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Nov 07

CARL DOUGLAS – “Kung Fu Fighting”

FT + Popular25 comments • 4,943 views

#356, 21st September 1974

One two do the kung fuLightning-fast moves, uncanny tricks, kids picking up on a craze hip-first and sparking a frisson of establishment fear – no surprise that the song cashing in on the Kung Fu fad was a disco one. Of course Carl Douglas in his headband looks like a big jolly bear, and the track’s been long embraced as a beloved novelty, but it wouldn’t have got that far if there hadn’t been a genuine sense of wonder – and kinship – in the famous chorus. You could argue that “Kung Fu Fighting”, more than the Kung Fu series itself, set a long-term tone for Western reception of martial arts – less a mix of spirituality and violence, more the wide-eyed (though still enormously impressive) foolery of Jackie Chan. “It’s an ancient Chinese art”, handwaves Douglas before getting down to boogie-ing business. The balance has recently tipped back, of course – for my tastes there is not enough disco in the beauty-soaked Crouching Tiger school of Serious Fu, though as long as Stephen Chow films are finding an audience here the spirit of Carl Douglas lives on.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Mark G on 22 Nov 2007 #

    Of course, with his next single, he tried to backtrack it into a dance craze, which presumably didn’t really work on the dancefloor!

  2. 2
    Erithian on 22 Nov 2007 #

    And was this the first British-Asian involvement with a UK number one, with Biddu as producer? – http://www.alwynwturner.com/glitter/biddu.html (unless perhaps any of the “My Sweet Lord” backing musicians fall into this category). Must say I enjoyed this record more than the TV series, since martial arts movies in general leave me cold.

    Another piece of era-defining combat at around that time – while Carl Douglas was number one we were just building up to the Rumble in the Jungle a few weeks later!

  3. 3
    rosie on 22 Nov 2007 #

    Can’t see this as anything other than a novelty record. With all the cod chinoiserie, not a very good one either.

  4. 4
    admin on 22 Nov 2007 #

    First popular/FT top 100 clash?

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 22 Nov 2007 #

    According to the authors of ‘The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll’ Carl Douglas “had hoped to turn Kung Fu Fighting into a dance craze in the manner of the Hustle, with well-dressed disco dancers chopping the air and letting out passionate aieeee!s on the beat. Alas, this did not come to pass.” This book also claims that Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards play on the disc.

    As Marcello has written elsewhere, the use of the song in City of God as the cue for a dance floor massacre is unforgettable, and reflects the glee in violence that underlies its immense likeablity.

  6. 6
    Steve on 22 Nov 2007 #

    I’m shocked that you didn’t mention the Bus Stop version Tom.

  7. 7
    Andrew Farrell on 22 Nov 2007 #

    How much of a frisson of establishment fear did Disco ever really cause?

  8. 8
    rosie on 22 Nov 2007 #

    Absolutely none, Andrew. For establishment fear in spades we have to wait a couple of years.

  9. 9

    it depends a bit what you mean by “establishment”, really

    (uk) punk was explicitly “grown-up” political (as opposed to implicitly “escapist-sensualist” political, which disco was), and bcz punk was avowedly nihilistic, it seemed socially threatening in a very fractured and frightened time; there was eg an actual political war for control of venue-licensing and such (which rock lost, hence the fkn awful state of live music in london to this day)

    disco by contrast was MUCH more of a threat to established music-industry structures* — and middlebrow aesthetic values — than punk turned out to be, tho it’s sometimes quite hard (as here) to distinguish from this distance which bits of disco are the rising destabilising force and which the fightback (and the transformation of the structures didn’t begin in earnest till the late 80s and dance culture as a pretty-much distinct leisure-industry entity, with very difft protocols and processes of self-generation and exchange)**

    *bcz quality in dance-culture depends on a much more distributed and social nexus of judgement, which entirely bypasses the usual print systems of commentary and winnowing and proto-historicist second-guessing (<--- poncy way of saying "the rock press", which barely existed in the uk in 1974 anyway) **this analysis slightly depends on reading hiphop as an extension of disco -- which of course it is -- and fuzzies up the issue of "fear" even more (ie Disco "caused" the fear rap generates, by "causing" rap, but this isn't quite what you meant i suspect) shorter the above: the established music industry adapted to the exploitation of punk much quicker than it adapted to the exploitation of "dance", and the panic and confusion of the mainstream over the latter was a lot longer-lasting

  10. 10

    second bite: disco stirred up much more hostility in the mid-70s US rock-music establishment than punk did — the latter went more or less unnoticed for a decade

    (so that’s a THIRD meaning of establishment!)

  11. 11
    Tom on 22 Nov 2007 #

    It should be said that “frisson” doesn’t mean “huge” or “long-lasting”.

  12. 12
    jeff w on 22 Nov 2007 #

    HUNGH!

  13. 13
    jeff w on 22 Nov 2007 #

    HAH!

  14. 14
    Waldo on 23 Nov 2007 #

    “Woh-oh-oh-oh-ho! Der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der!”

