The Who squares off with Jimi to blow a hole through the Monterey sky Monterey Rocks #15

Smashed guitar | Adobe Stock Photo


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
John Hiatt

By Joe Livernois

Fifty-two years later, it’s all stories and lies spread by folks with faulty memories or addled minds. True or not, the stories are usually a lot of fun. And, let’s face it, this is The Who we’re talking about, so protocol dictates that any retelling of their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival must be wrapped in legend and lore.

As most of us know, Peter Townshend smashed his perfectly good guitar and by the time The Who’s set was finished there wasn’t a piece of equipment onstage that wasn’t beaten to a bloody pulp. Keith Moon kicked over his drum kit and roadies were scrambling with vigilance about the stage to ensure that the entire city of Monterey didn’t blow up in a cloud of smoke and bad karma. This much we know for certain because we have reliable witness accounts and telltale video. There’s no argument about what happened onstage.

How it came to be is rather funny, the stuff of legend, and some of it might be true. The way things worked out at the Monterey Pop Festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds on June 18, 1967, Ravi Shankar had spent the entire afternoon bonking on his sitar with grace and style, and the evening show was stacking up with The Who, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, among others.

As it happened there was a lot of mad-dogging going on backstage between Hendrix and the lads from The Who. Neither of the equipment-smashing acts were real familiar to American audiences yet, but The Who had developed a reputation for junking up its equipment during its live shows. Formed in 1964 in London, Roger Daltrey, Townshend, John Entwhistle and Moon developed a quick and loyal following for their pre-punk stagecraft, a natural extension of the British’s Mod Movement.

Acts like The Who had frightened the establishment, to the point that sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic” as he studied the institutional reaction to prevalent youth subcultures in the 1970s. Cohen described the reaction developing from the perception that social norms and the interests of society are under threat, followed by the reactionary description of the threat in simplistic and symbolic ways. Widespread panic is further engendered by the way the news media portrays the threat. Authorities and policymakers must respond to the threat with the public utterances of dismay, of course. And, finally, moral panic sets in, forcing policy changes to squelch the threat.

Along with the prevalence of the open use of acid and pot, the concept of “free love” and all that long hair during the 60s, smashed-up guitars were setting off moral panic to the Moral Majority and to the Harold Wilsons of the world. Not everyone wanted in on the act. After all, Jimi Hendrix and The Who appeared on the Fairgrounds stage that weekend, but so did Simon and Garfunkle.

Word got around that Jimi Hendrix also didn’t treat his own guitar with proper respect. So both bands were jockeying around to get on stage first so that whomever followed would be forced to make a decision: to destroy equipment and look like copycats or to forgo the carnage.

At one point, Hendrix supposedly stood on a stool and glowered down at Townshend to show off his guitar. Not everyone remembered it that way, but so goes the story. There’s talk that Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead’s sound guru-turned-chemist, was distributing free LSD tabs. The Rolling Stones were on the schedule, but Brian Jones was back there. Anyway, John Phillips, one of the Festival organizers and a member of the Mamas and the Papas came up with an idea. Why not flip a coin.

Coin was flipped in The Who’s favor.

So they jangled out onto the stage dressed like manic Edwardian decadence, all paisley jackets, pirate shirts, puffed sleeves and ruffles. Roger Daltry wore a cape described by Keith Altham of New Musical Express as “a heavily embroidered psychedelic shawl.” Altham was later quoted as saying that Moon wore a necklace made from human teeth.

After following acts like Buffalo Springfield and someone named Cyrus Faryar, The Who blew away the crowd, tearing through “Pictures of Lily” and “Happy Jack” and “A Quick One.”

Mojo magazine described them this way: “Instead of peace, love and flowers, they offered wanking, pervert train drivers, adolescent turmoil, and Pete Townshend hacking away at the stage with his guitar, like a lumberjack trying to dismember a lot with a blunt axe.”

Smash. They were a smash. The music had gone awry, all smoke, explosions and chaos.

Someone prefaced “My Generation” by saying “This is where it all ends,” and the band launched into the song with a frenetic pace, finishing with wholesale and angry destruction. The crowd had spent the weekend being wowed by the likes of Janis and Ravi, but The Who’s performance dialed the amp up to eleven.

Meanwhile, backstage, rock writer Keith Altham watched it unfold with Hendrix. As legend has it, Altham turned to Hendrix and quipped,  “Well, it’s a pity you can’t set fire to your guitar.”

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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