615. ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, by The Hollies

A big feature of the late eighties and early nineties, aside from all the dancing, the sampling and the acid house, was classic re-releases…

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, by The Hollies (their 2nd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 18th September – 2nd October 1988

One such re-release means that The Hollies score their second #1 single, a full twenty-three years after their first. And like the two most recent belated chart-toppers – ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Reet Petite’ – this is a classic in every sense. It’s pop as classical music: stately, grandiose, full of portent and power… The road is long, With many a winding turn…

In fact, I’d file this up there with ‘Hey Jude’, and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, as pop music working as a hymn for the secular. And not just because the band do their best impression of a gospel choir towards the end, but also because the title line is from a Christian tale about a sister carrying her brother on her back, uncomplaining. Interestingly, ‘Stand by Me’ also features lines from the bible (while ‘Reet Petite’ does not, unless I missed that particular week of Sunday School…)

The climax is the middle eight, the If I’m laden… At all… part, that positively soars. In fact, it perhaps soars too much, for my tastes. For a band that spent most of the sixties releasing perfectly crafted, snappy pop tunes – from ‘Just One Look’, to their previous #1 ‘I’m Alive’, to ‘Bus Stop’ and on – this is quite the departure. I have to admit that I prefer their pop stuff to this, as impressive as it is, in the same way that ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ are not my all-time favourites either.

This song originally came not long after Graham Nash had left the band, to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, leaving the band more reliant on outside songwriters. ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’ had been written for US singer Kelly Gordon, a few months before The Hollies made #3 with it in 1969. (Fun fact: not only is it a belated 2nd #1 for The Hollies, it’s a 2nd #1 for Elton John, who played piano on the track as a pre-fame session musician!) And, for a song with such religious connotations and gospel leanings, it took a much more prosaic reason to finally get it to #1: an advert for Miller-Lite.

In 1969, this hit set the band up to keep going well into the 1970s, something that very few of the big ‘60s acts managed. Their ‘final’ big hit was ‘The Air that I Breathe’ in 1974 (a song I do kind of wish had had the big re-release treatment, instead of this…) And unless I’m missing something obvious, this song’s second round of success meant that The Hollies achieved the longest gap between chart-topping singles, a record they kept for quite a while. On a personal note, and quite fittingly, this was #1 on the day that my own brother was born (but I will refrain from commenting on his heaviness…)


10 thoughts on “615. ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’, by The Hollies

  1. One of my favorite songs of all time is The Air that I Breathe…that song is majestic…from the guitar intro to the end. Ok back on this song…well now my favorite Number 1’s in the UK…are….so far… Stand By Me and this one! I do like this song…probably more than you do but I totally agree with you about The Air that I Breathe…that one is in a different league!

    • I’m assuming you mean #1s of the 1980s…? Or maybe you do like it that much?

      I do really like it, but like the two songs I mentioned in the post, ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, part of me can’t truly love a song that sounds so gigantic. When a song sets out to be so big, I can respect it, and enjoy it, but not love it. Like ‘The Godfather’ movies, or ‘War and Peace’. I’m not even sure I can explain it properly… It just leaves me that little bit cold.

  2. I remember it as one of those songs that everyone liked first time round, but it wasn’t quite an ‘instant classic’ like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. It just improved in stature over the years, and has never really sounded that dated. The Hollies will forever be remembered as one of those really classy pop bands of the 60s (and deserved better during the 70s) who had a fine line in great pop singles, both originals and covers, but could come up with a ballad like this that appeals right across the musical spectrum to all generations. Oh yes, ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – love them as well. And another ‘gigantic’ song that for me just keeps sounding better and better over 45 years and counting – Eagles’ ‘Last Resort’?

  3. Pingback: Hollies – The Air That I Breathe – PowerPop… An Eclectic Collection of Pop Culture

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