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:
- A 27-minute video sales tape giving the history of "Chess" and its participants and showcasing music from the album, including the "Bangkok" music video. "We've done lots of video press kits, but they're usually only three or four minutes long," Wardell said.
- "Chess" presentations in 16 cities, including Los Angeles and New York. In Los Angeles, Billboard's Noonan and others were entertained along with Rice and singer Paige in a private restaurant dining room.
- A newsletter, "Chess Moves," which was mailed to all radio stations when "Bangkok" began to break. The newsletter, like the video, was conceived partly because RCA learned that disc jockeys were having trouble making sense of the words. Once the deejays learned what the record was all about, Omansky said, they began referring to the album and the plans for the stage play in on-air commentaries.
- Promotional items distributed to record stores and radio stations, including banners, shopping bags, coffee mugs and note pads bearing the project's black-and-white chessboard logo.
RCA officials would not say what the campaign cost, but Omansky said that, thanks to "Bangkok," the campaign has paid for itself "to date."
The "Chess" promotion comes at the end of "part one of a five-stage campaign," Wardell said. Still to come, he said, are a pay- or cable-TV production of the play, the "exploitation" of at least three more singles off the album, the marketing of the London stage production and, finally, the marketing of a Broadway production.
In a telephone interview from London, "Chess" creator Rice said that he has had enough offers to "finance the play five times over." Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, his partner on "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," also released albums from those productions before the plays were staged. The reversal of the usual stageplay-to-cast-album process was considered highly unusual then.
For RCA, the success of "Bangkok" also represents a victory over rival CBS Records, a much larger company. CBS released a competing version of "Bangkok" that made it onto the airwaves slightly before RCA's version. The CBS record, performed by a woman named Robey, was distributed by CBS' Epic label.
Ironically, RCA's record got a big lift from CBS' promotion, according to radio programmers. Both companies hired independent promoters--the middlemen between record distributors and radio programmers who are highly paid for their influence and expertise in getting records on the air and up the trade-paper charts.
RCA officials confirmed that the company hired independents but would not elaborate. However, according to the radio programmers, most of the independent promotion money behind "Bangkok" came from CBS.
Said one radio programmer, asking not to be identified, "Epic was going around offering promotions and giving stations trips to Bangkok."
RCA officials played down the significance of the competition, however.
"We had the best record, and that's the reason we won," said Ed Mascolo, vice president of contemporary promotion at RCA. "If they had had the Murray Head record, they would have won. It doesn't come down to independents or anything else (but the music)."