Music and comics have been crossing paths for decades.
From 1960s psychedelic shout-outs to some of the wilder elements of Silver Age Marvel, to original tunes crafted for Broadway shows and present-day hip-hop and metal tributes, comics have long provided inspiration to musicians. And while we have never been blessed with having a version of the Teen Titans tearing it up onstage as the late, great Darwyn Cooke envisioned, we have had some cool and quirky music inspired by capes.
Every time I hear a song that name-drops a comic book character (and it's much more common today than it used to be), I wonder if the singer or band are actual comics fans. When Springsteen mentions the Batmobile in "I'm a Rocker," I wonder if it's because he's a loyal reader of Detective Comics or if a rerun of the '60s TV series inspired his pop culture reference-heavy song? (I hope it's the former, but the latter explanation seems more likely.) Even now, during a time when movies and TV have put superheroes in pop culture's pole position, each time I catch a reference to Iron Man or Batman makes me smile. It feels like validation for my geek passions.
It's hard to pinpoint the very first song to make a comic book reference. According to the Superman Homepage, the bandleader Freddie "Schnickelfritz" Fisher's 1941 song "Superman" might've been the first.
Benny Goodman also released a jazz instrumental called "Superman" the same year. But since the rock & roll era began, Marvel and DC characters have been popular lyrical touchstones for modern songwriters. Here are 15 notable songs that references superheroes and comics, in no particular order ...
"Magneto and the Titanium Man" - Wings
The first time I heard this song, I was flabbergasted that I was hearing Paul McCartney singing about not just the X-Men's arch-enemy but two Iron Man rogues. Talk about being ahead of the comic book curve; this song was released in 1975 on the band's #1 album, Venus and Mars, and was part of the setlist for their '75-'76 world tours (watch the clip above for a live version, with accompanying comic art as a backdrop). There's so much cool trivia around this song, not the least of which is that it led to a meeting between true pop culture royalty — Sir Paul and the King, Jack Kirby — backstage at a Wings concert in L.A. Check out the photos at the Kirby Museum.
"I Am Superman" - The Clique
Always one of my favorite R.E.M. songs, It was quite a few years before I discovered it was originally written/recorded by the '60s pop band, The Clique. The song's peppy chorus masks a fairly dark tune about a petty and jealous Man of Steel. I mean, is there a creepier distillation of Kal-El's godlike powers than the lyric, "I know you don't love that guy 'cause I can see right through you?"
"Cymbaline" - Pink Floyd
One of the band's most slept-on tracks, the song essentially describes a nightmare. It may or may not be a coincidental link to Doctor Strange's first villain of the same name, but the band's fondness for the Sorcerer Supreme had already been established. Their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, featured semi-obscured images of Doctor Strange and the Living Tribunal from Strange Tales #158. Clearly the group was enjoying those trippy late-60s psychedelic adventures of the good Doctor.
"Cymbaline" is from Pink Floyd's soundtrack album for the film More. The director, Barbet Schroeder, would go on to direct several Hollywood thrillers, including Single White Female and Kiss of Death, the latter starring noted comics fans Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson. I've had that useless bit of trivia in my head for way too long, so there you go.
"Going Home" - Kirby Krackle
An early track from one of the first bands in the 'Nerd Rock' genre, this is the musical equivalent of an '80s coming-of-age flick. Specifically, it's an ode to the convention experience and all the wonderfully weird elements that are part of it. "Going Home" also gets bonus points from me for its clever lyrics. Sure, Slave Leias is low-hanging lyrical fruit for a song like this, but referencing Springsteen and namedropping Sunfire, a mutant hero almost nobody likes? Well done, sirs!
"Raise the Roof" - Public Enemy
Do you know how cool it was back in 1987 to hear Namor and Thor in a hip-hop song? This epic word jam not only foreshadowed the biting social commentary that would define the group, it was downright mesmerizing for its lyrical fearlessness. Chuck D, like several other rap greats, has discussed in the past how comics and hip-hop were destined for a team-up, thanks to elements such as alter-egos and the flashy costume choices of '70s funk bands like P-Funk and early rap artists like Grandmaster Flash. The more realistic take on capes that Marvel practiced is probably why the song doesn't reference DC heroes like Aquaman or Superman. For a lot of hip-hop stars, the Marvel Universe, with its home base of New York City, always seemed more real.
