Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"I thought, it's broken, might as well finish it off..."

No mention in "Round One" of Pete Townshend destroying his guitars. That was a bit of a trick, a little sleight-of-hand-writing that mimics a TV cliffhanger. One would think, off the top of his, head that the watershed aspect of The Who's 1967 was the destruction of the guitar (by then that was old news). Other writers may disagree, but I would argue that much more important in the band's career, and why I compare the rivalry between Townshend and Hendrix to The Beach Boys and The Beatles, is when the smashing of guitars ceased, not when it began (we will get to that).

Though legend cannot pinpoint a specific date for The Who's violent finale to each show through '67, many trace the history back to 1964, possibly even with earlier band, The High Numbers. I like dates, but without one, the story remains one of rock's most intriguing moments. The first time Townshend broke a guitar on stage, it was no more than an accident. Working on a stage with a low ceiling at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, West London, Pete cracked the headstock on his Rickenbacker, then, pissed, he decided to follow through with the destruction (most reports pinpoint "Smokestack Lightning" as the backdrop tune). The crowd's response led him to eventually pummeling six-strings at every show, smashing upwards of 35 guitars in 1967 alone. Once the violence began, the fans demanded it again and again.

In one of a million personal accounts, Townshend said, "I scrape the howling Rickenbacker guitar up and down my microphone stand, then flip the special switch I recently fitted so the guitar sputters and sprays the front row with bullets of sound. I violently thrust my guitar into the air—and feel a terrible shudder as the sound goes from a roar to a rattling growl; I look up to see my guitar’s broken head as I pull it away from the hole I’ve punched in the low ceiling.  It is at this moment that I make a split-second decision—and in a mad frenzy I thrust the damaged guitar up into the ceiling over and over again. What had been a clean break becomes a splinter mess. I hold the guitar up to the crowd triumphantly. I haven’t smashed it: I’ve sculpted it for them. I throw the shattered guitar carelessly to the ground, pick up my brand-new Rickenbacker twelve-string and continue the show…."

When The Who played the Railway Hotel the following week, the audience expected Townshend to give a repeat performance. He didn't. The next time that Townshend smashed his guitar was at the Olympia Ballroom, Reading, in April 1965 (yay, a date), but it wasn't until 1966 that Townshend's trademark guitar-smashing regularly became part of The Who's performance, lasting until a Who performance at Yokohama Stadium, Tokyo, Japan, where he smashed a gold Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster. From there is was random.
Despite the press and the sensationalism, Townshende has often said it was "really meaningless." "I've often gone on the stage with a guitar and said, 'Tonight, I'm not going to smash a guitar, and I don't give a shit.' And I've gone on, and every time I've done it. Basically, it's a gesture that happens on the spur of the moment. It's a performance, it's an act, it's an instant, and it's really meaningless." 

"I had no idea what the first smashing of my guitar would lead to, but I had a good idea where it all came from. I was brought up in a period when war still cast shadows, though in my life the weather changed so rapidly it was impossible to know what was in store. War had been a real threat or a fact for three generations of my family… I wasn’t trying to play beautiful music, I was confronting my audience with the awful, visceral sound of what we all knew was the single absolute of our frail existence — one day an aeroplane would carry the bomb that would destroy us all in a flash. It could happen at any time. The Cuban Crisis less than two years before had proved that.  On stage I stood on the tips of my toes, arms outstretched, swooping like a plane. As I raised the stuttering guitar above my head, I felt I was holding up the bloodied standard of endless centuries of mindless war. Explosions. Trenches. Bodies. The eerie screaming of the wind." Whoa, all this from one mistakenly damaged guitar? As Americans, we were naive of the impact of war in our homeland, and so Townshend's statement appears as drama, when it was far from that.

Townshend, Simonon, Cobain

But Townshend was not the first musician to break an instrument on stage. In 1956, on the Lawrence Welk Show, of all things, a zoot-suited performer, "Rockin' Rocky Rockwell" did a mocking rendition of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog," at the end of which he smashed an acoustic guitar over his knee, and country musician Ira Louvin was famous for smashing mandolins that he deemed "out-of-tune." Most famous of all, perhaps, is Jerry Lee Lewis who may be the first rock artist to destroy his equipment on stage, going back to the mid-1950s. Jazz, too, was not immune. Charles Mingus, known for a fiery temper, smashed his $20,000 bass onstage in response to audience hecklers at New York's Five Spot, possibly in 1956. While many others would destroy instruments in the rock world, the most famous photograph, possibly rock's most famous photo, is of Paul Simonon of the clash, smashing his bass at The Palladium in New York on September 21, 1979. It was uncharacteristic of Simonon. "The show had gone quite well," said Simonon, "but for me inside, it just wasn't working well, so I suppose I took it out on the bass. If I was smart, I would have got the spare bass and used that one, because it wasn't as good as the one I smashed up."