Appearing on television in the sixties was a big deal. It wasn’t like today when there are thousands of different channels all vying for attention. No, in the sixties space was limited which means when The Who secured a spot on the widely-adored Smothers Brothers over in the US to make their television debut across the pond, the opportunity to make a splash was too big to turn down.
By 1967, The Who were a force to be reckoned with on the tea-drinking side of the pond. The rock and roll band had grown themselves a sizeable reputation for not only producing incredible records but also for having an incendiary live show. It was this live show that they intended to bring with them to the TV studios and they would make sure their explosive performance was spoken about for weeks, months and years to come.
The Who were overseas trying to do that classic British band thing of “breaking America” and what better way to do it than a TV performance of their new song ‘My Generation’, which had seen the band’s stock dramatically rise across the globe. However, when they made their US TV debut on September 17th, 1967 on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, they very nearly broke everything in their path, whether they meant to or not.
The band arrived on set in stunning kaleidoscopic clothes from Carnaby Street, a cheeky-chappy persona, and a brand new track to play—perhaps the perfect concoction for the time. The British invasion was most certainly underway and though The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had led the way, The Who were attempting to carve out their own path, using dynamite instead of pickaxes.
Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle’s live shows, at this point, had become a huge badge of honour. They left most stages strewn with broken instruments and bathed in sweat as Townsend smashed through guitars quicker than he could afford to replace them. They were intense, they were unruly, and they were unstoppable.
One particular unstoppable force in the band was keen to push that ethos to the very edge. Keith Moon, AKA Moon the Loon, was a serial prankster as well as being marvellously adept at destructive nihilism, and he wasn’t about to change anything for an American audience. It meant, he had a special party piece planned ahead of time.
The legendary drummer had taken to filling his bass drums, which he often up-turned at the end of proceedings anyway, with flash powder. The explosive is designed to cause a loud noise and a bright flash—a perfect cannon-esque ending for the band’s performances, which had pleased most audiences. But for this show, Keith had got a bit carried away with the powder and over-filled the drums.
Reports differ as to how the extra explosive ended up in the bass drums. One report suggests Moon and the stagehand had got mixed up and had been adding charges without knowledge of the other doing the same. Another, possibly more likely, report, however, suggested that Moon had fiendishly been bribing the stagehand with shots of brandy to add the extra charges.
The Who duly mimed their new hit, ‘I Can Go For Miles and Miles’, and then went on to the stonking ‘My Generation’ and got on board with the opportunity the show offered, even having some very lovely small talk with the host mid-set. But, while they may have mimed their song they weren’t going to let anything stop them having their usual, and very real, climactic moments of smashing everything in sight, knowing it would set tongues wagging at water coolers around the country.
Everything was going to plan. Keith Moon was throwing his symbals to the floor while Pete Townshend was elegantly smashing through his guitar and the other two members of the band held on for dear life. Suddenly Moon’s drum-bomb exploded and nearly blew the entire band away, as well as the studio and the audience too.
The flash from the device knocked out the cameras for a moment while actress Bette Davis, who was also on the show, allegedly fainted off-stage from the velocity of the blast. It became one of the most seminal moments in rock and roll history and saw The Who become household names overnight.
Planned or otherwise, Keith Moon made sure that nobody watching that night would ever forget the moment The Who blew up on television. Watch below the whole set from The Who making their American TV debut in 1967.