Comic books have a kindred spirit in pop music. Decades ago, Superman had to battle Pat Boone for Lois Lane’s affections, while one of Marvel’s latest marketing ploys has been a series of variant covers which recreate classic hip-hop album covers with superheroes taking the places of rappers like Pusha T and Nas.
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The admiration goes both ways. Thanks to the proliferation of comic book movies and their ensuing soundtrack albums, there’s been a recent uptick in bands performing superhero-inspired tracks, starting with Prince’s “Batdance” up through Chad Kroeger’s “Hero” from the first “Spider-Man” film. Even before it became profitable, there were songwriters looking to their back issue bins for lyrical inspiration. MCs have adopted superhero alter-egos as their own pseudonyms. Alternative rockers have revealed their geeky sides through obscure name dropping. Thrash metal groups have turned out to have entirely unsurprising comic book interests. With all that in mind, here’s our list of 15 songs based on superheroes.
15. “Superman” by Five For Fighting
Vladimir John Ondrasik III, better known as Five For Fighting, was one of a wave of sensitive piano-rocking gentleman in the early ’00s. Unlike contemporaries like The Fray and Daniel Powter, he at least had some comic book credentials to back up the sensitive soul. His breakthrough single “Superman” has a surprisingly dour take on the inspirational superhero, as he puts himself in the cape and imagines how tough it must be to be Kal-El.
“I’m more than a bird / I’m more than a plane / More than some pretty face beside a train / It’s not easy to be me.” Superman’s all about the symbolic imagery of an alien who dresses up in the colors of the American flag, saves lives, and asks for nothing in return. But what about the person underneath all that? He might have an existential crisis or two from time to time.
“I’m only a man in a silly red sheet / Digging for Kryptonite on this one way street / Only a man in a funny red sheet / Looking for special things inside of me.” Harnessing such iconic imagery helps Five for Fighting bring a weight to the emotion of the song, which otherwise might come off as a whiny entitled dude complaining about how bad he’s got it. When that whiny dude is Superman, you’re more inclined to sit up and listen.
14. “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” by Megadeth
Fronted by ex-Metallica guitarist David Mustaine, Megadeth in 1990 was still very much committed to the heavy stuff. The opening track of their album from that year, “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due,” is face-melting thrash metal of the best kind. A few minutes in, after a deceptive acoustic bridge, it transitions into some punishingly heavy, dirge-like metal. “Punishing” being the operative word. The first section examined the contemporary violent political unrest in Northern Ireland, but after the bridge, the second part was all about The Punisher. It makes a certain kind of sense that a band called Megadeth would feel a kinship with Frank Castle.
“They killed my wife and my baby / With hopes to enslave me!” Mustaine howls, seemingly in character as Castle himself. “Wage the war on organized crime / Sneak attacks, rappel down the rocks / Behind the lines / Some people risk to employ me / Either way they die, they die!” It’s not exactly poetry, but then it’s also not far from the sort of dialogue you would expect to come across in a contemporaneous issue of “The Punisher War Zone.”
13. “Nobody Loves The Hulk” by The Traits
There’s been a recent minor renaissance in superhero comics getting official theme songs. “Nextwave” editor Nick Lowe and his brother recorded a musical paean to the unconventional team for their MySpace page, advertising the URL in the first issue. Brendan Fletcher’s band brought songs from his “Black Canary” run to life. The band Married With Sea Monsters recorded Spider-Gwen’s theme from “Edge of Spider-Verse” and put it online.
The earliest example of this seemingly-modern practice dates back to 1968, when New York act The Traits had a minor hit with “Nobody Loves The Hulk.” Over a garage rock backing, frontwoman Rosalind Rogoff recounted Bruce Banner’s superhero origin story before repeating the chorus “Nobody Loves The Hulk! Nobody Loves The Hulk! / Nobody Loves The Hulk! / (‘Cept you and me) / We don’t allow no green skin people in here!”
In the intervening years, the song has been covered a few times, and remains a curious bit of comic book legend thanks to the record being advertised in the back pages of a bunch of Marvel books between 1969 and 1970, plus a knowing nod in 1992’s “Hulk Annual” #18. Looking back, Rogoff is reportedly slightly embarrassed by her college comic fandom, but the song’s still a cheesy delight.
