Substitute and its vicissitudes

The psychology of a 1966 music performance by The Who and its portrayal of love, class, race, family, and society

By Andrew Tyndall

“You think we look pretty good together,” Roger Daltrey suggests, gazing straight into the camera, with poker-faced sincerity. As the first line of a song, we in the audience are given no clue as to what he is referring to. All we know is, Yes, indeed! You four young men in your mod threads certainly do look pretty good as an ensemble, and you sound pretty good too.

The performance is a very early rendition of The Who’s seminal hit pop song from ’60s swinging London. Stumble across the three-minute version on You Tube1 and you will encounter a stark proposition about what it is to be a substitute. By contrast, The Who’s familiar rock concert versions, with Pete Townshend’s windmilling arms and Roger Daltrey’s curly blond locks, lack the seriousness of this early rendition. A decade later, the song was so well-known that its words no longer needed to make an argument—they had been turned into a stadium chant. The rhythmical repetition of binary oppositions that constitute the climax of the song amounted to nothing more intricate to the packed crowds in Leeds or in Kilburn2 than the nostalgic comfort of a mass sing-along. Here, in the earlier performance, they amount to an identity crisis.

In the earlier version, Townshend’s carefully crafted, self-aware, defiantly ironic lyrics were sung by Daltrey—and played by Keith Moon and John Entwistle—for clarity of communication rather than for anthemic display. It was recorded for black-and-white television in an undecorated, claustrophobic studio, with a tight, steady camera angle, no live audience, no dance steps, no hip movement, no flicks of the curls—almost statuesque.

The rendition gives full voice to the song’s multiple, overlapping scenarios of substitution: of the fake for the real, of appearance for reality, of the ersatz for the genuine, of inadequacy for mastery, of the modern for the established, of deception for authenticity, of the child for the parent, of signifiers for identity. It is absolutely appropriate that even the performance is fake: the words are lip-synched, the guitars unplugged.

A close reading is enough to trace the song’s complex narrative of disintegration, from simple teenage love song to full-fledged existential crisis. Yet such a reading, alone, cannot account for the contrast between the stark resonance of the studio version and the vacuity of the stadium renditions. What gives the earlier version its sense of unnerving disquiet? What makes the later one unthreatening and reassuring? To understand this early, seminal pop love song, perhaps we can turn to an early, seminal essay on the mental aspects of love: the interplay of pleasure and unpleasure, of active and passive, of object and subject. Sigmund Freud’s “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” (1915) can serve as the prism through which to inspect The Who’s “Substitute” (1966)

Battle of the Bands

If “My Generation” (1965) stands as one bookend of The Who’s precocious definition of what male adolescence means, then “Substitute” is the other. Where “My Generation” is cocky and brash and aggressive, “Substitute”—or at least the nonanthemic version of it—is introspective and abject and alienated. “The simple things you see are all complicated,” sings Daltrey.

“Substitute” was understood by contemporary fans (B. Curtis, personal communication, 2011) as The Who’s riposte to the charge that they were inauthentic, compared to the Rolling Stones. Wearing the charge as a badge of honor, the song starts with a seven-chord riff—a riff that is later the basis for the song’s climax of binary oppositions—that triumphantly matches any guitar opening that Keith Richards can offer. Da da dum, da-da da-dum. Daltrey then confronts the audience flatly with the assertion that The Who looks pretty good together. To further stake their claim, he and Townshend round out the first line of this entry into the Battle of the Bands with a harmony that stands up to any that Lennon and McCartney could produce. Then, in the first typical instance of the ironic zigzags that riddle “Substitute,” that claim is immediately undercut: “You think my shoes are made of leather.” You, dear fan, have no idea how to distinguish between real and fake, patent and plastic. Welcome to the world of substitution.

What could be more obvious than for Townshend to choose apparel as his entry point into this three-minute disquisition on the nature of appearances and authenticity? His mod audience would be utterly preoccupied with the primacy of clothing in projecting one’s image to the world, and would be utterly aware that such choices exist in the realm of artifice.

