Rocking the Transmission: Vulgar Spontaneity in Live Television Music

Curator's Note

Keith Moon’s exploding bass drum became a regular part of The Who's repertoire by 1967 as the band's reputation grew around raucous, flamboyant live shows that ended with the spectacular destruction of their own instruments. For their September 17, 1967 gig on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a combination of a lack of communication with stagehands and Moon packing his drum with more explosives than usual turned the CBS soundstage into something resembling a warzone. The sudden, violent blast singed vocalist Roger Daltry’s hair, reportedly initiated guitarist Pete Townsend’s hearing loss, and left a piece of shrapnel in Moon’s arm (seen here pulling himself from the floor).

What remains so remarkable about this oft-recounted moment in television music history is how disoriented the onscreen space becomes following the explosion. Ambient laughter emanates from the studio audience while boom microphones toggle in and out of frame. Over forty-five seconds pass before any words are audible, and Dick Smothers – no stranger to countercultural acts of disruption – struggles to maintain broadcast decorum during a standard cue card reading. By turning a grand finale into a spontaneous, even dangerous event that shocked not only the host and audience but the band itself, The Who momentously transformed the scripted program into an uncontrolled environment whose chaos was fed live into the nation’s screens.

During the late 1960s in the US and the UK, it became customary for rock performers to interrupt the institutional regulations and scripted conventions of live variety broadcasts through such moments of vulgar spontaneity. Jim Morrison belted the censored word “higher” during The Doors’ 1967 debut on CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show. Jimi Hendrix was banned from the BBC in 1969 after he and The Experience played through their allotted performance and interview time on Happening for Lulu with a feedback-heavy, improvisatory set.

Discussions of liveness as a criterion for rock authenticity often assume concert performance to be the standard-bearer of musicianship and (counter-) cultural credibility. But more attention can be paid to how musicians have asserted values of liveness and performed ideologies of authenticity within and against certain structures of media. Staging a distinct departure from conventional television practice and embracing the spontaneous potential inherent in live broadcasting, 1960s rock musicians found ways to foreground the conceits that define broadcast media’s content by disrupting its flow.


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