The Who’s Substitute is up there with the iconic My Generation (1965) as one of the band’s perfect singles.
As they were a singles band in the mid-’60s, before songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend began innovating with rock operas such as Tommy (1968).
Substitute has remained one of the band’s most enduring songs, following them around for live shows, and we want to ruddy well celebrate that. Okay?!
Substitute and The Who’s Exploration of the Sixties Dating Scene
Launched in the UK on 4th March 1966, it’s easy to forget how brilliant and catchy this track is. An uplifting and self-reflective song about a guy dating a girl, but aware she’s just burning time until she can date the guy she really fancies.
The young man reflects on this throughout Substitute, indicating his frustrations through sardonic and self-deprecating observations.
You think we look pretty good together,
You think my shoes are made of leather,
But I’m a substitute for another guy,
I look pretty tall but my heels are high,
The simple things you see are all complicated,
Look pretty young, but I’m just back dated, yeah.
The song was inspired by the 1965 soul single The Tracks of My Tears by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
Townshend was obsessed with this track (now iconic in its own right). And he particularly focussed in on these lyrics:
She’s just a substitute,
Because you’re the permanent one,
So take a good look at my face,
Oh, you’ll see my smile looks out of place,
If you look a little bit closer, it’s easy to trace,
Oh, the tracks of my tears.
Note the standout word there? Yes, he really liked the sound of “substitute” and decided to dedicate a whole song to it.
That’s how a songwriters’ brains work. And Townshend’s mind took it created some of our favourite song lyrics. It’s quite inspired.
I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth,
The north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south,
And now you dare to look me in the eye,
Those crocodile tears are what you cry,
It’s a genuine problem, you won’t try,
To work it out at all you just pass it by, pass it by.
Substitute me for him,
Substitute my coke for gin,
Substitute you for my mum,
At least I’ll get my washing done.
Its genius is in its simplicity, really, and how it was so instantly relatable for millions of young people. That and being catchy as all hell.
It’s like many of The Beatles’ songs, such as Help! Once you’ve heard it you can’t shift it from your mind. In a good way. As it’s just brilliant.
And Substitute was another big hit for The Who.
It went on to reach #5 in the UK charts, although it bombed in America (where it launched on 5th April 1966) due to a lack of promotion and the band’s then lack of fame.
The Who’s Turmoil With Substitute’s Production
Substitute was the first song Townshend handled as a producer, with the group having split with previous producer Shel Talmy.
Recording went pretty smoothly, except for one thing—the behaviour of drummer Keith Moon. It’s important to stress the band really didn’t get on well in the early days and Moon was a big issue in all of that.
What should have been a simple recording session to get the song down turned into further bitter acrimony.
Moon turned up to the studio and added his drumming on 12th February 1966. The problem is, he was absolutely wasted.
In the days afterwards, he had no recollection of recording the track.
Furious, he believed the other members had got a new drummer in to record his section. This just ramped up the tensions further in a band where everyone perpetually seemed on the verge of quitting.
This is recalled by bassist John Entwistle in Tony Fletcher’s 1998 biography Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon.
“[Moon was] Really paranoid. I asked him what the reason was. He said, ‘Well, you used another drummer on Substitute. That’s not me playing the drums.’ I was like, ‘What are you doing? Are you still on the pills?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and I said, ‘It’s the fucking pills getting you paranoid. We’re not getting a new drummer. I was there when you played Substitute and you were there, you’re the only drummer I know who screams when he does a difficult drum break and that’s you screaming.’ He couldn’t remember, he was so out of it.”
Fletcher also comments on the nature of the song and how it tied in with Moon’s hedonistic alcohol and drug-induced blackouts.
“Aside from screaming as he played, there was probably no other drummer who could have doubled up on John’s bass throughout the chorus as Keith did, playing a constant eight-beat kick drum that served to emphasise the repetitive nature of the lyrics, all adolescent insecurity hiding behind pill-popping bravado. A fitting description for Keith himself, too.”
The story highlights the frequent absurdity The Who in its early years; wildly unnecessary conflict due to drink, drugs, and youthful hedonism.
But Moon did see the funny side of it years later (once the band was more successful). The benefit of hindsight, eh?
“I don’t remember playing Substitute at all. I was too stoned. When it came out I accused the other members of the group of getting another drummer in. [laughs crazily]”
Notable Live Substitute Performances
The Who Live at Leeds (recorded on February 14th, 1970) has, arguably, the definitive version of the song. A wonderful rendition from a band at the absolute peak of its powers.
One of the most underrated skills of the band is with those harmonic backing vocals from Entwistle and Townshend.
Both had fantastic singing voices in their own right and were a fantastic complement to Daltrey’s gruffer range. But those opening 30 seconds are just glorious.
It’s a mature, slightly more relaxed take on the song. Compare it to the 1967 version at the Monterey Pop Festival to see what we’re on about.
A great version! Sure. Plus, twice as long as on the Live at Leeds album. And certainly much more chaotic. Moon goes ballistic throughout, but has a great stick flinging moment from the 2:30 minute mark.
The Who was still pretty much unknown in America in 1967 (which the announcer indicates before they start playing). It wasn’t until this gig, then the legendary Woodstock ’69, that they became superstars in America.
Despite being London Mods, around ’67 they began dressing (at the behest of the band’s managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp) dressing in a hippy type of way.
Moon, in particular, hated the psychedelic movement.
But! They had a name to make for themselves and didn’t hold back, demolishing their equipment at the end of a highly charged, frenetic gig.
Jimi Hendrix followed the band’s set, too, and set fire to his guitar at the end of his show. Heady days, eh?
There’s also this clip from France in 1966, with a band in their very early days. It goes to show how rapidly they developed over the next four years. Full credit to them there.
This was during the band’s Angry Mod phase—still clearly not quite at ease with things (and each other). Daltrey, in particular, hadn’t found his stride as a singer.
And it didn’t help Moon, Entwistle, and Townshend were regularly blocked up on pills and not performing at their best.
Still, the clips you see of the French crowd show they were bloody loving it. Good on, them. Bon!