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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

The Music

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.

http://youtu.be/P9mwELXPGbA

The History

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.

Checkmate

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.

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Courtesy of Pop Chart Lab
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This Beatles Poster Breaks Down the Instruments Played in Every Fab Four Song
Courtesy of Pop Chart Lab
Courtesy of Pop Chart Lab

If you're a Beatles fan who has memorized every second of every one of the legendary band's songs, from instruments to vocals, Pop Chart Lab has got a poster for you.

"Come Together," the pop culture-loving design company's latest poster, breaks down the instruments featured in every single one of The Beatles's songs, from 1963's "I Saw Her Standing There" to 1970's "Get Back." The chart is broken down into five colors—one for each member of the Fab Four, plus one hue to represent various non-band members—and the icons show you which instrument each member plays in each tune, from the conventional (guitar) to the unique (tape loops and mellotrons). Grab your headphones and follow along as you listen: soon you'll be able to impress your friends by rattling off who's singing when. Who knows—it might even inspire you to pick up the guitar and learn "Blackbird."

The poster measures 24 by 36 inches and pricing starts at $37. It's available for preorder now, and shipping begins April 20.

Music fans will also love Pop Chart Lab's other music posters, like this spread of famous guitars or this brilliant taxonomy of rap names.

Check out the art below. To purchase the poster and also enjoy Pop Chart Lab's many Beatles puns, click here.

Beatles Instrument poster
Pop Chart Lab
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MGM Home Entertainment
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The Beatles’s Yellow Submarine Is Returning to Theaters for Its 50th Anniversary
MGM Home Entertainment
MGM Home Entertainment

The Beatles are coming! The Beatles are coming!

In early 1968, at the height of Beatlemania, The Fab Four lent their voices—and visages—to Yellow Submarine, a somewhat strange and slightly surreal animated film, purportedly for children, which saw the band travel to Pepperland aboard the titular watercraft in order to save the land from the music-hating Blue Meanies. (Hey, we said it was strange.)

Though it would be another year before the film’s iconic soundtrack was released, 2018 marks the film’s 50th anniversary. To celebrate the occasion, Pitchfork reports that the psychedelic cartoon will be making its way back into theaters in July with a brand-new 4K digital restoration and a surround sound remix, to have it looking—and sounding—pristine.

To find out where it will be screening near you, visit the film’s website, where you can sign up for updates.

[h/t: Pitchfork]

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