Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Smashing and not so smashing

Last week watching a BBC2 TV programme about what Britain was like in the 1960s for an average family I was confronted by the horrible spectacle of the featured Mum, Dad and two children smashing up an old upright piano. The programme claimed that this was the era when the home piano was replaced by the TV set. Archive film showed people smashing up a piano. This archive film – ghastly enough – was adequate for making the point. But that wasn’t enough for the producers who required the family to act this out and smash up the piano outside their house. The word ‘philistine’ has not yet outlived its usefulness.

I was genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction I felt to this. The next day I found myself reflecting on why. It felt like an act of cultural barbarism. The piano is a symbol of several centuries of Western music – both its own repertoire and that of all the composers who have created orchestral music on its magic keys. Symbolically, to smash one up is to reject all that beauty and all the music that still waits within those keys, and to delude oneself into thinking that you are superior for doing it.

This made me think also about the role of destruction in rock music in the past. As a teenager I saw film footage of the Who smashing up instruments and of course Hendrix at Monterey setting fire to a Strat in 1967. These were presented as though they were artistic acts of merit to which I should give my approval. Talking heads on current rock documentaries are still doing it. But even as a teenager I felt uncomfortable and not at all thrilled or excited by these spectacles, and they seem utterly tawdry now.

I remember reading that Ravi Shankar, the Indian master of the sitar, who was at Monterey, was horrified by this destruction of the musician’s creative tool by musicians. For him, it was almost a kind of blasphemy against the spirit of music.

It is telling also that Pennebaker’s film of Hendrix captures the expressions of women in the audience, and they too look disturbed and not at all excited. That too is revealing about something ugly in the dark side of the Sixties.

An act of guitar-smashing also has featured in my thoughts in my writing and research of a book about Marc Bolan. In April 1971, on a tour of the US, he threw his valuable Les Paul across a stage in a fit of frustration and broke the neck. This act was not a calculated piece of stage performance but a genuine loss of self-control. It revealed his inner turmoil and a kind of loss of a state of musical grace.

Marc Bolan had only owned the guitar for about a year and when he first got it he described it as ‘the love of his life’ … which is probably a suitable transition to wish everyone a happy valentine’s day with the love of your life – strings attached or no strings attached ….

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4 responses

  1. Most of the guitar burning, guitar smashing, drum kit assault and amp overturning was the idea of the managers and PR guys. The press liked it for a story, the band’s names got into print, almost everyone was happy.

    February 14, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    • Hello Steve, yes quite right – PR people sometimes egged them on because it would create a headline or a bit of publicity. The story goes that Townshend’s guitar-smashing started by accident when he hit a ceiling with a guitar at an early pub gig. It was Keith Altham who first suggested to Hendrix that he set fire to his guitar, which I think he did only twice.

      February 15, 2016 at 1:36 pm

  2. Scott Pomeroy

    …makes me think of the lyric from the John Hiatt song “Perfectly Good Guitar”
    “Oh it breaks my heart to see those stars
    Smashing a perfectly good guitar
    I don’t know who they think they are
    Smashing a perfectly good guitar”

    February 15, 2016 at 2:42 am

    • Hello Scott, thanks for your comment. An interesting lyric quote – I’m sure many guitar players relate to this.

      February 15, 2016 at 1:34 pm

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