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How Smoky Robinson inspired The Who song 'Substitute'

As far as legendary acts go, you can’t get much more influential than Smokey Robinson and The Who. On paper, the two don’t have much in common: Robinson was the smooth-voiced leader of The Miracles and was the second most important architect of the Motown Sound, after Berry Gordy. The Who were anarchic mods who played at punishing volumes and sought to destroy any notion of delicacy and beauty in the pop landscape.

But The Who, at their core, were devotees of the sounds that Robinson had a major hand in producing. They describe their own style as “maximum R&B”, and their influences include a number of prominent Motown stars, including Robinson himself. The Who were fans first and weren’t afraid to show the direct influence that Robinson’s songwriting had on their own material.

Pete Townshend, particularly, became obsessed with the 1965 Miracles single ‘The Tracks of My Tears’. A heartrending soul ballad in the same lyrical and sonic territory as ‘The Tears of a Clown’, Robinson imbues the song’s dichotomy between his outward appearance and his inner turmoil with palpable emotion.

Townshend keyed into the idea of a contrasting inner and outer appearance, especially hanging on to the line: “Although she may be cute/She’s just a substitute.” Robinson had a unique talent in pairing these kinds of words and themes together. Townshend loved the word “substitute” and decided “to celebrate the word with a song all its own”.

That’s where ‘Substitute’ was born. With its own lines of “I walk pretty tall/But my heels are high” and “I look all white/But my dad was black,” Townshend created a character that would have fit right in within a Miracles tune, only with a far more caustic and jaded mindset. “I look pretty young/But I’m just backdated.”

When Roger Daltry sings of “crocodile tears”, they aren’t his own, as they would be in a Miracles song. The Who’s distinct tough guy image would later crack, but their then-current identity as Mods required them to discard any of the introspection or vulnerability that Robinson was willing to show to the world. The Who would later evolve, but here they self-effacingly celebrate their own pastiche nature.

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