The Story Behind the Song: The Who’s creepy classic ‘I Can See For Miles’
The Who’s ‘I Can See For My Miles’ is one of the band’s classic tracks, one which, on the surface, sounds like a beautifully romantic tale of long-distance love but the reality is something rather more sinister. We warn you, this might make you see the anthem in a different light next time the needle drops.
Commercially speaking, ‘I Can See for Miles’ was a universal success. Appropriately, the song was originally recorded for the band’s 1967 album The Who Sell Out. Written by guitarist Pete Townshend, it was the only song from the album to be released as a single and remains their biggest hit in the US and, after debuting on the Hot 100 at number 72 in October 1967, the track climbed to the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in November. It’s a landmark release but one not without its weirdness.
Pete Townshend wrote ‘I Can See For Miles’ shortly after meeting his future wife, Karen. The track was intended as a reminder for his new beau that even though he was on the road, he would still be keeping a watchful eye over her every move, which feels a bit uncomfortable now in 2020. Townshend would go on to marry her in 1968 with the couple remaining together for over 40 years until their divorce in 2009.
The song was inspired by the suspicion that would arise when he had to leave her to go on the road and was unable to know exactly what she was up to every second of the day. However, Townshend wrote it from the persona of a vindictive character who is trying to win back his love rather than about the feeling of missing someone’s company whilst touring.
“Well, here’s a poke at you, You’re gonna choke on it too, You’re gonna lose that smile, Because all the while , I can see for miles and miles,” is an example of the sort of lyrical content that Townshend churned out for the song. It’s also an example of the lyrical content which can feel a touch on the creepy side today.
This song would bizarrely end up being the fuel that started a fire in Paul McCartney to create The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’. Even if Townshend was completely unaware that he had inadvertently led to the creation of The Beatles’ masterpiece until decades later. Rumour has it that Macca was unimpressed after reading an interview with Townshend who described The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’ as “the most raucous rock ‘n’ roll”, lit a fire in him and he decided to do one better by getting even more raucous.
“Just reading those lines (of the Townshend interview) fired my imagination,” McCartney told Mojo in 2008. “I thought, Right, they’ve done what they think was the loudest and dirtiest; we’ll do what we think. I went into the studio and told the guys, ‘Look, I’ve got this song but Pete said this and I want to do it even dirtier.’ It was a great brief for the engineers, for everyone- just as fuzzy and as dirty and as loud and as filthy as you can get it is where I want to go. I was happy to have Pete’s quote to get me there.”
Whether the song’s meaning is rather creepy to read now in 2020, it is hard to deny that it is still a barnstorming anthem and the fact that it inspired Paul McCartney to better it with ‘Helter Skelter’ proves that it deserves a place in rock ‘n’ roll history.