Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Hot Chocolate

A most underrated group, who broke considerable ground, particularly early in their career....

Cicero Park (1974)

This was Hot Chocolate's debut album. It was surprising as they had been having hit singles for three or four years, intermittently. This was when they started to prove themselves as a serious band, however, and it is a bit of a shame that the group are always thought of as just a singles band, because this was actually a pretty credible funky soul album. Also, as albums seventies chart acts go, it is also up there as one of the best. Issues of race, social deprivation, dangerous urban living and even suicide are dealt with. For a British multi-racial group this was quite ground-breaking. The album is really quite underrated.
The opener, Cicero Park, is a haunting number concerning urban decay and ecological decline. It features what was to be an archetypal Hot Chocolate rumbling, almost tribal drum sound. There was also some CCS-style flute. Indeed, the CCS horns (RAK label stable-mates) were employed on this album. Could Have Been Born In The Ghetto is an evocative, almost blaxploitation, Curtis Mayfield-esque song. It features some excellent guitar and a superb vocal from Errol BrownA Love Like Yours is a melodic number with echoes of some of their early seventies chart hits, like I Believe (In Love)Love Is Life and You'll Always Be A Friend. It sits a little incongruously with the previous material on the album, though. You're A Natural High is a sweeping string-orchestrated but also funky number, which admittedly, is a bit of a strange mixture. The huge hit single, Emma, was a heartbreaking, emotive ballad about a young girl's suicide. Changing World is one of the best tracks on the album - a piano led slow, melodic number offering hope for future racial tolerance. 

Disco Queen was also a hit single and is suitably upbeat in a danceable disco-rock sort of way. It features some killer guitar in it too. Makin' Music is a lively piece of poppy funk, again featuring prominent strings. Funky Rock 'n Roll is an irresistible drum, horns and bass-powered number featuring a "glam rock" drum sound and some kicking horns. Bump And Dilly Down continues in the same vein but with more of an earthy, funky approach. This has been a varied and at times culturally adventurous album for its time. Recommended.

Hot Chocolate (1975)
This was Hot Chocolate's second album, and it is just as credible and underrated as their debut Cicero Park. It carried a solid social message in the What's Going On style that belied their apparent chart pop existence. They were actually much more than just that, as this album proves. It is an impressive mix of social comment, soul rock-disco rhythm, brass backing and accessible funk.
Hello America is a lively, brassy opener that delivers the message that is prevalent throughout a lot of this album. It has echoes of the previous album's Disco Queen in its sound. The Street is a haunting, atmospheric soulful number backed by excellent percussion, keyboards and brass. Again, it carries a social message. Call The Police is a horn-driven slice of funky soul with a delicious bass line, Hard-hitting comment and convincing vocal from Errol BrownDollar Sign is an emotive, brooding slow-paced number bemoaning high finance and wealth disparity. The first four tracks have all been "conscious" ones which sets the tone. However, there was still room for some classic pop-soul.

You Sexy Thing is next. It is probably Hot Chocolate's signature tune. For many, it is the only song they know from the group. Amazingly it was originally the 'b' side to the ballad Blue Night, as producer Mickie Most was not convinced it would be a hit. Eventually, the single was flipped around and the rest is history. It was number two to Queen's iconic Bohemian Rhapsody. The track has an infectious, lively disco-ish rhythm but also a catchy chorus ensuring its pop appeal. 

The other big hit from the album was the stark but tuneful A Child's Prayer, with its beautiful string orchestration and sincere lyric. A Warm Smile is a laid-back, romantic soul ballad, but it still carries an inherent sadness in both its beat, orchestration and Brown's vocal. It still manages to make its point about "living in a crowded city..." even in a simple love song. Amazing Skin Song pulls no punches in its Brother Louie-style tale of an interracial relationship. Love's Coming On Strong is a soulful love song with some sublime brass parts. Lay Me Down is a sort of country-soul-gospel number, if there is such a thing. The last two tracks are probably the least potent on the album, far less so than the first four tracks. So, to an extent, the album drifts away just a tiny bit. Personally, I prefer Cicero Park but this is still a solid album. I remember listening to it as a teenager in 1975 and realising that it had something more about it than simply great pop-soul singles.

