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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 compare the Thai capital city and its nightlife with the game of chess. 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, 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 Organisation 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 six months before his death, who had famously played the King of Siam in the Broadway musical and the 1956 film The King and I (and for which Brynner received several Tony awards and the Oscar for best actor). Other Thai-related references in the lyrics include ones to "Siam" (Thailand's former name), the Oriental Hotel (the "Somerset Maugham suite"), and ladyboys ("You'll find a god in every golden cloister -- And if you're lucky then the god's a she"). 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.
*sales figures based on certification alone ^shipments figures based on certification alone
While Head's "Bangkok" was just starting to climb the Billboard Hot 100, Canadian singer and actress Robey hit the charts with her own version. It spent three weeks on the Hot 100 in March 1985, peaking at no. 77. Robey's version fared even better on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart, peaking at no. 5.