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Thursday, August 28, 2008

SUNSHINE SUPERMAN (and other songs with superheroes and comics characters in 'em)

Donovan's 1966 #1 hit "Sunshine Superman" is a prime example of the goofy, hippy-dippy feelgood "safe" psychedelia that regularly made it into the Top 40 at the time ("incense and Peppermints," anyone?), stuff that was basically innocent, wouldn't turn the kiddies into LSD-fueled axe murderers, and was just trippy enough to make mom and dad think they grokked the counter-culture. As acid-era pop tunes go it's pretty fluffy stuff — it's certainly no "You Must Be A Witch" by the Lollipop Shoppe —, but I've loved it since as far back as I can remember and it still rates among the handful of songs that are guaranteed to lift my spirits whenever I hear it (although I have to admit that Mel Torme's loungy-though-sincere version is my favorite version of it).

For those too young to recall this mildly-lysergic chestnut, it's basically a guy's stream of consciousness account of basically wandering around and doing a whole lot of nothing while declaring he's made his mind up that some girl he's interested in is going to be his, she being acquired by him picking up her hand and slowly blowing her little mind. During the course of all this, the guy boasts of his own awesomeness by stating that "Superman and Green Lantern ain't got nothing on me" and subsequently alluding to his ability to "make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, yeah," either a metaphor for being an accomplished cunnilinguist or a statement of his own belief that he can metamorphose into a shelled amphibian. Any way you break it down, it's kooky, charming, infectious and more than a little bit silly, but expressions of love don't have to be erudite to be sincere.

The song is also notable for what may be the first nod to superheroes in a rock tune, what with it's mention of the Last Son of Krypton and everyone's favorite ring-slinging space-cop. Since "Sunshine Superman," comic book heroes and villains have turned up all over the place in rock songs and other pop music efforts (Herbie Mann's excruciating "Super-Mann" immediately comes to mind with its horrendous disco beat and moaning vocalists repeating "Do it to me, Super-Mann, Mann, Mann"), and I'm trying to cobble together a list of songs that features such nods so I can eventually create a playlist of such favorites. Off the top of my head I've come up with the following list:

MAGNETO & TITANIUM MAN (Paul McCartney & Wings)

This not only mentions the two Marvel antagonists of the title, but it also throws in the Crimson Dynamo for no apparent reason. There's no reason to try to make any kind of sense out of it, however, because the song is very obviously the result of reading a stack of Stan Lee-scribed comics while smoking about sixteen bonghits in rapid succession, and one can only imagine the quality of weed Paul had access to at the time.

TV CASUALTY (Misfits)

Perhaps the only song ever to mention Prince Namor, aka the Sub-Mariner, this gains points for specifically referring to the shoddy Grantray-Lawrence cutout cartoons of the 1960's wherein Subby was voiced by John Vernon (aka Dean Wormer in NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE).

CATCH ME NOW I'M FALLING (The Kinks)-name-checks Captain America, among others.

GIGANTOR (The Dickies)

I'm not sure if this one counts since it was a cartoon theme song, but Gigantor always counted as a superhero in my book, remote-controlled robot or not.

GHOST RIDER (Rollins Band)

Dirge-like and grim as hell, that is until you pay attention the words. "Baby, baby, baby, he's blazin' awaaaaaay," "Ridin' around in a blue jumpsuit, yeah" and "Ridin' through your town with his head on fire" are hilarious lyrics, sent way over the top by the ridiculous seriousness of the music and the overwrought vocals of good ol' Henry Rollins. This was the only only reason I picked up the soundtrack to THE CROW (at a stoop sale for a buck).

SPIDER-MAN (Ramones)

The forefathers of punk rock's nasal-but-great cover of the sixties cartoon theme song.

SGT. ROCK IS GOING TO HELP ME (XTC)

While not a superhero per se, Sgt. Rock is definitely a comics icon, so I make a case for his inclusion here. And it's one of XTC's best numbers, about a guy who earnestly believes he can solve his failures at romance by gleaning tips from Sgt. Rock comics. Brilliant!

CAN U DIG IT? (Pop Will Eat Itself)

A terrific, riff-heavy dance track from the UK, how this wasn't a huge worldwide hit is beyond my comprehension. The first time I heard this was when it debuted as a video on MTV over two decades ago, and in less than thirty seconds it had propelled me up from my seat and spurred me to dance like some prehistoric shaman. It's completely awesome on its own, but it famously name-checks Bruce Lee, Alan Moore, V FOR VENDETTA, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Marvel and DC, so when coupled with one of the best hook/beat combos ever who could I not love it?