12. “Challengers” by New Pornographers
Canadian indie-rock supergroup the New Pornographers are just one big bundle of pop cultural references. The act’s name comes from an infamous quote by evangelist preacher Jimmy Swaggart, who in 1986 put forward the assertion that the decadent and depraved world of rock ‘n’ roll was “the new pornography.”
“Challengers” took its names from “Challengers of the Unknown”, an obscure (to mainstream fans, anyway) Jack Kirby creation from half a century prior. Their first appearance was in 1957’s “Showcase” #6, a story which was uncredited but is widely believed to be the work of Kirby on his own, with some input by Joe Simon and/or Dave Wood. The team of four super-scientists in matching uniforms going on supernatural adventures were a precursor to Kirby’s “Fantastic Four” with Stan Lee.
Meanwhile “Challengers”, the title track from the New Pornographer album of the same name, uses the metaphor of an adventurous team of heroes exploring brave new worlds to a love affair between a married woman and the narrator (“You live with someone / I live with somebody too…”). The bittersweet love song culminates in frontwoman Neko Case literally singing “We were the challengers of / The Unknown”, in case the inspiration wasn’t clear.
11. “Side Kick” by Rancid
There’s plenty of love for superheroes in music, but what about the humble sidekick? Big rock acts pen love letters to Superman, so it makes sense that a punk act like Rancid would herald the underdog.
It’s not a specific sidekick that’s being sung about by co-frontman Tim Armstrong, and it’s a non-traditional view of what it’s like to pull on spandex and act as second-in-command to the proper superheroes. “I had a dream I was a vigilante sidekick / My name is Tim I’m a lesser known character,” they sing as a form of explanation. “I had a dream i was a vigilante sidekick / fighting crime in the streets together.”
The song goes on to form an anarchist conception of a sidekick. “A good place were good people get food / Helping your fellow man is a good thing to do,” he hollers, describing a superhero who helps out with his local soup kitchen. Specific comic book references come when Wolverine turns up to help the narrator deal with some unwanted police attention. He is the best there is at what he does, after all, and what he does here is chop up a lot of government agents and leave “every single cop [with] a bullet in the head.”
10. “Superman’s Song” by Crash Test Dummies
Canadian folk rockers Crash Test Dummies began achieving commercial success in Canada with the release of debut record “The Ghosts that Haunt Me.” Their dominance over the charts was helped by the popularity of the single “Superman’s Song.”
Along with writing a great, melancholic pop song, the Crash Test Dummies also managed to beat DC Comics to the punch by a good year. As the chorus kicks in, it’s clear this is a eulogy to a supposedly deceased Man of Steel: “Superman never made any money / For saving the world from Solomon Grundy / And sometimes I despair the world will never see / Another man like him.” The single came out in 1991, and the “Death of Superman” storyline saw print in 1992!
In case the topic of the song wasn’t clear enough, the music video makes the barely-sub-text explicit. Singer Brad Roberts presides over a funeral for Supes that’s also attended by a middle-aged Wonder Woman, The Green Hornet, and the Alan Scott Green Lantern. Or at least, actors wearing costumes that resemble those classic characters without pushing their luck with DC’s intellectual property.
9. “Spider-Man” by The Ramones
The Ramones may have been one of the defining voices of punk rock music, but they also new a good chorus outside of the genre when they heard one. No doubt their love for a great, slightly cheesy, song is what inspired them to cover the classic ’60s “Spider-Man” theme song. Recorded for compilation album “Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits,” which also featured Liz Phair recreating the “Banana Splits” opening and Violent Femmes taking on “The Jetsons,” the Ramones turn Paul Francis Webster and Bob Harris’ iconic track into a punk rebel yell.
Released as a single from the record, it also got a music video which placed cartoon versions of the Ramones among the low budget animation of the 1967 “Spider-Man” series. Two of the greatest things to come out of New York City are brought together in the song, which is nearly unique in the band’s discography for being both a cover of a TV theme and also over two minutes long.
8. “Magneto and Titanium Man” by Wings
Few would deny that Paul McCartney was the most talented member of Wings. The ex-Beatles new band, formed in the aftermath of the Fab Four’s break up, did result in some classic compositions. They perhaps didn’t quite reach the heights of his collaborations with John Lennon, but the likes of “Jet,” “Live and Let Die,” and “Band on the Run” have become enduring classics in their own right.
