(#474: 27 March 1993, 1 week)
Track listing: You Sexy Thing/It Started With A Kiss/Brother Louie/Girl Crazy/So You Win Again/Put Your Love In Me/Love Is Life/I’ll Put You Together Again/No Doubt About It/Every 1’s A Winner/Emma/I Gave You My Heart (Didn’t I?)/You Could’ve Been A Lady/Disco Queen/Don’t Stop It Now/A Child’s Prayer/What Kinda Boy You’re Lookin’ For (Girl)/I Believe (In Love)/Are You Getting Enough Happiness?
It is curious how the organisation and presentation of compilation albums can allow radically different interpretations of the artists being compiled. When last I spoke about Hot Chocolate, I was reined in to some extent by the rather slapdash nature of that particular record, even though both albums have thirteen songs in common; then again, the version of “You Sexy Thing” included here is the original one, and that alone makes one hell, or heaven, of a difference.
Time, then, to re-evaluate Hot Chocolate. Their Greatest Hits is an infinitely superior collection to its predecessor; properly thought-through, decently annotated (by the band’s former press officer Bill Harry, he of the original Mersey Beat magazine), sensitively sequenced (in favour of mood and continuity rather than Gradgrindian adherence to chronology) and nicely packaged.
Some might argue that their best single was their first, a roughshod reggae meditation on Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance,” which appeared on the Apple label at Lennon’s own behest (Apple Corps PA Mavis Smith thought of the name “The Hot Chocolate Band” but when the band signed to Mickie Most’s RAK label, it was abbreviated to Hot Chocolate). That does not appear here (though does turn up on the excellent 2004 compilation of their early work, A's B's & Rarities), but by the time Most had signed them up, they had begun to hit their (albeit comparatively restrained) stride.
Their first hit, “Love Is Life,” appeared in the late summer of 1970, and they certainly benefited from that liminal period, where all sorts of people and viewpoints could easily make themselves heard in the absence of a tangible “centre” to pop. 1971’s “I Believe (In Love),” with its Leslie cabinet-distorted lead guitar and pained but plaintive vocal, shared with much pop of its period the patient craving to escape “the sixties,” to find one’s way back home again, to try to come to terms with such concepts as truth and happiness.
Nonetheless, the band unobtrusively managed to carve out a discernible, if uncategorisable, musical path for themselves through that awkward decade (and a good portion of the following one). “You Could’ve Been A Lady,” though represented here by its 1976 re-recording rather than the 1971 single original, was agreeably and menacingly funky, with John Cameron’s horn charts giving voice to some distinguished British-based jazz names (and also rocky enough to be subsequently covered by the Canadian hard rock band April Wine).
At times their hits could become gritty and downbeat enough to make them pop’s equivalent of Frank Marker, the anti-hero of the television detective series Public Eye, and the best of them cut very deeply indeed; the original “Brother Louie” (as opposed to the bowdlerised cover by Stories which hit number one in the States) remains a frightening reminder of a frightening enough period (1973), which stares racism directly in its face and growls in threatening unquiet – Alexis Korner’s dialogue and the raised eyebrow of Cameron’s strings towards the end, abruptly swooping down as though deliberately looking away and shutting out unpleasantness, both illustrate how disturbing three-day-week British pop could become. 1974’s “Emma” might be one of the most painful top three hits in a year where its top threes sounded obsessed with untimely death; the subtext of racism is unspoken here but permeates every one of the song’s pores – we know exactly why Emma gets constantly passed over, and why she is ultimately driven to suicide. Errol Brown’s extended screams at song’s end are as isolatingly chilling as Lennon’s at the climax of “Cold Turkey.”
“Disco Queen” suggests a possible alternative escape route – here, the heroine simply lives, aggressively and without apology, for dancing (whether on the floor or in her head), and by doing so finds her own freedom. “She don't need no sweet-talkin' man,” Brown sings pointedly, “Tell her how much he loves her/Break her heart and leave her alone to cry” – as it is implied the singer of “Emma” did. “No point in talkin',” he continues, “you're talkin' to yourself.” She is as joyful one with her self-constructed world as ABBA’s disco queen would be a year later.
But then Hot Chocolate were also capable of wrongfooting sidesteps. “A Child’s Prayer” made the top ten in the early autumn of 1975, and never gets played now, yet is one of their greatest achievements; a calm and patient but fundamentally very angry sermon about the evils of humanity, calling for, even demanding, peace and reconciliation. The song seems to stop and start along its path, as though being made up on the spot, but is bestowed purpose by Cameron’s eventual but fulsome orchestration, including the church bells which one might remember from Jackie Lee’s “The Town I Live In,” but rather than fulminate about there being twenty-seven churches in that town, Brown wonders aloud whether the world is going to Eleanor Handcart precisely because “nobody goes to church on Sundays anymore.” Here they kiss greatness.
