CLOSE
Original image

Music History #1: "One Night in Bangkok"

Original image

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.

Original image
Kevin Winter, Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
Original image
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

Original image
Keystone/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
Original image
Keystone/Getty Images

Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios