Released: 19 October 1973
Mick Ronson: guitar, vocals
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Mike Garson: piano
Aynsley Dunbar: drums, tambourine
Ken Fordham: baritone saxophone
Geoff MacCormack: backing vocals
David Bowie recorded a version of the Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’ for his seventh studio album, 1973’s Pin Ups.
The Who’s version was recorded in November 1964, and released in the UK in January 1965. It was the band’s second single; their debut, ‘Zoot Suit’, had been released under their previous name the High Numbers.
‘I Can’t Explain’ was written by Pete Townshend, who later performed on Bowie’s songs ‘Because You’re Young’ and ‘Slow Burn’.
Bowie and Townshend first met when the Lower Third opened for the Who in Bournemouth on 20 August 1965. After hearing their soundcheck, Townshend asked whose songs they were performing. When told that they were Bowie’s own, Townshend remarked that they sounded more like his. The Lower Third’s single ‘You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving’ did indeed bear a strong resemblance to the Who’s amphetamine-fuelled brand of R&B.
Townshend was in turn heavily influenced by the Kinks when writing ‘I Can’t Explain’, particularly Ray Davies’s songs ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day And All Of The Night’. The Who’s song became a mainstay of their live set, often as the opening number.
It’s absurd to think that a song, written by some 18-year-old kid, about the fact that he can’t tell his girlfriend he loves her because he’s taken too many Dexedrine tablets, is gonna have any meaning whatsoever in the daily course of events. The first chord of ‘I Can’t Explain’ for me kind of sets the tone for the evening. 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? [Laughs] In both cases, I think I’m pretending…
Rolling Stone, 2015
‘I Can’t Explain’ was one of two songs by the Who to be recorded for Pin Ups, the other being ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’.
Bowie and the Spiders From Mars played ‘I Can’t Explain’ on occasion during the first leg of the Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1972.
Bowie performed the song at London’s Marquee Club on 20 October 1973, during filming for the NBC television special The 1980 Floor Show, and it was revived a decade later for some of the early Serious Moonlight Tour dates.
In the studio
David Bowie first recorded ‘I Can’t Explain’ in two takes at London’s Trident Studios on 24 June 1972, just weeks after the release of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. He also taped two attempts at ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, although that song was re-recorded two days later.
Bowie returned to ‘I Can’t Explain’ in July 1973, during the Pin Ups sessions at Château d’Hérouville in France.
The band began by playing the song at a fast tempo, but it was soon decided that it worked better at a slower tempo.
This track started off faster but wasn’t working. Somehow we came up with the idea of taking the tape speed down and it immediately felt better. There was just one problem, slowing it down took it completely out of the key it was supposed to be in, so everyone but Aynsley had to re-record their parts, but, because it felt so different, they would probably have done that anyway.
Five Years (1969-1973) book
‘I Can’t Explain’ was completed at Trident after the main Pin Ups sessions had concluded. The Trident sessions were mainly for mixing the album, although some overdubs of other songs were recorded.
The drum sound on ‘I Can’t Explain’ is interesting in that we originally recorded it at a faster tempo that was close to the original record, but after a while decided it wasn’t working. When we came back to Trident, we tried slowing it down and loved the tempo but also loved the sound of the drums, so we redid all the instruments in the original key.
Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust
‘I Can’t Explain’ was one of just two Pin Ups to be recorded in a different key from the original. The other was ‘I Wish You Would’, which was played faster than the Yardbirds’, and raised a tone to A major. ‘I Can’t Explain’, meanwhile, was lowered from E major to C.
New feeling inside
It’s a hot certain kind
I feel hot and cold
Down my soul, baby
I can’t explain
Going out of my mind
Dizzy in the head, and I’m feeling blue
Things you say well maybe they’re true
I get funny dreams again and again
Knows what it means, but
I think it’s love
Say it to you
When I feel blue
I can’t explain, no, I can’t explain
You know I can’t explain
I’m going out of my mind
Well I’m a worried guy
But I can’t explain