|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Hot Chocolate's Greatest Unhits
Hot Chocolate's 10 Greatest Hits is as well-programmed a sampler as any in recent memory, but on the whole it sells its group short. For while 10 Greatest Hits documents Hot Choclate's idiosyncratic mastery of pop form, it is a middle-of-their-road primer, omitting much of their more radical work, from "Cicero Park" and "Changing World" through "Lay Me Down" and "Living on a Shoe String." Hardly surprising, for, as released in America late last fall, 10 Greatest Hits was basically a compromise between Hot Chocolate's formidable talent and a general publick that scarcely knew what to make of it. And in fact, even the compromise went nowhere.
Race is at the core of this: Hot Chocolate is fronted by blacks (West Indians Errol Brown and, until recently, Tony Wilson), while the band features a white drummer and guitarist. And a white producer, Mickey Most, who once orchestrated Eric Burdon's blackface. The music is still more problematic: its black resources have become so entwined with white pop usage as to confound any racial identity. Yet Hot Chocolate's authors cannot escape dwelling on race -- for race inevitably ensnarls their life and work.
This results in a surfeit of "topical" songs, ranging from "Could Have Been Born in the Ghetto (Could have laid dead in the gutter)" to "Living on a Shoe String (Is the In Thing)." Typically, both lyrics offer possibilities that are out of the question. Hot Choclate's blacks are well-heeled gentlemen. But that doesn't erase their color. The "Amazing Skin Song" -- a first-person black man/white woman affair -- shares none of this abstractness: Errol Brown makes lines like "People can be so cruel/ People acting uncool/ People just don't know how much I'm in love with you" startlingly vivid.
Hot Chocolate's dabbling in political matters mixes reticence with naivete. In "Call the Police," a frantic, terrified piece of music, Tony Wilson sets up a chant of "People gettin' mugged/ People getting' bugged/ People can't walk the street." The solution -- the police -- is hardly convincing. Nor does Errol Brown manage much better when he laments the passing of saying grace before dinner, urging us to, "Say a little prayer for all those who have much more/ That they will find it in their hearts to lend/ A helping hand." That from a song called "A Child's Prayer." Or, again from "Amazing Skin Song": "Why can't they leave us alone?"
These lyrics are embedded in musical structures and textures of exceptional power and erudition. Errol Brown's pathetic homilies, Tony Wilson's helpless rage -- from "Legal Paper," the snappiest song on Wilson's remarkable solo album, I Like Your Style: "And if I see another legal paper/ I'm going to scream and holler and run away" -- emerge as subtle, prudent limitations-by-example: the very commonness of their sentiment, their uncanny grasp of everyday frustration, forcefully eschews the Big Statement, the Propaganda Coup, even the Word-to-the-Wise. Such lyrics shy away from the spotlight, focusing attention on Hot Chocolate's real strong suit: their craftsmanship of sound.
Ordinary, beleaguered citizens in the world of words, Hot Chocolate are masters of their sonic universe. Emigres from the outset, they produce a wry, sophisticated alien-city music: stark and foreboding, chilling yet vibrant. They build their songs on lean, powerful bass lines, sharp angled strings, and a smattering of horns. Percussion decorates as much as it drives; vocals are alternately measured and deep, shrill and mocking. The combined effect is completely unique, uniquely imposing.
Hot Chocolate's three extraordinary albums -- Cicero Park, Hot Chocolate, Man to Man -- are idiosyncratic and occasionally difficult. 10 Greatest Hits is the ideal introduction to their sound; but none of the songs I've mentioned so far have been included. Worthy as their Hits are -- including "You Sexy Thing," a treatise on miracles that is itself one; "Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac," the ultimately stereotype jive; "Man to Man" and "So You Win Again," Errol Brown's exercises in grandiloquence; "Brother Louie," the classic original -- their Unhits are every bit as valuable. Ten songs are hardly enough; The Essential Hot Chocolate would take up all three discs. No less would do justice to one of the greatest rock groups of the '70s.