Man To Man (1976)

After two largely socio-political "message" albums in their debut brace, this was the album which saw Hot Chocolate move into more of a pop/r'n'b group, with a mix of mostly funky party groovers and a couple of lush ballads. There is a disco-ish vibe throughout but it is a muscular, solid one, as opposed to overtly commercial. This is still a good album. I remember seeing them live in 1976 and they showcased this album and put on an enjoyable, highly credible show.
The opener, Heaven Is In The Back Seat Of My Cadillac, is a wonderful slice of grinding, funky pop. It was a hit single and you can hear why. It is full of hooks both vocally and musically. the social message is not completely dead, however, and Living On A Shoe String addresses wealth disparity. It has a huge, thumping bass line, killer brass parts and a brooding, slow burning beat. It is a great track that shows Hot Chocolate at their best - serious but also soulful and funky. Sugar Daddy is a frantic, congas-driven and highly infectious funk workout. Man To Man sees the first pop-soul ballad of the album. This was also a successful hit single. Despite its mournful, yearning subject matter (a relationship split) it is strangely catchy in a stately sort of way. Errol Brown's vocal is superb and the strings augment the slow pulse of the backing beautifully. The old Brother Louie spoken vocal bit makes an appearance too. 

You Could've Been A Lady had been a single back in the early seventies before the group made it big, and it gets an updating here, unsurprising as it would not be familiar to many of the group's new fans. It is largely faithful to the original and it always was a great, upbeat, captivating track. Sex Appeal is another lively but bassy and brassy funker. Harry is a deep, strong slow number with a bit of a jazzy feel in its brass interjections at times but it is dominated by that typically Hot Chocolate big, pumping sound. I loved the ebullient Don't Stop It Now as a hit single back in 1976, but it is a blatant attempt at a You Sexy Thing re-write. It also has a few hints of The Staple SingersIf You're Ready (Come Go With Me) in its basic riff too. Seventeen Years Of Age ends the album on a haunting note with a sad ballad. As on the title track, the strings dominate the backing. This was still a really good album, but it was possibly the group's last album to have genuine quality material throughout its track listing. There is a case for the next album, however, as well.

Every 1's A Winner (1978)

This was Hot Chocolate's fourth album, and was far more of a pop-soul one, following on from the direction taken on the previous album, Man To Man. Once again, less of the conscious, aware material and more disco-ish funky r'n'b and smooth, catchy pop ballads. Compared to the previous album, the balance swings in the favour of ballads as opposed to party groovers. The social concerns of those great first two albums seemed a long time ago now as Hot Chocolate were well and truly a pop band - a very good one, mind.
Every 1's A Winner was a buzzy guitar riff-driven extremely singalong hit single, while Confetti Day was an upbeat wry observational number about family members meeting up again at a wedding. These two are the only two really uptempo numbers on the album. Love Is The Answer One More Time is the sort of grandiose, heartbreaking ballad that the group were coming to specialise in, with a huge, addictive chorus and big orchestration. Some Times It Hurts To Be A Friend is another in the same vein, with a few echoes of Man To Man from the previous albums, with sumptuous brass and string backing and a yearning vocal from Errol Brown. So You Win Again was the group's enormous number one hit from the summer of 1977. It was pretty much a perfect pop/soul slow number, with an addictive chorus. 

Stay With Me is a laid-back, melodic gentle soulful number that doesn't pull up any trees but it perfectly pleasant. Runaway Girl revisits the old sad tale scenario of Emma and Seventeen Years of Age. It is once more a slow tempo number. Make You Feel Like A Woman also ploughs the same slow burning furrow. Put Your Love In Me, which ends the album, is a quite adventurous song, sound-wise, with some haunting, mysterious guitar and keyboard sounds backing a sparse Errol Brown vocal. It was a chart hit, which was deserving as it was most atmospheric. Overall the album is appealing and competent, but nowhere near as good as the previous three.

