Friday 29 January 2021

HOT CHOCOLATE: Their Greatest Hits

 Their Greatest Hits: Music

(#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.

Thursday 28 January 2021

Lenny KRAVITZ: Are You Gonna Go My Way


(#473: 13 March 1993, 2 weeks)


Track listing: Are You Gonna Go My Way/Believe/Come On And Love Me/Heaven Help/Just Be A Woman/Is There Any Love In Your Heart/Black Girl/My Love/Sugar/Sister/Eleutheria


Out of the CD booklet which came with my charity shop-sourced copy of Lenny Kravitz’s third album fell an old credit card slip. This indicated that the album had been purchased from a branch of Our Price (the slip refers only to “67 High Street” in London – it doesn’t specify which High Street branch in London) on 7 March 1993, i.e. when it was a new release (though still priced relatively stiffly at £11.99). And ultimately the record ended up in the charity shop. There’s twelve virtual quid that the initial purchaser will – or would? - never see again.


Perhaps, as I suspect was the case with many buyers, that consumer was wrongfooted by the lead single, the title track, and expected a lot more rocking eruptions, whereas the rest of the album turned out to be nothing like that top four hit at all. Yes, it sounds like Hendrix (a cross between “Stone Free” and “Crosstown Traffic”) from the next room, minus all of the sex, danger, noise and radicalism. It combs its hair and is well-behaved. You’d never get a chap on the door from the police who have been told of an unruly rock record causing bother to the neighbours (also, that lead guitar is played by one Craig Ross, not Kravitz himself, who sings and plays boxed-in drums).


I don’t know what to make of Lenny Kravitz. In “Believe” he repeatedly urges his listeners to “believe in yourself,” having already paraphrased (and decaffeinated) “I Am The Walrus” (“I am you and you are me”), but I cannot see any evidence on this record of an actual Lenny Kravitz in whom one could believe. I hear the end product of someone who grew up with seventies AM radio and eighties FM radio and who does a reasonable facsimile (at a distance, e.g. when you’re driving your $80,000 BMW with built-in speakers) of that music but cannot seem to negotiate with the present or the future to help make it matter again. Unlike Prince, Saint Etienne or Ed Motta, he is not capable of producing something entirely new from his accumulated, received history.


Yes, he can do a fair Curtis Mayfield, a not-bad Bob Marley (on the pretentiously-titled “Eleutheria” – this record, and Kravitz’s art in general, has little to do with “liberty”) and can even have a go at a Bono-style State Of The Nation address (“Sister”). But nothing here stands out, makes me want to revisit the album again, and I ended up feeling that, in 1993, this music was just in the way, and perhaps the original buyer of my copy of the album came to the same conclusion. Nothing of Kravitz’s subsequent work has convinced me otherwise, and, perhaps wisely, he now appears to devote most of his time to interior decoration. For a genuine and exhilarating escape from pop history in 1993, try instead, as I did for much of that year, Justin Warfield’s My Field Trip To Planet 9 (“Whatever's kinda clever, what the future holds for me/I guess it's just a thought, though my mind is kinda hazy/My name is Justin, baby”).


Oh, and a young Angie Stone turns up, providing half of the backing vocals on “Heaven Help.”


There's a very convenient word for what Kravitz does; ah yes, it is "studium." All studium here, no punctum whatsoever.

Wednesday 27 January 2021

EAST 17: Walthamstow


(#472: 27 February 1993, 1 week)


Track listing: House Of Love/Deep/Gold/Love Is More Than A Feeling/I Disagree/Gotta Do Something/Slow It Down/I Want It/It’s Alright/Feel What U Can’t C


(Author’s Note: The CD edition includes three bonus remixes – “Gold [Paws On The Floor],” “Deep [Dark Mix]” and “Slow It Down [Liverpool Mix].”)


Walthamstow was a rough enough area in the early nineties, long before its attempted gentrification – and it remained slightly foreboding after it had become gentrified. I became quite familiar with E17 in the middle of the last decade for reasons which are none of your bloody business, hence can speak with some authority on the matter.


