"The lyric, so applauded by rock critics, was thrown together very quickly. Smokey Robinson sang the word ‘substitute’ so perfectly in Tracks Of My Tears- my favourite song at the time- that I decided to celebrate the word itself with a song all its own. Interesting that in eulogizing two of my most important influences (and ripping off a few ideas) I should end up with one of the most succinct songs of my career."
There's a few versions of stories about how "Substitute" came about, but from what I collect,
This song was written by Pete Townshend about the Rolling Stones. Pete says that at the time, he felt that the Who were a substitute for the Stones, and also says that he might have stolen the riff:
"I made this demo after hearing a rough mix of 'Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown' by The Stones. When I read David Marsh’s book Before I get Old I was amazed to read that I ripped off the riff- amazed because it was true, I had forgotten. Read the book to find out how, folks."
It's also about the mix of real and unreal in the music world. He also "liked the idea of lines about identity that contradicted each other." In America, the line "I look all white but my dad was black" was changed to "I try walking forward, but my feet walk back", changing it to an even more poignant statement towards racism, even though the first was considered controversial.
"Substitute" was released in March 1966 and reached #5 in the UK, but flopped in the USA, partially due to the fact that it was released on Atlantic Records.
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
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, 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
thanks: Scooped by Pete Townshend liner notes and Live at Leeds by the Who liner notes.