Wednesday, May 23, 2007

“Can’t Explain” / The Who


I don’t really consider The Who part of the British invasion – they only surfaced at the tail end, when “I Can See For Miles” and “Magic Bus” became psychedelic standards on US radio. They made an indelible impression on me in 1967 on the Smothers Brothers’ TV show, dressed in full Mod regalia -- Daltrey swinging his mike by the cord, Pete Townsend attacking his guitar with windmill arm strokes, Keith Moon demolishing his drumkit at the end of the set. I sat stunned – as my fellow Hoosier John Hiatt would sum it up a couple decades later, “Oh it breaks my heart to see those stars / Smashing a perfectly good guitar.”

It was that live act, though, that made The Who famous. I’ve read that they patterned their on-stage antics after the Kinks, with whom they’d performed in 1964, when they were called the High Numbers. From mid-1965 through mid-1969, with the Kinks banned from performing in America, the Who finally got a foothold in the States, establishing themselves as pop music’s top hooligans (thus setting the Kinks’ Ray Davies free to explore his own village green). But eventually the shtick seemed to take over The Who, making the music less important than the image. I’m bored by big, overblown arena-rock spectacle; the more The Who went in that direction, the less interested I was. (Don’t even talk to me about the movie version of Tommy.) It was only after I saw The Kids Are Alright that I realized the Who had a sense of humor about themselves, and I could like them after all.

Their early stuff, the Mod Beat stuff – it’s still delicious. On this 1965 track, their first hit single, the Kinks influence is obvious: Those brash opening chords – where else did they get those if not from “You Really Got Me”? And where did Roger Daltrey get that fey vocal inflection if not from Ray Davies? To his credit, Pete Townsend freely admits The Who’s debt to the Kinks. Let’s just say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and enjoy “Can’t Explain” for what it is.

As he’d do again in “My Generation,” Daltrey adopts the role of inarticulate youth, singing an almost tuneless call-and-response with the falsetto backup vocals – “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).” It’s the hormones running through his brain that screw him up, of course, but let him think love’s to blame -- most of his audience is hormone-crazed too; they’ll never notice.

All this confusion makes him physically ill (dig the woozy chromatics, the meandering melody): “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 …” I get dizzy just listening to it, and the furious drum fill that follows is like blood pounding through my cerebral cortex. Sure, Keith Moon ripped that off from the Surfaris’ “Wipeout,” but it FITS. Daltrey tries again, now with harmonies: “Can't explain / I think it's love / Try to say it to you / When I feel blue.” Those short, stammered lines are underlaid with pulsing drums and a driving bass line -- was there ever a rhythm section as rock-solid as the Who’s?

The Who will never be my favorite band, but I’m fond of them -- the way you’re fond of a rascal cousin, the kid with the genius IQ who’s flunking seventh grade. I grin whenever I hear “Can’t Explain” or “My Generation” or “Happy Jack.” The kids ARE alright.

Can't Explain sample


G12 said...

Exactly, although they have albums that are called classics, they're a singles band for me - and I think that's reflected in the 60s centric sets they give night after night.

Julie said...

I loved the Who when I was 16 and am still fond of their early work. This is one of my favorites, too.

Iñakink said...

I like the Who, but there's no way they can ever get the respect I have for other artists I love. They are only another sixties band for me, a good band but nothing else. And the same could be applied to the seventies.

Pete was a great songwriter and a wonderful guitar player, but I think he never invented anything. I like the Who only to listen to their songs, it's just that they don't "hit" me. But yeah, the kids are alright.