Substitute (1966)

The Who

Written by Pete Townshend
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I was born with
a plastic spoon in my mouth…

Beginning in 1965 until the rise and triumph in 1969 of the “rock opera” Tommy, The Who rattled off hits more often than most people have really good sex. In those fertile years before they became a super group they came across like something along the lines of the world’s best bar band writ large.

Raging “Substitute”

Why is Jack happy? Maybe because of Keith Moon’s drumming…

Substitute happy jack

Happy Jack, a sideshow freak from The Who’s youth

From the period, “My Generation,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “I’m A Boy,” “Happy Jack,” “I Can See For Miles” and “Magic Bus” flow like a flood-stage river roaring. Many share quite a few aspects in common.

They are satirical. They have unusual points of view and sometimes weird subject matter. (“I’m A Boy” is about a boy who is dressed by his family in girl’s clothing. “Pictures Of Lily” is about a boy who masturbates to a girlie book whose subject has been dead since the 1920s.)

“Magic Bus” – it really is too much

Admit it, mom, he’s a boy

They’re proto-Punk (except for “Miles,” which is early Psychedelic Rock). And they can all snap your head off in one swipe.

The most refined of their efforts from the period, “Substitute,” falls into all those modes. Additionally, It is extraordinarily class conscious, and like the other songs in the collection composed by band members, it rocks with an edge born of self-deprecation and an inadequacy masked by defiance. Although shunted into the nether regions of rankings by critics generally, it is worthy of being named one of the top 50 songs of the era and one of the greatest Rock classics of all time.

It reached high on the charts in the U.K. but seemed to stumble in the U.S. Perhaps mucking around with the lyrics and actual musical structure diluted the number.

“I look all white but my dad was black,” was bowdlerized to “I try walking forward but my feet go back,” in order not to prick the tender racial sensibilities of American exceptionalism. Of course, Townshend was talking about his musical parentage, not his genetic make-up. Funny and sad.

The music breaks were cut up and re-edited as well.

The lyrics are about many things, some fairly self-explanatory:

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
I look pretty young, but I’m just back-dated, yeah

QuadropheniaThe singer/narrator believes he is not measuring up in the eyes of a girl and he’s sticking the feeling in her face. The Who’s movie Quadrophenia clearly sketches out the class lines, contradictions and violence of the rivalries between the Mods and Rockers of early to mid-60s London and England’s working-class cities. Rootless, jobless, with parents shocked by World War II, taxes astronomically high, the teens and late adolescents have retuned to an almost feral state. Although it deals with younger children, William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies deals with similar social breakdowns.

Townshend makes this rancid mutton go down with a spoonful of sugar. Nothing is played straight; everything is ironic. If irony isn’t enough, the song is drenched in tart cynicism. Listening to “Substitute” from today’s vantage point, it is still very funny, although the pathos waxes larger than it did when the song was first laid down.

Subsitute sheet musicThe singer is angry with the girl (who appears to be from the “better classes”) for not understanding his lowly state and what we can presume are his aberrant behaviors. According to him, she doesn’t make the slightest effort. We can’t be sure if the song is actually misogynistic or if it’s a send-up of woman hating. The singer’s absurdist statements repeatedly pull us back from the brink of misogyny, however. For instance, this absolute classic line serves the purpose to a T:

I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth…

Meanwhile, the music rocks hard and fast, Keith Moon drumming with particularly wild abandon, employing – for him – rare backbeat fills in some spots.

Not quite halfway through the song, the band blasts off into a short, manic, wrathful break. The anger and vitriol seem to gush from the pores of their skin. Moon’s drumming rumbles and surges up a notch. As Roger Daltry revisits and rearranges the lyrics at will, the hopelessness of the narrator’s predicament becomes more painfully evident. He is a digit who could be himself or someone else or someone else yet again, and again, and again.

Many of the musical devices that we later would come to identify with The Who are first fleshed out in “Substitute.” The high-pitched, towering harmonies; the banjo-like acoustic strumming; John Entwistle’s bass leads and, of course, Keith Moon’s machine-like pounding and cymbal crashing. His performance on “Substitute” is downright intergalactic. Their trademarked drop out of all but one instrument appears. These musical devices can be traced down into Tommy, Who’s Next and beyond; they can be heard in many Heavy Metal bands, although The Who are not considered to be specific progenitors of the genre.

Subsitute quadro alley

Steph and Jimmy, characters in Quadrophenia. After doing the dirty deed in an alley, she drops him for his good friend who has a scooter that works. Substitute!

The lyrics continue to grind and grate. The last couplet is usually misunderstood as saying, in literal terms, that this is what the singer/narrator wants, when, in fact, he is communicating the very opposite. He does not want a housewife, a keeper. He wants someone to understand him and his inner struggles. He zeroes in on the relationship between his father and mother:

Substitute me for him
Substitute my coke for gin
Substitute you for my mum
At least I’ll get my washing done

“Substitute” seems to accelerate as it nears its end. A very fine vocal jam goes on between Daltry and the rest of the group, the former spewing the venom, the latter blithely singing a chipper repeat of the word “substitute,” as if they were peering from the barred windows of a madhouse.

Defying gravity, “Substitute” comes in for a semi-soft landing, heat shields scorched, a little button by Moon taking them unsteadily onto the tarmac.

  • So Punk are the live versions of “Substitute” that both the Sex Pistols and The Ramones covered the tune. Townshend sang on one Ramones version.
  • Until the creation of Tommy“Substitute” was one of four songs The Who would open their appearances with in order to get the crowd charged up, often extending it to 5 or 6 minutes

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