#700: I Can’t Explain by The Who
The Who are an English band who emerged in 1964 with singer Roger Daltry, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon. The band enjoyed popular singles, such as “I Can See For Miles,” “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” In Vancouver the band had eleven Top Ten hits, while in the UK they charted fourteen singles into the Top Ten, but in America they only charted one single, “I Can See For Miles,” into the Billboard Hot 100. The band were innovators of new genres in rock n’ roll with their rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia. The Who early on were known for outlandish antics on stage. At the Railway Hotel in Wealdstone, England, in June, 1964, Peter Townshend destroyed his guitar on stage and smashed it into other instruments. The Who stand alongside The Beatles and The Rollings Stones as among the most influential rock bands from Britain. They had their first Top Ten single in the UK and in Vancouver in 1965 titled “I Can’t Explain,” which peaked at #8 in the UK and #2 in Vancouver.
Roger Daltry was born in East Acton, a suburb of London, in 1944. He learned how to play guitar and became the lead singer and lead guitarist for a skiffle band called The Detours, in 1959. He worked as a sheet metal worker by day and musician by night. After their first hit single Daltry’s bandmates in The Who kicked him out of the band after he beat up Who drummer Keith Moon for providing drugs to Pete Townshend and John Entwistle. Daltry had to assess his strategy for dealing with conflict with others. Seven days later, Daltrey was allowed to return to the band, but he had to be put on probation. Daltry swore that he wouldn’t be physically violent anymore. He later reflected, “I thought if I lost the band I was dead. If I didn’t stick with The Who, I would be a sheet metal worker for the rest of my life.”
Peter Townsend was born in West London in 1945. Born into a musical family, Townshend learned to play guitar at the age of eleven. He and a schoolmate, John Entwistle, formed a traditional jazz group called the Confederates where Townshend played banjo and Entwistle played horn. John Entwistle joined Roger Daltry’s band, The Detours, in 1961. And soon after suggested Pete Townsend join the band. In 1964 there was another regional band named The Detours and so Daltry’s band came up with a new name, The Who.
John Entwistle was born in Cheswick, a suburb of London. From the age of seven be began to learn piano and then went on to learn the trumpet, French horn and guitar. He played with Pete Townsend in the Confederates and later joined Roger Daltry’s band, The Detours, in 1961.
Keith Moon was born in 1946 in Central Middlesex and grew up in the Greater London suburb of Wembley. He initially learned the bugle while in Sea Cadets at the age of twelve, but soon moved on to learn the drums. He was part of a band in the early 60s called The Escorts, but by the end of 1962 Moon had moved on to join the instrumental band, The Beachcombers. At age seventeen he auditioned for and got the position as drummer for The Who.
The Who were one of a number of classic rock ‘n roll bands from the UK who were part of the British Invasion. Others who were part of that wave include The Yardbirds, The Kinks, Cream, The Hollies, The Troggs, Manfred Mann and the Small Faces.
“I Can’t Explain” was the first single released by The Who under their own name.
“I Can’t Explain” was written in December 1964 it was penned by Pete Townsend who was eighteen and a half. Townsend has since stated that he was strongly influenced by the Kinks style of hit-making in 1964 when he wrote the notes and lyrics for “I Can’t Explain.” The song is about a guy who is unable to explain to his girlfriend that he is in love with her. He is the worrying kind and the words just don’t ever come out of his mouth. Meanwhile, his head is getting dizzy and he’s getting “funny dreams” that keep repeating. The pattern of being inarticulate has implications for how he expresses himself in the world.
In the liner notes to a 1971 greatest hits album by The Who titled Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, Pete Townsend wrote: “It can’t be beat for straightforward Kink copying. There is little to say about how I wrote this. It came out of the top of my head when I was 18 and a half. It seems to be about the frustrations of a young person who is so incoherent and uneducated that he can’t state his case to the bourgeois intellectual blah blah blah. Or, of course, it might be about drugs.” The final comment by Townsend, “it might be about drugs,” is set in the context where many songs by rock n’ roll musicians were alleged by the press to be about drugs. Often the allegation, from an unnamed source, was pure fiction. This was a habit in the press that made musicians like Townsend cynical about what was motivating these stories and subsequently causing some of the rock singles at the time to be banned. Townsend penned an article for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1971, including more comments about “I Can’t Explain.”
Regarding the comment, “straightforward Kink copying,” Townsend wrote the song to get the attention of producer, Shel Talmy. By October 1964 Talmy had produced two hit singles for The Kinks: “You Really Got Me” (#1 UK) and “All Day and All of the Night” (#2 UK). Townsend wanted The Who to get signed by Talmy and “I Can’t Explain” was his way of getting Talmy’s attention. Talmy, who was associated with Decca Records in the USA, and their Brunswick subsidiary in the UK, snapped up The Who. Talmy went on to produce another hit single for the band in 1965 called “My Generation.” The later single peaked at #2 in the UK, but only climbed to #74 in the USA and #18 in Vancouver.
With a fast tempo “I Can’t Explain” peaked at #8 in the UK.The song got airplay in a number of radio markets in the USA. Their success was limited in the USA. However, they made the Top Ten in these markets: #3 in Columbus (OH) and Buffalo, NY, #4 in Detroit, #6 in Miami (FL), Honolulu (HI) and Louisville (KY, and #9 in San Jose (CA) and Flint (MI). This only served to bump the song into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #93. In Vancouver the song peaked at #2 and spent four weeks in the Top Ten.
Notably, the recording includes Jimmy Page on rhythm guitar, at a time prior to his involvement with the Yardbirds and, subsequently, Led Zeppelin. “I Can’t Explain” was positioned at song #380 on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list. “I Can’t Explain” has been covered by David Bowie, Yvonne Elliman, Rex Smith, Iggy Pop and alternative metal group, Incubus.
Several more singles that did well in the UK failed to make a dent on the Vancouver charts until the release of “I’m A Boy.” The song had been released in the UK in July 1966 and climbed to #2 on the British charts. In Vancouver the song managed to peak at #4. This was unique in both Canada and the USA, as it failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 and its charting on the Canadian RPM singles chart to #23 was due largely to its performance on the Vancouver charts.
The Who went on to chart another 14 singles into the Top 20 in Vancouver into the 1980’s. Drummer, Keith Moon, died in 1978 and was replaced by Kenny Jones through to 1988. The Who have released eleven studio albums, their last in 2006. They continue to perform in concert and came to the Rogers’ Arena in Vancouver on May 13, 2016.
May 7, 2018
The Story of The Who, The Who.com
Pete Townsend, Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy: Pete Townshend on the Who’s ‘Tommy’, Rolling Stone, December 9, 1971
Andy Greene, The Who Bio, Rolling Stone.com
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