The Story and Meaning Behind “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” The Kinks’ Potent Rock-Disco Hybrid

Rock bands attempting disco grooves weren’t all that unusual in the late 1970s. Few of those bands managed to deliver the rock heft to go with the four-on-the-floor beats The Kinks achieved on their 1979 single “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.”

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What is the song about? What made The Kinks want to write about Superman? And how did the song represent the band’s change in musical approach? Here are all the details of “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” coming at you faster than a speeding bullet.

Arena Rocking to American Popularity

The Kinks spent much of their career far more popular in their native England than in the United States. You could write some of that off to their preferred subject matter, which often featured themes and settings more familiar to British audiences. In addition, the band’s American momentum had stalled in the ‘60s when they were banned for several years from performing in the U.S. by a musician’s union.

Even after their big 1970 hit “Lola,” their U.S. popularity waned quickly as Ray Davies chose to focus on a series of theme albums. It was only in the second half of the decade the band decided to change things up a bit. For one, they decided that they would start delivering albums and singles that weren’t beholden to larger concepts.

Ray Davies also began to broaden his horizons as a writer, focusing on modern concerns instead of an idyllic version of England. Sound-wise, The Kinks went back to their rocking roots, with Dave Davies’ guitar front and center as in the days of “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” But a disco song? The Kinks were up to the challenge.

Four on the Floor and Superman in the Sky

The legendary record executive Clive Davis, who was at Arista Records when The Kinks were signed to the label, had been hounding Ray Davies to write a song that could get the band played in dance clubs. Ray didn’t have much interest in this prospect, but he decided to give it a go anyway, if only to keep Davis out of his hair.

“(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” did indeed feature a disco beat banged out by Mick Avory and a slinky bass line courtesy of Jim Rodford, who had only just joined the band for their 1979 album Low Budget. But the song found plenty of room for Dave Davies’ power chords, meaning the song straddled the line between genres better than most.

As for the lyrics, Ray Davies had seen the 1978 film Superman starring Christopher Reeve, and, as a fan of the comic books, was blown away by it. He decided to use the Man of Steel as an ideal for the song’s down-on-his-luck narrator, who is unsatisfied by his personal circumstances and fearful of the world’s problems.

What is the Meaning of “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman”?

Ray Davies threads the needle quite well on this track. He doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of the world circa 1979 (There was a gas strike, oil strike, lorry strike, bread strike / Got to be a Superman to survive). But there’s something comical about the haplessness of the narrator: I’d like to fly but I can’t even swim.

This nine stone weakling with knobbly knees can’t measure up with the superhero he idolizes: I looked in the mirror at my pigeon chest / I had to put on my clothes because it made me depressed. He wants to make the world better, if not on a macro level then at least for those he loves: I need you, but I hate to see you this way / If I was Superman then we’d fly away.

The ironic thing about these complaints is they’re surrounded by Kinks’ music that’s full of toughness and swagger. (“Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” sounds more powerful than a locomotive, even if the character at the heart of it can barely get out of his own way.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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