So I was listening to Spotify the other day, running my “Jump Around Like an Idiot” playlist (which is great for staying awake during rush hour traffic) and up comes “Precious” by the Pretenders. It’s been among my bride’s favorite songs for decades, something of an anthem for her, but I had never really paid much attention to the lyrics. So you can imagine my surprise when, finally, after 41 years, I heard Chrissie Hynde’s shout-out to Howard the Duck.
Howard the Duck and Mr. Stress* both stayed (Precious)
Trapped in a world they never made (Precious)
But not me baby, I had to fuck off.
(*Mr. Stress was Bill Miller, leader of the Mr. Stress Blues Band, a popular Cleveland-based bar band that never attained national fame. Chrissie Hynde was a member for a short time.)
Over the years, I have collected a little library of songs that mention comic characters and superheroes, an interest that started with The Royal Guardsmen‘s classic “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” in 1966, the same year as Donovan‘s “Sunshine Superman.” That latter one was startling; Superman was pretty well-known, but he gave a shout-out to Green Lantern? Seven-and-a-half-year-old me was surprised at that. I didn’t know any adults that even knew who Green Lantern was.
Some years back the regulars on on the Miscellaneous board at the CBR forums did a “Secret Santa” gift exchange, so I created a custom CD as my contribution. (I ended up sending out a handful to others after they heard about it.) I tried hard to find tracks that covered a variety of heroes, since the vast majority of songs in this niche are centered on Superman. I was reminded of this collection after stumbling upon the Pretenders’ entry, and since, as Hatcher says, we use every part of the buffalo here, I figured my superhero playlist would serve as fodder for a column. So here is the complete track listing for the 2005 compilation “Diggin’ the Comics,” created by me and distributed to maybe a dozen people. You’re welcome.
Super Powers – Ookla the Mok
If you were looking for the platonic ideal of nerdcore, you have to go with Ookla the Mok, a two-man group that’s been playing at conventions since 1994. Coming from what’s known as “filk music” (it’s like folk singing, but the lyrics reference science fiction and fantasy tropes in Allan Sherman/Weird Al Yankovic style), Ookla the Mok quickly began writing original tunes to accompany their verses. As far as I can see, they haven’t really done much of anything in the way of performing or recording the last couple of years, but they do have a Patreon and a website. They are the only group/performer to claim multiple spots on my playlist, and it’s completely justified. This song is basically a catalog of superhero origin stories, and though they don’t specifically name-check any heroes, any comics fan worth their mylar bags should have no trouble identifying the references. It seemed like the natural choice to open the playlist.
(I’m No) Superman – Lazlo Bane
This song is one you might recognize as the theme from the TV show Scrubs. Somehow it works as both a superhero song and as a reflection of Dr. J.D. Dorian’s inner life. The song was previously released on the soundtrack album for a film called The Tao of Steve, though it didn’t actually appear in the film. Lazlo Bane recently reunited after a hiatus, but there hasn’t been much from them except a new version of “I’m No Superman.”
Catch Me Now, I’m Falling – The Kinks
Ah, the Kinks. The original ’60s bad boys. Here Ray Davies channels Captain America’s “man out of time” 1970s malaise, in a song that’s ostensibly about the US finding that its allies have all turned their backs in its hour of need. The song comes from the Kinks’ 1979 album Low Budget, which also featured the song “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” which didn’t make the cut here because The Big Blue Boy Scout was already over-represented.
Can U Dig It? – Pop Will Eat Itself
A shining example of 1980s excess, from the heavy synths and processed vocals, vocal snippets on loop, and a drum machine named “Dr. Nightmare.” It’s also an all-encompassing nerd-wallow covering TV, music, comics, and videogames, with Homer Simpson providing the chorus. With “Can U Dig It?” Pop Will Eat Itself broke into the Top 40 and was booked on a European tour with Run-DMC and Public Enemy; the appearance on the tour was cut short by the latter band’s fans aggressively booing all supporting acts off the stage at every concert.
Superman’s Song – Crash Test Dummies
I’ve always liked Brad Roberts’ voice, that bass rumble that sounds like it comes from the depths of a tomb, and this song from the Crash Test Dummies’ debut album amused me with its compare-and-contrast juxtaposition of Superman and Tarzan. The Solomon Grundy reference suggests that Roberts is One of Us (insert clip from Todd Browning’s Freaks with the sideshow freaks chanting “One of us! One of us!”) And just for those people whining about SJWs and how everything in pop culture is so politicized these days, here’s what Brad Roberts said about his song way back in 1992: “Superman as cast in “Superman’s Song” is obviously a left-wing political figure. His activity in the community is intrinsic to his being. Superman is being juxtaposed against Tarzan, who is kind of a laissez-faire capitalist type who retreats to the forest, and rejects the idea of community. He wants to live in a so-called animal state, and he doesn’t have to be bothered with any kind of political realities.”
