Substitute

Album: Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (1966)
Charted: 5
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Songfacts®:

  • Pete Townshend made the demo for this song after hearing "19th Nervous Breakdown" by The Rolling Stones. Even Townshend admits that he ripped off Keith Richards' riff. The Stones were a major influence on Townshend, who even got his trademark windmill arm movement from watching Keith Richards warm up before a concert - Richards was stretching his arm by moving it around like a windmill.
  • As far as the lyrics go, Townshend's favorite song at the time was "The Tracks Of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. Townshend loved the way Smokey sang the word "substitute" so perfectly ("although she may be cute she's just a substitute 'cause you're the permanent one") that he decided to celebrate the word with a song all its own. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Joel - Chicago, IL, for above 2
  • The lyric is clever, self-deprecating and sardonic, with Pete Townshend singing about all the ways he's just a substitute for something better. He deploys contrast to make his point:

    The simple things you see are all complicated

    I look all white, but my dad was black

    My fine-looking suit is really made out of sack
  • On demo versions, Townshend sang this in an exaggerated Mick Jagger accent.
  • This was the first single The Who released after breaking their contract with their manager and producer, Shel Talmy. As part of the deal, Talmy got royalties from this and the other Who records over the next five years, which turned out to be a great deal of money.

    The group dismissed Talmy in part because Pete Townshend wanted to handle production himself; "Substitute" was the first song he produced on his own.
  • In the US, the line "I look all white but my dad was black" was re-recorded as "I try walking forward but my feet walk back." Their record company feared any reference to race would keep it off US radio.
  • This was a flop in the US, partly because it wasn't promoted well. It was the only Who song released on Atco Records.
  • The Who played this at most of their concerts. It was very popular at their live shows.
  • This did not appear on an album until 1971, when it went on the Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy compilation.
  • In The UK, the single was released three times in 1966, with different B-sides each time.
  • According to Moon: Life and Death Of A Rock Legend by Tony Fletcher, after listening to a recording of the song, Keith Moon began to become paranoid, insisting that it wasn't him drumming, and that the band had gone behind his back and gotten another drummer. John Entwistle refuted this paranoia as ridiculous - he could hear Keith screaming on the recording as he did a difficult fill.
  • During the "Across The Great Divide" tour, Powderfinger and Silverchair performed this song as their finale together. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Susy - Melbourne, Australia
  • The bass solo on this song was originally going to be a guitar solo, but when John Entwistle got to this part when recording it, he decided to turn his bass up and make it a bass solo. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Alex - Melbourne, FL

Comments: 34

  • Kilo Alani from Lexington KentuckyThe singer hides Nazi sympathies. He described his hometown as laid out like a swastika- north side faces east and the east is facing south.. His dad being black doesn't have to mean race.
  • Armulia from GreenwichI am pretty sure this song was made for Paul Mcartney's "PID" case, but I think The Who made it as an ironic response to the P.I.D case, since the entire lyrics make fun about how he (Paul) could be a substitute for everything , even for Coke or Jin.
  • Retiredfire from NorcalI don't know about someone else drumming for Keith Moon, but he sure as heck wasn't playing in that video.
    I also have a recollection of a B&W video of The Who, in which Keith Moon was using coat-hangers, but that was one I saw while living in Australia many. many years ago.
  • Tony from NyHow about the story that substitute was written about the changing of Paul McCartney in 1966?
    “ I see right thru your plastic Mac”
    “I look all white but my dad was black referring to Alister Crowley”
    William shears was 2 inches taller then James Paul McCartney
    I’m a substitute for another guy!

    Won’t get fooled again had references also on this!
  • Birdman_euston from London, UkGreg from Milwaukee & Alex from Florida, it means the substitute boyfriend came from the wrong side of town - the one ignored by the other three.
  • Alex from Pittsburgh, PaI like this song because it reflects the Who psyche, the English rock beat and the social consciousness of that era-filled with angst, alienation and uncertainity. Not, particularly, polished, but civil, respectful and loaded with raw honest emotion and energy. What a band they were-incredible.
  • Peter from London, United KingdomSubstitute doesn't sound anything like the Stones 19th Nervous Breakdown. The lyrics of Substitute are about a young man who isn't what he appears to be or what others make of him, ie he's frustrated at being misunderstood. The phrase 'plastic spoon in my mouth', means he's from a poor or common background, as opposed to someone born with a 'silver spoon in their mouth'. The line 'You think my shoes are made of leather' means he wears shoes that look smart. but they are cheap plastic, not leather ones.
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScI have a question regarding the following paragraph from the songfacts about this.

