A Song A Day – Kung Fu Fighting

Kung_Fu_FightingBy Vivek Nenmini

An old chestnut at most popular music quizzes involved identifying a man in long raven wavy hair, twisting his hands in not exact unison with another adorned in a fro- two steps to the right of a balding black man in a red karate gi. The camera then follows two other black men in gis, who spar with each other in choreographed harmony involving faux karate chops and the subtlest of shakes of the heads and hips while the balding protagonist urges his predominantly white audience to get the swing on. The denouement would follow, first that the man in question was Indian, then an expansion on his epoch defining bio-data including having launched the career of the voice behind Aap Jaisa Koi, Nazia Hassan, hand held Alisha Chinai through Made in India, that the song on the screen was Carl DouglasKung Fu Fighting and eventually his name, Biddu Appaiah.

The video was definitely fascinating with the flashing strobes and an alien-ship interior like stage, but what took a grip of our auditory attention was the eerie mix of the stereotypical oriental riff, the funky beats of disco, the power of Carl Douglas’ soulful voice, all interjected with savage ‘hoos!’ and ‘haas!’, “Like someone was giving somebody a karate chop” explained Biddu, who produced the song, in an interview in 1988.

“Kung Fu Fighting”, written by the Jamaican born Carl Douglas and Vivian Hawke was initially recorded as a B-side track to Brooklyn songwriter Larry WeissI Want to Give You My Everything. On presenting it to the Pye Records’ A&R ‘big boss’ he thought it would be a good A-side and released it in the late spring of 1974. A quick aside on the state of martial arts in the West- the 70’s saw the rise of karate. 1973 saw Bruce Lee in an inspired blurry of swishing limbs and snapped necks etch kung fu as a popular martial art in the mindscape of movie goers and others through Enter the Dragon.

The business acumen of the people at Pye Records, who were probably equally inspired, anticipated a big hit in the making and true to their intuition it rose to number one on the British charts within five weeks of its release, whipping sales of more than nine million copies. It was released in the United States by 20th Century Records entering the Billboard charts at 94 and chopping its way to the top of the iconic magazine’s Hot 100 pop chart in eight weeks.

Douglas, a former engineering student, attributes the idea for the song in three parts- a kung fu movie screening, followed by a jazz concert by Oscar Peterson, and the hazy side-effects of pain killers (Douglas had injured his foot playing football). His homage to martial art movies earned him a Grammy for Best Selling Single in 1974. Sadly it overshadowed the rest of his career with a reprise in Dance the Kung Fu which reached number 48 on the Billboards in March 1975 and another Top 30 on the UK Singles Chart with Run Back in 1977. Fading into the background with the ‘one hit wonder’ label, Douglas has appeared on cover versions of the song including the 1998 version by British dance act, Bus Stop which reached number 8 on the UK Singles Chart. The track has had its fair share of cover versions including a punk version by Merrill Nisker (who now goes under the moniker of Peaches), and reggae versions by Lloyd Parks, The Maroons and The Cimarons. It even has a Finnish version by Frederik and is titled Kung-Fu Taistelee. In 2008 Cee-Lo Green (one half of Gnarls Barkley) and the inimitable Jack Black paid their tributes while credits rolled for the hilarious animated Kung Fu Panda.

The song’s influence on popular culture is noticeable in its various appearances on TV shows, movies, theme songs for games including a re-recorded version featured in Lego Rock Band & Band Hero. In the same 1988 interview Biddu reflected on the international success of “Kung Fu Fighting”, “If I had a theory why the record was a hit, I’d have more hits! You never know why a record is a hit. It had street appeal, I think. It was a bit of a novelty, but… it was a hit all over the world. Maybe it was just a good pop record without us knowing about it.” Good pop, funky beats, fun lyrics, turn the strobes on, pump up the volume and now sing-a-long, “The sudden motion made me skip, now we’re into a brand new trip… Everybody was kung-fu fighting” After all those years, we still are.