Along with Keith Moon’s penchant for demolishing drum kits and annihilating hotel rooms, one of the fundamental tenets of the Who’s legacy as a band was Pete Townshend’s pure, unadulterated love for smashing guitars into smithereens. Smithereens! If you don’t know too much about the art of instrument destruction, it’s exactly as you’d imagine, except surprisingly more balletic in Townshend’s case. During gigs, in fits of either rage or ecstasy, he would take the head of the guitar and fling its body … anywhere that could reasonably break it in half. On an amp? On the ground? On another amp? Doesn’t matter. Townshend was an equal-opportunity destructionist, purportedly preaching the gospel of auto-destructive art taught to him by art theorist Gustav Metzger, founder of the Destruction in Art Symposium. Those poor Rickenbackers never saw it coming.
Townshend and Moon’s unpredictable onstage antics quickly became a staple of the band’s shows and one source of conflict between Townshend and front man Roger Daltrey. In his new memoir, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, Daltrey claims that Townshend lied about the artistic underpinnings of his guitar-smashing habit, which was born instead out of a desire to impress a group of women after a slip-up during a gig in September 1964. “The first time a guitar died was an accident,” Daltrey writes. “The only difference was a new collapsible stage, which was a few inches higher than the upturned beer crates we usually performed on. Pete was in the middle of his repertoire of moves when he stuck the guitar through the ceiling. The place went quiet. Some girls snigged.”
Townshend covered up his mistake by smashing the guitar to pieces, and the rest was history. “This pissed me off. Pete will tell you it was art,” Daltrey continued. “That he was taking the work of Gustav Metzger to a new level. Gustav who? Bollocks. He’s journalizing. The hole in the ceiling had nothing to do with Metzger and everything to do with the sniggering girls. It was heartbreaking. When I remembered how much I’d struggled to get my first guitars, it was like watching an animal being slaughtered. An expensive animal that we’d have to replace with another expensive animal before the next gig. And we had to pay for the hole in the ceiling … from then on, the audience expected us to break our instruments. It was our thing.”
Daltrey enjoyed the smashing about as much as he enjoyed Woodstock. But he eventually realized that the lethal combination of Townshend and Moon’s behavior brought in excited new fans and press in droves — giving the Who the huge audiences they always wanted. (And it only accelerated from there.) There might’ve even been a genuine, no-bullshit artistic payoff to all the smashing, which had nothing to do with Metzger or the delight of watching a Gibson Les Paul impale a speaker. But Daltrey thinks the audience and the journalists missed it because they’d been using their eyes instead of their ears:
With the aid of a few ex-army smoke bombs it was a good visual. It had impact. But they were missing the real point. It was about the noise. What had started as a mistake fitted into the ritual of what we were doing. Very quickly, Pete wasn’t just smashing his guitar. He used to stick the neck of it right up into the amps and through the speakers to make all kinds of surreal noises. It was animalistic. It was sacrificial. The guitar used to scream, and it used to go on for about five minutes until it was wrecked. The people missed that. The critics missed it, but the fans got it at first, they understood through the energy it created. The critics were writing about what they were seeing, they weren’t listening. That was the problem with the smashing of the guitars; I feel that in the end it stopped people listening.
Daltrey has since come around a bit to the art of the smash, although he’s inclined to say, 50 years later, the crowds are still misinterpreting its deeper meaning. “You know, I’d love Pete to smash a guitar now just like he did, but he’d have to tell the crowd: don’t just watch, listen,” Daltrey writes. And now, “At least we could afford it. Back in 1965, his artistic expression was very expensive.” Think about that the next time you listen to “5:15.”