It is one of the nicest of pop ironies that the rough Walthamstow boys East 17 were put together as a consciously tougher counterpart to those politely conservative Northerners Take That, yet still managed to beat them to number one in the album chart. They were managed by the late Tom Watkins, who also managed the Pet Shop Boys (who’ll be coming on here directly quite soon, don’t you worry, ooer missus) and Bros – and it is helpful to look at East 17 and see where and how Watkins managed to get the equation right.


For a start, there was no attempt on the group’s part to evoke the triple demons of Soul, Passion and Honesty, even though few boy bands could have been more soulful, passionate and honest, in the broadest of senses. There was no Young Businessmen of the Year prattle about “the industry.” I think Tony Mortimer, Brian Harvey, John Hendy and Terry Coldwell knew full well what they were getting into – and they managed to express things with quite fabulous brilliance.


The band began in 1991, when Mortimer – who wrote all of their songs - was offered a contract with London Records on condition that he put together a group to perform the songs. They then came under the tutelage of Watkins, who doubtless jumped at the chance of providing a Stones to Barlow’s would-be Beatles. There was no reaching out to appeal to middle-aged Radio 2 listeners. If anything, East 17 arose from a distinct early nineties working-class London lineage which also incorporated Carter USM and Flowered Up.


Most importantly, they were far more explicitly political than Take That. What is particularly striking about this, their first album, is its relentless socialist outlook. Their “Gold” outdoes the Spandau Ballet one because it is emphatically more direct; “Life is worth more than gold,” they proclaim. “Gold!” goes the chorus, “We don’t need it – do we?” Meanwhile, on the startling “I Disagree” – produced by Steel Pulse’s Mykaell Riley – we are presented with a systematically spoken list of the world’s evils; “I disagree with prisons/I disagree with war/I disagree with powers and all that they stand for.” This sounds like the real People’s Music, and I wonder what that former resident of Leytonstone, E11, the late Cornelius Cardew, would have made of it. The chants we hear, whether quiet (“Gotta Do Something”) or loud (“I Want It”), sound like rallying cries at protest marches.


None of this would have proved remotely as effective had it not been soundtracked by vast-sounding, inventive music. The introductory track (and debut single) “House Of Love” is a brilliant fusion of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, KLF and Snap! which seems rather more concerned about the prospect of imminent total destruction than “Two Tribes” did, all the more convincing because of its fast-paced and unapologetic Cockney drawl, delivered in the manner of Ian Dury’s renegade grandchildren (Brian Harvey's is one of the great voices in British pop, up there with Tommy Steele). Even when they are talking sexual politics and lower the temperature, they do not lose our interest. “Deep” is a tremendous, base East End response to L.L. Cool J’s “I Feel Love” (and Momus’ “Closer To You”) with ellipses of fluid beats and echoing piano which predicate what William Orbit would go on to achieve with All Saints. East 17 have no problems at all with sex (whereas Take That have always seemed a little embarrassed about it). “Slow It Down” is a phenomenal 70 bpm diffusion of early eighties Imagination (“In And Out Of Love,” “All I Want To Know”) and the Malcolm McLaren of Fans and Waltz Darling (those half-tempo string lines). If songs like “I Want It” are on premature nodding terms with what would go on to be known as “trip hop,” then that is because Howie Bernstein (later known simply as Howie B) is involved in their production.


Elsewhere, “Gold” is soundtracked by a raw but lush backdrop worthy of their unlikely funny uncles the Pet Shop Boys (of course they would go on to cover “West End Girls”!) and “Love Is More Than A Feeling” is an exercise in Mancunian musical relocation which quite brilliantly (since it is done so unobtrusively) segues New Order tropes into Happy Mondays ones. Little wonder that Walthamstow was shortlisted for that year’s Mercury Music Prize; this is courageous and energetic music which has endured with far more resonance than most of the “political” bands and movements touted by the music press of the period (Senser? The 25th Of May? The New Wave of New Wave?). An extra hurrah for the presence throughout the album of rep reliable mixmasters Phil Harding and Ian Curnow, who once assisted Stock, Aitken and Waterman on their more extreme adventures, notably the work of Mel and Kim. If “Showing Out” and “F.L.M.” pinpointed the failure of capitalism to provide any real and lasting happiness, then the more pointed songs on Walthamstow escort that viewpoint to a new, and hopefully more receptive, decade. "Everybody in the House of Love" - shout it down the length of Hoe Street!