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.
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.
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.
Alex - Melbourne, FL