In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM pieces in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like our take on Lester Bangs’ 1972 review of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., or here, in our reevaluation of Hot Chocolate. Lap it up! And check out more from the CREEM archive, here.
Whether you know them from cruise ship cover bands, Electric-Slide-inclined uncles, or the soundtrack of a ‘90s feel good hit about industrial miners forced into sex work by national austerity measure; folks, in general, are pretty fond of the soul ‘n’ roll band Hot Chocolate. As soon as singer Errol Brown and bassist Tony Wilson (two immigrants to London, from Jamaica and Trinidad respectively) teamed up with producer Mickie Most in1970, Hot Chocolate produced a string of decade-spanning hit singles. Even after Errol Brown had left the band in 1986, the catalog kept charting. Most of those hits were in the U.K., on account of American music consumers being unwilling, for much of the ‘60s and ‘70s, to extend their anglophilia beyond white English bands approximating Black American blues and rhythm. Regardless, the band was huge in their prime and they, at least as repped by one particularly beloved song about faith and bonking, remain huge to this day.
So… why, since their success back when to their supposed hugeness today, has there been next to nothing written about Hot Chocolate? No essays. Few reviews. No biographies (outside a slimer than slim 58 page, hard to find, self-published autobiography by Errol Brown). No documentaries outside a couple YouTube shorts. Even typing in “Hot Chocolate” into both the RockPages or Google comes up with a depressing dearth of results, unless one gives up and allows “marshmallows” to be added to the search engine. And I tried countless critics; from Greg Tate to Greil Marcus to Ellen Willis to Chuck Eddy to Craig Seymour to Nelson George to… well, a lot more. With the exception of a stray mention, always in the context of another band, nothing. Worse than the early dismissals of Black Sabbath, critics didn’t seem to find Hot Chocolate even worth the time and ink of disliking.
Well, some were hip to the band. Or almost hip. CREEM didn’t devote any covers to Hot Chocolate, but in 1979 Simon Frith called them “Britain's premier pop band for years and years and years,” which isn’t not a compliment. CREEM’s own Dave Marsh, rated Hot Chocolate’s 1978 hit “Every 1’s a Winner” at No. 982 on his list of the 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Recorded. Just enough to count.
So, if Hot Chocolate was beloved by millions of fans on both sides of the ocean, and critics were largely as dismissive of them as they were of anyone not Elvis Costello (whose “Green Shirt” Hot Chocolate would cover in 1980), what, exactly, was the problem?
Let’s do some science. Without asking your hard-loving-in-the-’80s auntie, or anyone English, please list your top five Hot Chocolate songs. Take your time.
How many times did you write “You Sexy Thing”?
Undoubtedly, there are plenty of readers—those who grew up in the U.K. in the ‘70s and ‘80s, those with the aforementioned brassy aunts—who threw out songs like “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Brother Louie,” or “So You Win Again” like it wasn’t any big thing. And, if you’re one of those people, good for you. To everyone else: the majority of (at least white) critics, the scant biographers and non-existent Behind The Music documentary-makers, all the innocent souls who only know the band from The Full Monty, and whoever wrote the Washington Post obituary for Errol Brown (who died on May 6, 2015 at age 71) that treated the singer like he was just a guy who’d lucked into fronting the English version of Disco Tex & His Sex-O-Letts…I say, with no judgment, that it’s time that you heard the good news.
If you’re not rating Hot Chocolate as “sublime and strange greats who excelled at morally complex (in the positive and negative sense) jams that were as much melancholy things as they were sexy,” then you, my new friends, are in for a treat. Because Hot Chocolate, for all the filler and occasional lapses, was all that. Sometimes they were more.
Hot Chocolate began as the “Hot Chocolate Band,” and got their first break when a recording they’d done, a reggae version of “Give Peace a Chance”, made its way to Apple Records. The band’s version of a song so smarmy and bloated with good intention that it makes the road to hell feel long, is not great. It sounds off-puttingly ramshackle, almost as if the band is making fun of reggae and peace. It kind of sounds like the Dead C. Despite this—either out of vanity or just vetted during a late night Harry Nilsson coke binge—John Lennon liked Hot Chocolate’s version and it was released as a single.
That could have been the end of Hot Chocolate: just another footnote on a label known for them. But, luckily, Hot Chocolate was signed by Mickie Most, the svengali behind Herman's Hermits who also ran RAK Records. Most encouraged Errol Brown to shorten the band name and expand the band’s sound. The latter decision was aided by the vision of Tony Wilson, Brown’s songwriting partner for many of the band’s early hits, and the addition of Harvey Hinsley, the wildly inventive guitarist who joined Hot Chocolate in 1970.
