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Shedding Light in the Darkness

The Who’s Pete Townshend, Artist Gustav Metzger, Smashing Guitars & Light Shows

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When Who guitarist Pete Townshend was a student at the Ealing School of Art (in London) he attended lectures by Austrian artist Gustav Metzger, who is acclaimed as the inventor of auto-destructive art. It was Metzger, who just died at the age of 90, who inspired Townshend to smash up his guitars in concert.

I had a brief connection to this confluence of talent. At the close of 1966 I ended up helping Metzger create psychedelic light show slides for a Who concert, and I was hired as a lecturer in social studies at Ealing School of Art in 1972.

Ealing was a potent crucible for a few arts students who became famous musicians including Townshend, The Faces/Stones’ Ronnie Wood and Queen’s Freddie Mercury.

But back to Metzger, who was raised by Polish-Jewish parents in 1930s Nuremberg, where he witnessed “machine-like” Nazi marches and rallies. In 1939, he and his brother escaped to Britain. Four years later Metzger’s parents were murdered by the Nazis. “Facing up to the Nazis and the powers of the Nazi state colored my life as an artist,” he reported. “Auto-destructive art is to do with rejecting power.”

In 1961, wearing a gas mask, Metzger performed one of the most famous acts of auto-destructive art when he threw hydrochloric acid at a sheet of nylon on London’s South Bank. “The important thing about burning a hole in that sheet,” he recalled in The Guardian, “was that it opened up a new view across the Thames of St Paul’s cathedral. Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive. Destroy a canvas and you create shapes.”

In his autobiography “Who I Am,” Townshend says – “Encouraged by the work of Gustav Metzger, the pioneer of auto-destructive art, I secretly planned to completely destroy my guitar if the moment seemed right.”

Metzger pioneered the use of computers in art creating “Liquid Crystal Light Projections.” Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Rick Wright both attended one of Metzger’s lectures where he projected his colored slides. And Pete Townshend invited the artist to design light shows for the Who.

On Jan. 31, 1966, at London’s famous Roundhouse, Metzger projected slides during a “Psychedelicamania” concert which featured Pink Floyd, The Move and the Who. Somehow, my memory fails as to how it happened, I spent time helping Metzger cut up thin metal strips for his slides.

That night included Townshend (who had supposedly dropped acid) ferociously smashing up his guitar, amps and speakers, which prompted complaining letters to the UK music paper the Melody Maker. And, not to be outdone, The Move smashed up TV sets with axes and chopped up an old car.

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One of Metzger’s light show slides

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Metzger in 1961 with gas mask.

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