Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Who: Susbstitute

SONG Substitute

WRITTEN BY Pete Townshend


APPEARS ON Live At Leeds (1970), Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy (1971), 30 Years Of Maximum R&B (1994), The Ultimate Collection (2002), many others

NOTE "Substitute" is an essential Who song. No Who anthology is complete without it.

"Substitute," The Who's sardonic look at a relationship plagued by inflated expectations, stands as one of their finest early songs. For years the traditional concert opener (until supplanted by "I Can't Explain"), "Substitute" remains in their repertoire today and rarely fails to get a crowd on its feet. I saw them perform a brilliant rendition of it as recently as 2002, shortly after John Entwhistle's death. Roger Daltry blustered and bawled out the words while Pete Townshend prowled the stage, windmilled with abandon, and sang harmony as well as ever. (He must have been feeling especially on that night, as he even smashed his guitar at the end of the show.)

The first two words of the song -- "You think" -- signal that that the singer has a different notion of the the way things are than the person he sings to, even though "we look pretty good together." To begin with, he's shorter than she is ("I look pretty tall but my heels are high"). Moreover, he resents the way she has imposed a fantasy ("The simple things you see are all complicated") on a man who is not only short, he's older ("I'm just backdated") and wears a cheap suit ("My fine looking suit is really made out sack"). In other words, he can't possibly live up to the image she has of him.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks ("he north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south") and in modest circumstances (" a plastic spoon in my mouth"), it is perhaps these humble beginnings that give him the power to see things as they are ("I can see right through your plastic mac"). The problem is that whenever he tries to be open about himself, the "crocodile tears" flow because she's happier substituting "lies for fact." Although they have a "genuine problem," she prefers to "just pass it by": Paradoxically, she puts the relationship at risk by refusing to take a risk and admit to the problem.

Anyone who has been in a relationship in which the other person expects them conform to an ideal rather than be themselves can identify with "Substitute." The person held up as an ideal, ironically, gets little out of the relationship because whatever is given is given to someone who doesn't exist. Hence the sarcastic final verse, in which the singer confides that he'd rather be with his mother:
Substitute you for my mum
At least I'll get my washing done
Pete Townshend would write many more songs exploring the natures of perception, fantasy, and reality, especially as they had to do with rock stardom and fans. In this context, one might view the two lovers in "Substitute" as stand-ins for a rock star and a fan, with the fan mistaking the trappings of stardom for reality. Townshend, a fan himself as well as a star, ultimately held The Who's supporters with great affection even as he warned them of the personal dangers of attaching too much credence to the pronouncements rock stars. He would rarely write of this with more wit or greater insight than in "Substitute."

-Citizen K.

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 backdated, yeah

Substitute your lies for fact
I can see right through your plastic mac
I look all white, but my dad was black
My fine looking suit is really made out of sack

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 and you won't try
To work it all out 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

These performances of "Substitute" across 31 years (1966-2007) show how The Who changed their look and developed their act. From 1966:

1967, at the Monterey Pop Festival. What a difference a year makes.

1970, at Leeds. Daltry's curls and fringes and Pete's jump suit appear and The Who become rock icons.

1974. The harmony vocals are especially strong:

1979. A nice solo by Pete and some great windmills:


2000. John Entwhistle's last tour. Drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo's son) is often credited with reenergizing The Who's live act. Don't miss Pete's monologue at the end:

2007. They can still bring it:


  1. Oh my! This one definitely takes me back. Whenever I get foolish enough to do one of those online memes that ask what's your favorite this or that, my candidate for the best rock band ever is always The Who.

    And you're right, the subject matter of "Substitute" prefigures the main themes in Tommy, Lifehouse (which was never really finished, but tunes from the project ended up on Who's Next), and Pete Townshend's solo project Psychoderelict. Hmmmm... You may just have sparked my own next entry on Just A Song; I need to listen to Psychoderelict again.

  2. A few years back, my then 15-year old drummer son discovered The Who and rekindled my interest in them. I think I've probably given them closer and better listening now than when I was in college.

    The nice thing about "Substitute" is that it's not weighed down by ambition, which often threatened "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia." (Not "Who's Next," though: That's arguably the #1 rock album ever, one of the few times that reach and grasp coincide). It's lighthearted, pointed, and danceable -- one my favorites.

  3. Great analysis of the song. I love what you said about the application to the rock star/fan relationship. As you said, something Pete has always been intrigued by and certainly played around with in "Tommy" and songs as recent as "It's Not Enough" from Endless Wire.

    One of the things that first drew me to The Who was that Pete's songs were rarely the typical love songs. They were about the complications, realities and sometimes the invisible things in live. When he did write a song about a relationship, it was complex. And with Pete, you never know for sure if he's talking about a lover or about God (well, maybe "Slit Skirts" and "A Legal Matter" blow that theory...) But "Bargain" is a great example of it.

    I look forward to reading more of your articles on songs.

  4. That 2000 clip looks like it was Houston.. any idea?

  5. Hi, Charlie. Nice catch! The 2000 clip is from The Woodlands, which I think is a Houston suburb.