Hot Chocolate didn’t endeavor to become rock visionaries but, then, the best way to give God a chuckle is to make a plan. Errol Brown claimed that he didn’t try to write hits, telling an interviewer in 2009, “I was fortunate enough to be able to write commercial songs without really thinking about it. You know, I was a natural writer of popular songs. I never had to sit down and think ‘Gotta write a hit!’ I’d just live my life.”
Even if we take the singer at his word, it’s safe to say that Hot Chocolate weren’t fighting their pop instincts. For any band unafraid to soak in the radio, there was a lot going on in the pop landscape of the 1970s. There was soft rock, hard rock, soul, disco, funk, lite-psych, sentimental solipsism, reggae, romper stomper glitter, and sophisticated glam. With the exception of punk and heavy metal, Hot Chocolate tried their hand, intentionally or not, at nearly every mode of sexy sadness the decade had to offer. And into each genre exercise they infused their own populist spirit of hook-laden universality, communicated or complicated by Errol Brown’s off-kilter passions and his full-throated commitment to whatever bit was at hand.
Considering all the melodramatic and garish sounds coming out in the ‘70s, it’s forgivable that Hot Chocolate’s debut album, 1974’s Cicero Park, has flown under the cultural radar, even as countless lesser works are retroactively massaged into greatness by the critical rehabilitation machine. Cicero Park is a strange record that exemplifies the band’s roving eye. It’s the kind of diversity of styles—evidenced throughout their early catalog—that, when played as pop and not done by a capital-E Experimental band, can easily be dismissed as “inconsistent.” After all, it’s hard to appreciate a band’s London Calling when they keep putting out Sandinistas. And few acts, especially those pigeonholed as disco, come straight out the gate with a Physical Graffiti.
In his B+ review of Cicero Park, Bobby Christgau was equally almost complimentary. He wrote: “From the black-and-white London group that originated ‘Brother Louie’ comes an album that might sound startling in retrospect and is impressive now. At the very least, its insightful confusions over class and race locate the honest roots of one kind of black conservatism. Both Mickie Most's precise, almost formal framing (pop hard rock veering toward disco) and the elocution of singer-composers Errol Brown (hard) and Tony Wilson (soft) make for an overall detachment unbroken by the passion of individual cuts before flashing some New York parochialism by ending with ‘Strange to hear soul with a British accent.’” Still… a B+!
In Cicero Park’s 10 songs, Hot Chocolate provides a flute-driven dirge about urban decline (the opening title track), a slow burn there-by-the-grace-of-God Impressions-ist funk rumination (“Could Have Been Born In The Ghetto”), an AM radio smooth piano-gospel people-pleaser that could have been a sappier band’s one hit wonder (“Changing World”), a disco song (reasonably titled “Disco Queen”), and at least two songs that describe, like a bouncing ball big and red enough to be seen from space, exactly what the band was doing, being very into both (so called) “black” and “white” music (“Makin’ Music” and “Funky Rock n’ Roll”).
This manifesto of racial utopianism and its discontents is further spelled out in “Brother Louie,” the pre-Cicero Park single about doomed interracial romance that was covered, to greater popularity, by the Stories (and is these days best known by the Reggie Watts/Ian Lloyd version that played during the opening credits of the TV show Louie).
With the exception of punk and heavy metal, Hot Chocolate tried their hand, intentionally or not, at nearly every mode of sexy sadness the ‘70s had to offer.
The cover art of Cicero Park doesn’t make things easier, depicting as it does the members of Hot Chocolate dressed in a finery that, with some in white tailored suits and some in jumped up cardigans, runs the gamut of English class aspiration. If Nile Rodgers and Chic would, a few years later, use their cover art photos to hammer home the idea of that sophisto-disco band being the Black Roxy Music, Hot Chocolate showed an earlier affinity for Ferry-esque aristocratic archness, with a nod to Brown and Wilson’s populist impulses by depicting the white members as chauffeurs in sharp snap-caps.
If Cicero Park is an encapsulation of what made Hot Chocolate exceptional, it also hints at what made the band’s singular greatness easy to miss; especially to those who might have, in 1974, liked their Black music to be James Brown and their white music to be “Piss Factory.” While Hot Chocolate’s interracial lineup was celebrated, some of that celebration was, ironically, skin deep. There was perhaps less excitement about the band’s actualization of artificially segregated radio organically coming together to make something bracing and beautiful. While “Emma,” a claustrophobic passion play of dashed dreams and suicide, is the emotional apex of Cicero Park—with Brown’s keening bridging the gap between “It’s a Man’s World” and Patti Smith—and a popular enough single to crack the top 10 internationally, neither it nor any other song on Cicero Park was big enough to help the album chart anywhere but Australia. (Of course, then as now, the resistance to Black folk making “white” music was as absurd as it was/is offensive. By the 1970s, much rock ‘n’ roll, despite its roots, was considered “white.” And, of course, crossover between these already arbitrary/racist distinctions was only confusing to the marketplace when Black people did it, not when it could be marketed as, for instance, “blue eyed soul.”
