The Who song that saw Pete Townshend rip off a Rolling Stones riff

Pete Townshend

If you were a rebellious British rock band in the 1960s, you faced a constant stream of traffic. Pete Townshend, on the other hand, was never afraid to give way to The Rolling Stones on occasion. “I can’t explain how I feel about the Stones because I’ve always been a huge Stones fan,” he said as he inducted his pals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

He went on to praise their abilities, stating, “Their early shows were just shocking. They were absolutely riveting, stunning, and moving, and they transformed my life. There is no denying that the Beatles were entertaining. I’m referring to their live shows. In any case, I am demeaning them. The Stones were the catalyst for my awakening“. So, soon enough, The Who were putting live explosives in Keith Moon’s drum kit and waking up anyone else who had been sleeping through the British invasion.

So, when the media frequently portrayed Townshend’s band as a mere replacement for the Stones, the acerbic rocker was more than happy to play along. In response to the recurring rhetoric, he wrote a song called ‘Substitute‘. To make things even clearer, he stole Keith Richards’ riff. “It was written as a spoof of ’19th Nervous Breakdown,'” Townshend said in 1971. “On the demo, I sang with an affected Jagger-like accent.”

He then combined this with one of his favourite anthems of the time, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘The Tracks of My Tears’. Townshend had been a fan of the soul song since its release in 1965. The lyric, “Although she may be cute/She’s just a substitute,” sold him even more on the concept of substitutes. He embraced the bestowment’s catchiness and poetry and went into parody mode, resulting in one of The Who’s highest-charting singles of all time.

When the band performed the song on their Live at Leeds album, Townshend said, “We’d like to play three hit singles from our past for you. Three hit singles were chosen as the easiest. There’s a substitute, which we like. When the audience cheers, he responds, “Thank you. That was our first number four,” prompts more riotous laughter and perhaps a few people scratching their heads, wondering why they never achieved the commercial success of many of their peers.

Needless to say, they were not true substitutes. Eddie Vedder stated, “The Who quite possibly remain the greatest live band ever.” However, one defining feature of their live shows was borrowed from the Stones. As Pete Townshend explained to David Letterman, “[The Who] supported the Stones for two shows. They were young, new, and had only one hit, Chuck Berry’s ‘Come On’. I met them backstage, and they were all charming.”

“As the curtain opened, Keith Richards is doing this,” he says, before rising to his feet and performing his now-famous windmill motion. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’ I assumed it was part of his ‘thing’. We saw them again a few weeks later, this time in a south London club. I’m watching and waiting, and he didn’t do it.”

When Townshend later approached him to find out why, it was clear that the opportunity to make the move presented itself. “I can’t remember exactly what he said, but the inference was, ‘I’m Keith Richards. Do you really think I am going to do ballet? That was the inference. So, the Stones inspired The Who in a variety of ways, but as is the case with liberated rock ‘n’ roll. The inverse is also true, resulting in a feeding frenzy of ideas that gives the genre vitality.

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