A Love Song of Frustration: The Story Behind “I Can’t Explain” by The Who

The Who released their first single at the end of 1964. They embraced the mod look and became the iconic figureheads of the movement. While each band member approached their role as if they were playing a lead instrument, The Who was more than just a band that smashed guitars.

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Two minutes and four seconds of pop perfection. The lyrics don’t say a thing, yet they sum up the feelings of so many. Pete Townshend wrote the song based on a song by another band, and another guitar legend was called into the studio even though he did not play on the tune. Let’s look at the story behind “I Can’t Explain” by The Who.

Got a feeling inside (can’t explain)
It’s a certain kind (can’t explain)
I feel hot and cold (can’t explain)
Yeah, down in my soul, yeah (can’t explain)
I said (can’t explain)
I’m feeling good now, yeah, but (can’t explain)

Other People’s Songs Badly Remembered

Townshend wrote the song when he was 18. He was inspired by the string of hits The Kinks had released in the previous months.

In 2003, bassist John Entwistle told Playboy magazine, “When Pete first started writing, his songs were kind of other people’s songs badly remembered. We were at [Keith Moon’s] house one night, and we were playing ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks, and Pete went home and tried to remember it but couldn’t. He had such a bad memory, and so he came up with ‘I Can’t Explain.'”

Dizzy in the head, and I’m feeling blue
The things you’ve said, well, maybe they’re true
I’m gettin’ funny dreams again and again
I know what it means, but

Original Songs

After the success of “I Can’t Explain,” the band went into the studio to make an album. The original plan was to record the cover songs they had been performing live, but just before the sessions, Townshend wrote eight songs, including “My Generation.”

In 1994, frontman Roger Daltrey told Q magazine, “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 certainly 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.”

Can’t explain
I think it’s love
Try to say it to you
When I feel blue
But I can’t explain (can’t explain)
Yeah, hear what I’m saying, girl (can’t explain)

The Mods Could Relate to the Lyrics

Townshend was shocked by the reaction to the song. When the kids asked for more songs like “I Can’t Explain,” he didn’t know how to go about it. “Having written ‘I Can’t Explain,’ which was a love song of frustration, I was informed by various members of the Goldhawk Club audience … these uneducated, inarticulate kids, that what it actually was was a song about their inability to communicate their inability to communicate,” he said. “Now, that’s a pretty high concept. They got it, and I didn’t. When they came to me with that idea, telling me, ‘You have to write more songs like that,’ sort of nailing the nail into my skull for me to get it—like they’re idiots, and they’re going, ‘Yes, that’s what we mean. We want you because you’re so articulate, and you can speak, and you can write songs.’ So I was charged with this job.”

Dizzy in the head, and I’m feeling bad
The things you’ve said have got me real mad
I’m gettin’ funny dreams again and again
I know what it means, but
Can’t explain
I think it’s love
Try to say it to you
When I feel blue

A Kinks Copy

In Townshend’s 2013 memoir Who I Am, he remembered listening to Bob Dylan, Charles Mingus, John Lee Hooker, and Booker T & the MGs over and over again. “I tried to divine what it was I was actually feeling as a result of this musical immersion,” he recalled. “One notion kept coming into my head: I can’t explain. I can’t explain. … At the time, I was still using a clunky old domestic tape recorder to record my songs, which I used to put down a simple demo. … I ran back to my tape machine and listened to The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me’—not that I really needed to. It was on the radio all the time. I tightened up ‘I Can’t Explain’ and changed the lyrics so they were about love, not music. I tried to make it sound as much like The Kinks as I could.”

But I can’t explain (can’t explain)
Forgive me one more time, now (can’t explain)
I said I can’t explain, yeah
(Ooh) you drive me out of my mind
(Ooh) yeah, I’m the worrying kind, babe
(Ooh) I said I can’t explain

The Guitar Legend Who Was There Just in Case

Producer Shel Talmy wanted to add elements to the recording. He arranged for a studio drummer, but Keith Moon ran him off.

Townshend wrote, “Because Shel wasn’t sure I could play a solo, he had asked his favorite session guitarist, Jimmy Page, to sit in. And because our band had rehearsed the song with backing vocals in Beach Boys style, but not very skilfully, Shel arranged for three male session singers, The Ivy League, to chirp away in our place. Shel Talmy got a good sound, tight and commercial, and although there was no guitar feedback, I was willing to compromise to get a hit.”

Different accounts conflict on whether or not Page played on the recording.

In 2007, Townshend said in the film Amazing Journey: “Back in those early days, I thought, ‘I’m not going to write songs forever, you know, this is boring.’ I thought ‘Can’t Explain’ was quite childish.”

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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