1967: The Who's Keith Moon Blows Up The Smothers Brothers Show
The Who's John Entwistle keeps playing his bass as Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are exposed to the blast coming from the drum kit of Keith Moon, who seems to think it's very funny. Source: YouTube
If any band was going to blow up on TV in 1967 -- literally explode -- it would be The Who, and particularly their loose cannon drummer Keith Moon. And that's what happened, much to the chagrin of Pete Townshend and the Smothers Brothers.
In 1967 the Smothers Brothers were anything but the buttoned down squares that they appeared to be onscreen. During its short tenure on CBS, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the home to culturally and politically subversive acts who thumbed their nose at the older generations, whether they were dressed like members of the counter culture or not.
One band that made a lasting impression on the audience in the studio and at home was The Who, then a riotous upstart band from England trying to crack America. On September 17, 1967, the band performed "My Generation" before destroying their instruments on camera, while Keith Moon's kick drum exploded.
Literally, the kick drum was full of explosives and it blew up on air as the band finished with "My Generation." Was it a prank? Did the Smothers Brothers ask the band to end the show with a bang? And is this why Pete Townshend went deaf in one ear? That depends on who you ask.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the perfect place for The Who
They may have looked like two squares who found their way onto the CBS set, but the Smothers Brothers were a couple of the most anti-establishment people on television in the late '60s. Known for their subversive sketches that poked fun at politicians and the top brass of their distribution company, Tom and Dick Smothers were two guys who wanted to blow things up from the inside and laugh as the show burned.
It wasn't just their sketches that were incendiary. The Smothers Brothers were known for bringing on musical acts who knew how to touch a nerve politically. They booked Pete Seeger in 1967 even though he was blacklisted in 1950. When they were in a battle with CBS for the existence of their show, George Harrison of all people stopped by to tell them to keep fighting the man. If there was a nerve, the Smothers Brothers wanted to find it.
The Who didn't want to be a "dull thud" on the airwaves
When The Who arrived for their performance in 1967 they were riding high on the success of "I Can See for Miles," their first Top 10 hit in America. The song is a psychedelic groove squished into a pop song, and the band wanted to show they were more than English dandies with flowers in their hair, they wanted to rock out.
For their second song the band decided to play "My Generation," and since they were essentially lip synching to the track it was decided that they would the two song set with a bang. Although whose decision it was depends on who you ask. According to Pete Townshend, the Smothers Brothers actually asked the band to destroy their instruments. He explained:
The Smothers Brothers had a fairly radical show at the time and they bravely asked us if we would destroy our instruments... Keith [Moon] persuaded the pyro-technician on the show to make a cannon, which he put inside his drum. And in the rehearsal it went bang, but it kind of made a lot of smoke and a bit of a dull thud. And Keith said, ‘Listen, you must increase the charge.'
Keith Moon had his kick drum loaded for maximum destruction
Even if Pete Townshend says that the Brothers of Smother wanted the group to destroy their instruments, there's no way that they though Moon would actually blow up his drum kit. Or did they? Stage manager Bob LeHendro says that during the run through the band rehearsed an explosion, but Moon was unhappy with "dull thud" that came from his kick drum. Here's where an already murky story grows more oblique.
Unhappy with the initial explosion, Moon either decided to pack his kick drum with extra flash powder himself or a stage hand took care of it because of his complaints. Whatever the case, LeHendro claims that what we see in the performance is three times the amount of explosives that was used in the run through.
No one has ever commented on whether or not Moon told anyone that he was going to rain down percussive destruction on his bandmates, the crew, and the audience, but if he practiced the explosion in the group's run through they must have been prepared for what was going to happen. At the very least, Roger Daltrey knew to get out of the way, and in the footage bassist John Entwistle remains nearly completely still as the bomb goes off. It's easy to see how someone could go down a tin foil hat rabbit hole with this moment in rock history.
Moon's kick drum nearly killed The Who
Frankly, it's amazing that The Who were around in their original incarnation as long as they were. Moon was a madman and Pete Townshend never met a volume knob that he didn't want to crank. When the kick drum explodes at the end of the "My Generation" it's like a cannon is going off. Townshend later said that the explosion set his hair on fire, while Moon was hit with pieces of shrapnel from his own kick drum and a cymbal that exploded against the floor (although he looks unbothered by the whole thing in the footage).
After the performance, Daltrey was off checking on Moon while Townshend continued to smash up pieces of the set (specifically Tommy Smothers' acoustic guitar). The guitarist later claimed that the explosion is what cost him his hearing, although that sounds like more rock 'n roll myth-making from the songwriting giant.
Is Moon to blame for Townshend's hearing loss? Or is that on the guitarist?
Townshend has claimed numerous times that The Who's performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, specifically the kick drum explosion, is the root of his hearing loss. The explosion was definitely big, but we'd have to ignore the fact that Townshend has a history of cranking up his amps to blistering volumes. Ten years after this performance the band's volume was clocked at 126 decibels, which is six decibels louder than a clap of thunder.
We'll never have a straight answer about whose idea it was to blow up a drum set on national TV, but the combination of stories is probably closer to the real thing an individual tale.
Tags: Keith Moon | Pete Townshend | Remember This?... | Roger Daltrey | The Smothers Brothers | The Who
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