In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It’s hard to imagine what it must’ve been like to wander into a cheap second-run theater in the ’70s and to get a first glance of kung-fu cinema. The kung-fu movie tradition arguably started around 1970, with the release of the Shaw Brothers joint The Chinese Boxer. It went supernova a year later when The Big Boss became Bruce Lee’s first starring vehicle. Lee very quickly became a global movie star. He only had time to make four movies before his sudden death in 1973; the last of them, Enter The Dragon, was his only English-language film. By the time Enter The Dragon hit, the gates were open.
Throughout the ’70s, Hong Kong kung-fu movies flooded theaters around the world. So did wuxia movies — mythic martial-arts period pieces that were part of an older Hong Kong cinematic tradition. (Kung-fu movies were an outgrowth of wuxia movies, and they were also a reaction against them.) Studios like Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest cranked these films out quickly and cheaply, and they arrived in English-language countries with hasty and ridiculous dubbing jobs. Grindhouses and drive-in theaters needed content, and plenty of them bought up these kung-fu movies. Someone at Variety coined the racist-ass term “chopsocky” to describe them, which at least indicates that they were a big enough deal for Variety to make up a genre name.
I used to inhale those movies when they aired on UHF stations when I was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. By then point, I had at least some context for them, but they still seemed beguilingly strange — a whole world of action cinema with its own traditions and rhythms, its own sense of internal logic. But for the Western audiences who first saw this stuff, I can’t imagine how it would’ve felt.
But Western audiences liked these movies, anyway. Or that’s the impression that I get from “Kung Fu Fighting,” a huge hit that’s both a celebration and mockery of a whole global-cinema phenomenon.
Carl Douglas was a Jamaican-born session singer. Biddu Appaiah, usually just known as Biddu, was an Indian-born record producer. Both of them were living in London when they got together to make “Kung Fu Fighting.” I’d love to weave some kind of grand narrative out of this — two immigrants from different cultures, combining forces on a song about a third immigrant culture — but no. “Kung Fu Fighting” was a total halfass rush-job, recorded without a whole lot of thought. The song’s subjects — “funky chinamen from funky Chinatown” — deserved better.
Like so many of the other songs that wind up in this column, “Kung Fu Fighting” was supposed to be a B-side. Douglas and Appaiah had been recording a single called “I Want To Give You My Everything.” They needed a B-side, so Appaiah asked Douglas if he had any other songs, and Douglas showed him a few lyrics. They recorded “Kung Fu Fighting” in two takes, when they only had 10 minutes left in their studio session. Talking about the song years later, Appaiah said, “I went over the top on the huhs and the hahs and the chopping sounds. It was a B-side. Who was going to listen?” A label guy heard the song and said that it should be the A-side. And once club DJs got ahold of it, “Kung Fu Fighting” went to #1 in 12 different countries.
“Kung Fu Fighting” is a fully ridiculous song. It’s all-the-way disco, with a big kick-drum thump and some squelchy guitar ripples. It also makes heavy use of the “oriental riff,” the ultra-stereotypical bit of sound that Westerners only use when they want to denote something Eastern. (Wikipedia tells me that the Oriental riff dates back to an 1847 stage play about Aladdin.) And Appaiah really does go in on the grunts and fighting sounds. (It makes sense. The sound engineers on kung-fu movies did the same thing.)
Lyrically, there’s not much of a story to “Kung Fu Fighting.” Douglas isn’t a character in his own song. He’s an omniscient narrator, watching some kind of Chinatown gang rumble. We know who some of the participants are — funky Billy Chin, little Sammy Chung, the big boss — but we don’t know why they’re fighting beyond someone saying “let’s get it on.” Douglas is mostly impressed with what he sees: “It’s an ancient Chinese art, and everybody knew their part… In fact, it was a little bit frightening / But they did it with expert timing.” The fight never ends; we never find out who won, or if anyone got hurt or killed. Instead, the martial art just seems like a new fad: “The sudden motion made me skip / Now we’re into a brand-new trip.” So it’s a dance craze, basically.
Douglas and Appaiah might not have known they had a hit on their hands, but it’s an instantly memorable and catchy song. There’s no depth, but it accomplishes the crucial novelty-song task of getting stuck in your head all fucking day. I’m guessing it just hit a chord because the same people who liked kung-fu movies like the idea of a song about kung-fu fighting. Some things are just not that deep. Douglas followed up “Kung Fu Fighting” with a song called “Dance The Kung Fu,” which only made it to #48. He never charted again in the US. Incredibly, funky kung-fu-themed songs did not turn out to be the path to a lasting career — at least not until the Wu-Tang Clan came along 20 years later.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s great 2002 movie City Of God where a tense situation escalates as “Kung Fu Fighting” plays on the soundtrack:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Three Degrees’ incandescent Philly soul sigh “When Will I See You Again?” peaked at #2 behind “Kung Fu Fighting.” It’s a 9.