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How a smashed-up bass guitar became the ultimate punk rock relic

3 August 2021

Going to see Paul Simonon’s broken bass at the Museum of London turned into more of a pilgrimage than I intended. Getting the bus from the Old Kent Road is not exactly the Camino de Santiago, but with an undiagnosed stress fracture in my right foot, it didn’t feel too far off. Limping through the museum with an occasional involuntary whimper of pain, wondering exactly what was wrong with me, I felt like I was dragging myself to the altar in hopes of healing. No miracle, though. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t say the efficacious prayer; perhaps it’s because my faith in the blessed Clash was found imperfect by the great Strummer above; perhaps it’s because I couldn’t touch the holy object itself behind its glass. Whatever the reason, my foot, like the bass, remained fractured. Having paid homage, I winced my way back home and called NHS 111.

Though it failed to heal me, there is no disputing the status of the guitar once played by the bassist of the Clash – which is now on long-term loan to the Museum of London, and on view in the ‘World City’ gallery – as pop relic. In an arena crammed with sainted objects, few can be more venerated than this, created on 20 September 1979 at the New York Palladium when Simonon raised his Fender P-bass over his head like an axe and drove it down into the stage. Immortalised by photographer Pennie Smith, the moment became one of the defining images of punk. It doesn’t matter that the motive for the act was fairly prosaic – ‘I was sort of annoyed’, said Simonon later, ‘that the bouncers wouldn’t let the audience stand up out of their chairs’. The image of it seems to capture the precise moment an entire generation’s frustration boils over. Joe Strummer chose the shot for the cover of London Calling the moment he saw it. Heretically, perhaps, I am not sure the album itself lives up to the art – I’m not sure any album could.

Simonon’s swing cracked the body of the bass in half and splintered the neck into two vicious shards tenuously attached by a few fibres of wood and the three remaining strings. According to Simonon, Joe Strummer tried to keep the body fragment for himself, leaving Simonon the rest, but Simonon wouldn’t let the remains be separated. They have been on display a few times before now; in previous resting places they have lain in state, horizontal, on a red velvet cushion. Here, with more sombre reverence, they are housed in a black-walled vitrine next to Smith’s photo of the decisive moment. Posed upright on an instrument stand, the body halves rest a few millimetres apart, the headstock angled out like a badly broken bone. Look very closely, and you can make out the black Styrofoam keeping the body open just the right amount. As with many relics, its broken wholeness is crucial.

Courtesy Museum of London

In Catholicism – though there have been taxonomic squabbles between scholars and canonical lawyers – relics are broadly categorised into three ranks: first, second, or third class. Naturally any object associable with Christ himself belongs to the first class, and so do the physical remains of saints. Beneath these come second-rank relics, items associated with saints; and beneath these, the third class, objects touched, and hopefully charged up, by a first-class relic. But even these most venerable of objects are not created equal: for partial remnants size is crucial. Debates in the wake of the Council of Trent made explicit the instinct that reliquiae insignes (distinguished relics) should be both large and whole. You might pray hopefully to a complete lower leg or hand; a finger or toe, not so much. Best of all, however, is the whole and broken body of a martyr.

The hierarchy of pop relics is a more ad hoc affair. Musicians and their labels have lawyers, but very few of them are canonical. Though everyday legal niceties tend to prevent the circulation and worship of actual body parts, tragic death is an important factor. The acoustic guitar played by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set, aired in December 1993, five months before his suicide, set a world record last year when it sold for $6 million at auction; his cardigan from the same show went for $334,000. But much of pop relic worship simply comes down to taste. From the right saint, for the right fan, even the most disregarded of objects can be insignis: the violinist Warren Ellis keeps as a talisman a piece of Nina Simone’s gum, scraped from beneath her piano after a performance. This seems more explicable to me than spending $40,000 on a lock of Justin Bieber’s hair (as one fanatic did in 2011), but there is no accounting for taste.

Happily Paul Simonon is still with us, still throbbing away at the low end of plenty of recordings – still playing, in fact, the bass he bought to replace the one he broke in 1979. Yet, the London Calling instrument holds its aura. It helps to be a Clash fan or to have spent, as I did, your teenage years obsessed with punk in general – but it does, I think, go beyond that. There are other broken guitars out in the world – Cobain’s, Hendrix’s, the endless Townsend wrecks – but most of them were created in deliberate gestures of pre-planned destruction. They were deemed disposable before their destruction, and their disposability has followed them into death. They might exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars among collectors, but no church lawyer would let them pass. This bass is a genuine martyr. Never meant to be broken, it’s a symbol not just of punk in general, but also of how sometimes you break things you love and then can’t bear to part with the pieces. You don’t need to be a punk to understand that.

‘The Clash: Paul Simonon’s Bass Guitar’ is at the Museum of London.