In late 1967, The Who released their third studio album The Who Sell Out, an album I profiled a while back. At that time I noted that “This album was not a smash success, certainly not as much as the band and especially Townshend wanted.
But it did spawn one hit single, in fact, the biggest single the band ever had in the US, “I Can See For Miles.” (Less so in the UK however. I was reading an issue of Uncut about the band and Townshend could not seem to get over the fact that “Miles” had not been as big a hit as he wished.)
“To me, it was the ultimate Who record, yet it didn’t sell. I spat on the British record buyer,” says the ever-gracious Mr.Townshend. He couldn’t yet spit on the American buyer as in 1967. the Who were just another British Invasion band. It took them a while to heat up and get somewhere over here.
I read that this song was about Townshend’s future wife and how he could keep an eye on her even while he was touring. That sounds vaguely stalkerish and it actually sounds more to me like a guy who’s being cheated on while he travels (on tour?) and wants her to know that HE knows.
Here’s The Who doing what is easily one of their greatest songs.
What precipitated this post was that my son sent me a text about a cover of this song he’d found. The provenance is a bit mysterious. It says, “Surfing the Apocalypse featuring Chelsea Davis.” Davis, it turns out, is (no surprise) a singer-songwriter with some level of success.
I gave up trying to figure out what Surfing the Apocalypse is. Somebody, on commenting on the song on YouTube, mentioned a video game called Forza Horizon 4. I’m not a gamer. Do video games have songs? It’s a racing game so it seems a bit counterintuitive to have this mellow version of “Miles” on it. But so be it.
Those of you who have followed my blog for more than a minute knows that I love a capella. Now, a capella is NOT necessarily doo-wop. Very often, a capella is done by college students who compete or who just do it for fun. And while I haven’t listened for a while, Emerson College here in Boston does a Saturday afternoon a capella show that I’ve always dug.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Petra Haden but she’s the daughter of jazz legend, bassist Charlie Haden. I don’t use the word “legend” too often but look up Charlie if you want to see a greatly respected musician who played with everyone.
Petra isn’t quite as well-known but has sung or played (she’s a violinist) with jazzer Bill Frisell, The Decemberists, Beck, Foo Fighters. If that wasn’t enough, she’s also the sister-in-law of madman actor/singer Jack Black. Hmm, maybe she’s better known than I think.
Here she is with a group called The Sellouts. I think they very much get the context and meaning of the song. (That thing she’s doing at 2:15 is Townshend’s one-note guitar solo.* See, in this type of a capella, you’re trying to not only sing the song but recreate the sound of the song.)
Note – Per Wikipedia, “The song may have inspired the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Paul McCartney recalls writing it after reading a review of The Who Sell Out in which the critic claimed that “I Can See for Miles” was the “heaviest” song he had ever heard.
McCartney had not heard the song but wrote “Helter Skelter” in an attempt to make an even “heavier” song than the one praised in the review, “to be the most raucous vocal, the loudest drums, et cetera.”
*Songfacts – Townshend played a one-note guitar solo on this song. According to an interview for the book The Story of Tommy, Townshend did this because he “couldn’t be bothered.” He later admitted that he felt very intimidated at the arrival of Jimi Hendrix on the London scene during that time and that he couldn’t ever compete in the guitar solo stakes.
In some hilarious, totally missing-the-mark comments, about this song Billboard said it had a “strong dance beat.” Really? But my favorite is the journal Cash Box which said that it’s a “solid, thumping, hard-driving, discotheque-styled rock stand.” I guess discotheque meant something different in 1967.
“I Can See For Miles” was ranked number 262 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2010.
8 thoughts on “One Song/Three Versions – I Can See For Miles”
“I Can See For Miles” is a true gem, and I can see why Pete was a bit bummed it didn’t chart higher in the UK. That being said, a no. 10 isn’t exactly shabby and only one spot lower than the truly epic “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. I’m kind of shocked that tune didn’t go higher!
Even more unbelievable to me is that “Baba O’Riley” and “Love, Reign o’er Me” didn’t chart at all in the UK, according to Wikipedia. I guess some of The Who’s great songs were simply too good for the charts!
I also like the two renditions, particularly the a cappella version.
A capella is crazy stuff. It’s a real feat to sound like the record. I see no one attempted Moon’s drumming.
Always get jacked by this cut. The Who kill it on so many levels. The other versions sound good and I’m sure Pete would get a kick out of the creative angles. All those clean cut young women doing a song by the nasty who. Talent does fall far from the Haden tree.
It’s a great tune. I understand Pete’s frustration. I think, though, he’s been vindicated many times over. Can’t deny the man’s overflowing talent.
Not surprised CB recognizes Haden. Alas, you are one of the few readers of this blog that would have a clue. As to those ladies, yea, I’m sure they get the meaning but they sound so damn angelic.
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Oh yeah Im a Charlie fan for sure and will check out more Petra. Charlie did an album ‘Rambling Boy’. Totally blew me away. I had no idea he had hillbilly roots. He brought in some cool guests along with family. Petra and the girls would have been great in the same setting as when Zep was at the White House. Those “angelic” voices backing a little smash and bang.
That guitar solo replication from Haden is pretty amazing. I don’t think I ever connected that Charlie Haden and Petra Haden were father and daughter.
I’ll be honest here and say that while I know Haden and his work and reputation pretty well, I wasn’t familiar with Petra till I stumbled on this rendition. Yes, she and her group are pretty amazing. I’ve always loved a capella. I need to start listening to that show again.
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I’m the opposite, which probably reflects our respective ages – Petra pops on a few different things, while I only know Charlie Haden by name. Although checking now, I didn’t realise he played with Ornette Colman and Keith Jarrett, so I have heard a bit of his stuff here and there.
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