It was one of the most popular songs in the United Kingdom. It hit number 9 on the UK Singles Chart in November, 1964.

And if you watched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the UK, then you heard the theme song for BBC’s coverage of the summer Games, Tokyo Melody.

Composed by German jazz violinist, Helmut Zacharias, Tokyo Melody, according to The Guardian, was “an ethereal, vaguely futuristic piece (which) must have made the hairs on the neck stand up back in 1964, the first year Olympic action was beamed back by satellite from the other side of the world.”

helmu-zachariasWhile it opens with a late 50’s/early 60s vibe, it then breaks into a wordless voice melody that has a tinge of Asian-ness. There are a set of notes that to a Western ear sound “oriental”. David Bowie’s China Girl starts off explicitly with that sound. Tokyo Melody is more subtle, and yet it’s there.

I am not a student of music, so I had to look this up. Apparently, the short hand for the Asian sound is the five-note octave, or the pentatonic scale. As you can see in this video, you can play an Asian-sounding set of notes if you use the first, second, third, fifth and sixth keys , or more simply, the five black keys, – any of them, in any order. 

“Tokyo Melody” was the A side of the single, and it was backed by another pentatonic tune by Zacharias, “Teatime in Tokyo”. Together, this single went on to sell well over 10 million records.

David Bowie passed away on January 10. He has little to do with the Olympics. In fact, he turned down a request to perform at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Games. But like all great artists, he at times wrote and performed songs that tapped into the psyche and sometimes the soul of people the world over. So much elsewhere so much more eloquently has been written about Bowie’s unique connection to the “other”, the “outsider”, the “weird”.

But this is a blog about The Olympics. While Bowie’s song Heroes was the one that reverberated through Olympic Stadium when Team Great Britain ended the march of Olympians at the London Games, I suppose that “Under Pressure”, with Queen brings to fore the force that turns legs into jelly, or heroes into legends.

Pressure. To withstand it. To convert it into energy. To find within oneself a momentary act of creation unseen to that moment. That can be the difference maker. And the way athletes deal with pressure differs from person to person. Here’s a fascinating explanation provided by an anonymous Olympian, who wrote the book “Secret Olympian“.

I have this horrible feeling in my gut. A deep primal fear is swallowing me up – a desire to run, to be any where but here. For a minute I find myself envying Chimp. Having missed out he can sit at home and watch the racing. He isn’t being judged today. No burning physical pain for him. Next my envy turns to another British teammate who has a deep and unwavering Christian faith and believes that whatever happens it is God’s will. Whatever will be, will be. Must be immensely comforting to have the outcome in a higher power’s hands.

bowie and mercury
David Bowie and Freddie Mercury

To my left, Jamie reads his history book avidly. He prefers to distract himself until a few brief minutes before we start our physical warm-up. To my right, another teammate is plugged into his music and stares unseeing ahead of him. In his mind’s eye he is rehearsing the race. He doesn’t blink.

We are taking on the best in the world. They’re trained for thousands of hours in their secretive foreign systems. Some are physiological freaks, far off the chart from normal. Others are legends in the sport, world record holders, previous Olympic champions or up and coming World Junior Champions. But what is most disconcerting, having seen them all practicing, is that none of the competition looks scared in the least. They radiate confidence, focus and professionalism. I can smell no trace of fear on them. I hope I hid mine this past week.

Here is Under Pressure, but only the beautiful vocals of Bowie and Mercury.