Going Through The Motions (1979)
In 1979, many artists were putting out disco albums - Elton John's Victim Of Love; ABBA's Voulez Vous spring to mind. Why, even The Rolling Stones had dabbled in it with Miss You from Some Girls. Hot Chocolate had started their album career as a socially-aware funk/soul group, then morphed into a pop/soul outfit. This saw them going all Euro-disco, with only seven lengthy electronic keyboard-dominated numbers. Look, it is ok, but to be honest, as one who had all the group's previous albums, this really was a move in the wrong direction for me.

Going Through The Motions is catchy enough, but it has a repetitive, electronic disco beat, vocal refrain and has nowhere near the appeal of the group's earlier material. It is certainly no You Sexy ThingEmma, Changing World or Man To Man. This is not really Hot Chocolate as I knew them. I Just Love What You're Doing continues in the same vein, admittedly with an infectious bass line and convincing vocal from Errol Brown, but it is pretty uninspiring stuff, really. Furthermore it goes on for six and a half minutes. Four minutes is more than enough. All those Giorgio Moroder-style synthesisers get a bit samey after a few minutes. Dreaming Of You starts like a ballad from a stage musical and then morphs into some soft soul croonery. Again, for me, it does not come close to any of Hot Chocolate's balladry in the past. It is pretty poor, to be brutally honest. Dance (Get Down To It) has another captivating bass line and melody, but then those synthesisers take over and it all sounds somewhat mechanical. There are some great disco records around but unfortunately this is not one of them.

Mindless Boogie is undoubtedly the best track on the album, as the group rediscover their Ball Of Confusion-style social conscience and tell us what a state the world is in and that we should boogie our way out of it. Although it sounds a bit simplistic, it is actually a wry, cynical song. It does go on for eight minutes, however. The single edit is better. There is also some good guitar interjections on it and an addictive beat. 
Night Ride is a thumping, slightly funky groover with a somewhat deliberately muffled vocal. Like the rest of the album's material, it gets into its synthesised groove and simply carries on. You would expect Congas Man, by its title, to be a bit of a throwback to seventies tracks like Funky Rock 'n' Roll and Makin' Music, and while there are hints of those tracks in its rhythmic sound, the metronomic disco beat overrides everything else and, surprisingly there are only a few bits of conga in it, near the end, which the best bit - the bass and conga interplay. Overall, as I said, there was a lot better disco material out there. Going Through The Motions was an unfortunately apt title.

Class (1980)

This was another in the sequential decline in the overall quality of Hot Chocolate albums as the eighties approached, although, for me, it is superior to the previous, disco-oriented Going Through The Motions.
The opener, Love Me To Sleepis a slow ballad and quite a low-key start to the album. Losing You is a bit of a So You Win Again re-write, musically and vocally, while Gotta Give Up Your Love has strong snatches of the bass line from Roxy Music’s Love is The Drug. Once again, like the material from the previous album, it is an unremarkable dance groover of a track.

A cover of The Police’s Walking On The Moon is next and it is credible enough, although it may hint at the lack of new material, as indeed does the next track, a somewhat surprising cover of Elvis Costello’s Green Shirt. It seems to suit Errol Brown’s voice, though, and the rendition is a suitably beguiling and mysterious one. Costello’s perplexing lyrics don’t quite suit though. An odd choice, it has to be said. Children Of Spacemen is  slow, piano-driven song that questions our existence. It is also a rather odd song. The group became a bit concerned wth spacemen and the like around now, continued in their hit single about UFO’s, No Doubt About It
Brand New Christmas is a song that recalls the group’s socially-aware mid-seventies material. It is the funkiest thing on the album, with some enticing wah-wah guitar backing. Despite its title, it is not really a Christmas song. The one really upbeat, typically Hot Chocolate song is the closer and hit single, Are You Getting Enough Happiness, which was in their lively disco-soul style. Overall, however, while this was an “alright” album, it was nothing special, following a downward trend in all their albums since 1977’s Every 1’s A Winner.

