The Who's Disastrous Performance That Ended With Pete Townshend's Hair On Fire

At the height of the 1960s counterculture in September 1967, the British rock band The Who were due to appear on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS, performing before an American audience of millions. Hot on the coattails of other major British bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, it was their chance to stake their place as one of the leading lights of the so-called "British Invasion."

And though the show drew big numbers thanks to the Brothers' willingness to offer American audiences counterculture acts that were making waves at the time, no-one was prepared for The Who's explosive televised appearance on their show, the hosts — and the band — included. Per Louder, the band's appearance began with a performance of their latest single, "I Can See For Miles," followed by their signature song, "My Generation," after which the band proceed to smash up their instruments, followed by an incredible explosion that emits from inside the drum kit and knocks the snow off air for a moment.

From the smoke emerged guitarist Pete Townshend, noticeably stunned by the blast, who first cradled his buzzing ear before attempting to realign his skewed, smoldering shock of hair. As host Tommy Smothers came on screen with an acoustic guitar and attempted to regain control after what has what has happened, the chaos continued. Townshend took the guitar from Smothers and, dropping to his knees, proceeded to smash it into the ground. Townshend claimed that the explosion contributed to his deafness in later life.

An appetite for destruction

So what caused the explosion? Misfiring pyrotechnics? An electrical fault caused by Pete Townshend's machine-head-led assault on his own Marshall amp stack? A member of the stage crew spontaneously combusting?

Actually, the shocking moment that saw The Who's frontman and lead guitarist blasted across the stage was the work of one of their own bandmates: the notorious Keith Moon. As Moon's biographer Tony Fletcher explains, The Who's pioneering drummer had an appetite for destruction that overshadowed even those of his instrument-smashing bandmates. As well as smashing his own drum kit to pieces, Moon liked to contribute to the climax of the band's riotous live appearances by loading his own bass drum with explosives, which he would then detonate to signal that the show was over.

Moon was familiar with explosives, but for this performance he decided to go one better, and bribe the stagehands to allow him to put an exceptionally large amount of gunpowder in his bass drum. That explains the sheer force of the explosion.

A rock and roll legend is made

Their appearance on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" wasn't The Who's first notable destructive performance. As Louder notes, the British rock group had already smashed their instruments to smithereens performing at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival, and, while supporting the comparatively tame British beat combo Herman's Hermits in August 1967 had already shocked the more conventional band's audience with their wanton destruction of their own instruments.

But it did bring The Who's destructive tendencies to a much larger audience, and with the band only just starting to make waves in the U.S. following their first major tour, it helped to cement them in the American psyche as synonymous with rock and roll rebellion.

In the clip above, watch the famous moment in which Moon — who received shrapnel in his arm from a cymbal in the blast, according to Tony Fletcher – ensures The Who made a bang in the show.