Andersson • Rice • Ulvaeus

1984: RCA PCD2-5340

Disc 1:

  1. Merano
  2. The Russian and Molokov
    Where I Want To Be
  3. Opening Ceremony
  4. Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquillity)
  5. The American and Florence
    Nobody’s Side
  6. Chess
  7. Mountain Duet
  8. Florence Quits
  9. Embassy Lament
  10. Anthem

Disc 2:

  1. Bangkok
    One Night In Bangkok
  2. Heaven Help My Heart
  3. Argument
  4. I Know Him So Well
  5. The Deal (No Deal)
  6. Pity the Child
  7. Endgame
  8. Epilogue: You and I
    The Story of Chess

As with Jesus Christ Superstar, this is a pre-Original-Cast recording of a musical that hadn’t even been written as a full play when the album was recorded. When it came out in 1984 I was enraptured: it was after all the 1980s equivalent of JCS’s sweeping breadth and intensity, even without Andrew Lloyd Webber being involved. Solid performances abound, as with JCS, but in this case there’s a much smaller range of characters (and no Biblical precedent, nor contemporary controversy on the subject).

It’s held up well over the years, although I must add the caveat that it IS a musical, of course, and therefore there’s a certain suspension-of-disbelief aspect to the whole thing that you either can or cannot do, and that will make or break Chess for any given individual. In the orchestration, things are largely “traditionally” symphonic, but the synthesizers and synthesizer-rock sound of the day certainly get plenty of play here, and generally not to ill effect. After all, would “One Night In Bangkok” kick so much ass if it didn’t have all that electronica? Actually, it probably would, but I must say that that recording is immeasurably improved by having its full-on orchestral introduction (“Bangkok”) which provides the first third of the overall track’s length. And of course the lyrics are just nastily concise—“you’ll find a god in every golden cloister / a little flesh, a little history / one night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble / not much between despair and ecstasy….”

Personally I could do without the “power-ballads”—“I Know Him So Well” and “Heaven Help My Heart”—which seem to be of the obligatory late-20th-Century-British-Musical amplified-schmaltz variety. Even lyrically they’re superfluous, except arguably as pathos providers for the storyline. But then “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” could be similarly written off, I suppose, and what would JCS be without THAT? So I cut those tracks some slack in the interests of further enlightenment.

The bulk of the rest of the album needs no such careful handling: there’s orchestral majesty and nuance, there’s rocking thunder, there’s high drama aplenty, there’s historical context both contemporary and recent, there’s romance and tension…well, it’s just a very dramatic piece, what can I say beyond that?

In the interests of celebrating this work, I should acknowledge at least the highlights of my Chess-listening experience, but so much of the whole album is in that category that it seems redundant to call out specific tracks. “Pity the Child” is a breathtaking journey of bombastic self-pity, “Nobody’s Side” is a wonderful explosion of frustration and profound bitterness I’ve loved since I first heard it (and its introduction, “The American and Florence,” is excellent high-drama confrontation), “Chess” (the instrumental piece itself) is a cinematic distillation of the overall musical, the “Embassy Lament” is gleefully campy and chillingly frank (all that power so fickly controlled!), “Quartet” is a great presentation of “party lines” of both personal and political nature, “Merano” provides a wide spectrum of themes in delightful caricature….

Its ending is big and melodramatic to a certain extreme, as well as heavily reliant on a script that wasn’t actually written yet in support of all the dramatic tensions exploding here, and it takes a surprisingly long time to play out (including the Epilogue, which is critical to the story’s closure, after all), but I don’t at all begrudge it or really even criticize. It’s a musical, after all, and they’re supposed to have such extremes. And not only does Chess not have a happy ending, its closing line is a bittersweet acknowledgement of that fact.

Obviously I could go on forever about this album, but I really should make just one other note for the moment, and that is that “Anthem” is a near-perfect composition, marginally flawed in its structure and only weakened in this recording by the intrusion of an electric guitar approaching its climax. As was no doubt the intention of its composers, “Anthem” is a national anthem for whatever nation the singer or listener wants it to be, especially perhaps for exiles whether voluntary or involuntary. Even my mother was moved to tears by this track, as I am myself when I actually listen to it: it tugs all the right heartstrings and makes delicately powerful references to national identification which is pretty alien in the U.S.A. but certainly has grounds for emotional identification in the ever-shifting world of Europe.

I briefly had a vinyl copy of the actual staged version of this, which was a pretty lamentable Broadway distortion of the original stuff, but I let that go without any regrets. That’s one reason I’m not a big fan of Broadway productions: perfectly marvelous shows from other places get mutilated beyond recognition just to “fit” a Broadway audience context and almost always fail miserably, and people still express surprise? HellO!!!! Some things DON’T TRANSLATE! How many decades will we see this farce played out before producers recognize that simple fact?

OH! How could I end this review without having mentioned Murray Head’s performance??? When you consider the 15 or so years which had passed since Head had laid down such definitive tracks as Judas in JCS, to have him doing the same in this context was a completely unforeseen delight. As “The American” he comes through with every bit as much power as he did back in his Judas days, and that adds a certain watermark for this album to meet…as it does. I won’t say it surpasses JCS, because they’re different products of different times, but I will say that each is unparalleled by its contemporaries and stands solidly on its own.