While Hot Chocolate’s interracial lineup was celebrated, some of that celebration was, ironically, skin deep.
Praising Hot Chocolate without damning them in the same breath is tricky. Hot Chocolate were writing baroque goth songs while the so-called inventors of goth were still practicing their Ziggy Stardust cheeksucking in their parents’ mirror. There’s a reason that subsequent godhead artists like Sisters of Mercy, Urge Overkill, PJ Harvey, Ty Segall, and Tindersticks have all covered the band’s songs. And that the Happy Mondays’ bassist Paul Ryder (RIP) rooted his band’s zenith in his repeated consumption of Hot Chocolate’s Greatest Hits. That said, there’s a whiff of condescension when the depression or paranoia of a dance-oriented band is used as proof of their genius. While, yes, I’ll happily argue that “Emma” was the first proper goth song, and that “Put Your Love In Me” is as throbbingly post-punk as anything on Unknown Pleasures, I realize that to do so as anything more than barstool provocation is to other a hundred borderline suicidal funk and soul acts. It’s not like the Temptations’ psychedelic albums were thematically jolly. It was the 1970s. Nixonian paranoia and dread was the overarching vibe, even amongst the platform heeled set. What is required is ensuring that Hot Chocolate are deservedly seen as belonging on equal footing with fellow funky depressives as, say, the Clash. If the Bee Gees are considered sad sack savants, then so should the writers of “Man to Man,” a ballad of achingly mournful cuckoldry.
Of course, it can’t be ignored that Hot Chocolate’s pop instincts were all encompassing in a way that might have done them few favors, critically speaking. More than race, or the fact that some were suspicious of “soul with an English accent,” it’s also plausible that some of Errol Brown’s more conventional instincts pushed Hot Chocolate out of fashion. While the Equals (the premier U.K. soul act prior to Hot Chocolate, which featured a young Eddie Grant on guitar) sang songs like “Police On My Back,” Hot Chocolate wrote “Call the Police,” possibly the sole pro-cop song of the last 50 years not performed by Frank Sinatra (one assumes) or an eager-to-please good old boy in an unironic cowboy hat.
Which brings us back to CREEM: As Simon Frith wrote, regarding the contradictions inherent to the U.K.’s fascination with reggae and dub, “The people who've suffered most from such snobbery are Hot Chocolate…They're black and white, actually, but their mastermind is writer and singer Erroll Brown, who shaves his head like a wrestler and manages to make the most banal love lyrics burn with a sensuality that isn't common on Top Of The Pops. But he's still too respectable to be a punk hero, still too successful and straight and unrebellious.”
Three years after Frith wrote that, Hot Chocolate played Buckingham Palace, at the pre-wedding party for Princess Diana and Prince Charles. In 2003, Brown was honored by Queen Elizabeth ll for “services to pop music.”
Perhaps, though, it’s through surrendering to a more conventional wisdom that I can make my case for Hot Chocolate’s importance. (And not, tempted as I might be, by simply pointing to the song “Confetti Day,” off the 1978 Every 1’s A Winner album. That is a record where the guitars and Larry Ferguson’s Moog are already used to make a striking hybrid of Deep Purple distorto-choogle and Kraftwork robo-funk; Hot Chocolate interpolates Mendelssohn’s Wedding March to make something that should be corny into one of the hardest celebrations of the vows of matrimony ever recorded.) Instead, I’ll say that after decades of near constant ambient airplay, “You Sexy Thing” is still capable of pushing a pleasure button that should be worn down to sand by now. Either as gateway to the catalog, or listening to the song after hours spent with Hot Chocolate’s moodiest grooves, the pleasure rushes in again every time Harvey Hinsley’s guitar vamp begins, the wah wah affected congas kick in, and Errol Brown sells it all, singing so far higher than his comfort zone that him crashing from the passion feels like an inevitability. Regardless of whether you start with the deep catalog or the signature song, there's an appreciation for “You Sexy Thing” that deepens. Both for the song itself and for the brilliance of a band that made a song that transcends boundaries—between background and decades—seem easy and entirely natural. Which, for Hot Chocolate, it was.