Kung Fu Fighting
May 29th, 2012
Todd plays "Kung Fu Fighting" in his piano
CARL DOUGLAS - KUNG FU FIGHTING
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd makes a few moves to...
- Video for Carl Douglas - "Kung Fu Fighting"
- Carl Douglas: Everybody was kung fu fighting
- Those cats were fast as lightning
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at the full careers of artists who wound up remembered for only one song. This week, we're going back to 1974, a year that I've read many writers describe as [Terry Jacks - "Seasons in the Sun" plays over shot of NPR commentary describing 1974 as...] the worst year in pop music history. I don't think I'd agree, not when we've got [images follow: single cover of Air Supply's "Lost in Love"...] 1980, [...Vanilla Ice...] 1990, [Nickelback - "How You Remind Me"] and 2001 to compare it to. But they make a decent case for '74, the year that brought us [single covers of...] "Seasons in the Sun", [Paper Lace's...] "The Night Chicago Died", [Olivia Newton-John's...] "I Honestly Love You", [Paul Anka's...] "You're Having My Baby", [Carly Simon's...] "Mockingbird". Really, that's a pretty solid platter of shit. But...
Todd (VO): I've also seen that list of awful songs from 1974 include "Kung Fu Fighting", the magnum opus of one Carl Douglas. And I'll straight up tell you right now—if you don't like "Kung Fu Fighting", the problem is you.
Todd: So if I have you, I'll hold you down and judo chop some goddamn knowledge into you because y'all need to know the importance of this magnificent track, even if the only thing "fast as lightning" about its singer was his time in the spotlight.
- Carl: Oh, yeah...oh-ho....
Todd: Let's take a look.
Before the fame
Todd: Okay, I don't have a lot of info here about Carl's life before "Kung Fu Fighting". I literally cannot find any single picture of Carl Douglas where he's not wearing [picture of Carl wearing...] a karate uniform and a headband. But here's what I've gathered.
Todd (VO): [Jamaican postcard] He's originally from Jamaica, and in fact, I think he might be [cover of The History of Jamaican Music] the first Jamaican ever to have a hit in America, so [picture of...] eat that, Jimmy Cliff. [single cover of "Let the Birds Sing"/"Somethin for Nothing"] He moved to London in the mid-60s and recorded some singles that didn't do anything, [logo for Pye Records] and by the early 70s, he was a session musician for Pye Records.
Todd: But the major player in the buildup to Carl Douglas's success is not so much Douglas himself, as it is [album cover of Blue Eyed Soul] this man—a young musician known only as Biddu.
- Footage and image of Biddu
Todd (VO): Biddu would go on to become a big name in the 70s British pop scene and later as a composer for Bollywood movies, but for then, he was just a struggling producer looking for his first hit.
Todd: He made acquaintance with Douglas at some point, and when he needed a singer for his new song, he called in Carl to his studio where they made the song that would take them right to the top of the charts—"I Want to Give You My Everything".
Record plays as Todd dances in chair
- Carl: I want to give you my everything
- Wait a minute, baby
Todd: I don't know if they knew it yet, but Biddu was in the forefront of what would become the defining sound of the decade— disco, which was just starting to pop up right around this time, making "I Want to Give You My Everything" one of the first of the genre. It was written by Larry Weiss, who wrote other several hit pop songs. And you know what? This song is pretty good. Biddu and Carl Douglas had little doubt that this song was their ticket to the big time.
- Carl: ...my everything
Todd: And also, because they needed to have something on the B-side, they threw together some silly track about Bruce Lee movies in, like, ten minutes.
The big hit
Todd: The record executives decided that the B-side should be the single instead. To this day, Biddu says he has no idea why or how "Kung Fu Fighting" got big.
Todd (VO): And let's be clear here—it was very big. #1 in America and England, 11 million records sold.
- Carl Douglas: Everybody was kung fu fighting
- Those cats were fast as lightning
Todd (VO): Okay, well, let's take a look at it. First off, keep in mind that this was put together by a Jamaican singer and an Indian producer in London.
Todd: I'm gonna guess neither of these people know all that much about East Asian culture, although I heard Carl say once that he had Chinese cousins. Family photos Chinese-Jamaicans are a thing, I looked it up. But yeah, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say this is not a song written out of the deep love or understanding of ancient Chinese traditions.
