All the people that were in my class at art college had come to see the Who at this little club," Pete Townshend remembered of the first time he smashed up one of his instruments. "I started to bang my guitar around and experiment with it. And it broke. A few people giggled, and I thought, Fuck, it's broken, so I might as well finish the thing off.'" So he did, with extreme prejudice. Townshend would later attribute his habit of destroying guitars, night after night, to an interest in "autodestructive art." But it was also dynamite showmanship. At the next gig, the club was packed, the crowd hoping for a repeat display. Townshend refrained, but Keith Moon, "eager not to be left out," Townshend said, "smashed up his drum kit."
It was the summer of 1964, and the Who – calling themselves the High Numbers – were holding down a Tuesday-night residency at a dingy pub, the Railway Tavern, in Harrow, a working-class neighborhood in northwest London. Townshend, singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and Moon played on a stage of beer crates under one red bulb, in a tiny room crammed with crisp-suited, pillpopping teenagers, the new London style army known as mods. Townshend, with his windmill-arm playing style, couldn't help poking the neck of his six-string Rickenbacker through the low, flimsy ceiling. The next victim was the Rickenbacker itself.
The Who were all mods, and their debut single as the High Numbers, "I'm the Face" – released the same week as the band's first Railway show – was an early mod anthem. A "face," short for "ace face," was a supreme figure among mods, the guy with the sharpest suit and hottest Vespa scooter. But for the mods who packed the Railway, the Who represented something even greater: a personal soundtrack to their lives. "Mods aren't the kind of people who could play the guitar," Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1968, "and it was just groovy for them to have a group. I know the feeling of what it's like to be a mod among 2 million mods, and it's incredible. That's my generation." By the fall of 1965, he had written a song for that family: "My Generation."
Over the years, Townshend learned to live with the audiences who came just to see the destruction: "I've often gone on the stage with a guitar and said, 'Tonight, I'm not going to smash a guitar, and I don't give a shit.' And I've gone on, and every time I've done it. Basically, it's a gesture that happens on the spur of the moment. It's a performance, it's an act, it's an instant, and it's really meaningless."
"I thought, 'It's broken'" said Townshend. "'Might as well finish it off.'"
This story is from the June 24th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone All Access.