Pete Townshend said it was an accident the first time he smashed his guitar. He was playing with The Who in a small cramped room at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, west London. The ceiling was damp with condensation, the room smoky, a smell of sweat and stale beer. The Who were playing “Smokestack Lightning,” “I’m a Man,” and “Road Runner” when:
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….
This is Townshend recounting the first time he smashed a guitar in his autobiography Who I Am. It’s an event that Rolling Stone magazine considered so important that it was included in their list of “50 Moments That Changed Rock & Roll.”
When The Who played the Railway Hotel the following week, the audience expected Townshend to give a repeat performance of his guitar smashing. He didn’t. The next time Townshend smashed his guitar was at the Olympia Ballroom, Reading, in April 1965. This time it was done as a piece of self-promotion. The Who’s manager Kit Lambert had “invited Virginia Ironside (Daily Mail) and writer Nik Cohn along to this gig and briefed Pete to create an impression by smashing his £400 Rickenbacker, despite the expense.”
This he duly did, and Keith joined in by smashing his drums. However, Lambert had been waylaid in the bar with the journalists when this grand spectacle occurred and was reportedly horrified to find he had been taken at his word.
It wasn’t until 1966 that Townshend’s trademark guitar-smashing regularly became part of The Who’s performance right up to a concert at the Yokohama Stadium, Tokyo, Japan, where he smashed a gold Fender Eric Clapton Stratocaster.
Over the years, Townshend has given various reasons as to why he first smashed his guitar in September 1964. He has claimed he deliberately did it because he “was determined to get the precious event noticed by the audience.”
Pete: I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar. I bounced all over the stage with it and I threw the bits on the stage and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really had meant to do it.
And he has also 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 thought, ‘It’s broken’” said Townshend. “‘Might as well finish it off.’”
But in his autobiography, Townshend ties his guitar-smashing into a more political act:
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 abso lute 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.”
All this from one smashed guitar?
It’s undoubtedly good copy, and gives the young Townshend’s actions considerable cultural cachet, as The Who at this time were still little more than a pop band singing songs about white boy angst—music for young white working class kids who thought they were missing out on something, but weren’t quite sure what. By 1965, there was nothing particularly new about their music or their obsessions with girls, dancing, or their generation. But the association with Mods, and Townshend’s guitar-smashing gave the band an edge, which counterculture figures like Mick Farren would later see as making Townsend and The Who revolutionary figures offering a kind of leadership in the fight against a police state.
In the early sixties, Townshend had been a student at Ealing College of Art, where he attended classes given by the auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger. In his autobiography, Townshend says he was “Encouraged too by the work of Gustav Metzger, the pioneer of auto-destructive art, I secretly planned to completely destroy my guitar if the moment seemed right.”
So, who is Gustav Metzger and what was his “auto-destructive art”?
Metzger was born in 1926, and has been creating conceptual art over the past 50 years. In his early work he would spray acid onto nylon sheets causing it to “auto-destruct.” His “Acid on Nylon Paintings” produced colors and drippings as the nylon disintegrated. In the 1970s, he declared an “Art Strike 1977-1980” where he did not produce any art for three years.
Artists engaged in political struggle act in two key areas: the use of their art for direct social change; and actions to change the structures of the art world. It needs to be understood that this activity is necessarily of a reformist, rather than revolutionary, character. Indeed this political activity often serves to consolidate the existing order, in the West, and in the East.
The use of art for social change is bedevilled by the close integration of art and society. The state supports art, it needs art as a cosmetic cloak to its horrifying reality, and uses art to confuse, divert and entertain large numbers of people. Even when deployed against the interests of the state, art cannot cut loose the umbilical cord of the state. Art in the service of revolution is unsatisfactory and mistrusted because of the numerous links of art with the state and capitalism. Despite these problems, artists will go on using art to change society.
Of course, the joke then was that Metzger went on art strike and no one noticed. Metzger was campaigning for “the destruction of existing commercial and public marketing and patronage systems, can be brought to a successful conclusion in the course of the present decade.” He wanted a new way for artists to operate, exhibit and sell their work. However, Metzger’s art is heavily dependent on the gallery system, for without it (like many other conceptual artists) his work would not be known or maintained. His art is about ideas, often trite, sometimes interesting, but ideas are only valid as long as they are shared.
More recently in 2004, Metzger was in the news when one of his sculptures, a bag of garbage, was accidentally removed by cleaning staff from an exhibition of his work at Tate Britain.
The exhibit was part of Metzger’s Recreation of the “First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art,” which aimed to show the “finite existence” of art.
Metzger wrote three manifestoes on “Auto destructive art,” the first appearing in 1959:
Auto-destructive art is primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.
Self-destructive painting, sculpture and construction is a total unity of idea, site, form, colour, method and timing of the disintegrative process.
Auto-destructive art can be created with natural forces, traditional art techniques and technological techniques.
The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception.
In 1960, Metzger altered the manifesto to include weaponry.
Rockets, nuclear weapons, are auto-destructive…
... Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummelling into which individuals and the masses are subjected.
Metzger finessed these manifestoes in his final auto-destructive art statement in 1961, by simply concluding:
Auto-destructive art is an attack on capitalist values and the drive to nuclear annihilation.
It was this angst over mass annihilation from “the drop drop drop dropping of the HH bomb” that Townshend was referring to (“one day an aeroplane would carry the bomb that would destroy us all in a flash..”) when he smashed his guitar.
Of course, this all could be all the retelling of events with the privilege of hindsight, but at least it maintains a link to the art of Gustav Metzger.
Martin Pickles filmed Gustav Metzger preparing for his exhibition of “100,000 Newspapers” in 2003.