Fifty years ago today The Who’s recording career really took off when their first single, ‘I Can’t Explain’ b/w ‘Bald Headed Woman’ was released on the Brunswick label in Britain. Released a few weeks earlier in the US on the Decca label, the single didn’t make much impact, only reaching #93, but in the UK it managed to reach a very healthy #8 on the singles chart.
Recorded in early November 1964 at the studios of Pye Records in Great Cumberland Place, Marble Arch, London, the session was produced by US record producer and arranger Shel Talmy who had moved to London in 1962 to become a freelance producer and A&R man for the London office of Decca Records. Talmy had had some success with Irish group The Bachelors and their subsequent hit ‘Charmaine’. In 1963 he met Robert Wace, manager of a group called The Ravens, later to change their name to The Kinks. He recorded several numbers with The Kinks and they got to #1 with their third single, ‘You Really Got Me’.
Pete Townshend loved The Kinks’ music, particularly ‘All Day and All of the Night’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ . With this in mind he put pen to paper and came up with The Who’s first single ‘I Can’t Explain’ – a song full of Kinks-style power chords, loud, abrasive and powerful with lots of teenage angst – “I can’t explain, I think it’s love, try to say it to you when I feel blue”. Said Pete in a later interview, “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.”
For the recording session Shel Talmy brought in extra musicians, a practice he used on many recording sessions – mainly because he knew from experience there was no guarantee that young, new groups were competent enough on their instruments to make a decent enough recording. The session musicians for ‘I Can’t Explain’ and the b-side “Bald Headed Woman’ were John Carter, Ken Lewis and Perry Ford of the Ivy League who supplied the high-voiced backing vocals on ‘I Can’t Explain’. Said Shel Talmy, “The Who didn’t do backing vocals. or, to be more precise, they did them badly.” Perry Ford also played piano on the song. Tornados’ drummer Clem Cattini was brought in but Keith Moon reputedly sent him on his way pretty sharpish. The other session man was twenty-year-old Jimmy Page. Page has been quoted in recent years as saying that he barely played on ‘I Can’t Explain except for ‘playing the riff underneath’ Townshend’s lead guitar and playing fuzz guitar on the b-side.
Mark Blake, writing in his book Pretend You’re In A War: The Who In the Sixties writes, Chris Stamp said “Talmy didn’t really want to use The Who, he wanted to use Jimmy Page and some drummer, but we said ‘No fucking way’.” He also says that Talmy strongly denies wanting to replace Keith Moon. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” said Talmy today. “I never thought of bringing in a session drummer. Moonie was the best rock drummer of all time.” Nevertheless, Daltrey, Townshend and Entwistle all backed up Stamp’s allegation. Keith apparently told Clem Cattini, “Get out of the fucking studio , or I’ll kill ya!” says Townshend.
The b-side ‘Bald Headed Woman is a traditional American work song although Talmy added his own name to the songwriting credits thereby earning himself some extra royalties. The song was also recorded by The Kinks and by The Sneekers, both produced by Talmy of course.
Two weeks after the release of ‘I Can’t Explain’, on 29 January 1965 The Who made their very first appearance on Rediffusion TV’s show Ready Steady Go! miming to their new single. To this day ‘I Can’t Explain’ with it’s fabulous opening riff is a regular show starter. At the Leeds show on 2 December 2014 I was thrilled to note the hairs on the back of my neck standing right up when I heard those four chords begin the night’s show. A very happy birthday, ‘I Can’t Explain’!
Richard Evans, web master
And here’s The Who on Shindig later in the year performing ‘I Can’t Explain’.