The rock guitarist insolently smashing his expensive instrument onstage is a long-standing cliché. But how did it get that way, and when did it start?

By Nick Redfern

 

Nineteen sixty-four was a memorable year in rock ’n’ roll history. Britain’s Top of the Pops and America’s Shindig! debuted, the Beatles invaded the United States, Sam Cooke was fatally shot, Elvis costarred with Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas, the Rolling Stones released their first album, and “Louie, Louie” was declared pornographic. But that’s not all.

In early September 1964, a certain incident went down in London, England, that has since become historic. It was all thanks to Pete Townshend, guitarist for the Who. The location where rock music was forever changed—ironically, by accident—was the Railway Tavern.

The club had a perilously low ceiling, one that was certainly not constructed to deal with a highly animated guitarist like Townshend. It wasn’t long before guitar and ceiling crossed paths in violent fashion. The former came off worse, with a cracked neck.

Pete Townshend smashes his guitar and amp at the Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival in July 1966; photograph by Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

For a furious Townshend, there was only one option: to damage the broken guitar even more. Hell, let’s get straight to the point: He destroyed it.

Photograph by Ed Caraeff/Getty Images

In 1967, at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, Jimi Hendrix chose to go one step further. Determined to outdo Townshend, whose band performed before him at the event, Hendrix doused his guitar in lighter fluid and set it on fire. Or, rather, he set a guitar on fire. At the time, Hendrix played a black Fender Stratocaster. There was no way, however, that Jimi was going to destroy his pride and joy. As the gig came to a close, he swapped his Fender for a cheaper guitar, one for which the only future was fiery devastation.

As the sixties became the seventies, the guitar termination continued, perhaps most memorably at the California Jam gig held in Ontario, California, on April 6, 1974. Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple brought his guitar down on one of several ABC cameras that were covering the event. Damage to the camera was estimated to be in the region of $10,000. The band’s management coughed up the dough. It was, after all, only rock ’n’ roll, as someone once said.

It’s hardly surprising that when punk rock exploded in the mid-1970s, the blank generation quickly picked up on the guitar-breaking tradition, although not always in the way one might imagine. When seminal, mop-topped punks the Ramones played their first gig in 1974, bassist Dee Dee Ramone, hit by a severe bout of stage fright, accidentally stepped on the neck of his bass and broke it in two. Dee Dee’s actions, unsurprisingly, didn’t quite have the impact of the Who’s a decade earlier.

New York punks the Plasmatics did a far better job. They concluded the best way to destroy a guitar was not by slamming it down on a stage, but by taking a chain saw to it. The end result, however, was pretty much the same. The image of the band’s singer, Wendy O. Williams, dressed in next to nothing (except for underwear, boots, and black tape on her nipples), sporting a Mohawk, and treating a six-string like one of the unfortunate souls in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, took guitar destruction to a whole new level.

Speaking of images, we have photographer Pennie Smith to thank for providing us with the ultimate shot of a punk rocker giving his guitar exactly what it deserved. The front cover of the Clash’s 1979 album London Calling shows bassist Paul Simonon in the act of deconstructing his instrument in dramatic fashion.

Then there was Sid Vicious, of London spiky-tops the Sex Pistols. Not content with breaking his bass guitar onstage, Vicious decided to take a new and novel approach: He used it to try to hit someone in the audience. It was January 1978, and the location was Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. Needless to say, a band like the Sex Pistols was unlikely to receive a positive reception in the Deep South.

One taunting member of the audience in particular—Brian Faltin—had gotten heroin-saturated Vicious in such a state of rage that the skinny Brit took off his bass, held it firmly and proudly by the neck in definitive Townshend style, and did his very best to bring it down on Faltin’s head. Fortunately for Faltin—a Jethro Tull and Moody Blues fan who, admittedly, attended the show to cause trouble—the bass bounced off the shoulder of a roadie. To Vicious’s chagrin, even the instrument remained undamaged.

