356. Carl Douglas – Kung Fu Fighting (1974)

‘Woah-ho-ho-ho!’ Knocked off in 10 minutes as a B-side, this huge-selling number 1 is one of the most famous novelty hits of all time. It took advantage of the 70s kung fu craze and briefly made Carl Douglas a star.

Yes, the mid-70s wasn’t just about streaking. The films of martial artist Bruce Lee had become popular in the US and subsequently the UK, but he died after the making of his 1973 blockbuster Enter the Dragon, which only added to his legend. He had allegedly also been in the running to star in US action drama Kung Fu, before David Carradine took the role in 1972. The mid-70s was the high watermark of the nation’s fascination with kung fu. There were adverts for Hai Karate aftershave, cartoon canine Hong Kong Phooey and an episode of The Goodies, ‘Kung Fu Kapers’ that concentrated on the ancient art of ‘Ecky Thump’. Famously, this was the episode in which a man literally died laughing at home while watching. What a way to go.

But anyway, Carl Douglas. Carlton George Douglas was born 10 May 1942 in Kingston, Jamaica but also spent his childhood in California before relocating to London as a teenager to study sound engineering, and enjoyed playing football. He also underwent vocal training and developed a strong tenor voice that he would use to sing in church. Douglas loved soul and jazz music, and his heroes were Sam Cooke and Otis Redding.

In 1964 Douglas formed Carl Douglas & the Big Stampede, and they released three singles in the UK but failed to get anywhere. His debut solo single was Serving a Sentence of Life in 1968, but again, no joy. With another group, Carl Douglas & the Explosion, he released the single Eeny Meeny in Spain. No reaction. Douglas returned to the UK and started working with Indian producer Biddu for the first time in 1971.

Biddu Appaiah, better known as just Biddu, would become one of the pioneers of disco. Born in Bangalore, India in 1944, he moved to England in the 60s and became a producer, working on Japanese band The Tigers’ Smile for Me in 1969, before moving on to a number of tracks that became popular on the Northern Soul scene.

Douglas recorded the single Marble and Iron with Biddu, who used the singer again in 1972 on the soundtrack to the spy thriller Embassy, starring Richard Roundtree (Shaft). Biddu hired Douglas again in 1974 to record I Want to Give You My Everything. He asked the singer if he had any ideas on what they could use as a B-side, and Douglas had several, one of which was a bunch of lyrics about watching a kung fu film. Not taking it too seriously, Biddu came up with a tune, and when it came to recording, allegedly I Want to Give You My Everything took two hours, wheras Kung Fu Fighting took 10 minutes as they were running out of studio time.

When the single was taken to Pye Records, an executive couldn’t understand why Kung Fu Fighting wasn’t the A-side, and insisted they swap the two around, for which Douglas and Biddu must be eternally grateful.

You may have heard it a million times, and not consider it something you’d ever need to listen to again by choice, but I’d defy anyone to not have a soft spot for Kung Fu Fighting. Sure, it’s cheesy, but it’s also bloody funky, and I’m a sucker for some wah-wah guitar and a nice bassline. Funk is one of my favourite genres and there’s sadly very few that reached number 1. And for all this is considered a disco classic, and Biddu went on to be one of the genre’s foremost producers, this to me is more funk than disco. Although credit is due to Biddu for the oriental strings. Over-the-top, sure, as are the ‘ha!’ noises at the end of each line, but they only add to the fun. I’d imagine this song must have been incredible for your average child into kung fu at the time, and is still able to make anyone feel young again, no matter their age.

Kung Fu Fighting looked like another failure upon its release, but picked up momentum from airplay in clubs. After reaching number 1 here, it topped charts around the world, including Billboard‘s, making Douglas the first Jamaican to top the US chart. An album was quickly cobbled together, the wonderfully named Kung Fu Fighting and Other Great Love Songs. Douglas is remembered as a one-hit wonder, but he had two more UK hits – the inferior follow-up cash-in Dance the Kung Fu later that year (number 35) and Run Back in 1977 (number 25).

Two more albums were released, Love, Peace and Happiness in 1979 and Keep Pleasing Me in 1983, and then Douglas disappeared into obscurity, moving to Hamburg, Germany, occasionally surfacing to remember his time as the man behind Kung Fu Fighting. And then in 1998 his song was back in the top 10 again thanks to the dance act Bus Stop, reaching number eight. It was pretty pointless, just the original with some rapping added into the mix, but it captured the 90s obsession with the 70s and Douglas was wheeled out once more for TV shows. He seems a genial character, and who wouldn’t be, really, when you can have an income for life thanks to one song made in a hurry?