Mystery (1982)

After two patchy albums from Hot Chocolate, this one, from 1982, was something of a renaissance and, although very much an eighties album, it is an energetic, poppy but appealing album.
Girl Crazy is a singalong, lively opener that was unsurprisingly a hit single. 
Mystery, while very much of its time in its synth-pop-disco rhythms is upbeat and ebullient. A strange inclusion, however, is Are You Getting Enough Happiness, which was also on Class, the previous album. Here, it is much longer and with additional, quirkier synth backing. Altogether it is the better recording of the track. It was released as a single but did not chart at all, whereas the previous one had been a minor hit. 

No Tears is an enthusiastic, toe-tapper of a number with a great Errol Brown vocal and an irresistible beat. The slow but stately Chances was a minor single hit and It Started With A Kiss (much loved of Alan Partridge) was a huge hit, the group's last really big one. It is a perfect pop song, something Hot Chocolate had always specialised in. As a fan from 1973, I remember hearing this, nearly ten years later, and feeling a sense of satisfaction that the group had returned with one more big hit. You'll Never Be So Wrong was also a single, but only a very minor hit. It was another attractive piece of pop-soul. Emotion Explosion is a typically eighties synth pop dance number. It is not really Hot Chocolate as I remembered them from their great days of the seventies, but all groups were affected by the eighties and drowned their songs in synthesised keyboards. One Night's Not Enough ends the album on a frantic Euro-disco note. The album is certainly not the match of their seventies work, but it is saved by its five excellent singles.

Love Shot (1983)   
This was it, then, for Hot Chocolate. After over ten years of wonderful music - soulful, meaningful and poptastic when the need was there - you could tell that they had reached the end of their road, which was a great shame. A few more stand alone singles followed on after this and a couple more "Top Of The Pops" appearances couldn't disguise the fact that the group were starting to look distinctly like yesterday's men. This album pretty much stands as an example of what I have just said. It is pleasant enough, but it just seems a sad shadow of a once great (and underrated) group that were now (to use one of their song titles) - going through the motions.
Sexy Caribbean Girl is a poppy, commercial dance-ish number. Compared to previous material, it sounds somewhat undercooked, and Errol Brown's delivery is slightly unenthusiastic, or maybe that is just my imagination. Let's Try Again has a sad feel to its melody and vocal, although it struggles against the layers of synthesiser notes in its backing. It slow programmed beat is pretty uninspiring, to be honest. Secret Hideaway has an ABBA-esque tinge to its keyboard melody and a haunting tone to the vocal, but once more it sounds tired to me. I quite like the track, however, but there is just something very sad about the general ambience of the album. The songs seems to sum up the state the band were in. The latter track also ends in a strangely abrupt fashion, as if they simply got fed up of playing it.

I had been a Hot Chocolate fan since first hearing Brother Louie in 1973. I remember seeing them do the comparatively uninspiring Tears On The Telephone on "Top Of The Pops" at the time and feeling terribly underwhelmed. Although it was a minor hit single, it simply didn't cut the mustard in the way that their great hits from their halcyon days did. I felt really quite sad
Jeannie is a low-key, melodic ballad that has a fetching feel to it, with a few echoes of the old days in Errol's vocal. There are hints of It Started With A Kiss (the group's last really big hit) in it. I'm Sorry is a sonorous, synthesiser-driven slow ballad that was very much of its time but it has a certain something. I quite like this one. Friend Of Mine has a delicious bass line similar to that used a few years later on Elton John's Nikita. It is a sumptuous, soulful number that sort of washes ver you like a relaxing warm bath. Its subject matter - infidelity - shows that Hot Chocolate could still do a dark love song when the mood took them. Touch The Night is a slow burning soul groover with some contemporary smooth, keyboard-driven dance sounds to its backing. Love Is a Good Thing is a standard, bassy soul late night offering. It doesn't offend in any way, but does it stay in the mind for long? Not really. The album, and, to all intents and purposes, Hot Chocolate's recording career, ends on a high point with the catchy, singalong I Gave You My Heart (Didn't I?). You certainly did, Errol and the lads - thank you, sincerely.

