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Unusual 'Bangkok' Scores RCA Hit : Putting Song on Charts Just Part of Larger 'Chess' Project

May 20, 1985|ELLEN FARLEY | Times Staff Writer

Top 40 radio fans, accustomed to the blunt sexuality of pop goddess Madonna, have recently made a hit out of a song about chess.

Yes, chess, that ancient board game usually played according to rigid rules in shattering quiet by intellectual adults.

"One Night in Bangkok," a disco rap song about a chess tournament in the Thai city, has been called the unlikeliest Top 10 candidate in recent history, but last Monday the single climbed to No. 3, its peak, on Billboard's record chart. It's now at No. 7.

Considering the cerebral nature of the song's lyrics, the success is "an amazing feat," said Nick Bazoo, program director for KMEL, the San Francisco radio station that is credited with launching the single in this country. After Bazoo visited Los Angeles recently, he said, "I heard it (on L.A. radio) every five minutes."

The record's opening lines are hardly typical of pop fare: Bangkok! Oriental setting/And the city don't know what 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.

The song makes much more sense in the context of the album that contains it: "Chess," a musical about two chess players, a Russian and an American, who battle over titles--and a woman--in venues around the world, including a Tirolean town in Italy (Act 1) and, of course, Bangkok (Act 2).

The musical has yet to be staged, but the momentum of the single has carried "Chess" into Billboard's Top 50 album chart, an accomplishment that's almost as surprising as the success of the single, according to Billboard chart editor Tom Noonan.

Noonan and other industry professionals credit the record's quality. "It has a helluva hook," Noonan said, meaning that "Bangkok" has a catchy melody.

Additionally, the music is good to dance to, which apparently accounted for its early success in San Francisco. The record first caught on at dance clubs frequented by people from the city's "large gay and Latino populations," Bazoo said, adding that the song's popularity in the clubs heavily influenced his decision to play the record.

But the experts also commend the marketing campaign behind the song, masterminded by the record's distributor, RCA. The company's strategy unfolded according to plan--something that doesn't happen very often in the music business, especially without the involvement of superstars.

For RCA, launching the record was "tantamount to launching a new artist," as one industry professional put it. Although the lyricist, composers and performers involved in "Chess" are all luminaries in their fields, none were household names to American pop fans when RCA began promoting the single in February.

"Chess" was conceived and written by British lyricist Tim Rice, who also wrote the book and lyrics for "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." The album's music was composed by two musicians from the Swedish rock group ABBA, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. Leading performers on the album include Murray Head, who sings "Bangkok" in his role as the American chess player; Tommy Korberg as the Russian, and Elaine Paige as the female love interest.

Head played the role of "Judas" in "Jesus Christ Superstar," and Paige created the roles of "Evita" and the cat Grizabella in "Cats" on the London stage. But none of the "Chess" players was well known in this country, and their popularity in England and Europe meant little to the American Top 40 market.

For that reason, as well as the unusual nature of the single's lyrics, "I wouldn't have bet anything that it ('Bangkok') would make Top 5 when I first heard it," Noonan said.

RCA faced another unusual problem in promoting the record. Instead of merely launching a single, the company had to use the "Bangkok" campaign to "establish this long-term project called 'Chess,' " noted Mike Omansky, RCA's New York-based director of marketing.

Much was at stake. RCA paid $1.1 million for the international distribution rights to the album, and the company is expected to be a partner in the stage production, although investors' roles have not been worked out, Rice said. Plans call for a London production of "Chess" to premiere next spring, with an American production to come later in 1986. The casts have not been named.

With those investments in mind, RCA had to attract to the record not just the young audience that listens to Top 40 "but all the elements that might eventually walk into a Broadway theater," said Don Wardell, the record company's Los Angeles-based director of merchandising.

Instead of using conventional sales techniques, "such as buying half-page ads in Calendar and the New York Times," Wardell said, the company decided to channel its dollars into a "major educational process" for radio programmers and disc jockeys as well as the news media.

Wardell and Omansky devised such "educational" aids as:

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