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Remembering when Blur took on The Who's classic 'Substitute'

One might think that Blur would be an especially agreeable act to cover The Who. Maybe not terribly Mod-ish, Damon Albarn and the boys still had a similar unwieldy punk-meets-pop quality to them. Favouring huge guitar chords and a penchant for clever wordplay, a tribute cover from the Essex lads should have been an easy three points, right?

Evidently not. Recorded for the 1993 Who Covers Who? compilation, Blur’s take on ‘Substitute’ is far and away the worst contribution on an album filled with shrug-worthy takes of stone-cold classic songs. Even on an LP with damn-near anonymous bands like Mess and Hinnies, Blur still manages to be the one band that goes tits up.

But why? Blur are a great band, ‘Substitute’ is a great song, so what went wrong? Well, according to a feature in a 1995 edition of Select Magazine, the band were especially hungover that day and in poor working condition. Alex James didn’t know how to play the tune, Graham Coxon declined to teach him, and Dave Rowntree decided to punch up the tempo by about 2,000 BPM.

The utterly scorching speed meant that Albarn could barely spit out the words he was unprepared to sing in the first place, flubbing a number of classic lyrics along the way. Coxon attempts to return to the song’s original tempo during the guitar break, but Rowntree is having none of it. Even Keith Moon would likely have asked Rowntree to pair it back a little.

Musically, the cover is just horrendous. As a line of demarcation for a legendary group, however, it’s fascinating. 1993 was the year that saw Blur chart a new course forward with Modern Life is Rubbish, one of the foundational texts of the soon-to-be dominant Britpop scene. The Who were certainly in the band’s DNA, but they were already facing criticism for the lack of originality on 1991’s Leisure. The last thing that Blur needed were to be followers.

In a way, their cover of ‘Substitute’ could be viewed as a clever bit of self-sabotage. Kill your idols and forge your own path, as it were. It’s even charming, in its own way: you can certainly see a precursor to ‘Bank Holiday’ in the breakneck dead sprint that the band are attempting here. Ultimately, though, it’s an abject failure, an opinion shared by Albarn, according to that same Select feature.

The Who deserved better. Blur deserved better. The world deserved better. But at least it’s better than their halfhearted take on ‘Olivers Army’.