It has given me no pleasure to write a slightly less than effusive review of this final album from a band that has given me so much pleasure for over forty-five years, but, unfortunately I have to write as I hear. It is definitely their worst offering. They had extremely high standards, however.

A's, B's & Rarities

Hot Chocolate were notable, before their mid-late seventies-early eighties soul pop domination, for being a pioneer multi-racial band, like the Equals before them. This excellent compilation from RAK records' impressive A's, B's & Rarities series follows the same pattern as the others (Mud, Suzi Quatro, CCS) in that it chronologically includes all the singles and their 'b' sides and a few rarities thrown in at the end for good measure. If you are looking for a "greatest hits" compilation of the group's entire career then this is not it, but it is a comprehensive document of the group's pre-You Sexy Thing period, which gave us some seriously good, credible soul-influenced funk/pop.
Strangely, the album's first two cuts are reggae ones, including a bizarre cover of John Lennon's Give Peace A Chance, with a complaining West Indian voice proclaiming "rubbish! rubbish!" over a reggae beat. It is fetchingly amusing. The group's early sound was typified by their first hit, Love Is Life, which took the sumptuous string backing used in early seventies reggae hit singles and applied them to a bassy, soul backing and Errol Brown's gently soulful voice introduced itself to us. It would be well known over the subsequent fifteen-twenty years as Hot Chocolate became a huge chart singles group. Pretty Girls and Living Without Tomorrow are both easy-listening reggae styled numbers.

The original version of You Could Have Been A Lady is a raw, edgy one, introduced by some funky wah-wah and delivered at a slightly slower pace than the more polished re-recorded later version. I remember seeing them in concert in 1976 and they did a barnstorming version of this. Further minor hits were gained with the melodic, easy soul of I Believe (In Love) and You'll Always Be A Friend before the group really clicked into their soul/funk/pop gear with the mighty anti-racist Brother Louie. Tracks like this were really quite ground-breaking at the time and it is perfectly valid to say that this song got people to views things differently. You may laugh, but it really did. CCS's Alexis Korner is on the spoken bit as the outraged, chillingly adamant white father. The infectiously funky slow groove of Rumours was only a minor hit, but I loved it at the time and still do. I Want To Be Free is a gloriously dirty dose of funk.

What was it about RAK records and songs about cavemen? Here we have Caveman Billy ("I really want to come into your cave..."), while CCS and Suzi Quatro recorded versions of Primitive Man. Billy was not one of Hot Chocolate's better efforts. Mary Anne and its 'b' side, Ruth see the band going full on pop soul, and they both have a real late sixties/early seventies "bubblegum" sound to them. Go Go Girls is a notable one, with a sixties, almost psychedelic guitar riff to it. Lyrically, it is a bit banal, though, I have to say. Blue Night was an underrated soulful number, and Makin' Music a typical slice of bassy, funky fun.

The huge chart hit, the moving, evocative Emma is included here, as well as the first version of the iconic You Sexy Thing (it was re-recorded and polished up a bit for the version we all know). It is a shame that Disco Queen and Cheri Babe were not included as I see them as just about part of this period of the group's career. Throw Changing World in there too. All of them came before You Sexy Thing.


  1. It looks like only two of these albums were released in the States or else I just never saw them. I think the only two hits they had here were the disco hits you sexy thing and Every 1's a Winner, which I love. I remember them both from oldies radio. And Brother Louie was a hit by a different band called Stories. I liked it better too. The guy was a Rod Stewart sound-alike, but a good one.

  2. Brother Louie was quite ground-breaking at the time.

    They had loads of hits in the UK.