How the Who Got Off to Such a Fast Start With ‘I Can’t Explain’
After mucking about for a bit as the High Numbers, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon rechristened themselves the Who and got to work on the first single under their new name, "I Can't Explain." Although no one could have known it at the time, they were hearing history in the making.
Like many young artists of the early '60s, the members of the Who focused on cover songs first. The A-side of their previous single, 1964's "Zoot Suit," was written by the High Numbers' manager, while the B-side was a thinly written copy of Slim Harpo's "Got Love if You Want It." It's understandable, then, that when Townshend sat down to write "I Can't Explain," he ended up creating a fairly derivative piece of work.
Pete had heard "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks," explained Entwistle in a 1994 interview with Mojo. "He went home and tried to play it, but what he came up with was the riff that became 'I Can't Explain.'" Recalling that producer Shel Talmy tried to replace him during the sessions, he added, "I know he got Jimmy Page in, reputedly because he was the only guy in England with a fuzz box and Talmy wanted that sound."
In 1971, Townshend openly admitted to the forgery. "It can't be beat for straightforward Kinks copying," he chuckled. "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."
Whatever it was about, "I Can't Explain" got the Who off to a fast start in the U.K., where it peaked at No. 8 after going out to the BBC on Jan. 15, 1965. Establishing a pattern that would go on for several years, the single didn't fare as well in the States, getting no higher than No. 93 – but before the '60s were out, the band would find themselves resting comfortably at or near the top of the charts on either side of the Atlantic.
"[Rod] Stewart waited a long time, [Marc] Bolan waited a long time, even Elton John waited years. We were sort of instant," Townshend mused in 1973. "We made our first record, 'I Can't Explain,' and we were on Ready Steady Go with it, and from there on we never looked back."
Of course, that doesn't mean the band members were ready to rest on their laurels, or even that they were willing to admit any particular fondness for the song in the immediate wake of its success. "We just did it to get known," shrugged Daltrey a few months later. "As time goes by, we'll do the kind of thing we really like, really way-out."
His opinion of the song softened over time, however. "Well, it’s that thing – ‘I got a feeling inside, I can’t explain’ – it’s rock ’n’ roll," Daltrey told Uncut in 2001. "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. It still does."