“One Night in Bangkok” is a song from the concept album and subsequent musical Chess by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. British actor and singer Murray Head raps the verses, while the chorus is sung by Anders Glenmark, a Swedish singer, songwriter and producer.
The full version of the song begins with an orchestral introduction, entitled “Bangkok”, of Oriental style. This serves as the introduction to Act 2 in the original musical album, feeding into the first verse of “One Night in Bangkok” itself with an abrupt change in musical style.
The main song has a pop styling, whose lyrics describe the Thai capital city and its nightlife in the context of a chess match. In the original concept album for the musical, Swedish artist Anders Glenmark sang in the chorus, whereas the verses are a rap originally performed by Murray Head as the American chess grandmaster, a character known as Frederick “Freddie” Trumper in the staged versions. In the staged versions, a musical ensemble performs the choruses. Whereas the choruses extol Bangkok‘s reputation and exciting atmosphere, the American’s verses ridicule the city, describing its attractions—the red-light district (Soi Cowboy), Chao Phraya River (“muddy old river”), Wat Pho (“reclining Buddha”)—as less interesting to him than a game of chess. These sarcastic denunciations led to Thailand’s Mass Communications Organization issuing a ban on the song in 1985, saying its lyrics “cause misunderstanding about Thai society and show disrespect towards Buddhism”.
The lyrics mention actor Yul Brynner, about 6 months before his death, who had famously played the King of Siam in the Broadway musical and the 1956 film The King and I (also banned in Thailand). Other Thai-related references in the lyrics include ones to Thailand’s former name (“Siam”), kathoeys (“You’ll find a god in every golden cloister — And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she”), and the Oriental Hotel (girls “are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite”, to which the verse replies “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine”).
The “Tyrolean spa” mentioned early in the song refers to Merano in the South Tyrol region of Italy, the site of Act 1 of the musical. It also mentions three places where chess tournaments were previously held: Iceland; the Philippines; and Hastings, UK.
In the original London production of Chess, the setting for the song is an interview by Freddie, who is in Bangkok to serve as a TV analyst for a match involving his rival, world champion and Russian defector Anatoly Sergievsky. In the original Broadway production of the musical, the song appears not at the start of Act 2, but rather in the middle of Act 1, whereas in this version, the world championship of Freddie vs. Anatoly takes place in Bangkok.