David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 342: Sublime (Hong Kong Phooey)

April 16, 2024

Those of us born on the cusp that was both Baby Boomer and Generation X lived at the height of the Saturday Morning line-up. I am tempted to say Saturday Morning Cartoons, but The Banana Splits, or H.R.Pufnstuf, or The Bugaloos were hardly cartoons, weird mash-ups that they were. They were pretty good escapes, although it might be many years later before we realized how appropriate it was that the bizarre paradise island in H.R. Pufnstuf was run by a Dragon H.R. A little foreshadowing, Sid Kroft? Then, again, this anti-corporate sentiment was also seen in Hong Kong Phooey changing from mild-mannered janitor to super-hero in a filing cabinet!

Poor Hong Kong, even at 13, I had a sense he was a knock-off of Underdog, my favorite Saturday Morning super hero, riding the wave of "Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas (both Douglas's song and Hanna's cartoon were released in 1974, so I can't say for sure that Douglas was first; I suppose both jumped simultaneously on the Bruce Lee bandwagon).

Such deep thinking about Saturday Morning cartoons meant there's no surprise that when MCA Records released Saturday Morning: Cartoon's Greatest Hits in 1995, featuring alternative music artists performing all of these theme songs, all of us grown kids would rush to buy it. To hear Ramones perform "Spider-Man," or Liz Phair do "The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)" from The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, or Violent Femmes get even weirder with their interpretation of "Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah (Means I Love You)" from The Jetsons, was a hell of a lot cooler than investing even a couple of seconds listening to the latest Mariah Carey or Madonna cut.

Saturday Morning: Cartoon's Greatest Hits did feature versions of both "Underdog" and his cheap clone "Hong Kong Phooey," the former done by Butthole Surfers, the later by Sublime. I know of both bands, but barely. I knew even less of Butthole Surfers (and, really, I love a good scatological punk name as much as any guy, but this was a surf I feared to wade into), and had heard just a little of Sublime (this is a year before Brad Nowell's death and the release of their biggest album). Thinking back all of these years later, I must admit that the pairing of artist to theme seemed very appropriate. Ralph Sall, the producer of Saturday Morning: Cartoon's Greatest Hits claims in the liner notes that he, directly, "paired songs and artists that seem to go together well." If that is so, and there is something less romantic about that then asking the artists what they wanted to cover, he did do a great job, even beyond Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donelly covering "Josie And The Pussycats."

In many ways, Butthole Surfers were underdogs in the alternative scene, almost certainly not helped by the name. In fact, Surfer guitarist, Paul Leary, says "I relate the Butthole Surfers to Underdog" in the liner note. Meanwhile, Sublime suffered from being a kind of second generation knock-off of The Specials or Madness, Ska re-emerging on the backs of No Doubt. So, my tendency was to discard them and the theme song, but over time have come to appreciate the appropriate slices in time they both represent.

Let's face it, all these artists were going to have to improvise to get 3 to 4-minute songs out of original themes that are barely a minute long. For "Hong Kong Phooey," all Nowell and the gang had to work with, after the "who is the Super Hero?" spoken intro, was:

Hong Kong Phooey, number one super guy/

Hong Kong Phooey, quicker than the human eye/

He's got style, a groovy smile/

And a bod' that just won't stop/

When the going gets rough/

He's super tough/

With a Hong Kong Phooey chop.

As Nowell says in the liner notes with "like 30 seconds or something . . .  we took this recording opportunity to go off on a full dubwise version excursion." In the end, we go from a 30-second jingle to a 3+ minute "excursion" into the world of reggae. Take stock, kids: take a little of Jamaica, throw in a little of the Far East, add a slice of little Long Beach (where Sublime came from) and we got something special. Who knows what else we might find in that file cabinet, Hong Kong?

Just remember, Hong Kong, H.R.Pufnstuf needs to be with you when you clear out that file cabinet on your last day.

Sublime. "Hong Kong Phooey." Saturday Morning: Cartoon's Greatest Hits. MCA, 1995. Link here.

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See complete list here.