SUPERMAN (R.E.M.)

This song is so whiny and wimpy, I bet that if Superman existed and heard this he'd find Michael Stipe and banish him to the Phantom Zone for defamation of character.

COMIC BOOK HEROES (The Tearjerkers)-name-checks Cyclops, Angel, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as the singer plaintively bemoans the fact that he's not like them.

SUPERMAN'S SONG (Crash Test Dummies)-featuring one of the most annoying vocals in history, this song has one of the dumbest lyrics ever: "Superman never made any money, savin' the world from Solomon Grundy." Utter crap.

BARBARELLA (The Bongos)

An infectious early-eighties ode (presumably) to the saucy French "astro-navigatrix."

I AM THE LAW (Anthrax)

Not great by any means, but I think it's the only song about a flagship character from England's seminal 2000 A.D. weekly sci-fi anthology, in this case future lawman Judge Dredd.

JIMMY OLSEN'S BLUES (Spin Doctors)

Self-explanatory.

BATDANCE (Prince)

Concrete proof that not everything the Purple One graces us with is good.

JOKER'S WILD (Man...or Astro-Man?)

An excellent cover of the classic Ventures instrumental, this version leaves out the Clown Prince of Crime's maniacal laughter and instead opens with what appears to be an excerpt from an obscure Batman children's LP adventure.

ASTRO BOY and SAILOR MOON (Osaka Popstar)-two more anime theme songs, only with balls added.

BATMAN THEME (The Ventures and The Jam)

Two great covers of one of what is perhaps the definitive superhero signature tune. The one by the Ventures has actually been found to cure hip dysplasia (a fact not confirmed by the AMA).

O SUPERMAN (Laurie Anderson)

I've heard it hundreds of times and I'm still not sure that this actually has anything to do with Superman, so should this one count?

IRON MAN (Black Sabbath and The Cardigans)

This has absolutely nothing to do with Tony Stark, but thanks to the blockbuster movie it has entered the public consciousness as the Golden Avenger's theme song. For those too young to have been there when Sabbath was kicking ass back in the days, all of us budding metalheads thought this was about the comics character we were familiar with, but if you listen to the lyrics you'll learn it's about a guy who "was turned to steel in the great magnetic field, when he traveled time for the future of mankind," only to find himself fucked over by the people he once saved, so he does what anyone would do and dons his heavy boots of lead, after which he starts killing the ungrateful motherfuckers. A good lesson for children to learn. And the loungey cover by The Cardigans is a must-hear.

PRECIOUS (The Pretenders)

One of the Pretenders' best tunes, and it nods to Howard the Duck and his signature plight of being "trapped in a world he never made."

BOY WONDER I LOVE YOU (Burt Ward)

If you never would have imagined a recording by TV's Robin and a pre-Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa you would not be alone, but such a record exists. Burt Ward, as Robin, reads some of his fan mail to Zappa's musical accompaniment and it's just too odd to describe.

THE RIDDLER (Frank Gorshin)

Amid the plethora of novelty recordings designed to cash in on the Batman craze of 1966, this is by far the best of that sorry lot thanks to Gorshin's signature insane delivery. Man, I love his loony laugh!

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (The Webspinners)

A favorite of Yer Bunche since I was seven (1972), this is not merely the best song ever to spring from a kiddie record, this is the best song ever written about Spider-Man. It's a prime example of early-1970's whiteboy funk, and features the incredible line "No one lady's sex-machine, he makes all the little girls sigh!" Yeah, Peter Parker wishes...

THOR THE POWERHEAD (Manowar)

A manly song about the manliest of the Norse gods, by one of the manliest bands ever.

SUPERBOY (Nina Hagen Band)

If the dubious "O Superman" can make this list, so can this German language punker.

That's all I can think of at the moment, but what else do you suggest? Write in!

8 comments:

Kevie said...

Dude, two home runs in a day! Bless your heart for reminding me of that insane Spider-Man album! I found it on Rhapsody, if anyone's curious.

http://www.rhapsody.com/theamazingspiderman/frombeyondthegrave

Chris Weston said...

On Pink Floyd's album, More (1969), a song called "Cymbaline" features the lyrics:
"Dr. Strange is always changing size".

Anonymous said...

"Holding Out for a Hero" by Bonnie Tyler - This really oughta begin your mix.

"Kryptonite" from 3 Doors Down - Superman goes whiny, neurotic and pathetically obsessed. Pure Generation Y-hine.

