The Who

I Can't Explain

Song Review by

"I Can't Explain" was the song that -- in their native United Kingdom, at least -- launched the Who into stardom, reaching the Top Ten in early 1965 and giving a struggling young band the national exposure they needed to keep going. Much of "I Can't Explain" -- the famous intro and the verses, certainly -- is a basic three-chord romp, indebted to songs such as "Louie Louie" and the Kinks' early hits. That Kinks comparison is no coincidence, as at this point both groups were produced by Shel Talmy. Those opening, slashing chords -- thick and reverberant, though not as explosive and reverberant as the Who would shortly become -- embodied what came to be known, retrospectively if not at the time, as power chords and power pop. The verse alternates between Roger Daltrey's almost stream-of-consciousness declarations -- Pete Townshend would later claim the lyric was taking the part of a pilled-up mod, unable to coherently express himself -- and chirping, high, soulful backup harmonies with distant echoes of American groups like the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. Those backing vocals, incidentally, are not by the Who, but by the group the Ivy League, roped into the session by Talmy as he felt the band's harmonies were not up to scratch. Indications that the Who had something more going for them than basic three-chord wonders were on hand in the brief bridge, with its brief venture into a minor key and an admission that the feeling the narrator was expressing might be love, not just a mixed-up blur of sensations. There were also the nifty guitar solos, again not as distorted and explosive as those the Who would soon employ, but with a manic intensity hinting at their eagerness to stretch and break boundaries. Instrumentally, however, the greatest flourishes were provided by a then-teenaged Keith Moon on drums, particularly at the point where the instruments and voices briefly stopped, jump-started back to life by rapid, furious drum rolls. Although "I Can't Explain" barely snuck inside the American Top 100, it would gain in popularity there as a Who standard when the group finally reached stateside stardom, becoming a staple of their live sets into the 21st century. The most famous and notorious cover of "I Can't Explain" is probably the one David Bowie put on Pin-Ups, his album of British mid-'60s rock covers, which slowed down the song to a ghoulishly slow tempo.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Who Sings My Generation 1965 Universal 0:00
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy 1971 MCA 2:05
No Image 1974 Trademark Of Official Quality
The Kids Are Alright [Video] 1979 Sanctuary
Hooligans 1982 MCA 2:05
Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy/Who by Numbers 1982 MCA
No Image 1983 CBS / Fox
The Who 1985 Grupo Laser Disc
Who's Better, Who's Best 1988 MCA 2:04
No Image 1991
Various Artists
RCA
No Image 1991
All Night Long [Epic] 1993
Various Artists
Epic 2:08
Thirty Years of Maximum R&B 1994 MCA 2:03
My Generation: The Very Best of the Who 1996 MCA 2:04
Amplified 2000
Various Artists
UTV 2:05
The Ultimate Collection 2002 Universal Distribution 2:05
Sixties Jukebox Classics 2002
Various Artists
Universal International 2:05
British Invasion: 1963-1967 2004
Various Artists
Hip-O 2:06
Then and Now: 1964-2004 2004 UMVD 2:07
First Singles Box 2004 Universal International 2:06
The Early Collection: Magic Bus/Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy/Who's Missing 2004 Griffin 2:05
No Image 2008
My Generation [Japan Box Set] 2008 Universal 2:07
Greatest Hits 2009 Geffen 2:06
Greatest Hits & More 2010 Polydor 2:32
Icon 2011 Geffen 2:07
Icon 2 2011 Geffen 2:07
The Who Hits 50! 2014 Geffen 2:05
Maximum A's & B's 2017 MCA / Polydor 2:39
I Can't Explain Geffen / Universal 2:05
No Image Hiwatt 2:06
Woodstock 50 - Back To The Garden: The Anniversary Experience Day 2
Various Artists
Atlantic / Rhino 2:24