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Pete Townshend wrote 'Substitute' in an attempt to parody The Rolling Stones

It seems as if the era that we know as ‘classic rock’ was not a period driven solely by pure genius and invention. As the years drag on, more and more examples come to light, showing that many of our favourite rock bands from the era had a penchant for borrowing ideas – or developing concepts that their contemporaries had started.

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, the list of icons from that era who pinched elements and moulded them in their own image is innumerable, and of course, the “borrowing” took place to varying degrees of severity.

It would be almost reductive to concentrate entirely on the fact that the era contained many instances of pinching because when you stop to think about it deeply for a minute or two, it quickly becomes clear that it was the spirit of the day. Music was not this widespread, vast web interconnected by the internet that it is today. Rather, it was a time where cross-pollination was key to development. 

Added to this well-worn standard of developing others’ ideas, there was also a fair bit of parodying that occurred, where an artist would borrow another’s style in an effort to mock or even emulate their style in order to reach the level of fame they aspired to get to. Take, for example, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic’, a take on Bob Dylan as an obvious case.

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Another band who were no strangers to this were British mod legends The Who. It turns out that the band’s 1966 classic, ‘Substitute’, was written partly as a literal riff on somebody else’s and as a spoof of a hit penned by a band that The Who felt they lived in the shadow of, The Rolling Stones.

In an interview with the now-defunct Melody Maker, guitarist Pete Townshend discussed where the song’s iconic riff originated, and it was here he was reminded of the somewhat obscure song ‘Where Is My Girl’ by Robb Storme and The Whisperers. Then in a later interview, Townshend admitted: “The stock, down-beat riff used in the verses I pinched (from Storme and his band)”. Displaying full self-awareness, he explained the situation: “I pinched it, we did it, you bought it.” 

However, the late Who bassist, John Entwistle, provided another account of where the song found its origins. In a 1994 interview with Johnny Black, he said: “‘Substitute’ was (Pete) trying to play a Four Tops song.” Getting more forensic, he said that the exact track was ‘Can’t Help Myself’, and that the break between the syllables in the chorus was what helped to establish the chorus melody in ‘Substitute’.

Then, there was the influence of The Rolling Stones. Whilst it is not immediately apparent, Townshend maintained that on the demo version, you could really hear it, claiming that he actually mimicked The Stones frontman Mick Jagger’s voice as he sang the lyrics to ‘Substitute’.

Although he has openly admitted the influence of Robb Storme and The Whisperers on the writing of ‘Substitute’, he has also revealed that its main influence was The Rolling Stones‘ single ’19th Nervous Breakdown’, released in February that same year. It is claimed by Who biographer Mark Blake that Townshend had heard an early mix of the track, and it was this that drove him to pen ‘Substitute’.

One week after The Stones released their single, Townshend and The Who were in the studio recording what we all know today as ‘Substitute’. Ironically, ‘Substitute’ would become the best known of the two, showing that sometimes, a little bit of pinching can go a long way.

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