Daltrey’s beautiful, androgynous op art shirt, Entwistle’s unearned medals dangling as adornments over his guitar strings, Townshend’s chevron jacket, which allows him to turn his back on his audience during his guitar break—The Who’s outfits for this performance conformed to the expectations of a fan base, all of whom would aspire to be Dedicated Followers of Fashion in their own right. The non-patent-leather shoes are just the first of a welter of fashion references in the lyrics, too: Daltrey’s heels, the beloved’s plastic mac, his fine-looking suit, and the song’s comic punch line.

The outfits flatter; they also deceive.

Just a Simple Love Song

Literally speaking, the opening couplet amounts to a feint. The “you” Daltrey is addressing is not us, the audience—even though he looks, unflinchingly, straight into the camera when he sings it—but the beloved. The “we” Daltrey refers to is not the band that we see in front of us, but the singer and the beloved together as a couple. An origin myth for this song (Wikipedia, 2011) locates Townshend’s inspiration in a single triplet sung by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in their Motown hit, “The Tracks of My Tears” (1965)3: “Although she may be cute / She’s just a substitute / Because you’re the permanent one.”

Literally, “Substitute” describes a simple teenage love triangle, invoked in its third line: “But I’m a substitute for another guy!” The beloved believes that she and the subject cut a dashing, well-dressed couple as they go out on the town, but the subject knows, in his heart, that he is not the true object of her affection. She cries when he confronts her with her emotional infidelity, yet he knows her tears are those of a crocodile. The only authentic thing about their relationship is its dishonesty: “It’s a genuine problem. You won’t try / To work it out at all. You just pass it by, pass it by.”

The “problem” between the subject and the beloved is the only “genuine” ingredient in the entire song.

That is the literal sentiment, another entry in that prized genre of love songs that consist of the subject projecting his hatred toward the beloved. Bob Dylan, of course, is the genre’s master: “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Just Like a Woman” were written in the same year. Freud explains that hate and love are not equal and opposite: hatred, a deeper-seated impulse, routinely survives when love goes wrong, seemingly replacing love, but in reality laying bare its always-existing presence once the veneer of love is stripped away. We can call “Substitute” a love song by genre only. The actual L-word never passes Daltrey’s lips—and we doubt that the sentiment crosses Townshend’s mind.

Here again Freud finds himself vindicated in his observation that the word “love” is reserved, in everyday linguistic usage, for that pure and narrow synthesis in which “all the component instincts of sexuality” have been organized “under the primacy of the genitals and in the service of the reproductive function”(1915, pp.125). Such purity is certainly not what is at stake here between the subject and the beloved. Townshend knows to keep love at arm’s length, to deconstruct its components. In another early song, “I Can’t Explain” (1965),4 The Who takes Freud’s reticent view about love, and uses the L-word sparingly: “I can’t explain / I think it’s love.”

What makes “Substitute” interesting—and at root an introspective song about the fragmented and conflicting drives of the subject himself rather than a love/hate song about the beloved—is how deeply buried we find the literal sentiment, how deceptively it is introduced, how flat the imagery is (with one startling exception) in the section concerning the beloved, how vivid the imagery is in the extraneous parts of the song, how keenly the song understands that life’s vicissitudes are ubiquitous, and not just confined to romantic love.

Enough About Love, What About Class, Race, Family, Society?

The first half of the song offers premonitions of trouble in the couple’s goodlooking paradise, without spelling out what their “genuine problem” might be. Daltrey repeats the first verse, in a matter-of-fact fashion; Townshend turns his back, looking down over his shoulder at Daltrey, to play his guitar solo (or, in this case, mime it). And then the song stops…

…only to restart its second half with a change of subject matter and an opening line that is even more arresting than the mysterious assertion at the beginning. Instead of “you” and “we,” the second half begins with “I” and the subject’s origins. The only verbal link in the second half ’s opening line to the imagery of the first half is “plastic,” the lone “startling exception” alluded to above. In the song’s first half, we heard about the transparent lies of the beloved, as transparent as a see-through plastic raincoat with the promise of a naked body beneath, simultaneously covered and exposed. Now, in the second half, we hear about the legacy of the subject’s father: “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.”

