Like a prehistoric bug trapped in amber, a truly great one-hit wonder serves as an historical record of its time. Take Carl Douglas’s smash novelty single “Kung Fu Fighting,” for example. From it we know that there was a time when disco was commercially relevant, when martial arts became a part of Western popular culture, and when the use of the so-called Oriental Riff in a song was not cause for protest from some Asian advocacy group.
So it was that in 1974 Douglas’s ode to that “ancient Chinese art” sold millions of copies and hit #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. To nobody’s surprise it was quickly followed up by a full-length release entitled Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs (released in the U.K. on Pye Records and in the U.S. on 20th Century Records). The title alone is probably the first clue that this album was nothing more than a cash grab, but maybe I’m just being cynical.
Then again there is the cover art – featuring Douglas in full martial arts garb desperately trying to fight off a receding hairline – and the fact that one of the other songs on the record is called “Dance the Kung Fu.” Maybe I’m not so cynical after all.
So let’s all don our oversized bandanas, splash on some Hai Karate, and check out what the rest of Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs has to offer!
“Witchfinder General” – If Hollywood ever gets around to making a Blaxploitation flick about the Salem Witch Trials, this will be on the soundtrack. I can just picture Chief Magistrate William Stoughton strutting into the courthouse as Douglas exclaims, “Says he’s got a thing about burning witches/some of these were mighty fine bitches!” Yup, that’s actually a lyric.
This is easily the most engaging track on the record not called “Kung Fu Fighting,” although the arrangement is pretty standard period funk and doesn’t have a whole lot to offer other than the amusing lyrics and slinky clavinet work. And we’re only on the album’s second song. Hoo boy.
“When You Got Love” – One of four songs credited to producer Biddu, whose fingerprints are all over this album. There are some interesting chord changes in the pre-chorus, but man oh man does this song sport some trite lyrics and generic arrangements. Douglas turns in a pretty good vocal performance, but can’t elevate this beyond standard disco fare.
“Changing Times” – Kudos to Douglas for demonstrating some songwriting ability on this album, rather than just being some producer’s tool. He turned in three solo compositions for this record and co-wrote a fourth with Biddu. Unfortunately this song is pretty representative of the whole album – it’s all very professional and competent, but probably not worth revisiting unless you are an absolute disco fanatic.
“I Want to Give You My Everything” – Before “Kung Fu Fighting” exploded, Douglas worked as a session vocalist for British-based Pye Records. He was tapped by Biddu to sing on this track, composed by Larry Weiss (who wrote another song that year called “Rhinestone Cowboy”). The single was supposed to feature “Kung Fu Fighting” as the B-side, but the story goes that when the record was presented to the A&R department at Pye they chucked “I Want to Give You My Everything” entirely and made “Kung Fu Fighting” the A-side.
I have to say it was a wise move. This is paint-by-numbers disco, and not even a fraction as interesting as “Kung Fu Fighting.”
“Dance the Kung Fu” – So how does one dance the Kung Fu? It’s simple – according to Douglas you just “swing to your right, then you swing your right.” Then you swing back to your left and skip to the next song.
“Never Had This Dream Before” – Douglas changes things up a bit here by moving from generic dance music to a generic love song. Blah. This is textbook album filler. Other than a brief vocal freakout at the end, I can’t remember a damn thing about this song ten minutes after hearing it.
“I Don’t Care What People Say” – If I put on my record company executive goggles for a minute, I think Pye/20th Century probably could’ve milked this as a second single and gotten some traction. It’s somewhat more interesting and catchy than “Never Had This Dream Before,” although not by a great deal. Pye opted to release “Dance the Kung Fu” as the followup single instead, which barely cracked the Top 50 in the U.S. and peaked at #35 in the U.K.
“Blue Eyed Soul” – OK, so here’s another clue that this album was more of a marketing ploy than an artistic statement: The final song is an instrumental and features no contributions from Douglas at all. Released as the third and final single from the album, “Blue Eyed Soul” (WTF?) was still credited to Douglas but is obviously nothing more than a vehicle for Biddu, who was about to launch his own music career. From its classic disco beat to its horn section and “wakka wakka” rhythm guitar, you could’ve told me this was the title track to some obscure ‘70s cop show and I would believe you.
So there you have it – the rest of Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs. It’s hard to believe that an album’s worth of music written and recorded in the same year as “Kung Fu Fighting” could seem even more dated and less essential, but now we know better. To be fair there’s no true stinkers here, but based off this record I think Carl Douglas’s one-hit wonder designation is deserved.
Douglas gamely tried to ride the wave of “Kung Fu Fighting” for a few more years, but after just two more albums in the mid-‘70s his career was essentially done (although he did crack the UK Top 30 in 1977 with “Run Back”). In retrospect it seems unlikely that any artist could hope to sustain much of a career based on the popularity of a novelty song, no matter how catchy or successful.