David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 9: The Kinks (Superman)

May 5, 2020

I have to admit I don't really understand the recent spate of superhero movies. Don't get the Marvel series. Got bored with the Batman incarnations long ago. Even when I succumb to ones that seem a little different, such as Black Panther or Wonder Woman, any interesting back stories or plot lines are lost in, for me, needless on-going action sequences. At least if you believe the New York Film Academy, this recent onslaught of superhero movies is related to the economic problems around 2008.

It makes you wonder what will come out of this economic and social crisis.  In 1979, at a time when recession and economic turmoil were prevalent, Ray Davies of The Kinks wrote two songs featuring superheroes for the album, Low Budget. Within a group of 11 songs, almost all capturing the crises of the late 1970's (rising gas costs, living on a shoestring budget, and challenges with health care), Davies, with the social criticism his sardonic wit always could provide, gave us two comic superheroes unable to save the planet, the United States of America, or even themselves.

"Catch Me Now I'm Falling" is the better of those two songs, as Davies laments Captain America calling the world to help bail him out and being told by the secretary that his party has "gone out of town."  However, was it just coincidental that I heard the second superhero song, "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman," within the last couple of days? In the face of COVID-19, the world's got too much of its own problems to take Captain America's call; in contrast, I have to believe plenty of us feel the powerlessness that characterizes the beauty of "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman."

Aren't we all waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror and seeing something as depressing as "a nine stone weakling with knobbly knees," (even if we are 20 stone and can't see our knees)?  Although they might be sweats and a baggy shirt, we all "put on our clothes because it made [us] depressed?" As Davies has been able to do his whole career, his narrative hero is always Everyman, who now finds inadequacy where-ever he turns.

Woke up this morning, what did I see/ A big black cloud hanging over me/ I switched on the radio and nearly dropped dead/The news was so bad that I fell out of bed.

Only the reference to the radio dates this song. Boy, if Davies only could have predicted the endless breaking news cycle of Cable news.  It may not be too long before CNN, MSNBC, and Fox will be giving us a "gas strike, oil strike, lorry strike, bread strike." Everyman laments, "I'd really like to change the world/save it from the mess it's in/But I'm too weak, I'm so thin/I'd like to fly but I can't even swim."

"(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" actually helped The Kinks re-establish themselves with an American audience.  The album and singles were largely ignored in Britain, but "Superman" did get to #41 on the charts and led to a big American tour and subsequent equally popular live album. The song was criticized for being a disco track, and even Kinks' guitarist, Dave Davies, wasn't keen on it.
It's too bad that such narrow-minded views detract from the catchy suitability of the tune. Disco was part of the very era Low Budget was addressing (some argue that disco was an alternate version of punk, which rose at the same time, a reaction to the social milieu of the time). The song's similarity to Blondie's "Heart of Glass" from the same period (openings are almost identical, the "disco" versions clock in at almost the exact same time) is not insignificant. Rock music has always been about appropriating something heard from a different culture and era. Blondie and The Kinks did this with their own musical stamp. At least "Superman" adapts the driving pulse and beat to songs with some lyrical weight. It was no "Ring My Bell" (a #1 song at the time), but after 40 years, it is ringing a bell loud and clearly.
"(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman." The Kinks. Low Budget. Arista. 1979. Link here.
See full unfinished list here.