55 Years Ago: The Who Arrive With ‘Zoot Suit’ and ‘I’m the Face’
In what could be the first example of niche marketing in rock history, the Who released their debut single, "Zoot Suit" backed with "I'm the Face," on July 3, 1964. Only they weren't called the Who at the time, but the High Numbers.
Even though they had changed their name from the Detours to the Who in early 1964 as a result of a conflict with another band, the fledgling group made another moniker switch at the behest of new manager Peter Meaden as a way of integrating them further into the mod subculture.
Meaden was a true believer in mod, which he defined as "clean living under difficult circumstances." It appealed to working-class British kids who spent their money on American modern jazz and R&B, and Italian clothes and scooters. And amphetamines. Lots of amphetamines.
This was all happening right under the Who's noses in the west London neighborhood of Shepherd's Bush, and the group's pilled-up sound, which would be dubbed "Maximum R&B," hit the mods in their sweet spot, especially in the spring of 1964, when new drummer Keith Moon joined the band.
Meaden secured a deal for a single with Fontana Records. But instead of having the group record a pair of the blues covers it was playing in clubs, he had the newly rechristened High Numbers cut two songs that were kind of his.
Listen to the High Numbers' 'Zoot Suit'
Meaden took a couple of existing records the mods loved and wrote new lyrics that were designed to appeal to them, and then gave himself full writing credit. The Dynamics' "Misery" was retooled as "Zoot Suit," while Slim Harpo's "Got Love If You Want It" became "I'm the Face."
Both tracks outlined the mods' fashion choices (inch-wide ties, Ivy League jackets, two-tone shoes) and included their slang -- the "face" being the coolest in the group and the envy of the "tickets."
"Zoot Suit" was chosen as the A-side, but the single didn't sell outside the band's core fan base (the Who's website notes that only 1,000 copies of the single were made). Shortly before its release, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp saw the band at the Railway Hotel while searching for an unknown group for a never-made film project.
They eventually signed the High Numbers out from under Meaden and encouraged the group's guitarist, Pete Townshend, to follow the Beatles' model and write his own songs. By November, the High Numbers were known as the Who again.
Listen to the High Numbers' 'I'm the Face'
As a movement, mod died out toward the tail end of the mid-'60s, but it never remained far from Townshend's mind. The Who's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia centered on Jimmy, a mod with four personalities that were reflected by the four members of the Who. Townshend even closes "Sea and Sand" by singing a bit of "I'm the Face," which later appeared on the Who's 1974 Odds & Sods compilation. The project was made into a 1979 movie, and its soundtrack included the High Numbers' version of "Zoot Suit."
It didn't stop there. Late-period Who tours have regularly used the pop-art iconography from their mod days in both their productions and merchandise.