Album: Chess, 1984
Justification: Look, I like showtunes. I was forced into too many Gilbert & Sullivan plays in primary schools and dammit, that stuff takes hold early. And the thing about songs from musicals is that the lyrics are generally gloriously specific and playful, since they have to a) progress the plot and b) be sung night after hellish night. So if you’re a person that likes lyrics, songs from musicals are always going to stick a little more easily in the ear than you’d necessarily like. Which is just one of the reasons why I own this single, and also why I’ll burst into ‘You Gotta Have a Gimmick’ from Gypsy at the drop of a hat.
Anyway: Chess was a musical written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus from ABBA about the cut’n'thrust world of, um, international chess. The album came first, acting as a proof-of-concept, and this single topped the charts in several countries including Australia. When it was eventually staged 18 months later Chess did very well in the UK, playing for over three years in the West End, before dying a swift and unmourned death on Broadway.
This song was sung by the character of a former chess grandmaster, come to Bangkok to commentate on the action in a world championship game, and the lyrics are fucking genius. I defy anyone, let alone someone for whom English is their third or fourth language, to come up with a better lyrical non-sequiter than “the crème de la crème of the chess world in a / Show with everything but Yul Brynner.” Although, now I think about it, it’s probably referring to Yul as the King of Siam in The King and I, which means it’s not actually a non sequiter but a brilliant intertextual reference to another musical. Jesus, lads, you’re even better than I thought. And that’s not even mentioning “T-girls, warm and sweet / Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite.” Genius.
The singer was Murray Head in the character of Frederick “Freddie” Trumper – who went on to play Freddie in the original London run of the musical. There are two interesting things about Head for lovers of pop culture:
1. A still of him in the 1966 film The Family Way is the cover of the Smiths compilation Stop Me, and
2. He’s the elder brother of Anthony Head, as in Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So there you go. Hell of a song.
SONG YOU SHOULD HAVE REDISCOVERED IN 2011: Weekend, so it’s off to the 1984 archives with you.
AND HERE’S THE LAST FIVE…