There is a rule in the FT Top 100 which means that Tom won’t write about a number one: clearly he is going to write about all of them in Popular. And he is not a million miles away from reaching Carl Douglas’s Kung Fu Fighting: and what’s more I will preemptively guess that it will get a pretty high score. Why wouldn’t it, its a novelty record which is actually a really great record at the same time. Tying into a fad, it appeals to five year-olds, and yet has stuck as a cultural touchstone for well over thirty years (indeed one of the few reasons it might not get a 10 from Tom is that he possibly prefers the Bus Stop version from the nineties). What more is there to say though except to note a generosity of spirit and absence of overt-racism* in which was not necessarily apparent in the day (see the Hammer House two kung fu films to see what I mean: The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires in particular).
But what I have been doing recently is to go and see a bunch of kung fu films at the NFT, in the second half of their Heroic Grace season. My knowledge of this genre is all very recent, working back from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a bunch of Jackie Chan films. And whilst a lot of these have clearly got their roots in the Shaw Brothers picture of the seventies, these films are very different beasts. Carl Douglas’s hit may well have peaked during the height of Bruce Lee’s (Enter The Dragon is 1973) but the flood of historical Shaolin epics from the Shaw Brothers gave Lee some background. Douglas’s song seems contemporary, The Big Boss mentioned is probably most reminiscent of Lee’s 1971 movie which is a triad film, but they all have a similar history.
The Shaw Brothers historical, wuxia, films are in most cases concerned with the ethics and practice of martial arts. Legendary Weapons Of China, which I saw last night, is partially structured as a catalog of the eighteen weapons used in Chinese martial arts. The trailer above shows nearly all those weapons being used. These films mainly exist primarily for their extensive and impressive action sequences – sometimes considerably longer than (necessary) Carl’s poppy song suggests. Legendary Weapons however does have something Carl’s song demands: it is also a little bit frightening: the opening sequence has a martial arts student under mind control pulling out his own eyes and another castrating himself. None of which happily happens in Carl’s Funky Chinatown.
Dirty Ho, which I saw at the weekend, has a suggestive name which may seem more at home in gangsta rap: or indeed The Wu-Tang Clan. (The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin ring any bells?) Dirty Ho is actually the name of a thief in the film, an action comedy, which excels in its first half at using all sorts of props for its fights. Indeed both Dirty Ho and The Legendary Weapons Of China have tremendous extended comic sequences utilising what Jackie Chan later excelled at: a martial artists extensive body control also stretches to slapstick. The Dirty Ho clip below shows the prince fighting the thief Dirty Ho, by using a female musician to apparently do all the fighting for him.
It is the anything goes aspects of these sequences (the baddie using Biting Kung Fu in Dirty Ho is hilarious) where the pop sensibilities of Carl Douglas resides. Kung Fu Fighting is a funk, proto-disco, kitchen sink kind of song: just see how easily it took Daz Sampsons rapping. As for the films, well they are a bit of an acquired taste (annoyingly I am acquiring it at the end of the season), but it is telling how the Wu-Tang Clan took all the seriousness of the films** – whilst Carl embodies the much more individualistic comic sequences. It seems fitting that this record came off an album called Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs.
*The exception could be the lyric: “Funky Chinamen” – which is rendered impotent by being from “Funky Chinatown”. Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown was not so funky, but also from 1974.
**Not always in a bad way. The intro of the Genius/GZA album Liquid Swords which samples Shogun Assassin is remarkably straight-faced and yet a fabulous intro. Though of course Shogun’s are Japanese, and thus have no place in a discussion of Kung Fu.