- Carl: There was funky China men from funky Chinatown
Todd (VO): Now, if I had to guess what made this song so big, I think a part of it was that they made it with expert timing. [Clips from Enter the Dragon] You see, kung fu had just become popular in the western world. Enter the Dragon was released the year before, and the 70s martial arts craze was in full force by 1974. Carl Douglas was, I think, one of the first people to make the connection between kung fu and funk music.
Todd: See, I have this theory—black people love kung fu.
- Clips of various kung fu and blaxploitation films, ending with Black Belt Jones
Todd (VO): In fact, according to what I've read, the kung fu craze might have quickly just burnt itself out if not for black audiences who kept it alive. Turns out the same theaters that were showing all these classic blaxploitation movies, were also showing martial arts movies. Kung fu movies were low-budget independent films, they were usually about fighting the Man, they didn't star Whitey, so they fit right in. And right around this time, you started getting your first kung-fu-themed blaxploitation movies. All of which goes to support my theory...
Todd: Black people love kung fu.
Todd (VO): So "Kung Fu Fighting" could be ascribed as a theme song to a movie that was never made. But of course, it wouldn't really have made for a good theme for any real martial arts movie or blaxploitation movie, for that matter, because it's too damn silly.
- Carl: They were chopping them up
- They were chopping them down
Todd (VO): Both Sonny Chiba and Superfly would demand more dignity than Carl Douglas could provide. Although once we actually did start gettng silly kung fu movies, [posters of Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Panda, and Beverly Hills Ninja] it started showing up on soundtracks all the time.
So this is not a song that's some kung fu badass's theme music, and it's certainly not some East-meets-West cross-cultural fusion like Carl Douglas has said it is. No, this is a song about kung fu as written by...
Todd: ...a kung fu movie fanboy.
Todd (VO): He just left the theater, and he wants to tell you all the cool parts.
- Carl: There was funky Billie Chin and little Sammy Chong
- He said, "here comes the big boss, let's get it on."
Todd: If you sub out some of these names with Ninja Turtles characters, this could be exactly a conversation I had when I was seven.
- Carl: Now we're into a brand new trip
- Everybody was kung fu fighting
Todd (VO): I mean, whatever you wanna say about "Kung Fu Fighting", Carl Douglas is definitely committed to delivering it properly. It just goes so over-the-top with the "huh!"s and the "hah!"s. And the whole reason it works is because Carl Douglas delivers it with such fanboy enthusiasm. I can't help it, this stupid little song just puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.
More importantly, "Kung Fu Fighting" lives on because it was the first time anyone set to music one of the deep, abiding truths of life, which is that kung fu is totally awesome! Martial arts movies are still here and they're still kicking ass, which is probably why "Kung Fu Fighting" is still around while "Convoy" and "Disco Duck" are not.
Todd: Not that Carl Douglas could've known that at the time. For all he knew, he'd written a song about a fad that had the cultural lifespan of [picture of...] Shrinky Dinks. I mean, you compare it to...
Todd (VO): ..."I Wanna Give You My Everything", which was supposed to be the big hit and was this heavily orchestrated, opulent-sounding record, and instead your big success is this ludicrous thing. Carl certainly didn't have any qualms about riding "Kung Fu Fighting"'s success as far as it would go, but...
Todd: ...wasn't there more to the guy?
The failed follow-up
Todd: The trouble with only having one hit is that it has the unfortunate effect of giving the public at-large a very narrow definition of your work, and oftentimes, people get an entirely wrong impression. [Clips of...] If all you know of Devo is "Whip It", for example, you simply don't know their importance and the scope of their influence. And if all you know of Warren Zevon is "Werewolves of London", you have an entirely inaccurate understanding of his work.
Carl Douglas is not that kind of artist.
- Video for "Dance the Kung Fu"
- Carl: Dance the kung fu
- You just dance the kung fu
- Yeah, dance the kung fu
Todd: I basically started this project just to find songs like this. I am so happy right now.
- Carl: Every step is poetry in motion
Todd (VO): I suppose it's possible that this was inflicted on Carl by his record executives, but from everything I can find out about the guy, I get the impression that he decided to just take his claim to fame and run with it. And if people liked one song about kung fu,...
Todd: ...clearly they'll like two songs about kung fu.