Less remembered is “Magneto and Titanium Man,” the B-side of the 1975 single “Venus and Mars/Rock Show.” There’s some Lennon-style vocal harmonies and classic rock instrumentals backing the song, which references the Marvel supervillains in the title and lyrics alike. McCartney is apparently a big Marvel Comics fans, with the song telling a screwball narrative of a man who gets told his girlfriend is planning a bank robbery by Magneto, Titanium Man, and Russian bad guy the Crimson Dynamo.
The record sleeve featured artwork of the villainous trio by George Tuska, John Tartaglione, Mike Esposito, Sal Buscema and Joe Staton, which were also projected on stage when the band toured the album. At the Los Angeles stop of the “Venus and Mars” tour, Jack Kirby was in attendance, with McCartney hooking him up with front row seats and backstage passes. Stan Lee reportedly found the song “terrific.”
7. “Surfing with the Alien” by Joe Satriani
Opening with a cavalcade of voices and some theremin-like sci-fi noises, doesn’t this just sound like the soundtrack to a “Silver Surfer” comic? Guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani doesn’t play what would traditionally be recognized as “songs” so much as he uses his albums as an excuse to show off. The 1987 LP “Surfing with the Alien” is no exception, popularizing as it did a form of highly technical and insanely fast-paced fretwork known as “shred guitar.” What the musically luddite and comic literate among the audience might get out of Satriani’s second solo album is the concept tying it all together. It’s right there on the record’s cover.
Along with nods to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle”, the album has references to the Surfer throughout, most notably on that title track. The cover artwork was taken directly from 1982’s “Silver Surfer” #1. It’s a dynamic, gorgeously Kirby-esque piece of work which John Byrne remains sore about. Whilst Marvel approved the use of the piece, nobody asked the artist, who claims he’s not seen a dime off the back of this platinum-selling record to this day.
6. “Ghost Rider” by Suicide
While punk was exploding, Suicide took the nihilistic three-chord ethos and applied it to primitive drum machines and synthesizers. Artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Nine Inch Nails and Daft Punk have all cited the band as an inspiration, and they were sampled by M.I.A. for her 2010 single “Born Free”.
You couldn’t ask for a hipper pedigree, but Suicide were yet another group whose rock ‘n’ roll cool had its roots in longbox geekery. The duo’s name has its origins in an issue of “Ghost Rider” Vega was enamored with, which featured a typically sensational story called “Satan Suicide”. They went even further with their admiration for Johnny Blaze by name checking the firey-skulled biker in one of their early tracks, too.
Whilst Wu Tang Clan member Method Man sometimes adopts Blaze’s name as an alter ego, Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” (the very song sampled by M.I.A.) actually attempts to capture something about the character in its sound and lyrics. “Ghostrider, motorcycle hero / Baby baby baby he’s lookin’ so cute / Sneakin’ round round round in a blue jumpsuit” Vega whispers menacingly over a rumbling bass which imitates the propulsive engine of a hellfire-powered Harley Davidson, low synths echoing as if from the bowels of hell.
5. “Slept On Tony” by Ghostface Killah
Wu Tang Clan’s enduring success comes from mixing two parts street poetry with one part deep dive pop culture reference. They differentiated themselves from other collectives in the nascent rap scene by offering both unparalleled access to the hard life of a hustler on the streets of New York, along with nods towards Shaw Brother kung-fu flicks and comic books. Breakout member Ghostface Killah, an unstoppable collector of pseudonyms, even took “Tony Starks” as one of his alternate stage names.
He’d been using the Starks name since his group’s genre-defining gangsta debut, “Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” and he even titled his 1996 solo record “Ironman,” but it wasn’t until “Slept On Tony” that Killah fully embodied the shell head, a track laden with horns and references to the character’s fictional biography. The track was eventually used in the first “Iron Man” movie, which is very fitting. Killah raps from Stark’s P.O.V., recounting his origin story (“When they kidnapped your boy, and forced me to do evil / I created an iron suit, to protect my people”) and subsequent M.O. (“Money’s irrelevant, I need heat to energize / We taking over the planet, Stark Enterprise”), with ludicrously catchy production from the G2J Band.
4. “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues” by the Spin Doctors
American jam rock outfit, Spin Doctors, owe almost all their success to the Man of Steel. They’re best remembered for the ska-tinged rhythms of “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues.” With a lolloping beat and a refrain of “I’ve got a pocketful of Kryptonite” (a phrase which became the title of their debut album in 1991), it’s a veritable cornucopia of Superman references.
