Hot Chocolate were a peculiar band. They were a hugely successful chart act that had hit singles over three decades, but their albums barely scraped into the top 30, unless they were greatest hits collections. They were best known for fluffy, hook-laden pop disco, but their back catalogue was packed with other stuff: music that was far weirder, darker and more intriguing. Errol Brown was a great singer, possessed of the ability to convey anguish with a chilling falsetto shriek, but it was a sound he rarely used: instead, he tended to unflustered cool, an imperturbable loverman who wouldn’t have broken sweat if someone had set fire to his tight satin trousers.
They began life as an opportunistic novelty act, born when Brown and bassist Tony Wilson took up an offer to join a group of Brixton based musicians who were employed recording reggae covers of current hits. One track, a bizarre version of Give Peace a Chance with a stentorian vocal and additional lyrics courtesy of Brown – “Rubbish! Rubbish!” he kept shouting, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear – found its way to John Lennon and was released on Apple. Signed to Mickie Most’s RAK, they floundered, devoid of a direction – scoring the occasional pop soul hit, like 1970’s Love Is Life, trying their hand at everything from glam to bubblegum to hard rock in the vein of Free’s All Right Now. It wasn’t until Most steered them in the direction of social commentary and brought in string arranger John Cameron that they settled on what appeared to be a winning style: the bleak funk of Brother Louie, the astonishing 1974 hit Emma, an impossibly morose tale of poverty, failure and suicide. The latter featured a remarkable vocal from Brown: he’s the model of resigned stoicism until the song’s closing minute, where he unleashes a series of harrowing screams.
It’s hard not to wish Hot Chocolate had made more records like that, had made more use of Errol Brown’s voice in that way. That said, you could see why they ultimately didn’t. Emma made No 3, but the band’s success was far from assured. Setting what was to prove a pattern, their subsequent debut album, Cicero Park, failed to make the charts at all, despite being a genuinely great record, offering a far tougher, sparser take on the nascent disco sound than the one they would subsequently become famous for. Of their follow-up singles, only the densely orchestrated A Child’s Prayer was a big hit. On the B-side of one of the flops was a track called You Sexy Thing: it was lightweight compared to Emma or Brother Louie or most of Cicero Park, but it was packed with hooks. Rerecorded, it became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and set a kind of pop-disco template for the rest of Hot Chocolate’s career: So You Win Again, Every 1’s A Winner, deathless wedding disco favourites all.
They were still capable of making harder-edged disco records – 1976’s Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac among them – and they were still occasionally fond of experimenting: 1977’s echo-laden Put Your Love In Me had something of the spirit of Emma about it, with its deeply odd, creepy ambience and Brown’s voice rising to an eerie falsetto. But when their weirdest singles, Mindless Boogie – a taut, hypnotic funk track with lyrics about, of all things, the Jonestown massacre, taken from another great album that barely scraped the charts, 1979’s Going Through The Motions – broke their run of big hits, that seemed to seal things: from then on Hot Chocolate stayed firmly in the middle of the road, with only the UFO fixated lyrics of No Doubt About It and the occasional improbable cover version (anyone eager to hear Hot Chocolate doing Elvis Costello’ Green Shirt should head to side one of 1980’s Class) to suggest there was more to them.
The hits ended with Brown’s departure in 1986: the band eventually replaced him with an Errol Brown impersonator who’d appeared on Stars In Their Eyes. Brown had a couple of hits, but his solo recording career never really took off in the way he might have hoped, although he remained a popular live artist until his retirement: testament to the lasting impression You Sexy Thing and So You Win Again made. When his death was announced, among the more unlikely tributes came from former Suede guitarist turned-songwriter-and-producer Bernard Butler. He took to Twitter to mention one of Hot Chocolate’s weird production quirks, putting congas through a wah pedal intended for a guitar. It was another hint that they were a rather stranger, more intriguing band than their most famous records suggested.