Update: The 1964 sonic blue Fender Stratocaster smashed on stage by Pete Townshend sold for $30,000.
What you see: A 1964 sonic blue Fender Stratocaster “smasher,”–a guitar played on stage and smashed by Pete Townshend of The Who–on December 1, 1967 at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $15,000 to $20,000.
Who is Pete Townshend? He’s the lead guitarist and lead songwriter for the legendary British rock band, The Who, which played its first concert in 1964. Townshend also first smashed a guitar on stage in that year. The band’s hits include My Generation, Baba O’Riley, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Magic Bus, and Pinball Wizard, a song from the 1969 rock opera, Tommy. Townshend will turn 73 in May 2018.
How rare are genuine stage-played 1960s-era smashed Pete Townshend guitars? “Very rare,” says Garry Shrum, director of entertainment and music memorabilia for Heritage Auctions. “Usually Pete smashed a guitar until it was in shreds. I know a couple of collectors who own multiple stage-played guitars. I know one guy who bought several smashers to make one whole guitar–he Frankensteined it together. But it’s very rare to find one from the 1960s. People didn’t keep them. If it was in the crowd, it was a dive-fest. People wanted a piece of that guitar.”
How many Townshend smashers have you handled? “Two, and I’ve been at Heritage for 14 years,” he says. “Before that, I had a shop for 30 years. People brought in smashers to share with me, but they wouldn’t let me buy them off them.”
Has anyone tried to document how many times Townshend smashed a guitar on stage? “There’s got to be something, somewhere. Someone might have tried to document it, but I have not seen it,” he says. “I wish I had the answer, but I don’t. But he smashed guitars hundreds of times.” [After we spoke, I found a heroic stab at a list on thewho.net. Scroll down for the link.]
I was going to ask if this smasher was worth less because it isn’t complete, but hearing you speak, I get the impression that it’s unusually complete. “Exactly. You have to get the neck and some pickups to make it complete, but you generally don’t get that chance at all,” he says. “It’s a great piece of music history. Over the years, other people have broken guitars on stage, but it was all spawned by Pete in the ’60s.”
Townshend smashed hundreds of guitars on stage? Didn’t that get expensive after a while? “In the early years, he used cheaper guitars, but it got expensive,” he says, noting that Fenders “were imported to the U.K., and the pound versus dollar exchange made it more expensive for him. Probably £400 to £700 for a guitar every time he picked one up.”
This smasher doesn’t have a neck, but it does have its neck plate, which contains the guitar’s serial number. Does that help prove that Townshend played it and smashed it on stage? “In most cases, you don’t see the neck plate. You see half of a guitar. Once he started breaking it, the plate went because of the neck,” he says. “Pete would throw the whole thing into the crowd, and people would rip it to pieces. Somebody got the plate, somebody got the pickups, somebody got the headstock, somebody got the strings. The neck plate helps date it. It’s a stronger provenance of the time period. But there’s no way to trace it back [to Townshend]. After two or three years, music stores threw out their paper receipts. There was no reason for them to keep them. Guitar-collecting didn’t get serious until the mid-1970s.”
Is it rare for a smasher to have accompanying documents, as this one does? [It comes with a ticket stub from the December 1, 1967 show and a two-page handwritten account of how the original owner caught it.] “That’s rare, and that’s so cool, because we can date it,” he says. “A lot of times it’s a hearsay story. When you have other pieces of paper, a paper trail, it’s more exciting to talk about. You can close your eyes and picture the whole thing happening.”
Are Townshend smashers worth more than stage-played guitars that he didn’t smash? “No. An original 1964 Fender Stratocaster is worth money on its own, without a Pete Townshend provenance,” he says. “They sell for $16,000 to $20,000, depending on condition. If Pete played it during that period, it’s easily over $100,000. This is broken. We hope it’s worth $15,000 to $20,000, maybe more. All it takes is two people to push it up.”
What’s the auction record for a Townshend smasher? Is it higher than the record for an intact Townshend-played guitar? The auction record for a smasher as well as an intact guitar appears to belong to a lot sold at Bonhams London, Knightsbridge in December 2015. It contained a pair of Rickenbachers–one whole and one destroyed on stage during The Who’s 25th anniversary tour in 1989, along with a signed November 2014 statement from Townshend about them both. The lot sold for £52,500, or $73,934.
You set the opening bid for this guitar at $10,000. Why? “The consigner hopes to get at least $10,000,” he says. “We wanted it in the auction because it was such a cool, rare piece. You can’t go on eBay and find it. That’s not gonna happen.”
Why will this Townshend smasher stick in your memory? “I have certain bands I admire. I had a shop, and I had the advantage of going backstage to meet people,” he says. “In 1970, I hung out with The Who on the fifth floor of the Hilton San Diego. My wife was 17, and I was 18. It was one of those time periods when I thought, ‘Is this really happening? I’ve spent three hours talking about music with John Entwhistle.’ Keith Moon was doing crazy stuff. Pete and Roger didn’t stick around. They had girls. Anything from The Who that comes in makes me think about the time I spent then. It’s part of my history with music, and with the band itself.”
How to bid: The Pete Townshend Fender Stratocaster smasher is lot #89636 in Heritage Auctions‘s Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction on April 15, 2018.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
By clicking through to the lot, you can also see a photograph of Townsend playing the guitar in classic windmill style on stage, as well as images of the handwritten account of the December 1967 concert.
The folks behind thewho.net have assembled a list of guitars that Pete Townshend smashed over the years. The guitar being auctioned at Heritage is included.
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