The BBC recently broadcast D. A. Pennebaker’s 1973 film of David Bowie’s last Ziggy Stardust concert. You can see it above. It’s a remarkable piece of early seventies rock with Bowie in his androgynous prime and Mick Ronson blowing away the audience with aching guitar solos as Bowie sneaks away for yet another bizarre costume change.
Compared to today’s concerts, it’s a world apart
Certainly, you wouldn’t want to bring back those hairstyles, but you would want to bring back the primacy of performance over pyrotechnics. There are no whiz-bang explosions on the stage, no animated backdrops or film footage behind the musicians, and certainly no giant screens at the side of the stage to help those seated too far away to actually see anything.
The lighting is dark, the costumes and make-up are over the top, but it’s the music that makes the concert a classic.
It is tempting to think of the late sixties and early seventies as a golden period for rock musicians and particularly for rock guitarists. This was a time before tech replaced the bassist with a programmed beat and rap turned the microphone into the only instrument an ambitious star ever needed to learn how to play.
They don’t make too many guitarists like Mick Ronson any more
But it’s also worth remembering that this was also a generation that set fire to guitars on stage and smashed them into splinters against the ground. Even that nice Paul McCartney has been known to throw his Hofner bass “headstock first, like an arrow” at John Hammel, his guitar tech for the last thirty-six years.
We can admire Pete Townsend’s cartwheeling arm movements and we watch in awe at old footage of Jimi Hendrix making a guitar do what no one else thought possible. But it’s much harder for any serious musician to think highly of the treatment that they put their instruments through in the name of art.
And it isn’t necessary.
From Smashing Guitars to Making Them
Not every great guitarist set out to trash their instrument. Not every great rock musician has seen a tool that cost thousands and entertained millions as replaceable as a used tissue. There are no reports of Mark Knopfler destroying guitars in concerts and Slash is more likely to make one than break one.
The former Guns N’ Roses star owns a hundred, used a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard replica for studio sessions, a 1988 Gibson Les Paul Standard for live performances and has worked with Gibson on thirteen Les Paul models.
It was probably better to be a rock guitarist in the late sixties and early seventies than it is today. That was a time when the music built the image and not vice versa, and when musicians who knew how to handle chords were more important than performers who knew how to do their hair and dance in a line.
But if you were a guitar, it’s probably better to be made today when no one is going to smash you on stage or forget about you when you’re packed away in the case.