Music

Listen To This Eddie: The Who, The Doors And The Most Explosive Evening In Late Night Television History


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Listen To This Eddie is a bi-weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

By all accounts, September 17 was a typical Sunday evening in homes across the America in 1967. Those that owned televisions had three, action-packed channels to draw entertainment from as they relished in the last few waking hours before the working week began. ABC aired episodes of Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea and The F.B.I., while NBC broadcast the final moments of an AFL Football game, then followed that up with episodes of The Mothers-In-Law and Bonanza. It was over on CBS however, where things got really interesting.

Sandwiched between Gentle Ben and Mission Impossible, during the hours of 8 and 10 PM, CBS aired their two, marquee variety programs. The Ed Sullivan Show, renowned for playing host to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones was on first that night, heralding the network debut of a slinky new band out of Los Angeles named the Doors. Shortly after that, The Smothers Brothers were prepared to introduce their audience to a rising Mod outfit from the UK cryptically called The Who. Neither the hosts, the bands, nor the viewing audience at home could have ever anticipated that they were about to witness two of the most incredible moments of either group’s entire careers.

The late summer and early fall of 1967 was, without question, the pinnacle of The Doors cultural potency and commercial appeal. The second single from their debut, self-titled album, a jaunty organ-fueled ballad titled “Light My Fire” shot up the charts, taking the top spot for three consecutive weeks in July in August, before ultimately ceding the position to no less than the Beatles and their monstrous offering “All You Need Is Love.” Led by their shamanic, black leather-clad front man Jim Morrison, the Doors were being feted as the greatest American rock band since the Beach Boys. It only made sense that the talent scouts for the Sullivan show would try and book them for an appearance.

As disciples of Elvis, The Beatles, and The Stones, the members of the Doors were obviously excited to follow in their footsteps and bring their sound to a large, live viewing audience. When they got to New York, the band set up their equipment in the afternoon for a quick sound check then retired to their dressing room to wait the evening out. The mood was light, and everything seemed like it was going fine. Their lead-in that night was the self-deprecating comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who paced nervously in the hallway trying to put together his act in his head.

Shortly before show time, the host himself, wandered into the band’s midst. “You know, you boys are really handsome. But you’d look a lot better if you’d smile more,” organist Ray Manzarek remembered Sullivan saying in his autobiography. But that was just the primer. A few moments after Sullivan exited, a producer came rushing in. There was a problem. “Jim glared at the producer, ‘What kind of problem?’ he snarled,” Manzarek wrote.

Apparently, the network took exception to the line in “Light My Fire” were Morrison croons, “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.” They felt that it carried a negative, drug-inspire connotation. If the band was going to play the show, the line had to come out.

“Jim muttered ‘F*ck you” under his breath.
The producer whirled around and shot a mean look at Jim. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said “to what?”’ Jim lied sweetly.
‘Ohh…uhh…wire, or liar…or something. I don’t know. You’re the poet, make something up,’”

With little recourse, Morrison agreed. The show went off without a hitch. Sullivan played the convivial host while Dangerfield came off as predictably hilarious. With only a few minutes left in the program, it was time for their performance.“Now, The Doors,” Sullivan announced. “Here they are with their newest hit record, ‘People Are Strange.’” Arranged in front of a slightly silly backdrop of different doors — real subtle — the group launched into the first song of the night, before seguing into their big hit.

Of course, as you’d expect, Morrison never had any intention of changing the line of the song, and he told the rest of the group as much before they went on. Sure enough, the moment comes, and Morrison doesn’t skip a beat. With his eyes shut tight, he softly sings the reviled line: “Girl we couldn’t get much higher.” Off to the side of the stage, a small smirk creeps across guitarist Robbie Krieger’s face. “They make a big deal about it, but to me that was just normal Jim,” he later told High Times. “I had no doubt that he was going to sing the normal words. It wasn’t a surprise.”

It certainly was a surprise to Sullivan and the production crew. While he mouthed the words “that was wonderful” shortly after they finished, he refused to shake the band’s hand and instead threw it away to Purina dog food commercial.

“When we got back to the dressing room… there was the producer, waiting in whine for us. I’d never heard a grown man whine before,” Manzarek wrote. “’You said it!’ He was almost sobbing. ‘You said higher! On national television!’” The band tried to fake like it was an accident, but the producer remained irate, informing them that Sullivan had considered booking them for an additional five to six shows.

