It’s no secret that performance adrenaline is intense for many musicians. By the end of a gig, it can sometimes cause them to do the unthinkable – destroy the very instruments they need to perform, sometimes losing thousands of dollars in the process.
Believe it or not, the rowdy tradition didn’t start with rock music. Back in the 1940s, Country music singer and mandolinist Ira Louvin had a habit of smashing mandolins onstage when he felt they were out of tune. But he also had a habit of drinking, so most people chalked up the outbursts to his bad temper, rather than musical excitement.
One of the first broadcasted incidents of guitar smashing happened in an unlikely place – on the mellow, bubble-filled set of The Lawrence Welk Show. In 1956, a musician known as Rockin’ Rocky Rockwell shocked the audience after a gritty rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” when he shattered his acoustic guitar to pieces over his knee. Another one-time smasher was Jazz musician Charles Mingus, who lost his temper over a heckling crowd and crushed his $20,000 bass onstage.
Regardless of these eruptions, history tends to credit Jerry Lee Lewis as one of the first real onstage destroyers, as he was first to do it repeatedly. His performance energy was so high that many of his 1950s shows were said to have ended with burning pianos and ruined equipment.
Pete Townsend of The Who made Rolling Stone’s list of “50 Moments that Changed Rock & Roll” when he wrecked his precious Rickenbacker guitar onstage in 1964. He continued the tradition in many subsequent performances, describing it as a form of auto-destructive art. The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, got the memo and began demolishing his drum sets to further shake the crowd. This led to a huge disaster in their debut on American television in 1967. Moon overloaded his bass drum with explosives and detonated them at the finale of “My Generation,” which not only caused guest Bette Davis to faint, but set Pete Townshend’s hair on fire – an incident that purportedly caused his onset of tinnitus and moderate deafness. Shrapnel from the cymbals also cut Moon’s arm in the explosion.
Despite this catastrophe, several musicians still tried to mimic The Who’s antics, often regretting it later. At the 1967 Monterey Pop Music Festival, Jimi Hendrix attempted to top The Who’s earlier performance that day by pouring lighter fluid over his guitar and setting it on fire. He later admitted that he “had just finished painting it that day.” In the 1966 film Blowup, Jeff Beck reluctantly smashed his guitar when instructed to do so by director Michelangelo Antonioni, who wanted him to imitate The Who.
Between alcohol, heckling, musical passion, and a desire for shock value, there are many possible causes for instrument destruction onstage. But if destruction is a form of creation, then these legendary guitar smashers have definitely created something huge.