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YouTube’d memories: One Night in Bangkok

This song is one of the signature pieces of my DJ days in high school.

As I noted elsewhere, I’ve been an unwilling dancer for my entire life, so it was only natural that I became a “designated DJ” at some point. Everybody else wanted to be on the floor…

I was also the resident komsomol leader, and therefore could be trusted with the tricky issue of which songs to select to play.

Our school discotheques were highly-regulated affairs: Western decadence in the shape of break-dancing and such was strictly disallowed; playlists had to be approved by the school administration. I’m pretty sure that their rule of thumb was: If the particular foreign artist had made an appearance on national TV, they received a pass. Otherwise, don’t even ask, there are so many good Soviet songs to choose from…

Now, One Night in Bangkok was written by Andersson/Ulvaeus of ABBA fame, but of course, it sounded nothing like ABBA. This alien to socialist art rap, this rhythm that immediately brings to mind that abominable break dance! The vice-principal in charge of approving my playlist was positively scandalized upon hearing the song during the dance. Have I, God forbid, lied to her about the authorship?

In pre-internet days, when 95% of our music came via pirated channels on privately-recorded audio tapes, finding legitimate proof of authorship for any given song was no mean feat. Somebody upstream from me on the tape-dubbing chain must have propagated the knowledge that the song was from the musical Chess, authored by the ABBA creative duo, but it was recorded on the tape as a stand-alone number among other songs by unrelated performers; I don’t think I’ve ever heard one other song from that musical. And anyway, there were few worse ways to torpedo the chances of a song than to admit that it played on the “rotting” Broadway.

Thankfully, I was considered extremely trustworthy by the school authorities. And ABBA did enjoy the highest clearance in the Soviet censorship machine. I had to be my most convincing in inventing the magazine articles where I had read about the song’s origin, substituting the authors’ experimentation with new popular styles instead of a Broadway play. The vice-principal believed me. The song found a steady place in our rotation – and those who could found ways to perform their break-dancing routines to it despite all prohibitions…

I have not heard this number in over twenty years.



  1. Random Michelle K

    Oh man. I had totally forgotten about that song–and how much I loved it!

    I think lost memories are what originally piqued my interest in Bankgok 8 and the rest of John Burdett’s series.

    Thank you!

  2. Ilya

    Actually, I happened to like Nautilus when it burst on the scene. Still carry a few of their early songs on my iPod. It was not dance music, though.

    Zvuku Moo, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be able to identify among others. If I know any of their songs, I have no idea that they’re theirs.

    I’m very happy to hear that one of my audio memories resonates with someone, Michelle.

  3. Brian Greenberg

    Funny…while you were busy dodging Soviet censors, I was taking piano lessons.

    My teacher’s rule was if I played my finger exercises and my classical piece well, I was allowed to choose a popular piece of music to learn as well (she would buy the sheet music at my parents expense). I usually took advantage of this opportunity to learn some Billy Joel or Elton John (piano players!), but at some point, I chose “One Night in Bangkok.” My teacher got quite sick of it, since it took so long to learn (there really isn’t any piano part, and looking back, I now recognize the “sheet music” as more of a chord chart or fake sheet). We spent weeks figuring out what to play, and how to fit the melody line in there (such as it is) so that I’d recognize it when I played it.

    Good times….

  4. Ilya

    I suppose the chorus is melodic enough, but the main verses are obviously not. Are you sure you weren’t subconsciously getting back at your piano teacher for something, Brian?

  5. Eric

    You may have been edgier than you realized, Ilya: Chess is VERY loosely inspired by the Fischer/Spassky chess match of the early ’70s and the 1956 Hungarian revolution is a significant-but-minor plot point; a Russian character’s desire to defect to the West to be with an American woman whose father vanished in the 1956 Hungarian revolution is a major plot point.

    Incidentally, and you may know this: while the music was written by two members of ABBA (Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson), and is catchy as all get out, the pointed, sardonic lyrics are by Tim Rice, perhaps best known for his early collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, including the lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar. In Chess Rice takes a rather dim view of both the American and Soviet governments, both of which are depicted as cruel puppetmasters playing a chesslike game (naturally!) with the participants of the musical’s chess matches filling the role of expendable pawns.

    “One Night In Bangkok” is sung by the American master loosely based on Bobby Fischer, an arrogant, selfish, temperamental, cynical man. (His Russian counterpart is far more idealistic and sympathetic, but is ultimately a fool and a dupe. It’s a wonderfully misanthropic play, if you enjoy some good misanthropy set to catchy beats and hum-able melodies.)

    I only have the Broadway soundtrack, myself, which is slightly different from the London soundtrack (Chess debuted in London, by the way), due in part to a significant re-working of the original book to fix some of the criticisms leveled at the London stage version and to simplify some things for an American audience that wasn’t perceived as being too keen on or familiar with chess (the game) or the nuances of Cold War politicking. The Murray Head version of “Bangkok” predates both stage versions of the musical, however: as with several ’80s musicals, an abbreviated version of the show was recorded and released as a concept album before production began on the stage version.

  6. Ilya

    I definitely had no idea about all those undercurrents back then, Eric, and the first time I learned about the plot of the musical was a couple of days ago when I read that Wikipedia article… It occurs to me now – and I don’t know for a fact whether the school’s English department was involved in reviewing the lyrics – that One Night in Bangkok does not have any obvious anti-Soviet references, which could have been a factor in all of this.

  7. Dr. Phil

    A friend of mine in grad school in the mid-80s wore out the laser diode in an early Sony Diskman playing the soundtrack to Chess. So when years later a theatre company in Muskegon MI decided to do the whole rock opera Chess, I contacted Jerry, and he and his wife came down to West Michigan. And we had a marvelous time. It really should be staged more.

    Dr. Phil

  8. jason

    Ah, one of my favorite songs! For a period in the mid-80s, there seemed to be a lot of pop culture centered in steamy tropical locales — TV shows, music videos, movies. Probably fall-out from the success of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone, I would guess. I loved it all — for a kid growing up in a very strait-laced community in the dry mountain west, thoughts of exotic romance and adventure in a verdant jungle were intoxicating. I’m surprised you say you haven’t heard it in 20 years… when 80s music started making a comeback a few years ago, it seemed to turn up a lot. But then maybe not everyone enjoys “oldies radio” the way I do… 🙂

    One trivia note: Murray Head is the brother of Anthony Stewart Head, who played Giles on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He (Anthony) was also in those coffee commercials from years back where you never saw faces, but just heard this couple talking cleverly to each other.

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