After that came “You Sexy Thing,” a natural number one which had the misfortune to come up against “Bohemian Rhapsody” and which sounds like a release from everything, including pain, rejection and doubt. Repeatedly there is the air of sexual frustration in Brown’s singing, but here it is as if his soul has been delivered, rescued. If he is not careful, however, this passion can spill over into unhealthy obsession, as 1976’s disquieting sequel “Don’t Stop It Now” demonstrates.
Since “Man To Man” and “Heaven Is In The Back Seat Of My Cadillac” are not present here – these, along with the band’s other “missing” hits, were packaged on the September 1994 sequel The Rest Of The Best Of Hot Chocolate; that collection did not trouble the charts, but continues to stand an absolutely necessary companion to Their Greatest Hits – we move along swiftly to 1977’s “So You Win Again,” written by Russ Ballard at the band’s (and Most’s) request, and another obvious number one which this time rose to the top unopposed.
Then came their masterpiece.
“Put Your Love In Me” is one of the greatest British pop singles ever made, and, though subtly related to a lot of other things surrounding it in the charts of the early autumn of 1977, was quite unlike anything else the band ever did. Everybody pulls together here – the band’s performance, Most’s production, Cameron’s string, brass and woodwind arrangement and especially Brown’s smouldering, dynamic lead vocal, beginning with a prayer so holy that it can only be soundtracked against a solemn church organ and culminating in quasi-orgasmic, near-atonal gasps, barks and whispers which are comparable with the Tim Buckley of “Sweet Surrender.” The song is steered by an electronic metronome of a rhythm which directly recalls Trans-Europe Express before its middleground is enhanced by echoing, pinball guitar, akin to Hank Marvin waking up in a Space Invaders machine. Cameron’s strings sweep in with Bollywood (and perhaps “Kashmir”-influenced) grandeur and his voicings for mid-range brass and clarinets later on in the song are less immediately noticeable, but you would notice if they weren’t there. All the while, Brown is pleading, demanding, to be allowed into “heaven.” As the soundscape culminates and merges, we are suddenly presented – in ways we could not possibly have known about or guessed in 1977 – with a pathway which leads directly to Bristol and Massive Attack. Brown’s climactic squeal here puts me in mind of Alan Vega’s more excitable moments with Suicide. One of pop’s most glorious – and sexiest – epics.
They continued with refreshed purpose. 1978’s “Every 1’s A Winner,” a big international hit, again proved that they could rock when feeling the urge to do so. Even in a sentimental West End musical ballad (“I’ll Put You Together Again,” co-written, as was the abovementioned “The Town I Live In,” by the recently-departed Geoff Stephens), we hear, in Brown’s occasional emotional upstrokes (“When things look hope-less!”), vocal tropes which Prince would make very familiar in the eighties.
Their big hits from the early eighties are all present – the Edgware Road UFO-pursuing fantasy “No Doubt About It” (not written by Brown – Mike Burns, Steve Glen and David Most, Mickie’s brother, wrote it – but based on a direct experience of Brown’s), the aggravatingly desperate paranoia of “Are You Getting Enough Happiness?” (worthy of James Chance and the Contortions in places), the brilliantly shallow “Girl Crazy,” and the faultless “It Started With A Kiss” which tells a parallel story to “Emma” but here the protagonists just grow up and young love drifts away – although the song is not free of discomfort, since we wonder whether the woman genuinely doesn’t remember the singer, or whether she remembers him all too bloody well and wants to remain a long way away from him. Martin Fry’s favourite single of 1982, as I recall.
They perhaps ran out of steam after that; this collection’s last two major eighties hits, “What Kinda Boy” and “I Gave You My Heart,” are flimsy and forgettable (although I still wonder whether the latter song wouldn’t have worked a lot better as a lovers rock number, since the reggae beat is implied throughout, with Brown’s continual rhythmic off-steps) and the band dissolved into undetectable absence after that, remembered for their past but with no real present or future to call up. Regardless, Hot Chocolate were one of the most intelligent and enterprising British pop groups of their time, as well as one of the most reliable ones, and it is good that this anthology has given me the opportunity to regard them with long-overdue seriousness.