The entire Battle of the Bands cohort of the mid ’60s represented the cutting edge of the baby boomer generation on a mission to remake itself and British society. After almost two decades of austerity and reconstruction following the end of World War II, renewed prosperity provided the opportunity; fashion, music, and consumer technology led the way; and adolescent sexual energy provided the fuel. Britain’s very political order was at stake.

Being born with a plastic spoon in one’s mouth is both a statement of generational modernity and of political class conflict. First, Townshend plays with plastic: the material is at once hip, cutting-edge, and synthetic, a wonder material capable of making new (even see-through) clothes and furniture and buildings, while at the same time being a cheap, mass-produced, ersatz replacement for (silver) objects that used to have abiding, palpable value. Second, he plays with class: The Who asserts its membership in the working class (vis-à-vis the privilege of the aristocracy) and its solidarity with the recent influx of immigrants from Britain’s former colonies (“My dad was black”), while at the same time lamenting the faded glory of the imperial nation its generation is newly inheriting.

In “Substitute,” the brash rebelliousness of “My Generation” is tempered by the recognition of damaged goods: the powers that be are just a pale imitation, a substitute, for what they once were; they have ceded control not because of the authentic dynamism of youth but because of their own decrepitude. “I look pretty young, but I’m just backdated,” Daltrey confesses, referring to the insufficient funds in one’s bank account. Things are deteriorating in the singer’s town—or “going south”—according to the complicated line about its north and east sides. The decline of empire is not only alluded to by the reference to black immigration, but also by the now worthless military medals that Entwistle wears as a mere fashion accessory, and the substitution of Coca-Cola for gin, the drink of choice during London’s imperial zenith and British rule in India. Even the singer’s fine-looking suit is tailored from a valueless burlap sack—or even worse, perhaps, from a hair shirt sackcloth worn by a penurious penitent.

The plastic spoon refers to the subject’s generational status and his class status, but it also refers to his familial status. The spoon represents the requirement that the adolescent youth should, in turn, play his role in the world as a man. So the subject is not only a “substitute for another guy” in the eyes of the beloved: he must also fill the role of another “another guy,” his own father, by becoming a man himself. However, this new role seems worthless, not potent, just as his father’s legacy was made of plastic, not silver.

Consider the subject’s reflection on his father: “I look all white but my dad was black.” To be sure, this is Townshend’s offhand tribute to the inspiration of Smokey Robinson in particular and American negro music in general. It is also The Who’s statement of solidarity with London’s newly arrived immigrant population. And finally, it is a confession of the subject’s sense of inadequacy, unable to provide visual proof of his own provenance. However, it is also a haunting suspicion of his father’s impotence. The awful truth may be that his mother turned his father into a cuckold. The literal insight of the song—that the subject’s beloved is, in truth, devoted to another, for whom he is merely a substitute—is compounded by the additional suspicion that the same fate befell his black father, replaced in his mother’s bed by a white man.

Compounding this is a second selfaccusatory secret suspicion: that the subject himself is not man enough. He is unable to provide visual proof that he is his father’s son. Furthermore, the androgyny of Daltrey’s op art shirt undercuts his masculinity. Townshend teases Daltrey, still diminutive despite his lifts, by giving him the self-evidently false line, “I look pretty tall but my heels are high.” Three times he uses that modifier to declare his femininity: “… we look pretty good…I look pretty tall…I look pretty young…”

Language Fails Me

Immediately following the invocation of the plastic spoon is the song’s most difficult line to deliver. The complication of singing it only compounds its sense of a world off-kilter, the wrong way around, falsely aligned. Daltrey displays considerable vocal virtuosity by merely delivering this couplet:

I | was | born | with a plastic | spoon in| my-y | mouth.
The north | side of | my town | faced east, | and the east | was facing | south.

