The Who guitarist Pete Townshend wrote this song when he was 18 years old. He described it as being about a guy who "can't tell his girlfriend he loves her because he's taken too many Dexedrine tablets."
Dexedrine is an amphetamine, which explains why the guy is "dizzy in the head" and "hot and cold." It's not just love that he's feeling.
This was the first single from The Who, which had recently changed their name from The High Numbers. It was one of the first original songs The Who performed; they played mostly covers of American R&B songs to that point.
This song is about what it is like to be young and unable to express your feelings. The guy in the song can't find a way to tell his girlfriend he loves her. Roger Daltrey told Uncut magazine: "Well, it's that thing - 'I got a feeling inside, I can't explain' - it's rock'n'roll. 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."
When the Who performed this on the popular British TV show Ready, Steady, Go!, their manager, Kit Lambert, invited all of their friends to the performance, ensuring a hip, young audience for the cameras.
This was the song that introduced audiences to the powerful drumming of Keith Moon. He became one of the first high-profile drummers in rock, and quickly earned a reputation as a wild man. After many incidents involving drugs, alcohol and mangled hotel rooms, Moon died in 1978 of an overdose.
This was produced by an American named Shel Talmy. He was famous for putting loud, powerful guitar on the songs he produced, and had recently worked with The Kinks on their first hit, "You Really Got Me
." Talmy produced this in a similar style.
In a Songfacts interview with Shel Talmy
, he recalled: "The Who, when I first heard them, I thought, 'This is the best actual rock n' roll band I've heard in England.' Pete wrote a song he thought would catch my ear, and he was correct."
Thoroughly rehearsed, the band did just four takes of "I Can't Explain" when they recorded it at Pye Studios in London. From there, it was right back on the road, so when the song took off, they didn't have any more material to release. They returned to the studio with Talmy to record their second single, "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere
," followed by their first album, which at first was going to be mostly cover songs they played in their live sets. When it was done, they realized they had to write original songs to distinguish themselves, so Pete Townshend went to work, writing eight originals, including "My Generation
," which became the title track to their landmark debut album.
In the UK, it was considered gauche to put singles on albums, so "I Can't Explain" was left off the My Generation album. It didn't appear on an album until 1971, when it was the first song on their popular compilation, Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame was a session musician at the time and was brought in to play guitar on this track. The Who producer Shel Talmy knew the guitar would be very prominent on this song and had Page ready in case Townshend couldn't handle it. Pete did just fine, and quickly established himself as a premier rock guitarist.
Roger Daltrey recalled to Uncut: "When we turned up to record it there was this other guitarist in the studio – Jimmy Page. And he'd brought in three backing vocalists, which was another shock. He must have discussed it with our management, but not with us, so we were thrown at first, thinking, 'What the f--k's going on here?' But it was his way of recording."
As for Page's contribution to the song, he says he's on it, but barely. Page says he played the riff in the background.
John Carter, Perry Ford and Ken Lewis provided the background vocals. The trio were popular session singers in England, where they were known for their harmony vocals. For session work, they called themselves The Ivy League, but they went on to have a hit called "Let's Go To San Francisco" as The Flower Pot Men. Perry Ford also played piano on this track.
The Who made their first US television appearance performing this on the ABC show Shindig. The program aired from 1964-1966 and featured many popular musicians performing their hits. The Everly Brothers, Glen Campbell, and Sonny and Cher were all frequent guests on the show.
Meaty, Beaty, Big And Bouncy was a 1971 compilation of The Who's early hits, many of which did not appear on albums and could only be purchased as singles. In 1966, The Who broke their contract with manager and producer Shel Talmy. As part of the deal, Talmy got royalties from Who records over the next five years. By 1971, the band was able to release the compilation album without giving the royalties to Talmy.
The Who played this at the Woodstock festival in 1969. It was the second of 24 songs in their set, which ended with a performance of all the songs from their rock opera Tommy. The Who went on at 3 a.m. the second night of Woodstock and played until the sun came up the next day.
The Kinks song "You Really Got Me
" was released the previous year and was also produced by Shel Talmy. If you hear similarities in the guitar riffs, you're not along. Dave Davies of The Kinks says that when he heard "I Can't Explain," he thought those "cheeky buggers" from The Who were copying them.
This was a staple of the band's setlists throughout their career. When The Who toured in 2015 for their 50th anniversary, it was the opening number. Promoting (sort of) the tour in a Rolling Stone interview, Pete Townshend said that he didn't like performing, partly because songs like this one have no meaning for him anymore. "The first chord of 'I Can't Explain' for me kind of sets the tone for the evening," he said. "Is this going to be an evening in which I spend the whole evening pretending to be the Pete Townshend I used to be? Or do I pretend to be a grown-up? In both cases, I think I'm pretending."
Roger Daltrey admitted to Mojo May 2018 that he thought "I Can't Explain" was a bit namby-pamby. He explained: "It was the backing vocals. 'Cos Shel Talmy got the Ivy League in. They did these kind of girly high (sings in comedy falsetto) 'I caaan't expaaaaain (laughs)'. But you know, it was commercial and it worked, and I was grateful for that."
Jimmy Page played on many records as a session guitarist in the mid-'60s, but this one stands out. He recalled to Uncut magazine: "I'd seen them at the Marquee. To be a kid, in the room, right there in the middle of the sound Pete, John and Keith created, was phenomenal. At the session, my job was to play something behind Pete's riff - he had his Rickenbacker 12-string. You can hardly hear me, to be on honest, because his playing was so powerful. I also played a bit on the B-side, 'Bald Headed Woman.' That session really impressed on me the part of a well drilled rock band."