The 1970s also saw Hollywood infected by the desire to use guitars for something other than actually playing music. In the 1978 movie Animal House, John Belushi’s character, John “Bluto” Blutarsky, memorably smashes into pieces the acoustic guitar of a tedious hippie-meets-beatnik type, played by soft-rock singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop, who still has the guitar. Good for Bluto, we say.

From Townshend to the Clash, the song may not have remained the same, but the style certainly did. That was the case throughout the 1980s and 1990s, too. KISS’s Paul Stanley destroyed his guitar almost as many times as his longtime bandmate Gene Simmons poked his tongue out at the audience. Stanley continues to do so.

When grunge became the next big thing in the early 1990s, the face of music radically changed. Utterly gone were the bombastic power ballads
of the previous decade. Also gone were tiresome fret-wankers, guys who looked like over-the-hill streetwalkers, and big hair. But one thing did not change. By now, you know what that is.

One of the finest, grungiest purveyors of instrument obliteration in the nineties was Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. In 2011, 17 years after Cobain took his own life, the very first guitar he ever destroyed—a Univox Hi-Flyer—was put on display at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Fans flocked eagerly to see the guitar, or what was left of it.

As for the twenty-first century, well, the times they are a-changin’. Now, even racecar drivers are doing a bit of musical demolition. After winning the Nationwide Series in Nashville in 2009, Kyle Busch was presented with a customized Gibson Les Paul, estimated to have been worth around 25 grand. What did Busch do with it? He made like Townshend, that’s what. Sam Bass, the artist behind the customization of the ultimately doomed guitar, was not happy.

In 2012, Britain’s Royal Mail released a limited-edition set of stamps displaying iconic album covers, including David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed. And then there was the Clash’s London Calling. It shows how times have significantly changed when a photo of an enraged Paul Simonon destroying his bass guitar can sit right next to a silhouetted profile of Queen Elizabeth II. But that’s exactly what happened: a first-class stamp, an equally first-class album cover, and Her Majesty, all rolled into one.

It was also in 2012 that Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong pulverized his guitar. It all went down at the iHeartRadio Music Festival, held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in September. Armstrong, miffed about the lack of time his band had to perform, screamed, “I’m not fucking Justin Bieber, you motherfuckers!”, slammed his guitar onto the stage several times, and stormed off. Punk rock.

Photograph by Christopher Polk/Getty Images

But then it all went wrong: The next day Green Day reps offered an apology “to those they offended.” An apology? Really? A word to all would-be rockers: If you’re going to destroy your guitar while turning the air blue, by all means do so. Such actions have helped many a career. Saying sorry afterward? Is that what guitar pummeling has been reduced to in the twenty-first century? Not always, thankfully.

Take, for example, rockers Casino. In April 2014, five-year-old footage surfaced of the then–barely teenage band playing at their school’s talent show. It wasn’t long before it went viral, because the band’s bassist, emulating so many who came before him, paid fine homage to Pete Townshend. “What did the guitar do?” asked a kid in the audience, when the battering was over. Casino, we’re pleased to report, did not apologize.

In September 1968, Townshend told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, “I think, with guitar smashing, just like performance itself, it’s a performance, it’s an act, it’s an instant, and it really is meaningless.” Obviously, not everyone considers it meaningless. Indeed, almost 50 years later, beating up one’s “ax” (slightly ridiculous macho rock-speak for “guitar”) is still seen as the perfect onstage way to give the middle finger to the establishment and the old folks. Or for aging rockers to try to prove they’re still relevant.

What of the future? CD sales are dropping dramatically, downloads (often pirated) are the name of the game, and many bands are struggling to stay afloat. As a result, it’s becoming far less de rigueur to dispatch one’s guitar to that big music store in the sky. Today’s rockers—hungry, lean, and short on money—are far more concerned about hanging on to their guitars than engaging in a bit of destruction. But watch them closely: If the royalty checks start to come in, you can bet the sound of guitar hitting stage won’t be far behind.

 

From the March 2015 issue of Penthouse