He goes on to spell out the “genuine problem” with the beloved, followed by the vain hope that she will not simply “pass it by,” before he launches into the climactic triplet of binary replacements, set to the iconic guitar riff that opened the song. At this point, the subject is in a full-fledged crisis of identity. Rhyme breaks down: “him” is paired with “gin”; “mum” with “done.” And grammar breaks down as well.

Consider the lyrics: “Substitute: me for him. / Substitute my coke for gin. / (I’ll) substitute you for my mum; / At least I’ll get my washing done.” The consequence of incorrectly using “for” instead of “with” is to remove from the idea of substitution any contrast between authentic and ersatz. Instead, one term is as good as the other. He (my rival) could be a substitute for me (in her affections)…or I could be her substitute for him (in our public appearances). Who knows? They are sliding signifiers. We have no idea whether the subject’s taste in drinks runs to either Coca-Cola or gin, no clue as to which is the choice and which is the replacement. The object “is what is most variable about an instinct and is not originally connected with it but becomes assigned to it only in consequence of being peculiarly fitted to make satisfaction possible… It may be changed any number of times in the course of the vicissitudes which the instinct undergoes during its existence,” as Freud put it (1915, pp. 138).

A Momentary Flinch of Self-Pity

Until now the subject has been unflinching. Faced with the turmoil of deceit and superficiality, he has nevertheless stared straight at the camera, unmoved and unmoving, except for the telltale blinking of his eyes. Daltrey finds himself in three different relationships simultaneously: the fictive one, of the subject toward the beloved; his actual one, as lead singer of a four-man band; and the performative one, addressing the camera and, by extension, us, his audience.

It is a scenario of the passive figure, recapitulated in triplicate. He stares at us, blinkingly, as a deer caught in the headlights, as he unmovingly renders the ventriloquistic words of the towering Townshend, and as he invokes the gaze of the beloved who looks at him devouringly, with eyes filled with crocodile tears. It is the steely commitment to the passive, reinforced three times, that makes this rendition of “Substitute” so resonant and so disturbing. It is also an explanation for its failure on the stadium concert stage, where the same lyrics refer to the same abject fictive dilemma yet are undercut both by Daltrey’s relationship with Townshend and with his audience. In the stadium, as he struts and poses, Daltrey has become the exhibitionist, no longer a deer in the headlights; with Townshend, he has become a partner in display, rather than his submissive dummy.

Daltrey’s unflinching rendition comports with Freud’s distinction between the masochist and the self-punisher. The attitude of the masochist is truly passive, reacting to the extraneous person who has taken on the subject’s role. Self-punishment represents the reflexive middle voice. Temporarily, the subject relents and resorts to such neurotic self-pity in the form of selfdeprecating humor. For the moment, he returns to the maternal home with a triplet that is rounded out with comedy.

Ultimately, Townshend rejects sentimentality, ending the song with a final reprise that returns to the noninfantilized real world of deceit and betrayal, sackcloth and ashes. But for that brief moment, when love is too complicated and adult life too challenging, at least my fashionable clothes will be laundered properly, as they were when I was a child. Thus the first line of that binary triplet, “substitute me for him,” could as likely refer to the subject’s replacement of his father in an Oedipal triangle as to any reference to the literal teenage triangle of the ostensible song. No wonder they call themselves The Who.

  1. You can watch the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eswQl-hcvU0
  2. Watch part of the concert at Kilburn in 1977 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYFS3iXIWR4
  3. You can watch the music video for “The Tracks of My Tears” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coh7n6dYj5Y
  4. You can watch the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uFcPjILC7k


Freud, S. (1915). Instincts and Their Vicissitudes. SE14:109–140.

Wikipedia. (2011). Substitute (The Who song). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Substitute_(The_Who_song)