Same Thing – Barenaked Ladies
For a long time, the Barenaked Ladies were the biggest band in the nerd-rock genre (distantly followed by They Might Be Giants, the Aquabats, and Jonathan Coulton), and this song is probably one of their more specifically geeky efforts.
Sunshine Superman – Donovan
As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the songs that put my musical tastes on this particular weird path. Donovan was a pioneer of psychedelic folk-pop, and this song was a #1 hit in the US. It’s one of Donovan’s less oblique songs, having pretty straightforward lyrics where you don’t have to guess at what he’s trying to say. According to a random person on the internet, the song was written for his then-girlfriend, Sue Lyon (star of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita). She abruptly dumped him in 1967 after he slipped her LSD in a drink at a party, which freaked her out enough to not speak to him again for years.
I’m Lion-O – Relient K
This one gets in on a technicality (there was eventually a comic, but Lion-O started as an animated cartoon character), but it’s a fun song. Relient K was part of a movement in the early 2000s by Christian bands to be considered musicians who happened to be Christian, rather than being labeled “Christian Music.” They did this by having a mix of religious and secular songs in their catalogs, by being indirect with the religious messages even in their faith-based songs, by including a lot of pop culture references, and by identifying more as specific genres of music rather than in the catch-all “Contemporary Christian” category. Creed tried to be grunge, Jars of Clay went for alternative/acoustic rock, Sixpence None the Richer was pop, Switchfoot was power pop, and Relient K went for a kind of nerdy punk-pop. According to their website, they’re still around, but they never really broke through to the mainstream the way some other acts did. But they did give us this one, and who doesn’t want to be Lion-O?
Magneto & Titanium Man – Paul McCartney & Wings
After the Beatles broke up, Paul McCartney went off and did whatever the hell he wanted, and what he wanted was to start a new band with his wife and do mostly-generic rock, creating only a few memorable songs. McCartney was also a comic fan, as indicated by the Captain Marvel reference in “Bungalow Bill.” He goes full fanboy here, writing an entire song about two Marvel villains.
Superbird – Country Joe and The Fish
Best known for their performance at Woodstock and their anti-war song “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” Country Joe and the Fish were usually overtly political, as with this song, which casts President Lyndon Johnson as “Superbird.”
Arthur Curry – Ookla the Mok
The second entry from Ookla the Mok tells the story of one Arthur Curry, better known as the much-maligned Aquaman. The one thing I’ll give Zack Snyder credit for is establishing the Jason Momoa version of Aquaman and helping to erase the tired old “haw haw, he talks to fish, he’s so lame” trope, which only ever existed in the Superfriends cartoon show. In the comics, especially the Skeates/Aparo run, Aquaman was pretty damn awesome.
The Incredible Hulk – Moxie
I’m not sure where I found this track back in the day. My Google-Fu has only found a couple of dead links to pages that previously had mp3 files of the song, but I can’t find a single thing about a band called Moxie that was recording or performing between 1978 (when the Incredible Hulk TV show premiered) and 2005 (when I collected the song). The band is a complete mystery, and I can’t find any information about any other songs from the album that reportedly contained this song; it’s called Third-Degree Rugburn. If you know anything about it, go ahead and put it in the comments.
Garage Song – Weezer
Weezer is another band with solid geek cred, though only a few of their songs really lean in on pop culture references as overtly as this one. “Garage Song” could be seen as the angst anthem for basement-dwellers, but Rivers Cuomo makes it real and personal enough to not be an obnoxious stereotype.
Diggin’ On Comix – Dr. John
Dr. John provided the opening theme for the 1988 documentary film Comic Book Confidential. As far as I can tell, it’s never been released anywhere else; it doesn’t show up in any discography or even on his Wikipedia page.
Stop Talking About Comic Books or I’ll Kill You – Ookla the Mok
This one goes out to all our families, spouses, loved ones, children, and any other poor SOBs who have had to sit and listen until their ears bleed as comic fans prattle on for hours about minutia. We’re sorry. Honest.
Housekeeping note: As always, if you click on the Amazon links in this post and buy something, we get a little commission on the sale, even if you buy something other than what we linked to. So please go ahead and follow one of those links and buy some furniture or a major appliance or a motorcycle or something, won’t you?
Note, this is not an exhaustive list of every superhero mention or comic-themed song ever recorded. If you want a complete list, that’s why God gave us Google. If there’s a song you think I might like and maybe don’t know about, go ahead and put it in the comments. Just please don’t say “hey, you forgot ____” because that will just annoy me. Embrace the Atomic Junk Shop philosophy of the Lucky 10,000. Today, that might be me.