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The Story Behind The Song: How The Who created ‘I Can’t Explain’

At a time when The Who’s first single, ‘I Can’t Explain’, was released in 1964, the band had just changed their name from The High Numbers and were eyeing up a new creative path. Despite claims at the time that it had resembled The Kinks’ ‘All Day and All of the Night’, 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.” Along similar lines, The Kinks had also released ‘You Really Got Me’ during the summer of ’64 and when Dave Davies heard ‘I Can’t Explain’, he allegedly said “cheeky buggers.” There is another connection between the two songs, and that is that they both share the same producer, Shel Talmy.

This is not necessarily a coincidence. Shel Talmy was very well known for accentuating loud guitars on his records. In an interview with Songfacts, Talmy said: “The Who, when I first heard them, I thought, ‘This is the best actual rock n’ roll band I’ve heard in England.’ Pete wrote a song he thought would catch my ear, and he was correct.” Up until the point before they released their first single, The Who did not really have any original material to show for. Roger Daltrey, in an interview with Q Magazine, explains why: “We already knew Pete could write songs, but it never seemed a necessity in those days to have your own stuff because there was this wealth of untapped music that we could get hold of from America. But then bands like the Kinks started to make it, and they were probably the biggest influence on us – they were a huge influence on Pete, and he wrote ‘I Can’t Explain’, not as a direct copy, but certainly, it’s very derivative of Kinks music.”

The song is a brilliant pop vignette that captures the very essence of what rock ‘n’ roll means to millions of people. Pete Townshend has described the song to be about a guy who “can’t tell his girlfriend he loves her because he’s taken too many Dexedrine tablets.” Dexedrine is an amphetamine drug, which would explain the “dizzy in the head” lyric of the song. On the surface, it certainly seems like it would be about love; love can be a very complicated and multi-layered concept most times. 

Roger Daltrey, in conversation with Uncut, describes it thus: “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.”

The song also showcases Keith Moon’s dynamite ability to bang away at the drums. In general, The Who as a whole would begin to develop a reputation for being not only a great rock and roll band but one that lives up to that reputation. Keith Moon, more than any of the other members of the band, would develop the reputation as a wild man, who would carry around a briefcase containing an assortment of medications, and also would be known to blow up the occasional toilet. Pete Townshend, on the other hand, would begin to be expected to damage his guitar – a stage stunt that began when he accidentally smashed his instrument up into a low ceiling at a club. 

When recording ‘I Can’t Explain’, the band turned up to the studio and found the producer, Shel Talmy, sitting with Jimmy Page. Because Talmy had a propensity to turn the guitars up and have them be one of the main features of a song, he wanted to make sure that the guitar solo would be absolutely accurate, and incase Townshend would not be able to deliver, Page would be able to do the job instead. Reflecting on the moment, Page recalls this particular session in conversation with Uncut magazine: “I’d seen them at the Marquee. To be a kid, in the room, right there in the middle of the sound Pete, John and Keith created, was phenomenal. At the session, my job was to play something behind Pete’s riff – he had his Rickenbacker 12-string. You can hardly hear me, to be honest, because his playing was so powerful. I also played a bit on the B-side, ‘Bald Headed Woman.’ That session really impressed on me the part of a well-drilled rock band.”