Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"
Editor's Note: This is the big debut of Bill DeMain's new column, where he explores the real historical events that inspired various songs. "Music History" will appear twice a month. Try it. You'll like it!
“One Night In Bangkok”
Written by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice (1984)
Originally sung by Murray Head
With its perky chorus married to stiffly rapped verses about a chess grandmaster scoping out the city of his latest match, this was one of the strangest hits of the 1980s. Written by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyricist Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita), it was part of Chess, a musical based on the 1972 “Match of the Century” between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Chess had a troubled run both in London’s West End and on Broadway, but “Bangkok” charted worldwide, reaching #3 in the US. The song was covered by Mike Tyson in 2011, for the soundtrack of The Hangover II.
It seems unfathomable now, the entire world hanging on every move of a chess game. And the players – a flamboyantly brilliant American and a quietly intense Russian – grabbing headlines like celebrities. But the match that pitted Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky was more than a game. It was twenty-five years of cold war rivalry between the Americans and the Russians brought to a head.
For the Soviets, chess was serious business. “Gymnastics of the mind,” Lenin had called it. Subsidized by the government, it was prescribed for all citizens. Its champions were national heroes. And those champions ruled the international chess world for over fifty years.
By comparison, the US was indifferent to chess. It was the game played by your nerdy brother, or by old men in the park. But then along came Bobby Fischer. In 1966, the 13-year old prodigy from Brooklyn turned heads when he became the US champion. By 1972, he’d defeated twenty international contenders and was ready to challenge Boris Spassky for the world title.
The two would meet for twenty-four games. With a win equaling one point, and a draw a half a point, the first player to twelve and a half points would be the winner. The winner would be awarded $78,125. The loser would receive $46,875. The setting for the match was Reykjavik, Iceland, a neutral zone halfway between the US and Russia.
Cold War Games
But the match almost didn’t happen. After Spassky arrived, Fischer remained in New York, making outrageous last-minute demands. On top of prize money, he wanted 30% of the gate receipts and 30% of the film and TV rights. After a week of stalled negotiations with the Icelanders, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped in, urging Fischer to play. Hours before the deadline for a match forfeit, Fischer arrived. In the middle of all this drama, the world got hooked on the story.
Fischer started poorly, losing the first game. He forfeited the second game, saying the noise from the TV cameras was distracting him. Two down, he seriously considering fleeing Iceland. But a member of his camp tampered with his car engine so he wouldn’t be able to drive to the airport. Spassky conceded to Fischer’s demand that game three be moved to a side room of the large exhibition hall, with no cameras. Fischer won. Games four and five were draws, then Fischer took game six. Once he settled in, he gathered momentum. By game 17, it was Fischer 10, Spassky 7.
Each game lasted an average of five hours, with the two men seated across from each other in a silence bristling with strategies and superstitions.
Prior to the match, Fischer had fillings removed from his teeth because he was sure that Soviets had devices that could interact with the metal fillings to read his brainwaves. Spassky was equally paranoid. The fruit juice he was served in Reykjavik was flown back to Moscow to be tested for drugs. And Fischer’s chair was x-rayed because Spassky believed there was a generator within it directing invisible thought-scrambling rays at him.
The match went on, and in game twenty-one, Spassky finally surrendered his title.
The outspoken Fischer crowed about how good it felt to “break the ego of his opponent” and tear down the propaganda of the Russian chess elite. Spassky was personally blamed for the defeat, then shunned by the government. He now lives in France, and is still active in the chess community. A month after the loss to Fischer, the Russians were grooming a new master, Anatoly Karpov, to reclaim the crown. But Fischer refused to defend his title, and was stripped of it in 1975.
He became ever more reclusive, chess’s own Howard Hughes, complete with the beard, wild rants and undisclosed locations. In 1992, he restaged the match against Spassky and won again. It was the only time in twenty years Fischer had played chess in public. The match was played in Yugoslavia, then under international embargo. Because Fischer had defied a warning by President George H.W. Bush, an arrest warrant was issued. Fischer never returned to the US, living in Budapest and the Philippines, before being granted asylum by Iceland. In 2008, he died in Reykjavik, city of his greatest triumph, at the age of 64.