Jimi Hendrix needed a gimmick. He might have been the hottest upstart guitar player in the world, but he had struggled for years to make a name for himself in the US, mostly playing with R&B groups as a backing musician. Now he was back on his home soil, and he needed to prove to his country of birth what they were missing when he had left less than a year before.
There was only one thing in the way: The Who. The rivalry between Hendrix and Pete Townshend meant that neither wanted to follow the other at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, as punishing volumes and theatrical six-string fireworks were essential elements to both artist’s stage shows (the band sandwiched between the two duelling acts, comically enough, was the Grateful Dead). Both were also sure that the Festival represented their entry into the American market. There was a fair bit of wrangling going on behind the scenes before one of them had to take the stage or else cause a delay, so the matter was settled over a coin flip. The Who won, and proceeded to nearly destroy the stage with their destructive conclusion to ‘My Generation’.
This put Hendrix in a pickle: simply playing his bombastic and pummeling set of songs with The Experience wasn’t going to cut it anymore. The Who had trashed their gear, with Keith Moon providing smoke bombs to complement the frantic feedback that was produced from Townshend’s guitar — which was now smashed to pieces. It wasn’t only about the music anymore: it was about the spectacle. Hendrix would be damned if he let an English band steal his homecoming, and so he hatched an incendiary plan.
Hendrix began pondering ancient rituals that required sacrifices in order to successfully appease the Gods. With that in mind, Hendrix began hunting around backstage during the Dead’s set for some lighter fluid. As Hendrix would later explain: “I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of a song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar.”
When Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, and Noel Redding took the stage, the band plugged in and created an instant impression with a lively rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’. Hendrix pulled out all the stops, including playing the guitar behind his back and with his teeth. Songs including his breakout track ‘Hey Joe’ and an electric take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ mesmerised the audience, but Hendrix saved his greatest trick for last.
As he slashed away at the opening chords of The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’, The Experience laid down a strutting and sensual backbeat that let Hendrix explore the space with erotic glee. Mitchell started to ratchet up the tempo, and Hendrix dropped to his knees while somersaulting with his psychedelically painted Strat. When the song reaches its chaotic climax, Hendrix gives the guitar one final kiss, douses it in fluid, and lights the match. A few final smashes were all it took for the guitar to finally break apart, and Hendrix tossed the charred remains into the crowd, walking away from an instant star-making performance.
His fiery conclusion to his Monterey set propelled Hendrix and the Experience into the heights of American superstardom. Their subsequent gigs found them swiftly moved to the top of the bill, and after a brief and bizarre detour with The Monkees, The Experience were now one of the biggest band’s in rock. The fractures in the group became apparent almost immediately, but for one brief second, the stars aligned to make Jimi Hendrix the undisputed guitar hero of Monterey Pop and psychedelic rock.