Morrison remained unimpressed. “Hey, man. So what?” he reportedly said. “We just did the Ed Sullivan Show.”

If the Doors appearance was more subtly subversive, The Who’s performance in the next hour was literally explosive. Unlike the Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was tape-delayed. The band would play on the 15th and an edited show would be cobbled together for air two nights later. Any extemporaneous slip-ups or “indecent” language would never make it to the 9 o’clock hour on this program. Not that that was ever The Who’s thing anyway. The were always a band more about blunt force rock, overt bombast and spectacular showmanship than brooding sexiness or moral ambiguity.

As opposed to The Doors, in 1967, The Who were still in the midst of a heady ascent. Their peak would come years later following the release of their “rock opera” Tommy, and a string of incredible follow-ups like Who’s Next, Quadrophenia and Who Are You. Still, they weren’t exactly nobodies at this point. Their most recent effort The Who Sell Out was performing well, with their hit “I Can See For Miles” cracking the top-10 in the US To this date in fact, it remains the band’s highest-charting single in America.

Onstage, The Who were renowned for their wanton acts of musical instrument mutilation. Pete Townshend in particular had reduced an untold amount of guitars to little more than wood-chips. For the appearance on the Smothers Brothers, the group decided to up the ante, and unlike the staid Sullivan, Tom and Dick Smothers encouraged their guest’s bad behavior.

“The Smothers Brothers had a fairly radical show at the time and they bravely asked us if we would destroy our instruments,” Pete Townshend told VH1. “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.'”

Stage manager Bob LeHendro did a whole lot more than just “increase the charge.” He loaded three times more of the gunpowder into Moon’s kick than before, essentially turning it into a giant bomb. Everyone was expecting fireworks, no one was ready for the Hiroshima they were about to receive.

When the time came, Tommy Smothers introduced the group with a memory of his discovery of the band at the Monterey Pop Festival just a few short months before, before handing it over for them to play “I Can See For Miles.”

The first song finished, and Smothers walks back out in front of the camera to ham it up with the Who, asking Townshend where he learned to play like with his distinct windmill style. “That was bowling,” the guitarist deadpanned. Daltrey introduces the next song “My Generation,” and with a knowing smile, Smothers promises the crowd gathered in front, and the millions set to watch two days from now that they were, “going to be surprised by what happens.”

Everything is going chaotically to plan. The band plays it straight for about two minutes before a plume of smoke rises behind them. During the song’s breakdown, Townshend grinds his guitar against his amplifier, then rams it into the speaker before throwing it up into the air, picking it up and smashing it into the ground like a battle ax. Slowly he inches his way over toward the drum kit, and then BOOM! Disappears in a white cloud. The crowd audibly gasps, while Moon descends from the rise, bleeding from an errant bit of cymbal shrapnel. His kit is in pieces around the studio.

As the smoke dissipates, Townshend wanders back into view patting his his head. “My hair caught fire and my hearing was never the same,” the guitarist wrote in his book Who I Am. Smothers strides out carrying an acoustic guitar for a pre-planned bit, but in a daze, Townshend rips it off his shoulders and promptly bashes into the ground.

Despite the loss of his hearing, Townshend recognized the scene for the jaw-dropping spectacle that it was, and eventually grew to appreciate the insane antics of his wild drummer. “Keith was such a twat sometimes,” he wrote. “Even if he did make this TV show a significant moment in pop history.”

Bootleg Bin

By the Fall of 1992, Nirvana were well on their way to taking over the entire world. Their second album Nevermind had already unseated Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top of the charts earlier in the year. You could hardly turn on a rock station without hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the band played their own Jim Morrison-esque game of chicken with the censors at the MTV VMAs by playing a portion of their unreleased song “Rape Me” before launching into “Lithium” instead” during the live, televised event.

On September 11, 1992, the group returned to their stomping grounds for a special one off-gig at the Seattle Center Coliseum for the Washington Music Industry Coalition Benefit. Nirvana was onstage for just about an hour and a half that night, savagely tearing into their best material off Nevermind, as well as their Sub Pop Records debut Bleach, and a few cuts off their upcoming record In Utero, cuts like “All Apologies” and, yes, “Rape Me.” The night ended as most Nirvana concerts ended, with Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic totally destroying their instruments in Who-like fashion while thousands of flannel-adorned 20-somethings cheered them on. Watch it above.

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