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.