Song Of The Day 9/26/2015: Björn Skifs – “The Arbiter”

Once upon a time in the 1980’s some perfectly upstanding people developed a musical theatre production about chess. That idea might sound dodgy to you, but please bear in mind that in an earlier time somebody made a hit musical about pajama manufacturers, so clearly there were no hypothetical boundaries in these matters.

Chess was very loosely based on the epic Cold War rivalry between American Bobby Fischer and Soviet Boris Spassky. It was the brainchild of Tim Rice, the great theatrical lyricist, and musicians Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, who were fresh into their post-ABBA careers. Rice’s ambition and dedication to getting Chess off the ground was honorable, and its concept and plot elements are more intriguing on paper the more you review them.

But Chess had a troubled history on stage. The intricacies of the original London production, written by Rice, were apparently so thick that the Broadway version was rewritten by an entirely different person named Richard Hudson. Reviews, especially of the Broadway version, were mixed at best. But there’s enough residual faith in the concept of Chess that it's had a surprising number of revivals in the past few years.

To raise money for the production Rice/Andersson/Ulvaeus released a two-record concept album for Chess first. This was a strategy also used by Andrew Lloyd Webber with Jesus Christ Superstar (for which Rice wrote the lyrics) and Cats. The Chess album came out in 1984, and produced a somewhat fluky international pop hit with “One Night in Bangkok,” performed by Murray Head (“The American”). The song's success in Europe and the rest of the world wasn't that much of a surprise -- you have to attribute at least part of that to ABBA's previous domination of the European market. But “Bangkok” also checked in at #3 in America, not exactly considered a big market for quasi-rap showtunes recorded by British actors about, well, chess.

Five music videos, including “Bangkok,” were made in conjunction with the record, which brings us to today’s feature. “The Arbiter” is the official in charge of the chess tournament, making sure that the contest doesn’t get out of hand. (Spoiler alert: It does. It’s theatre.) I find it splendid that a glorified umpire got a song of his own in this production, and that it was sung by Swedish pop star Björn Skifs, who worked with the composers on the Chess demos. Skifs’ other, fairly massive claim to fame is his role as lead singer for Blue Swede, whose version of “Hooked on a Feeling” is popular yet again thanks to Marvel Comics and our constantly adapting relationship with '70s nostalgia.

The other thing I like about “The Arbiter” is that he wears an unbuttoned sports jacket with an unbuttoned shirt underneath, a uniform choice that must have sent shudders through the fraternity of chess tournament arbiters worldwide. Except the totally hot ones, of course.

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