“Pocketful of Kryptonite” even featured Clark Kent’s changing room of choice – a phone booth – on the cover. The lead single chose the perspective of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen over that of Kal-El himself. The Olsen persona Chris Barron, the singer, takes on is a jealous type, pining for Daily Planet co-worker Lois Lane, who only has eyes for the man in the red underoos.
“He’s leaping buildings in a single bound / I’m reading Shakespeare at my place downtown…Come on downtown and make love to me / I’m Jimmy Olsen, not a titan, you see.” Who could turn down such a proposition? To make sure the object of his affection notices him, the Olsen of the song plans something particularly dastardly: that aforementioned “pocketful of Kryptonite.” It’s a unrequited love song with some low-level supervillainy thrown in for good measure.
3. “I Am The Law” by Anthrax
Judge Dredd has been an unlikely muse for a number of musical acts over the years. In 2012, the authoritarian cop walking the beat of a dystopian future America inspired Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and TV composer Ben Salisbury to record an album called “DROKK: Music inspired by Mega-City One.” Moody electronics are a fitting soundtrack to the overpopulated city, although it doesn’t quite reflect the trigger-happy violence of Dredd himself. That’s where Anthrax step in.
The iconic “2000 A.D.” theme has to be “I Am The Law.” It’s become one of the thrash metal group’s signature songs and was one of many pop culture-referencing tracks on their 1987 record “Among the Living,” including two which retold Stephen King novels in screamy rock form. It was fully endorsed by the comic publishers, too, who provided Dredd artwork for the cover of the single release. And why wouldn’t they? The band are clearly huge fans of “2000 A.D.,” based on the lyrics of the song.
The song drops insider “Judge Dredd” knowledge including the futuristic prisons he throws perps in (“Your Iso-Cube is waiting when he brings you in”), his antagonists and supporting cast (“Not even Death can overcome his might / Cause Dredd and Anderson, they won the fight”) and specific storylines from the comics (“When the Sovs started the Apocalypse War / And Mega-City was bombed to the floor”).
2. “Waitin’ For Superman” by The Flaming Lips
Line-up changes and a surprise chart hit with pop song “She Don’t Use Jelly” had necessitated a change in sound for The Flaming Lips, something further compounded by the loss of frontman Wayne Coyne’s father. The singer’s lyrical preoccupations moved from the surreal to the autobiographical.
The heady themes tackled on the 1999 album included life, death, the fairness of such, and finding meaning in an uncaring universe. Not as bleak as you might think, thanks to Coyne’s sweet falsetto and multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd’s lush D.I.Y. chamber pop arrangements. In a hopeful highlight of the album, the Lips look to a familiar figure to save their lives.
What do you do when everything is weighing you down, when the pressure being carried on your metaphorical shoulders is too much to bear? You ask for help from a Kryptonian hero known for his super-strength, of course! Coyne acknowledges, however, that waiting on a comic character isn’t necessarily the way to deal with your problems: “Tell everybody waiting for Superman / That they should try to hold on best they can / He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything / It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.”
1. MF DOOM’s Whole Dang Discography
For Daniel Dumile, inhabiting a comic book character is his full-time job. The rapper hasn’t made a single public appearance, photo shoot, or music video during the past 20 years without wearing his patented costume: a chrome mask modelled in part after one worn in the Ridley Scott movie “Gladiator,” but more explicitly after “Fantastic Four” antagonist Doctor Doom. That’s even where Dumile got his MF DOOM stage name.
Under this moniker DOOM has produced and recorded countless cult hip-hop records for the backpack crowd, from his classic “Madvillainy” collaboration with producer Madlib to “Dangerdoom,” a concept record helmed by Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, where each track is a tribute to a different Adult Swim series. Each record Dumile puts out brings together new collaborators, lyrical themes and styles, but Doctor Doom remains a consistent reference point throughout. He fully inhabits the role of the Marvel supervillain, having consistently sampled dialogue from the ’60s “Fantastic Four” animated series and chopping up the speech so superheroes and civilians alike sound intimidated by his molasses-like dense and relaxed flow.
What superhero-inspired pop hits have we missed? Are there some forgotten gems that pay homage to your favorite comic book characters? Sound off in the comments!
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