I Can’t Explain (Townshend)
Producer: Shel Talmy
B-side: Bald Headed Woman (Talmy)
Released: January 1965
Highest UK chart position: 8
It’s early 1965. The Beatles are busy working on Help!, while only with their sixth single have The Rolling Stones finally found the courage to issue an original composition, “The Last Time”, as an A-side. Enter The Who, who take just 125 seconds to announce their arrival as the hardest new beat group on the block. A short, sharp three-chord shock eulogising not love per se but its universally problematic corollary: emotional inarticulacy. Quite simply – “I Can’t Explain”. Beside the benign prettiness of Lennon and McCartney’s then-current “I Feel Fine”, Townshend’s first in a daunting series of fantastic songs (not to mention fantastic riffs) posed a beguiling alternative. Aggressive, minimal, darker but, above all, a formidable pop construction. That said, its chopping rhythm was blatantly indebted to The Kinks (whose “You Really Got Me” had preceded “I Can’t Explain” by five months), a similarity magnified by their use of Kinks producer Shel Talmy, who was dubious enough about his new protégés to ensure session musician/future Led Zep guitarist Jimmy Page and vocal trio The Ivy League were roped in to add professional gloss, much to The Who’s displeasure.
Legend has it that a few weeks after the single’s release, Townshend was accosted in his native Shepherd’s Bush by a gang of kids, thanking him for expressing their feelings on record, and urging him to write some more in the same vein. Already, just one record down the line, The Who’s creative linchpin was being handed the weighty responsibility of spokesman for a young generation unfulfilled by the Stones’ Anglicised R’n’B or the Fab Four’s Mersey beats. Townshend wouldn’t disappoint them.
Daltrey: “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. It still does.
“Yeah, it was very Kinks derivative because we were huge fans of theirs, we supported them on so many shows. But as a producer, Shel Talmy just stood and watched a lot; he didn’t communicate with the band. 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 fuck’s going on here?’ But it was his way of recording. We were in that studio for no more than two hours. A-side, B-side, played the thing four times and that was it. Obviously, if we’d had to do our own backing vocals that would’ve meant overdubs and more studio time, so that was how Shel worked. Pete could’ve played the lead but in a way it was a privilege having Jimmy Page on one of our records… he ain’t a bad guitarist, y’know?”
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (Townshend/Daltrey)
Producer: Shel Talmy
B-side: Daddy Rolling Stone (Blackwell)
Released: May 1965
Highest UK chart position: 10
If “I Can’t Explain” was a surly knock on the door of mid-’60s British pop, its sonically irascible follow-up, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, blew the hinges off. Marketed by managers Chris Stamp (brother of actor Terence) and Kit Lambert as the world’s first “pop-art record”, its radical use of feedback, string glissandi (or ‘plectrum scrape’) and Townshend’s overdriven ‘Morse-code’ pick-up stammers successfully captured The Who’s stage chemistry and amp-abusing anarchy in a studio environment.
Citing bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker as his primary muse, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” was almost jazz-like in Townshend’s revolutionary structure, chopping between high-harmony Beach Boys choruses and spacious, seemingly improvisational breakdowns just about tethered down by the simple piano boogie of guest Nicky Hopkins and Moon’s tom-tom stampedes. It also marked the only joint composer credit for Townshend and Daltrey, the latter invited to finish off and “toughen up” the former’s basic lyrics, asserting an almost Nietzschean, autonomous super-ego. The angry, young sound of pop art in motion, the song further defined its age when it was selected as a temporary title theme for Ready, Steady, Go.
Daltrey: “We were doing this feedback stuff, even before that. We’d be doing blues songs and they’d turn into this freeform, feedbacky, jazzy noise. Pete was getting all these funny noises, banging his guitar against the speakers. Basically, the act that Hendrix is famous for came from Townshend, pre-‘I Can’t Explain’. ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ was the first song when we attempted to get that noise onto a record and that was a good deal of time before Hendrix had even come to England. The American pressing plant sent it back thinking it was a mistake. We said, ‘No, this is the fucking noise we want. CUT IT LOUD!’”