Written by: Carl Douglas

Producer: Biddu

Weeks at number 1: 3 (21 September-11 October)

Meanwhile…

23 September: The first Teletext information service Ceefax began on the BBC. This precursor to the internet was fascinating to people of a certain age, ie, me.

30 September: With the year’s second general election 10 days away, opinion polls showed Labour were in the lead, with Harold Wilson well-placed to gain the overall majority that no party achieved in the election held in February.

5 October: The Provisional IRA killed five people in the Guildford pub bombings.

10 October: The second general election of 1974 resulted in Labour gaining a majority, but only by three seats. Speculation began immediately that Edward Heath’s leadership of the Conservatives would soon be over. The Scottish National Party secured its highest Westminster party representation to date with 11 seats, and former Conservative MP Enoch Powell was returned to parliament standing for the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. 

328. Gilbert O’Sullivan – Get Down (1973)

Despite being one of the UK’s biggest stars of the early-70s, Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan is probably most famous these days for this song, in which Top of the Pops dancers Pan’s People took the lyrics literally and paraded around in front of a load of dogs (see the clip below). But to be fair, the alternative interpretation wouldn’t have been great either…

Get Down was the first single from O’Sullivan’s third album I’m a Writer, Not a Fighter. Keen for another image change, this LP saw O’Sullivan dabbling his toes in rock and funk and using keyboards rather than the piano. The track had originally been a warm-up tune before he decided to flesh it out for his new album.

Get Down is a very different beast to O’Sullivan’s previous best-seller and ode to a little girl, Clair, but is problematic for a different reason. Either we take Get Down literally and it’s a bit of froth about his dog, or he’s talking down to a woman in a very derogatory way:

‘Told you once before
And I won’t tell you no more
Get down, get down, get down
You’re a bad dog, baby
But I still want you around’

So what were Pan’s People to do with this, to be fair? Dress up as an sexist-at-best, abusive-at-worst husband who treats his wife like crap? That would have made for an interesting dance.

And then the middle eight, other than a cat reference, seems to come from another song, where O’Sullivan mentions how he once said some wine and felt happy. Well, great, Gilbert.

Get Down is certainly better than Clair, and can get under your skin if you’re not careful, but it’s nothing more than a throwaway really. I do struggle to get the appeal of O’Sullivan’s whimsy, based on what I’ve heard.

He continued to have hits, though not to the same degree, scraping into the top 20 with follow-up Ooh Baby. Most successful was Why, Oh Why, Oh Why, released in November 1973, which went on to reach number six. His shot at the festive number 1 spot, Christmas Song, performed respectably too, reaching 12 in 1974. But I Don’t Love You But I Think I Love You the following May was his last hit of the 70s.

The main reason for this was the fact O’Sullivan became embroiled in a long and painful court case with his producer and manager Gordon Mills over royalties. Which must have made performing Clair a bit awkward (the girl in question was Mills’s daughter) to say the least. He left MAM Records after 1977 album Southpaw and returned to CBS

The 80s began promisingly, with What’s In a Kiss? returning him to the top 20. More importantly, in 1982 the court finally ruled in O’Sullivan’s favour, awarding him £7 million in damages. He mostly kept a low profile for the rest of the decade, releasing little in the way of new material.

He was back in court again in 1991, and was the victor once more, in a case against rapper Biz Markie over sampling rights for the song that shot him to fame in the 70s, Alone Again (Naturally). This case was partly responsible for sampling becoming so expensive afterwards.

O’Sullivan became more prolific as the 90s progressed and into the 21st century, releasing albums and compilations with witty names like Singer Sowing Machine (1997) and The Berry Vest of Gilbert O’Sullivan (2004). In 2008 he performed at Glastonbury festival, and in 2011 BBC Four showed Out On His Own, a documentary devoted to him. His 19th, eponymous album released in 2018 is his latest to date.

Written by: Gilbert O’Sullivan

Producer: Gordon Mills

Music director: Laurie Holliday

Weeks at number 1: 2 (7-20 April)

Meanwhile…

17 April: British Leyland launched the Austin Allegro.