What is it about electric guitars that make them so tempting to destroy? Two of rock’s most arresting images show them being wrecked: the picture of Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival kneeling over his burning guitar like a shaman coaxing one last riff from its smouldering corpse, and Paul Simenon on the cover of The Clash’s London Calling smashing his bass against the stage floor in an ecstasy of self-sabotage.
I was reminded of this proud tradition at a concert by Muse recently, which ended with frontman Matt Bellamy battering his axe wildly against a loudspeaker. Up until that point I had been unmoved by the band’s relish for rock excess but the sight of a guitar lying mangled amid a welter of feedback and splintered wood as its owner marched off stage somehow worked its old magic on me.
It wouldn’t have been the same had he smashed up another instrument. The thought of an acoustic guitar being shattered strikes me as pitiful, like a form of bullying. And surely one can’t demolish keyboards or pianos: it would be akin to book-burning. Even Jerry Lee Lewis, who supposedly set fire to his piano while performing “Great Balls of Fire”, only dared do it once.
Drummers have form in the demolition stakes – Keith Moon used to wipe out drum-kits as enthusiastically as hotel rooms – but as their musicianship consists mainly of hitting things as hard as possible, the distinction between playing drums and destroying them is too slender to be notable.
The electric guitar, however, is perfect. It can be a vehicle for great virtuosity yet it also sounds aggressive and untamed. Its feral chords crowbar their way into the listener’s consciousness. To play guitar successfully requires skill but also a capacity for musical violence. Perhaps that’s why guitarists contort their faces in agony and look like they’re throttling their instruments during solos. You can see why they might want to take the aggression a stage further and destroy the guitar itself.
Destructiveness is a key feature of rock. Blame it on testosterone, the rocket fuel of delinquent music. As a member of the rap band the Wu-Tang Clan bragged on a recent track, “We’re like rock stars who smash guitars” – one macho genre paying respect to another.
Rock stars who smash guitars are not acting in an original way. When the man from Muse did so it was clearly the act of someone addicted to rock cliché. It felt electrifying because we don’t see much rock ’n’ roll destruction these days.
Pete Doherty is a lonely beacon of “wild man” behaviour but his appetite for tawdry, tabloid-friendly misadventures has taken a terrible toll on his song-writing talent. And he does have talent, as shown by the uncharacteristically coherent garage rock number that kicks off his band Babyshambles’ new EP, The Blinding.
Doherty’s self-destructiveness is out of step with the times. Rock is cleaning up its act. Digital production means the sound quality of recorded music is crisper. You don’t leave concerts with ringing ears any more. Dingy, unreconstructed venues such as CBGB’s in New York are disappearing. The days of smoking at indoor concerts will end next year in England, as they already have in many other places elsewhere in the world.
So I feel nostalgic at the sight of a guitarist swinging a guitar around like a berserker. It’s a reminder of rock’s untamed spirit – at least until the inevitable day when the man bans guitar-wrecking on the grounds of public safety.