A few weeks ago, the musician Errol Brown died of liver cancer at the age of 71. Brown’s name is probably unfamiliar to most Americans, but his voice is not. Brown was the lead singer of the British soul-funk band Hot Chocolate, whose hit “You Sexy Thing” was big in 1975 and got even bigger in subsequent years. The frequent use of “You Sexy Thing” in ads and films (most memorably The Full Monty and Boogie Nights) means that Brown’s soulful hollering is burned into the audio-memories of many millions of people. Guy had a great set of pipes.
Brown and Hot Chocolate are far better known in the UK than they are in the U.S.; though the news of Brown’s death was overshadowed by Britain’s recent election results, it made more headlines there than it did here. The singer was even named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (inasmuch as a “British Empire” still exists) in 2003, but in the U.S. his name is barely recognized, and his band is known, if at all, as a one-hit wonder.
Turns out the Brits are on to something. Hot Chocolate was a damn fine band. It’s a shame they didn’t gain a larger following on this side of the Atlantic. America does seem to have an odd fixation with making sure its one-hit wonders never get recategorized, and that’s a pity.
On reading online the news of Brown’s death, I started clicking around to learn more about Hot Chocolate’s music. I found myself watching the video for Hot Chocolate’s second-biggest hit, “Emma,” a song also known by the title “Emmaline.” I have pretty wide-ranging knowledge of popular music of the 1970s, but this excellent song had somehow escaped me … sort of. (Hey, we all have our blind spots. I met a guy once who, astonishingly, didn’t even know who Neil Young was. To me, that’s an arrestable offense.) As I watched the video, my jaw dropped.
Not that the video for “Emma” is an exceptional video in and of itself — if indeed we can call it a video. (It’s easy to find short films from as far back as the 1930s of bands performing their songs, which no one called “videos” then; still, the term is apt here.) The members of Hot Chocolate perform the song on a featureless stage area, and, with the exception of Brown’s intensely emotional performance and a nifty purple solarization effect, there’s not much of visual interest in the video. What made my mouth hang open when I watched was the song itself.
After its brief bongo-drum opening, “Emma” lays down its melody in fuzztone: a sixteen-note tune that ascends incrementally for the first eight, then retraces its steps to land, after the second eight notes, back at the beginning. It’s very simple and very distinctive — I should know, as I’ve heard it hundreds of times before, without actually hearing this song. I know the melody, and the song, from Urge Overkill’s 1991 cover version, which appears on one of my favorite records of all time, The Supersonic Storybook. I’ve sung along (badly) to the song countless times; I know every note by heart. But that album lists the song as “Emmaline,” not its better-known title, so I didn’t suspect for a moment when I clicked on the link to Hot Chocolate’s song “Emma” that I’d know the tune.
I know — this seems like Not a Big Deal at All. Dude finds out that a beloved song is actually a cover version. Big whoop. But I recall my exact thought process as I watched Hot Chocolate’s “Emma” video, and that’s the thing that got me thinking.
When I heard the melody played for the first time, my immediate thought was Huh, so that’s where Urge Overkill borrowed that riff. Never knew that. Such borrowings are pretty common in popular music (one of my favorites: the Fall’s 1985 song “Barmy” borrows, note for note, the riff from The Monkees’ “Valleri” — no kidding). And the members of Urge Overkill are certainly magpies, having lifted even their band’s name from Parliament’s song “Funkentelechy.” All that ran through my head in a couple seconds, and, over that interval, explained away the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing.
But then, as Brown commenced singing, the lyrics revealed that Urge Overkill’s “Emmaline” was indeed a cover version of Hot Chocolate’s “Emma.” I was nevertheless unable to accept this fact, and resorted to a vaguer, more generalized excuse, something akin to There must be something amiss here, because this is not computing.
Once the song ended, I ran to my CD collection, pulled out The Supersonic Storybook, and noticed something I’d never noticed before: the teensy-weensy asterisk next to the track listing for “Emmaline” that indicates it was written by someone other than the members of Urge Overkill. (Seriously, it’s a really tiny notation.) OK, I finally admitted to myself, this song that I thought was an original is actually a cover. I accept it.
On reflection, I realize that I experienced a classic response to new information that challenged a long-held belief. Not that there was anything at stake in this matter, but my brain still clung ardently to something I believed to be true, even when evidence to the contrary mounted quickly and convincingly. Human cognition is such that it’s difficult to unconvince us of assertions that we’ve long believed to be true. This is why most people who are brought up in a given religious tradition remain within that tradition; it’s why breaking up is hard to do: We find it very difficult to let go of our rosy impressions from the early days of a new romance.
“Emma”/“Emmaline” is just a pop song, but still I had trouble letting go of my preconceptions about it.
By the way, another great band, the Sisters of Mercy, also covered “Emma,” releasing their version as a B-side in 1988. And a power-pop band called Earth Quake, which I’d never even heard of, beat everyone out of the gate, releasing their cover of this terrific song in 1977. Looks like I have more listening to do.