    If there was ever a stone-bonker chart topper, it was this thing. The kung fu craze swept this country and stateside like wildfire a year after the passing of the iconoclast who was The Bruce. This soon after that sad basket case, David Carradine had debuted with the tv series. In a few short months, the world had gone potty. At my alma meta enormous black boys were kicking ass quite literally in the war zone which was the playground, whilst the more studious of us (those few of us who could spell “cat”) stayed in class, trying to snatch pebbles out of each other’s hands. The thing we all had in common, though, was that we were paying homage to the same show, although to be fair had video recorders been around then, many of us would have fast-forwarded through most of it. Caine, having been abused by redneck cowboys, who flobbed in his beans and coffee as he worked on the railroad or tripped him up and called him “Chinaman” and whatever else, finally loses his rag and kicks the Mother of God out of all of them in slow mo (especially that guy who was the spit of Roy Kinnear, who got shot by McCloud, Cannon, Rockford, Starsky, Kojak and uncle Tom Cobbly an’ all). Basically, all the philosophy and enlightenment theory which the old bloke with ping pong balls for eyes had tried to instil in Caine has gone up the pictures big style. End of.

    And then Carl Douglas, a smiling moon-faced Jamaican steps in and boy, does he scoop the pot! KFF is, of course, pure gold. The chorus, it is said, quotes verbatim from Douglas’ own comments having just seen a martial arts picture. A light bulb flashed above his head and that was it. Marvellous stuff. Alas, Carl then got greedy and came up with a follow up, which was identical and quite frankly risible. He very deservedly fell on his arse over this. The subsequent “Run Back” was a lot better.

    Meanwhile, things Oriental continued to thrive and peaked, for me at least, with the wonderful “Water Margin”, a Japanese production narrated inevitably by Burt Kwouk, one of Manchester’s finest.

  15. 15
    Mark G on 23 Nov 2007 #

    Yeah, ignore the singing and the HAH’s, and it’s still a fine funk/pop track of it’s time.

    Is the b-side an instrumental?

  16. 16
    Erithian on 23 Nov 2007 #

    The B-side wasn’t an instrumental but a song called “Gambling Man”, a pretty decent funky-rock “workout”.

    Of course KFF ticked another cultural box with a football reference – “Little Sammy Chung” being a nod to the then assistant manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, who had won the League Cup the previous season. (Wasn’t it?)

  17. 17
    Waldo on 23 Nov 2007 #

    Erithian #2 – Ah, The Rumble in the Jungle! One of the greatest sporting event of our time. I was convinced that Foreman would knock him out just as he had done Frazer and Norton. How wrong I was. Ring genius from Ali, yes, but George fought perhaps the stupidest fight of all time. I would direct anyone who fancies a reference point on this to the sublime “When we were Kings”, released in 1996 and featuring amongst other things comments from the recently deceased Norman Mailer, boxing fan, writer and drunk. Mailer, whilst pissed, once tried to pick an arguement with Sonny Liston, which was far from wise.

  18. 18
    Lena on 23 Nov 2007 #

    In Canada (a few years ago) this song was used for a Mott’s Clamato juice commercial wherein a guy was sitting in a bar, and the only thing that kept the ninjas from all attacking him was his utter coolness in having a Clamato caesar, (a drink that I hope to never taste – clams and tomato? UGH) so they all did a dance and threw their stars and everything was COOL, man.

    Being a girl meant I thankfully was spared any high kicks or pebble-snatching activities. I think Robyn Hitchcock covered this back before it was ever called a ‘guilty pleasure’.

  19. 19
    DV on 24 Nov 2007 #

    There is a radio ad in Ireland where some unfortunate sings about directory inquiry numbers to tune of this, so it is much in my mind.

    One thing about the song’s lyrics is that it suggests these kung fu fighters are actually just putting on a display rather than laying into each other – there are no references to injuries or broken bones.

  20. 20
    RobM on 24 Nov 2007 #

    My father had guitar lessons from someone in Penarth (South Wales) who claims he wrote this song, and happily lived off the royalties. Admittedly he was a session guitarist and very good at it too, but I’ve never been able to find any proof of this.

  21. 21
    mike on 26 Nov 2007 #

    Now, y’see… I could get with the streaking craze, but the Kung Fu craze left me stone cold. I’ve never watched a Bruce Lee movie, and found the David Carradine TV series (“ah so, Grasshopper!”) an utter bore. Besides, I’d graduated from glam to prog by then, so had become a little sniffy about this sort of caper.

    Hadn’t realised this was a Biddu production, but I guess there’s something in the string arrangement which points towards his particular brand of treble-heavy bargain-basement Brit disco – and it arguably has trace elements of the sort of string arrangements which later cropped up in Bollywood-does-disco tracks. But at the time, Biddu was just another pop hack churning out flops by the barrel load – believe me, I’ve heard a lot of his 1972-73 productions (it’s a long story) and there are no hidden gems to be found there at all. So it sounds like arranger Gerry Shury might well be the unsung hero here.

    I’ll put in a good word for Carl Douglas’s other hit, though: “Run Back”, from late 77/early 78. It’s a cute little string-driven, wonky-synthed Brit-disco stomper, with Motowny inflections; the midpoint between Billy Ocean and “Tragedy” (some notable similarities with the latter in certain places, curiously enough).

  22. 22
    Tamoko on 5 Mar 2008 #

    where i can download instrumental with this song ??

  23. 23
    hectorthebat on 3 Jul 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  24. 24
    Martin F. on 11 Sep 2014 #

    “JESUS CHRIST! This is a monster. We need a B-side for THIS. He’s going into the FUTURE!”

    http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/sep/11/novelty-hit-single-kung-fu-fighting-crazy-frog

  25. 25
    Larry on 3 Nov 2014 #

    No one has mentioned the rhyming of “frightening” and “timing,” which I’ve always loved

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