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Playlist: The Who: The Mod Years

A playlist of the Who songs that helped define the mod era


Playlist: The Who: The Mod Years

The Who in 1965


The Who: The Mod Years

Before they became the arena-rock gods most Americans recognize them as, The Who were arguably the best band on the UK's "mod" scene, that famed subculture of young well-dressed, pilled-up teens dancing the night away to the sounds of Tamla-Motown, hanging out in late-night coffeehouses, and riding their scooters around swinging London. But even in those early years, the Who stood out as more complex and also more forceful than their contemporaries. Enjoy my latest playlist of Who songs that define the mod era.

  1. "I'm The Face" (purchase/download)
    While they were still The High Numbers, then-manager Pete Meaden had the idea to take Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It" and rework the lyrics to reflect Mod culture (a "face" being a popular scenester). It didn't work.
  2. "Leaving Here" (purchase/download)
    The High Numbers tried again with a more traditional mod approach, in this case covering a Tamla-Motown song (first done by house songwriter Eddie Holland). It was another flop, but it eventually inspired covers by everyone from Pearl Jam to Motorhead.
  3. "I Can't Explain" (purchase/download)
    Their first hit under the Who name, showcasing Pete Townshend's immediately developed ability to write about teenage awkwardness.
  4. "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" (purchase/download)
    The follow-up pointed the way to the harder style the Who would soon produce, but the mod harmonies are still there, and the lyrics fit the free-spirited era perfectly.
  5. "Out In The Street" (purchase/download)
    A "raveup," as they were called then, this album cut showed the group's potential for what they would rightfully describe as "Maximum R&B."
  6. "La La La Lies" (purchase/download)
    With the bluesy backdrop, the pop stylings, and the English harmonies, this bitter romantic revenge was tailor-made for the scene in question.
  7. "My Generation" (purchase/download)
    This is the anthem, of course, from the historic use of feedback to singer Roger Daltrey's stuttering gimmick, which mimicked the speech patterns of mods high on amphetamines. Also the song that got them noticed in the States.
  8. "The Kids Are Alright" (purchase/download)
    Townshend's ode to the scene implies that it was full of good guys he (or we, or they) could trust implicitly. After the 1979 concert doc used this as its title, the song became one of the band's signatures.
  9. "I'm A Boy" (purchase/download)
    Pete begins to move into his literary mode, offering up strange characterizations like this one of one boy's confused gender identity.
  10. "A Legal Matter" (purchase/download)
    Another raveup of sorts, although a jovial one. It's an album cut that signifies the band's accelerating maturity into manhood -- one of rock's first divorce songs.
  11. "Circles" (purchase/download)
    Showcasing a harder guitar attack the band would come to rely on, but almost psychedelic in its modal vocal melodies.
  12. "Substitute" (purchase/download)
    More confusion, but this time the band's tackling major overarching identity crises, not just cute stories. Inspired by Smokey Robinson's use of the word "Substitute" in "Tracks Of My Tears."
  13. "Happy Jack" (purchase/download)
    A twisted half-remembrance from Pete's childhood days at the beach, and also enough of a novelty to score big in America.
  14. "Pictures Of Lily" (purchase/download)
    This character study was got banned in several markets, dealing as it did with a young boy's first exposure to erotica.
  15. "So Sad About Us" (purchase/download)
    One of the band's finest and most heartbreaking ballads, surprisingly rhythmic yet weepy, especially in those delicate harmonies.
  16. "I Can See For Miles" (purchase/download)
    The big breakthrough, pointing the way to the band's future -- an attempt to make the most anarchic noise they could. Its failure in Britain infuriated Pete, but American audiences sent it into the Top Ten.
  17. "Melancholia" (purchase/download)
    Although it languished in the vaults for decades, this gloomy study remains a crucial turning point in Townshend's increasingly introspective and personal songwriting.
  18. "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand" (purchase/download)
    Another Young Mod's Story, a character study of a beautiful and delicate young thing who, er, knows how to please her man.
  19. "Our Love Was" (purchase/download)
    Sung by Townshend himself, this ballad seems like another breakup song but actually tells a beautiful story of a relationship that made itself work.
  20. "Call Me Lightning" (purchase/download)
    Sort of a mod throwback, this rocker was released in the US but relegated to a UK b-side, since the mods had nearly completed their transformation into "beautiful people."
  21. "Boris The Spider" (purchase/download)
    The group's best known novelty, its best known John Entwistle number, and creepy enough for your Halloween playlist, too.
  22. "Little Billy" (purchase/download)
    This black-humor anti-smoking classic, written for the Americsn Cancer Society and almost instantly forgotten, remains one of the last true examples of mod music crafted by the band.
  23. "Magic Bus" (purchase/download)
    The band's last shot of glory before turning into an album-rock group with Tommy, "Magic Bus" is a relatively simple yet forceful and gleeful blues number about getting to one's baby by any means necessary.
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