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‘One Night In Bangkok’, an unlikely hit about a bygone era in Thailand

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“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free”

When ‘One Night In Bangkok’ was released in 1984 it was an unlikely hit. It was the opening song from a (at the time) little-known stage pop-opera called ‘Chess’. The song made Number 1 in South Africa, West Germany, Switzerland and Australia, and Number 3 in Canada and the US. It has remained a staple of Classic 80s Hit radio ever since. Have a listen (below).

The musical was the first outing for the two ‘Bs’ in ABBA – Benny Andersson and Bjoern Ulvaeus. Their pop grooves had made ABBA one of the most famous music groups in the world between 1973 and 1982 with a string of hits including 20 singles in the Billboard Top 100 from 8 albums, etc, etc. The lyrics of the song were penned by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat, Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast).

In the opening song of ‘Chess’, the American chess champion Freddie Trumper gets ready for a chess game with his Russian counterpart. He ridicules Bangkok’s ‘pleasures’ and tourist attractions – the Chao Phraya River (“muddy old river”), Wat Pho (“reclining Buddha”), and the red-light distractions. The choruses are more complimentary about Bangkok’s well-documented excesses.

Thailand’s 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 (these days a little less ‘oriental’) is mentioned where girls are “set up in the Somerset Maugham suite“.  But the singer says he isn’t interested… “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.

At the time the sarcasm of the song didn’t go down well with the Thai Mass Communications Organisation (now the NBTC) issuing a ban on the song in 1985, saying its lyrics “cause misunderstanding about Thai society and show disrespect towards Buddhism”, a line still trotted out when Instagrammers and vloggers shoot in front of Thai temples dressed in a flimsy singlets and short shorts.

37 years later the song still paints a picture of a contrasting ‘oriental’ city alive with lights (including red lights), colour, pungent smells, culture and a vivid history.

We’re not sure if the ban was ever lifted but I hear the song played on Thai stations from time to time. At the time, when Bangkok was less on the tourist map than now, the song was a lone reference point for westerners.

How does it stand up 37 years after becoming a world-wide hit? Leave your comments below..

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 (referring to the actor’s starring role as the King of Siam in ‘The King and I’)

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

Songwriters: Tim Rice / Benny Goran Bror Andersson / Bjoern K. Ulvaeus

 

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24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Toby Andrews

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 11:14 am

    Yes a great song. I liked it the first time I heard it. I had not visited Thailand at the time of release
    I like the line Can’t be careful with your company.
    All these years I thought it was “the girls aren’t free.” Only today I see it was “the pearls aren’t free.”
    And I see the Thais banned the song. They were addicted to power and control even back then.

  2. Ben

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 11:30 am

    I hear it every time before I go to party in Bangkok.

  3. Das

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 11:50 am

    Top 80s tune. Always been a favourite.

  4. Austin

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    Was listening to it on my balcony last night lol and then the “Pattaya” Song too as I look at that Famous Neon Sign. 2 Cassics for a Classic Country!

  5. Dave

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 12:51 pm

    Still relevent to todays Thailand….its human nature…and human nature doesnt change.

  6. richard barker

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 12:54 pm

    still being played in the Aussie country town radio station I listen to. Mostly 80’s music. Still the best music 70’s and 80’s. Still do you tube replays on boring nights. Not so much with beer these days but a little wine tops off the night.

  7. Jean-Bernard KAMMER

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 12:57 pm

    Hello from Switzerland. I want to know if the crossroad on the picture above is the crossroad between Sukhumvit road and soï 3 (opposite soï 4 Nana) ? It seems to me that I recognize this place because I was in Bangkok suk 4 in 1985 for my first holiday in Thaïland.

  8. EdwardV

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    Still love that song, play it extra whenever get close to a trip there.

  9. Pesamosca nicolae

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 1:19 pm

    I hoppe to visit Bangkok my first time

  10. Mike burston

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    Does anyone know if the flute solo is played by Greg Ham from Men at work

  11. Mr cynic

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 3:27 pm

    I remember hearing it many times in patpong gogo’s in 80’s although it was officially banned.i think the the ban made it even more attractive for the dj’s to play.it was often followed by maddonas rather appropriate” like a virgin” single,the crowd would sing along to the”touched for the very first time” line with the lyrics slightly modified.

  12. David Pilkington

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    A great song that really does get to the bottom (ha-ha) of the Bangkok night scene. I guess we did need something like this to lighten the mood and brighten the Covid gloom.
    Cheers, Tim.

  13. Jared

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 3:57 pm

    The lyrics aren’t very flattering of the Thais, so I can see why it might be controversial. “So you better go back to your bars, your temples, your massage parlours”…in other words, they are simpletons who would not appreciate the game of chess

  14. Nick

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    I didn’t think much of the song when it was in the UK charts all those years ago. Since then I’ve been to Bangkok many times and it sound great when played at full blast in the bars.

  15. Mr cynic

    Thursday, April 29, 2021 at 11:08 pm

    There is a very interesting version of it on youtube filmed on the roof of a bangkok building,well worth seeking out.

  16. James Pate

    Friday, April 30, 2021 at 7:19 am

    Nice little story. Please follow it up with “Tom, Tom, Where You Go Last Night?”

  17. Social Observer

    Friday, April 30, 2021 at 7:52 am

    Mr Cynic is refering to a video with the title “One Night In Bangkok – FULL HD – REMIX DJ R&B” posted by “ONLY FOR FRIENDS & FANS OF THE LEGENDARY DISC CLUBS OF THE 80ties” which features some very talented and energetic “Coyote Girls” dancing to the music.

  18. Andrew Whyte

    Friday, April 30, 2021 at 8:38 am

    Guessing in the 1980’s hanging out in Bangkok was a lot more affordable for Western wash ups than it it now. Same can be said for Pattaya, Koh Samui and a lot of Thailand.

  19. Andrew Whyte

    Friday, April 30, 2021 at 8:44 am

    These days Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city with a price tag to match. Washing up in Bangkok and just hanging out is an increasingly out of reach novelty of a bygone age.

  20. Martin C

    Friday, April 30, 2021 at 5:43 pm

    I think Tim Rice’s experience of Bangkok was limited to the Oriental hotel. The video is crass, particularly with the boxer having his boots on. The biggest shame of all is that there’s no reference to Thai Chess, a fascinating living fossil of what Chess used to be before it migrated from India via Persia to Europe. Said all that, it is a cracking tune, no surprise to its longevity.

  21. Mr cynic

    Friday, April 30, 2021 at 10:56 pm

    @james,the original non pc video of carabao’s excellent”welcome to Thailand” song is on utube,there are also a few good live versions of it there also.

  22. MARK GOODYEAR

    Saturday, May 1, 2021 at 8:33 pm

    even the King and I is still banned!!! fwckin’ thai idiots!!!!

  23. Gianni

    Saturday, May 1, 2021 at 9:21 pm

    Is on my alarm Clock, I wake up everyday with this song…

  24. Gerry

    Sunday, May 2, 2021 at 6:51 pm

    After the first time I’ve karaoked the song many a time by request and much lao tuan at weddings in the wife’s and my rural area. Always a great hit. Or so I tell myself. Our neighbors don’t understand a word (other than “Bangkok”) but they seem to enjoy the show.

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Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand.

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