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One Night in Bangkok

One Night in Bangkok 7inch single

The song ‘One Night in Bangkok’ is a 1984 hit taken from the musical ‘Chess’. Murray Head, a British actor and singer, raps the verses. The chorus is sung by a Swedish singer, Anders Glenmark, who no-one remembers. The song was a surprise hit across Europe.  Murray Head wasn’t a well known singer and the song was taken from a concept album about a chess tournament.

However, this didn’t stymie it’s success and it went on to reach No. 1 or 2 in many European countries. It also fared well in the USA where it peaked at No. 3 in the Billboard charts. 

Who wrote One Night in Bangkok?

 The song was written by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Bjoern Ulvaeus. 

Tim Rice is a well known lyricist from the UK who co-wrote songs for many popular stage musicals including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.  In addition he has written songs for Disney movies such as Aladdin and The Lion King.

Benny Andersson and Bjoern Ulvaeus are better known as the two guys from the Swedish pop group ABBA.  They were probably the biggest popstars in the world from the mid 1970s and early 1980s.   The song was written for the musical ‘Chess’.  The basic story involves a love triangle. 

It’s a Cold War era chess tournament between two Grandmasters.  One American and the other Soviet Russian.  One has a female manager whom the other falls in love with.  In order to raise money to stage the musical the three writers write and released a concept album of the songs and music. 

This proved to be very successful and garnered rave reviews from critics. Following  the album’s success the musical was then fleshed out and opened in the West End of London in 1986, with Murray Head in a starring role.

The Lyrics for One Night in Bangkok

Bangkok, Oriental setting
And the city don’t know that the city is getting
The creme de la creme of the chess world
In a show with everything but Yul Brynner

Time flies doesn’t seem a minute
Since the Tirolean spa had the chess boys in it
All change don’t you know that when you
Play at this level there’s no ordinary venue

It’s Iceland or the Philippines or Hastings or
Or this place!

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

One town’s very like another
When your head’s down over your pieces, brother

It’s a drag, it’s a bore, it’s really such a pity
To be looking at the board, not looking at the city

Whaddya mean?
Ya seen one crowded, polluted, stinking town

Tea, girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite

Get thai’d, you’re talking to a tourist
Whose every move’s among the purest
I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me

Siam’s gonna be the witness
To the ultimate test of cerebral fitness
This grips me more than would a
Muddy old river or reclining Buddha

And thank God I’m only watching the game controlling it

I don’t see you guys rating
The kind of mate I’m contemplating
I’d let you watch, I would invite you
But the queens we use would not excite you

So you better go back to your bars, your temples
Your massage parlours

One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me

© Universal Music Publishing Group

What’s the meaning of One Night in Bangkok?  What’s the song about?

This song comes from the musical ‘Chess.’ The world chess championship is being held in Bangkok, Thailand.  The song is sung by one of the competitors, an American Grandmaster.  It is about his feelings for the city and his reasons for being there. The signer describes the types of people who visit Bangkok. Some come for the temples and history.  Others for the girls and nightlife. 

However, neither of these interest the singer. He is focused on his chess tournament. Nothing else matters to him. 

The song begins by him setting the scene.  Bangkok has everything.  In fact the only thing missing is a movie star, “a show with everything but Yul Brynner“.  Why Yul Brynner? Because he famously played the part of King Mongkut in the 1956 movie ‘The King and I’.  A movie which was loosely based on the experiences of an English teacher in the court of the Thai king in the mid 1800s. Over 60 years later, the movie is still banned in Thailand, as it’s deemed disrespectful to the monarchy.

The famous Wat Pho temple is mentioned as “reclining Buddha“.  The Chao Phraya river which flows through the city is described as a “muddy old river” -neither are of interest to the singer.  Ladyboys feature too “You’ll find a god in every golden cloister — And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she“), and the famous Oriental Hotel where girls are “set up in the Somerset Maugham suite“.  But despite having these ladies on offer, the singer isn’t interested “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.

Criticizing Bangkok and adding that city is full of sex workers who will assail you is lazy stereotyping.  And it’s also what resulted in the Thai government banning the song in 1985 as led to misunderstanding about Thai society and showed disrespect towards Buddhism.  

This is just another tournament. The same as those he has been to in other places around the world.  The most recent tournament was in Austria “doesn’t seem a minute, since the Tirolean spa had the chess boys in it“.  But also “Iceland or the Philippines or Hastings”  Although Hastings, a town in the south of England doesn’t seem quite as exotic as the other locations.

Alternative versions of the song

Mike Tyson singing One Night in Bangkok

There have been several cover versions of the song over the years, but perhaps the best well known is also the worst (as far as the singer’s voice is concerned.)

In 2011, the movie Hangover 2 was released.  this was filmed on location in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand.  Once memorable scene includes Mike Tyson singing ‘One Night in Bangkok’.  Judge for yourself how good (or bad) his version is. :-)

One Night in Bangkok remixes

The original recording became a massive hit across Europe.  It was then released in the USA and almost simultaneously, a Canadian singer ‘Robey’ released with her own version.  It was almost identical to the original, only with a female singer. It spent three weeks on the Hot 100 in March 1985, peaking at No. 77 and rose to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.

There was an extended 12″ version of the song on the ‘Chess’ album.  This came in at 6 minutes 24 seconds.  It had a very futuristic, synthesizer based sound for it’s time. Listen to it on Youtube

There haven’t been any updated official remixes, to modernize the sound of the song.  But some DJs have mixed it into a more dance floor friendly versions. Check them out on Youtube. Global Deejays – One Night In Bangkok (Club Mix)  and also this electro version by Vinylshakerz.