    "In the US, the line "I look all white but my dad was black" was re-recorded as "I try walking forward but my feet walk back." Their record company feared any reference to race would keep it off US radio."

    Are there still copies of that version?

    P.S. The Who's version is the best of this song, but the fact that Pete Townshend sang backing vocals on the Ramones version is just awesome.
  • Miles from Vancouver, CanadaIn the UK, the song first appeared on the odd compilation from 1968 called Direct Hits.
  • Daniel Celano from Philadelphia, PaThat songs looks similar to a substitute teacher.
  • Alex from Florida, FlI'm pretty sure it means that the "North Side" of the town was actually the East side, and that the "East Side" was actually the South side.
  • Pat from Reading, Mawhen the drummer is doing a fill 2:31 into the song you can hear keith moon scream cause hes not playing in this song
  • Greg Walz-chojnacki from Milwaukee, WiThe line I can't really figure out is
    "The north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south."

    I take it to mean that the singer is from the a town northwest of London, but I still don't quite get it.
  • Miles from Vancouver, CanadaI've always liked the line "I look all white but my dad was black." I think it might be a prophetic line about Michael Jackson!!!! (Also, the Japanese title of this song translates as "Pinch Hitter of Love".)
  • Weller from Basingstoke, EnglandFunny, I always thought it's about split up couple, the boy saying to thr girl: What did you expect from me? You could have seen all the time who I am. Don't blame me for being disappointed.
  • Frankie from Engine, InThis song rocks. My favorite line is the one where he goes "substitute you for my mom" it makes no sense but I think it's funny
  • David from Youngstown, OhNo doubt one of the best Who songs from that era. They had an incredible knack to do songs ranging from 2:30 to 3:15 with such force, drive and power. This one also includes rather clever lyrics. I can't say enough about this song. I've been playing it over and over again in my car and can't get enough of it.
  • Dawson from Draper, UtYo, Vincent. Don't diss my man Michael. This song rocks, though.
  • Alex from Poole, EnglandAlso covered by the Sex Pistols on 'The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle.
  • Vincent from St. Davids, England'I Look all white but my dad wad black!' Michael Jackson anyone?
  • Luke from Worthing, EnglandThis song was covered by The Ramones on their cover album "Acid Eaters" with Pete Townshend singing backing vocals.
  • Mike from Chicago, IlIn case you guys don't know, the Who TV (found on pete townshends website) shows a video of Roger Daltrey singing "Substitute" with a random group of guys who seem to enjoy their long brown beards :D

    Their's more video clips too. You should check it out
  • Jon from Danville, CaAlso, the line "You think my shoes are made of leather" implies that the person is wearing shoes made with a leather substitute, so they are not as expensive as they seem.
  • Jon from Danville, CaThe line "I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth' I beleive not only implies the person being poor, but also seeming rich. Since plastic is a substitute for metal and the theme of the song deals with mistaken perceptions.
  • Taylor from Austin, TxI agree with Liz. Does anyone know where I can find video of the Who on the Smothers Brothers Variety Show? I mean online, not on "The Kids Are Alright" dvd. Keith Moon Rocks!!!
  • Liz from Atlanta, GaShana, it's about how this guy is poor. The term '..born with a plastic spoon in my mouth' means that he is poor - unlike people who would be born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Also, my garbadine suit is really made out of sack supports this. "it's a genuine problem but you won't try to help a fella out stead of passin' by
    passin' by" is about how no one is helping him.
  • Shana from Pembroke, CanadaThis song is great but alot of the lyrics dont make any sense...you think my shoes are made of leather? ... was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth? someone please explain...
  • Chris from Newmachar, ScotlandApparently Keith Moon was so pi$$ed when they recorded this that he accused the group of using another drummer on the day.
  • Michael from San Francisco, CaPete felt the Who were a substitute for the Rolling Stones at the time, that's also what the lyrics deal with.
  • Tyler from Farmington, MiI disagree with you ben, because not only did Leeds nt have the bass solo, it also missed the punchy chord solo. those two parts in that song although simple have changed my life.
  • Paulo from New York, NyMy favorite Who song.
  • Robert from Chicago, IlNot only the song's lyrics were changed for US single release, but was also edited down to 2:58 lacking the bridge solo.
  • Ben from New York, NyThe Live at Leeds version was easily the best.
  • Tom from Trowbridge, EnglandUsed in the Jack Black film School of Rock, where he pretends to be a substitute teacher.
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