The Sex Pistols’ take on the classic single by The Who was recorded in 1976 but not formally released until it appeared on the soundtrack to The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in 1979. It’s an exuberant cover that captures the power-pop of the original, roughs it up and puts a rocket up its arse.
Pete Townshend was inspired to write Substitute by the line ‘although she may be cute she’s just a substitute’ in Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ Tracks Of My Tears. Approaching it from the substitute’s point of view – a man who knows he’s not as good as his girl thinks – the lyrics are a mix of cleverly self-deprecating – ‘I look pretty tall but my heels are high’ – jokes – ‘at least I’ll get my washing done’ – and sub-Dr Seuss, cryptic bollocks – ‘The north side of my town faced east, and the east was facing south’. There’s an element of class-consciousness about it too – ‘I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth’ – which would’ve appealed to the Pistols.
You can hear the great Keith Moon screaming as he plays the drum fill about two minutes in. Supposedly he was so wasted and paranoid at the time that he forgot playing on the recording and accused the rest of the band, ironically, of using a substitute drummer and plotting to replace him. They had to point out the scream to convince him otherwise. Townshend was originally meant to play the solo on guitar but John Entwistle ended up performing it on bass. Roger Daltrey sings it pop idol sweetness and it all fits together perfectly for one of The Who’s best singles.
As with it is with most of the Sex Pistols’ legend the story that original bassist Glenn Matlock was sacked because he admitted to liking The Beatles is probably bullshit. Still, by the Sex Pistols’ time The Who were flirting with progressive rock and very much part of the establishment that the Pistols were anti, so it’s odd that they would cover them. Obviously the guitar smashing, volume and confrontational attitude of early Who made a lasting impression on Johnny Rotten and the boys and they were able to get over the rock opera shenanigans and long hair that would come later. You can hear how much they’re enjoying themselves playing Substitute too – it’s a really energetic performance.
Given how high-spirited the performance of Substitute is it’s ironic that it was released in conjunction with The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle – Malcolm McLaren’s interesting but deeply flawed vanity film project, made around the collapse of the Sex Pistols. The film was cobbled together at a time when the band members and management detested the sight of one another and Johnny Rotten quit just after production began. Legendary sexploitation, B-movie maker Russ Meyer was the original director, but only lasted four days before the mutual hatred got to him and Julien Temple, whose main qualification was that he’d been to a lot of Sex Pistols gigs, took over. Temple made something surprisingly watchable considering what he was up against, but it’s the soundtrack that really saves it – not all of it, there’s a LOT of filler. Some of it though captures the energy and adrenaline of the band at the peak of their powers, with Substitute being a prime example of this.
The Pistols’ supercharged version of Substitute is pretty faithful, if not exactly reverent. Steve Jones thrashes out a really filthy guitar sound and he reclaims the solo from Glenn Matlock, whose brilliant walking bassline has a real upbeat feel about it. Paul Cook can’t quite compete with Moon’s unique skills but he puts in a powerful, machine gun performance on drums. The biggest change is in the vocals. While Daltrey’s original was sweetly sincere, Rotten’s delivers his in his best, sneeringly sarcastic, North London guttersnipe snarl. It’s all dropped aitches and glottal stops – ‘You fink my shoes are made of levvah’. The first time he sings ‘plastic mac’ it becomes ‘wanker’s mac’ and there’s a general, healthy disregard for the order of the lines. There’s a joyous spontaneity about the whole song.
The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle soundtrack feature a few covers and they’re all pretty good, but Substitute is easily the best. It’s the Sex Pistols at their loud, obnoxious best, before Sid Vicious came and went and Bambi got killed.