10/16/12 - pete townshend smashes his guitar

In today's selection -- Pete Townshend of the rock and roll band The Who grows up under the specter of the atomic bomb -- one of his defining early memories a fear of the world's end during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This specter, and the shadow in London of three generations of war, led to the band's aggressive sound and Townsend's habit of smashing his guitars on stage:

"Usually I'd be feeling like a loner, even in the middle of the band, but tonight, in June 1964, at The Who's first show at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, West London, I am invincible.

"We're playing R&B: 'Smokestack Lightning', 'I'm a Man', 'Road Runner' and other heavy classics. 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....

"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. ...

"In 1964 I began playing guitar the way I was always meant to play it. The sound I had favoured until then borrowed liber­ally from American prodigy Steve Cropper's guitar solo on 'Green Onions' -- a cold, deeply menacing, sexual riff. This, I suppose, is how I imagined myself at eighteen. Now, at the flick of a switch the central pickup, which I had set close enough to the strings to almost touch them on my modified Rickenbacker 345S guitar, cut in to boost the signal 100 per cent. The guitar, with a semi-acoustic body I had 'tuned' by damping the sound holes with newspaper, began to resonate. ...

"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."


Pete Townshend


Who I Am: A Memoir


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2012 by Pete Townshend


3-4, 61-62
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