American Grandstand: I Can't Explain, Noted Critic Claims - Rolling Stone
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American Grandstand: I Can’t Explain, Noted Critic Claims

The Who are the best band in rock and roll

The WhoThe Who

Keith Moon and Pete Townshend of The Who perform in Oakland, California.

Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images

By Michigan standards, the winter of 1965 wasn’t a rough one. But it was brutal enough – I was 14 and had just broken up with the girl I’d left behind when my parents moved to the suburbs. Bitter and friendless, there wasn’t much to do but stomp into my bedroom and blast the radio. But in that instant, something important happened.

If I’d known what it was like, I would have said the music was like being drunk. Guitars cracked like whips, drums pounded like heads against walls, and the vocals were right out of the asylum: sandpaper on top of cotton candy. That was all there was, but it was enough to take my breath away. Especially the words:

Dizzy in the head and I
feel bad
Things you say’ve got me
real mad
Gettin’ funny dreams
together again
Know what it means but I
can’t explain

It wasn’t that rock & roll was unfamiliar. Already, I was too wrapped up (or so everyone said) in the Beach Boys‘ idea of vacation, the Crystals’ vision of romance. But this record did what all the others promised to do. It was vicious, raw and bruising, but somehow it never touched me like that. An instant pact was made – if I could be as strong as the sound, the noise would protect me. Then – at least for as long as it lasted – nothing else would matter. Not even girls.

The Who are Good — and Loud

It took some time to realize that not everyone felt this way – “I Can’t Explain” wasn’t even played on the radio in most of the rest of America. But once I was hooked, it stuck with me. Twelve years later, those three angry minutes still seem the best argument that the Who are the pinnacle of rock & roll achievement. By the time “I Can See for Miles” beat everyone else into submission, I wasn’t just a fan – I was obsessed.

Last month the chance arose to go to Miami to see one of the Who’s four August concerts. I didn’t have time, but there was no way out. It’s a decision I’ll never regret, although the show took place in a mini-Woodstock of mud in a minor-league baseball outfield. And it didn’t matter that I’d witnessed substantially the same group of songs about 15 times in the last five or six years. The Who, when they’re right, remain the definitive rock & roll experience. When they turned the lasers on the crowd at the end of the “See Me, Feel Me” bit from Tommy, no one present would have minded being incinerated. “Baba O’Riley” had already transported us beyond that.

The Who attract obsessives, something Peter Townshend has frequently complained about. Stranger, they make even cynical journalists obsessive, which is the part that interests me. Perhaps it’s just that they’re giants of formalism – it doesn’t matter what they do, it’s how they do it – so much so that their stage show is as much ritual as concert, an attractive notion to any street-level intellectual. At the end of a show, for instance, one should feel that Townshend has played so well that he might smash his guitar. But he shouldn’t actually do it because that would raise questions about all the times he played equally well (Woodstock, for instance) and didn’t. Even more curiously, when the ritual clicks, so does the music.

There’s more to it than that, of course. For many years, it was terribly hard to find any Who recordings, except their disorganized, mistitled American albums. (Calling their first LP The Who Sings My Generation is like describing the London blitz of World War II as a manifestation of German tourism.) In 1965 “I Can’t Explain” probably seemed more precious because it was virtually irreplaceable; it didn’t appear on an LP until 1971.

But that’s not all there is to it. The Who are so British that they have little to do with my other grand obsessions: baseball, ice hockey, hard-boiled detective fiction. (Although the dour Dashiell Hammett may have met his match in the perennially brooding Peter Townshend.) They do connect with one, however – pinball – but that’s mostly a matter of one song which was written as a shill for critic Nik Cohn anyway.

Maybe the real reason for my obsession is the Rolling Stones. For years people have been trying to convince me that calling the Who the world’s greatest rock band is absurd. The Rolling Stones, they claim, are the real classics of the form. At the risk of writing next month’s column in a padded room – there’s no way out of doing these things, you know – I say this is balderdash.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: the Who

I refuse to justify my belief, except to note that a rock & roll band (in the classic sense) is a group of people who play together all the time, not a singer and a guitarist and whoever wanders into the room. To me, the real mystery is how the Stones ever conned all those people into believing they were better than the Who in the first place. There are no conspiracy theories which fit – Howard Hughes seems to have been singularly uninterested in rock & roll, probably because he spent all that time hanging around Las Vegas, the dinosaur of the entertainment world. Just another thing I can’t explain, I suppose.

One thing, however, is certain. The Who are supposed to return to America in October and I will see one of their shows, even if I have to hitchhike all the way. Maybe they’ll play “Shakin’ All Over.” Maybe they won’t. But I know I’ll have a great time, again.

This story is from the October 7th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.


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