollars and instruments the band were burning through.

In a twist on the formula, The K Foundation (AKA Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of The KLF) also channelled the ADA spirit in 1994 with their infamous piece 'K Foundation Burn a Million Quid', destroying not the instruments, but a sizable chunk of the profits from their music.

In the same way that Metzger's ADA denied the art dealers their tradeable commodity, so smashing a guitar into an unrecognisable pile of wood stops it ever ending up as a collectable itself. The self-destruction prevents inanimate objects from becoming holy relics of the music industry establishment and prevents the record company from selling it on to recoup what it sees as a bad investment. It also has the obvious implication of reducing the number of vintage instruments in circulation, an ultimately finite quantity, driving up the price of those that have evaded destruction.

In the current atmosphere of austerity, it shouldn't be surprising that young musicians look after their instruments with a bit more tenderness these days. The destruction of instruments could be seen as a vulgar extravagance and an irresponsible waste of resources rather than an artistic statement. The practice seems consigned to the same place in rock'n'roll mythology as Rolls Royces in swimming pools and tales of TV sets thrown out of hotel windows - but nonetheless, it remains an exciting spectacle.

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