"Something Like This" - The Chainsmokers/Coldplay
I've got a soft spot for this song, and not just because it's got a haunting melody and a killer hook. This is the first song my daughters probably ever heard that mentioned superheroes, and since I've had to hear it about 247,000 times since it debuted in 2017, well ... there was no way it wasn't making this list. One day, though, I'd like to ask the superstar electronic duo why they punted and just went with 'Spider-Man's control' to rhyme with 'Achilles and his gold.'
"Slept on Tony" - Ghostface Killah
One of the most appealing aspects to some of Marvel and DC's most popular heroes is how they celebrated education and brainpower. Superheroes made it cool to be smart, and they don't come any smarter than Tony Stark. Ghostface Killah may be the biggest Iron Man fan in all of music. He's not only named an album after the Armored Avenger, he's also used Tony Stark as a stage name. This track, which popped up in 2008's Iron Man, shows off Dennis Coles' (Killah's real name) gift for rapid-fire raps and rhymes like this gem: "Multi-billionaire, military contractor; Crushing my opponents, with the strength of a compactor.."
"You've Got Possibilities" - Linda Lavin
When I was still living in Manhattan, I missed the revival of the musical It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, featuring the reworked book by Riverdale maestro Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. I'm still kicking myself for that, because who knows if I'll ever get to see the live version of the Man of Steel musical. This is the best song from the show, told from the POV of a secretary with a crush on mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. It's become something of a cabaret standard, and when you listen to the original version sung by Linda Lavin, it's easy to see why. Can someone please bring this show back to the stage?
"Ghost Rider" - Suicide
Full disclosure: I had never heard of this song until I read it in an article around the time the first Nicolas Cage Ghost Rider film debuted in 2007. I have since become near-obsessed with it because it is punk rock at its most absurdly pure form. Just three crunching chords and some lyrics that basically exist to get us to the "Ghost Rider, motorcycle hero" chorus. How we didn't get a scene in one of those two GR movies with Cage doing an acoustic cover is one of modern film's most egregious missed opportunities. The song has been covered at least a dozen times by artists including Henry Rollins, Soft Cell and R.E.M., who clearly wanted to take no sides in the DC-Marvel argument.
"Flash" - Queen
Yeah, Flash Gordon is primarily a comic strip hero. But he appeared in King Comics, Charlton and Gold Key comic books during the 1960s and '70s, not to mention more recently in new adventures for Dynamite Comics, so Flash makes the list. And is there anyone reading this who is going to argue with including one of the all-time great movie theme songs on this list?
"Spider-Man" theme song - Paul Francis Webster/Bob Harris
With all due respect to the theme of X-Men: The Animated Series, this is without question the greatest superhero cartoon theme song of all time. Save your hot takes and contrarian opinions, you know this is fact. Is that too strong? Listen bud: he's got radioactive blood. Most lists of comic book-related songs will include the 1995 Ramones cover, and it's a fine version. But there's no substitute for the original.
"Superman" - Celi Bee & The Buzzy Bunch
This list has already included a Superman rock song and a show tune, and truth be told I could have made this a list of only Superman songs and probably would've had to make it a Top 25. That's how many ditties the Last Son of Krypton has inspired. This was the first 'Super Song' — outside of the theme to the 1950s live-action series — I remember hearing. It is pure, funkified disco to the bone, and I am here for it.
"Ego the Living Planet" - Monster Magnet
I mean, how do you not include a song with bone-crunching guitar riffs and a single sentence of lyrics? The lead singer of the band is apparently a big comics fan and wanted to make a song inspired by one of the weirdest creations Jack Kirby and Stan Lee ever came up with. How this didn't end up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a mystery that demands investigation. "I talk to planets, baby!"
"Nobody Loves the Hulk" - The Traits
This 1969 garage-band nugget blends comic book origin story faithfulness with a catchy beat and era-appropriate social commentary. The band should have gotten a special No-Prize for including the Marvel Universe's Forrest Gump and budding musical star Rick Jones in the lyrics.
"Superbird" - Country Joe & the Fish
Danny Fingeroth's fabulous biography on Stan Lee, A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee, includes a great story of a visit to the Marvel bullpen at the height of Marvelmania by Country Joe & the Fish. Some in the band were apparently huge comic book fans and this song has perhaps the first references to Marvel characters in pop music.
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