Revisiting David Bowie’s visceral cover of The Who song ‘I Can’t Explain’
David Bowie, who could turn his hand to anything in a creative sense, enjoyed an unparalleled career packed full of risk-taking brilliance in which the enigmatic star rarely made a misstep and his glorious cover of The Who’s ‘Can Explain’ is no exception to the rule.
The track featured on Bowie’s tremendous seventh studio album Pinups, a record which was released in October 1973 by RCA Records. It is a covers album, featuring unique renditions of songs by bands such as The Pretty Things, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and Pink Floyd alongside The Who. Like Bowie’s previous two records, it was produced by Ken Scott alongside himself.
According to co-producer Ken Scott, the LP was originally conceived as “a complete opposite of [Bowie’s] other albums,” consisting of all cover songs except one original composition, and mainly turned towards the US market as “he wanted to do songs that weren’t known as well in the States as they were in England.”
Remarkably, the album was also released on the same day as Brian Ferry’s covers album and remain two of the greatest albums in this category of all time.
The ’60s quintessential British sound that Bowie chose to capture on the record was an insight into the type of music that shaped him in his formative years and, more importantly, arrived as a way of paying homage to some of the musicians that made him the artist he had become.
‘I Can’t Explain’ was one of the songs that Bowie chose to take on for the record and, in fact, was The Who’s very first single back in 1965 which was written by Pete Townshend when he was just 18 years old. The track was staggeringly left off their debut album, however, it would receive a second lease of life when it featured on 1971 effort Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy compilation album before a third lease of life just two years later when Bowie got further ears switched on to the original after his dazzling cover.
Roger Daltrey reminisced to Uncutmagazine about the track: “Well, it’s that thing — ‘I got a feeling inside, I can’t explain’ — it’s rock’n’roll. The more we try to explain it, the more we crawl up our own arses and disappear! I was very proud of that record. That was us, y’know — it was an original song by Pete and it captured that energy and that testosterone that we had in those days.”
Bowie’s version is much more visceral and energetic than The Who’s original as he gives it the full Ziggy Stardust treatment that takes the track to that next level which is a difficult achievement to do on a track that is already such a delight, to begin with. Listen to it below.