Watch Jeff Beck (RIP) Smash His Guitar: A Classic Scene from Antonioni’s Blowup (1966)

Note: With the pass­ing of Jeff Beck, we’re bring­ing back a vin­tage post from our archive fea­tur­ing the ear­ly years of the leg­endary gui­tarist. You can read his obit­u­ary here.

Art film and rock and roll have, since the 60s, been soul­mates of a kind, with many an acclaimed direc­tor turn­ing to musi­cians as actors, com­mis­sion­ing rock stars as sound­track artists, and film­ing scenes with bands. Before Nico­las Roeg, Jim Jar­musch, David Lynch, Mar­tin Scors­ese and oth­er rock-lov­ing auteurs did all of the above, there was Michelan­ge­lo Anto­nioni, who bar­reled into the Eng­lish-lan­guage mar­ket, under con­tract with Metro-Gold­wyn-May­er, with a tril­o­gy of films steeped in the sights and sounds of six­ties coun­ter­cul­ture.

Blowup, the first and by far the best of these, though scored by jazz pianist Her­bie Han­cock, promi­nent­ly fea­tured the Yardbirds—with both Jim­my Page and Jeff Beck. In the mem­o­rable scene above, Beck smash­es his gui­tar to bits after his amp goes on the fritz. The Ital­ian direc­tor “envi­sioned a scene sim­i­lar to that of Pete Townshend’s famous rit­u­al of smash­ing his gui­tar on stage,” notes Gui­tar­world’s Jonathan Gra­ham. “Anto­nioni had even asked The Who to appear in the film,” but they refused.

In stepped the Yard­birds, dur­ing a piv­otal moment in their career. The year before, they released mega-hit “For Your Love,” and said good­bye to lead gui­tarist Eric Clap­ton. Beck, his replace­ment, her­ald­ed a much wilder, more exper­i­men­tal phase for the band. Jeff Beck, it seemed, could play any­thing, but what he didn’t do much of onstage is emote. Next to the gui­tar-smash­ing Town­shend or the fire-set­ting Hen­drix (see both below), he was a pret­ty reserved per­former, though no less thrilling to watch for his vir­tu­os­i­ty and style.

But as he tells it, Anto­nioni wouldn’t let the band do their “most excit­ing thing,” a cov­er of “Smoke­stack Light­ning” that “had this incred­i­ble buildup in the mid­dle which was just pow!” That moment would have been the nat­ur­al pre­text for a good gui­tar smash­ing.

Instead, the set piece with the bro­ken amp gives the intro­vert­ed Beck a rea­son to get agi­tat­ed. As Gra­ham describes it, he also played a gui­tar spe­cial­ly des­ig­nat­ed as a prop:

Due to issues over pub­lish­ing, the Yard­birds clas­sic “Train Kept A‑Rollin’,” was reworked as “Stroll On” for the per­for­mance, and as the scene involved the destruc­tion of an instru­ment, Beck’s usu­al choice of his icon­ic Esquire or Les Paul was swapped for a cheap, hol­low-body stand-in that he was direct­ed to smash at the song’s con­clu­sion.

The scene is more a tantrum than the orgias­tic onstage freak-out Town­shend would prob­a­bly have deliv­ered. Its chief virtue for Yard­bird’s fans lies not in the fun­ny, out-of-char­ac­ter moment (which SF Gate film crit­ic Mick LaSalle calls “one of the weird­est scenes in the movie”). Rather, it was “the chance,” as one fan tells LaSalle, “in the days before MTV and YouTube, to see the Yard­birds, with Jeff Beck and Jim­my Page.” Anto­nioni had seized the moment. In addi­tion to fir­ing “the open­ing sal­vo of the emerg­ing ‘film gen­er­a­tion,’” as Roger Ebert wrote, he gave con­tem­po­rary fans a rea­son (in addi­tion to explic­it sex and nudi­ty), to go see Blowup again and again.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “Lost” Pink Floyd Sound­track for Michelan­ge­lo Antonioni’s Only Amer­i­can Film, Zabriskie Point (1970)

13-Year-Old Jim­my Page Plays Gui­tar on TV in 1957, an Ear­ly Moment in His Spec­tac­u­lar Career

Jim Jar­musch: The Art of the Music in His Films

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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