Guitar smashing evolved into rock ritual

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Sun Jun 13 07:55:46 CDT 2004

>From the Dallas Morning News at:

Guitar smashing evolved into rock ritual

The Dallas Morning News 

The rules of romance say if you love something, set it
free. But the rules of rock tell you to smash it to

"Taking a guitar you love and wrecking it is
incredibly exciting. It's the ultimate statement of
anarchy," says Joe Perry of Aerosmith. 

"You're trying to shatter the audience's mind, so why
not start with the tangible: the guitar?" says ZZ
Top's Billy Gibbons. 

Guitar smashing is a time-honored sacrament in rock
'n' roll used by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt
Cobain to today's bands like the Vines. It's easy to
see why. For the smasher, it's pure catharsis. For the
fan, it's the vicarious thrill of watching stuff get
destroyed - a demolition derby with power chords. 

But 40 years after Pete Townshend of the Who
annihilated his first electric guitar, the ritual
still polarizes the rock world. 

"To me, it's show biz. I don't see much value to it,
to be honest," says Eric Clapton. 

"I once smashed a guitar onstage in pure rage because
I got an electric shock that scared the living
daylights out of me. But as soon as I did it, I
regretted it. It was my favorite guitar, and even
after I repaired it, it was never the same." 

"I've never even tried it," says Carlos Santana. "I'll
sacrifice other things, but not my guitar." 

Like so many inventions, guitar demolition began as an
accident. In 1964, during a show at London's Railway
Station nightclub, Townshend began waving and jerking
his electric Rickenbacker to try to make it stop
whistling. He banged it on the club's low ceiling,
impressing one fan so much he asked the guitarist to
do it again in the second set. 

When he did, the guitar snapped in half, stunning both
the crowd and Townshend. 

"I had no recourse but to look as though I meant to do
it, so I smashed the guitar and jumped all over the
bits ... it gave me a fantastic buzz," he said in the
Who biography "Before I Get Old." 

The London press got wind of the smash-up and
dispatched photographers. Thrilled by the notoriety,
Townshend began obliterating guitars regularly,
telling reporters it was his statement of
antimaterialism and comparing himself to German
autodestruct artists who built sculptures designed to

"To me, it wasn't violence or random destruction,"
Townshend said. "It was art." 

The idea spread, and in the 1966 drama "Blowup,"
director Michelangelo Antonioni captured Jeff Beck of
the Yardbirds smashing his ax and hurling the pieces
to the crowd, which fought over them like jackals. 

Soon after "Blowup" premiered, a rising young guitar
hero named Jimi Hendrix also started bashing his
instrument onstage. An angry Townshend confronted him
backstage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and
demanded he stop stealing his act. 

But Jimi wisely refused to budge. Today, pictures of
Hendrix setting his Strat on fire and breaking it to
shards are some of the most famous images in rock

"When I saw Hendrix do that at Monterey, it was like a
supreme sacrifice from out of the Bible," says
Santana. "It was very spiritual and voodoo-like, and I
think he was taking music all the way back to Africa
... I didn't get the same feeling from Peter
Townshend. He was more like a brat throwing a

By the time both acts got to Woodstock in '69, hordes
of young guitarists were already emulating them,
including a Dallas teenager named Jimmie Vaughan. 

"It was so cool because it was so wrong," says
Vaughan, whose band, the Chessmen, opened for Jimi
Hendrix at SMU in 1968. "We couldn't afford to break
our own guitars, so we'd get a lousy one and break it
onstage just to see if we could do it." 

Other fledgling smashers made the mistake of using
expensive guitars, which didn't splinter so easily. 

"Have you ever tried smashing a baseball bat against a
cement wall?" asks Aerosmith's Perry. "That's what
it's like trying to smash a Stratocaster - it doesn't
give. But you're so loaded with adrenaline, you just
keep doing it, even though it hurts." 

The novelty wore off in the early '70s, but the act
blossomed again during the punk era. 

Paul Simonon of the Clash is seen crushing a bass
guitar on the cover of "London Calling" (1979). And in
the '90s, alternative rockers such as Sonic Youth and
Pearl Jam fractured their guitars for audiences too
young to remember Hendrix.

-Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!

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