"Joker's Wild" from The Insane Clown Posse - Not a Ventures cover, but a more demented take on the idea. In this song, ISP doles out psychopathic punishment to the folks who helped lock the narrator (Joker, presumably) in jail. Stupid but kinda eerie anyway.

"In the Garage" by Weezer - "I got the Dungeon Masters Guide/ I got a 12-sided die/ I got Kitty Pryde..." A nasel yet amusing ode to geekdom.

"Defcon One" from Pop Will Eat Itself - May be the first musical shout-out to The Watchmen released... so far.

"O.G. Original Gangster" from Ice-T - "I ain't no superheroe, this ain't no Marvel comic," growls Ice as he takes down gangsta rappers who act superhumanly tough but haven't lived the life.

"Batman & Robin" by RBX and Snoop Dogg - pretty funny dialog spoken over a loop of a funked-up version of the TV show theme.

"Green Lantern" by Blue Harvest - this punkish pop song features literal shout-outs to Hal Jordan by way of a smooth-voiced rocker chick.

"Wonder Woman" by Trey Songz - "Cinch that rope" proclaims yet another rapper, exorting his "Wonder Woman" to "grip them legs back on me, pliers." Uh-huh.

"Dating Batman" by Cars Can be Blue - "What's up Batman?/ Are you fucking the Riddler?" 'Nuff said!

"Captain America" from Gwacamoli - If I spoke Spanish, I might be able to tell you what the song is about. They yell "Captian America" a lot in it, though.

"Tear in Your Hand" by Tori Amos - "Me and Neil'll be/ Hanging out with the Dream King" may be the first pop lyrics to name-check both a comics character and his creator.

"Superhero Brother" by G. Love and Special Sauce - May be the first song to spin Gren Goblin, Jesus and Britney Spears into the same web.

"Batman" by Link Wray and The Who (sadly, not in collaboration) - Personally, I dig the variations The Who and The Wraymen rang on this classic theme. Too bad they didn't work together on this one - that would've been insane!

"Brainiac's Daughter" by XTC - Dude, how'd you miss this one?

"(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" by The Kinks - Ditto.

"One Week" by Barenaked Ladies - Double ditto. Wrapping Aquaman, Kurosawa and the X-Files into one song qualifies as weird pop genius.

"Flash's Theme" by Queen - "FLASH - AH-AHHHHHH!" Okay, so it's not the DC Flash; Flash Gordan still counts as a comic superhero, though.

"Superman is Dead" by Wool - "Now that Superman is Dead/ Who will kick ass?" Grunge-punk tribute to the "Death of Superman" miniseries that's far less wussy than The Crash Test Dummies.

"Superman is Dead (You've Gotta do it Yourself)" by the Cookie Makin Satan Haters - "Lois Lane told me/ He popped too many pills..."

"Superman is Dead" by Lawrence Collins - Do we sense a theme here?

"Superhero" by Jane's Addiction - Okay, it's been a while and I don't recall if it name-check's a specific hero, but the song's all about "running fast as a speeding horse" and so on... and it's pretty catchy, too.

And you've gotta include the Spider-Man theme as performed by Michael Buble - or better yet, its dead-on parody recorded by Richard Cheese - for sheer Velveeta factor.

BTW, "Ghost Rider" was a cover. The original version of the song came from the synth-punk duo Suicide almost two decades earlier. (I prefer Rollins' version, though.)

Thanks for remembering "Precious" for the list. It's an old favorite of mine.

Excelsior!

Anonymous said...

Jim Croche: "Oh, you don't tug on Superman's cape/ you don't spit into the wind/ You don't pull the mask on that ol' Lone Ranger/ And you don't mess around with Jim..."

Kevie said...

Gotta include Monster Magnet. Just off the top of my head, "Dinosaur Vacuum" references the Mother Box, "Baby Gotterdammerung" checks Modok, And there's a song called "Ego, the Living Planet" that only has one line of lyrics, repeated over and over: "I talk to planets, baby! I TALK TO PLANETS BABY!!!!"

Anonymous said...

I LOVE this post. I would love to have a compilation cd of everything mentioned here. A cute name would be, "Beat to the Geek".

Anyway, Amy Whinehouse mentions a superman in her song, "My Tears Dry on Their Own":

"How can I play myself again,
I should just be my own best friend,
Not fuck myself in the head with superman"
-Xtina

agvd said...

How's about the Dwarves "Astro Boy", The Who "Batman Theme" and the Open Mind "Thor, the Thunder God"?

Stanik said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hvuwxDyx3I

Bango (To the Batmobile) - Todd Terry
classic house track from '88.