- Carl: This new dance, people, is pure dynamite
Todd (VO): I read somewhere Carl was hoping that this was gonna start a full-on dance craze like the Hustle, and I deeply wish I could see the alternate universe where that plan worked because I don't know what Carl was thinking. That was pretty clearly never going to happen. Like, ever. A song about kung fu? Maybe you could get away with that if you have a really catchy tune.
Todd: But a dance about kung fu? Well, that's just stupid, right?
Kung Tai Ted: [in red gi and absurdly long white belt] On the contrary, dancing the kung fu is one of the finest and deepest traditions in all of martial arts. Listen to Carl Douglas's detailed instructions on this ancient ritual.
- Carl: You swing to your left, then you swing to your right
Kung Tai Ted: [demonstrating] First you swing to your left, then you swing to your right.
- Carl: Hand to the hand then you make a little stand
Kung Tai Ted: Hand to the hand then you make a little stand. You jump and dip your back up stiff
- Carl: This is all you do
- Oh, you dance the kung fu
Kung Tai Ted: [doing the "Walk Like an Egyptian" and the Carlton, among others] Then you dance the kung fu, dance the kung fu, dance the kung fu, and dance the kung fu.
Todd: Wow, every move really is poetry in motion. Thanks, Kung Tai Ted!
Kung Tai Ted: No problem. [Sits down and takes a long drink before falling back]
- Carl: Don't fight, dance the kung fu
- [Todd still doesn't get it]
- You can do this new dance
- Hours and hours and hours
Anything else of note?
Todd: Um...one or two things, I guess. [Album cover] His album was titled Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs, which is pretty hilarious since it suggests to me that he was in on the joke. [Single cover of...] His only other released single from that album was a disco instrumental called "Blue Eyed Soul". But I find myself much more interested in the album cut he wrote called "Witchfinder General".
- Poster of film followed by clip from film
- Chorus: Witchfinder general
Todd (VO): I'm gonna go ahead and assume this is about the Vincent Price movie, unless there's something about the culture of England in the 1600s that inspires him to write songs.
Todd: He released two more albums in the 70s. [Clip of...] His only other song to come anywhere near the charts on either side of the Atlantic was something called "Run Back".
- Carl: Run back
- I'm missing you, baby
- I'm sad
Todd (VO): It's okay. Honestly, I wish he'd just kept it up and made more songs based on movies he'd seen. That could've been great.
Todd: Like, he could make a cowboy song or a gangster movie song or a slasher movie song. [Singing to tune of "Kung Fu Fighting"] Everybody was...getting killed by a crazy ax murderer. Oh, what a waste.
- Clip of Bus Stop's cover
Todd (VO): The last time Carl Douglas made any kind of prominent appearance was when British dance act Bus Stop did a remake of his only hit and he showed up in the video. [Clip of Carl performing in 2005] Other than that, he hasn't made much of an impact. He pops up every now and then to sing his big song, and several sources say he [web page of Schacht Musikverlage] runs a publishing house in Germany now, but I couldn't find any outside confirmation for that. 
Todd: And...that's about it, as far as his career goes.
Did he deserve better?
Todd: [laughing] No. No.
Todd (VO): Well, I mean he didn't deserve worse, I guess. He's not a bad singer, but considering how amazingly overstuffed the 70s was with great R&B music, I have difficulty thinking of him as an unfairly dismissed well of talent. He wasn't really a man overloaded with good looks, pop star charisma, or dignity.
- Carl: UNH! Come on
Todd (VO): Maybe if things had turned out differently, Carl Douglas could've gotten Barry White's career, but...
Todd: ...I...I really just don't see it.
Todd (VO): Besides which, he doesn't seem to mind much how his career wound up. If he's particularly disappointed that this was his only hit, he's never ever shown it. He showed up in that Bus Stop video, I found one quote from him where he says he's very proud of it, and on top of that, he released one more album in 2006 where he sings such gems as [covers of...] "Return of the Fighter" and "Game of Death". Can't really feel particularly bad for him, it seems like he's perfectly fine with his legacy as a one-hitter, as well he should be. "Kung Fu Fighting" remains one of the great silly pop songs of all time.
- Carl: But they did it with expert timing
Closing tag song: Cee Lo Green and Jack Black - "Kung Fu Fighting"
"Kung Fu Fighting" is owned by Pye Records
This video is owned by me