Before Led Zeppelin became a force of nature, Jimmy Page made a living as an in-demand guitar player in London studio sessions. By most accounts, Page could handle whatever a producer needed, and he played on No. 1 hits by both Donovan and Joe Cocker.
Page also played on the first record by The Kinks. That bit of session work led to rumors that Zep’s future guitarist was playing on the band’s early hit, “You Really Got Me.” The Davies brothers angrily refuted this claim, as did Page (much less angrily).
At the same time, everyone involved confirmed Page was present at those Kinks sessions with producer Shel Talmy. And, when Talmy produced the first single by The Who in November ’64, he again wanted session musicians on hand.
That meant a group of backup singers called the Ivy League and, according to some sources, a drummer who would take the place of Keith Moon. Talmy also brought in Page for the same date.
The Who’s producer brought in session vocalists and players alike
Pete Townshend, who explicitly wrote “I Can’t Explain” in the Kinks’ style, might have been surprised to find Page at the session for guitar work. But Talmy was working in the style of many producers of the era. (George Martin substituted a session drummer for Ringo on the first Beatles hit.)
In the end, Page only played the rhythm part on “I Can’t Explain.” And he said the session easily could have gone off without him. (“I didn’t need to be there,” he later told Rolling Stone.) But Talmy had no intention of having The Who sing backing vocals on the single.
“The Who didn’t do backing vocals,” Talmy said in Pretend You’re in a War. “Or, to be more precise, they did them badly.” So the singers you hear on “I Can’t Explain” were indeed the Ivy League trio.
No one seemed to take umbrage with the presence of the Ivy League (or Page, for that matter). However, when Moon saw a session drummer in the studio that day, the noted loose cannon responded as you’d expect.
Keith Moon reportedly threatened to kill Talmy’s session drummer
As for the presence of a session drummer, there are conflicting accounts. In Pretend You’re in a War, Talmy vehemently denied having someone there to replace Moon. (Talmy called Moon the best rock drummer ever.) However, Who management recalled otherwise — as did the band members.
According to Townshend, Moon went ballistic when he saw the session drummer. “Get out of the f–king studio or I’ll kill ya,” Townshend remembered Moon saying. And, regardless of the details, Moon played on the track.
For The Who, “I Can’t Explain” became the start of the band’s storied recorded output. UK rock fans pushed the single to No. 8 on the charts in the following months, and the band officially got on its way.