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…)

585. ‘Stand by Me’, by Ben E. King

From a sixties legend, to a legendary song from the sixties. Who’d have imagined, as we ticked over from 1986 to ’87, that three of the past four #1s would have featured Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, and now Ben E. King…?

Stand by Me, by Ben E. King (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 15th February – 8th March 1987

Let’s be quite honest, the world doesn’t need to know what I think of ‘Stand By Me’. It doesn’t need me to prattle on about the instantly recognisable bass line, and the passion in King’s voice; about the soaring strings and the gospel influence. What more can you say about it…? It’s a good song. Very good. Amazing. One of the best ever. It’s simple – a basic chord progression, accessible lyrics, fairly limited production – yet it proves the notion that writing a good simple song must be fiendishly difficult.

I usually roll the eyes when someone claims of a song that ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore’, but when it comes to ‘Stand by Me’ then it’s hard to argue. It was written by King, alongside Lieber and Stoller, and was based on a spiritual song, which in turn had been based on Psalm 46: “will not we fear, though the Earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea”.

There ends today’s sermon, go forth and prosper (you can perhaps tell I’m not a regular at church…) So, ‘Stand by Me’ is technically a religious song, but whereas other holy #1s have preached – I’m looking at you, Lena Martell and Charlene – Ben E. King’s is a humble profession of faith, as long as someone, be it God or his lover, stands with him. Just a few chart-toppers ago, The Housemartins were being similarly low-key religious, and scoring an equally palatable hit.

When originally released, in 1961, ‘Stand by Me’ made a lowly #27 in the British charts. (Number one that week was ‘Well I Ask You’ by Eden Kane – perfectly pleasant, but somewhat lacking in ‘classic’ status.) Ben E. King wasn’t very well served in the UK: this being his only Top 20, though he did make #2 with The Drifters. And I’d always assumed that ‘Stand by Me’ was a 1987 hit thanks to the Rob Reiner movie – another classic. A tie-in video was made, featuring a young Ben E. King morphing into an older Ben E. King, who is then joined on stage by River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton (a sight which takes on a very bittersweet edge knowing the fate that would befall Phoenix just a few years later).

But it turns out that ‘Stand by Me’ was actually given a final push to the top of the charts by an advert for Levi’s jeans, which takes the wholesome gloss off it slightly. Filthy lucre was ultimately behind this beautiful song claiming its rightful chart position. Still, it feels only right that a song of its stature made #1, and it’s interesting to see how generation-defining classics that missed out first time around – ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Imagine’, this – seem to eventually find a way to the top. Class will shine through in the end…

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308. ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)’, by The New Seekers

I knew the chorus of this song, as everyone does, what with it having firmly imbedded itself in our popular culture. And so, I was fully expecting a cheesy, sing-along record…

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I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony), by The New Seekers (their 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 2nd – 30th January 1972

…but was not prepared for just how sickly saccharine this song truly is. Do not play this record on a full stomach! The melody is jaunty, the vocals are twee: I’d like to build the world a home, And furnish it with love… Grow apple trees, And honey bees, And snow-white turtle doves… I mean, eeesh. (*Insert vomiting emoji*)

The singers, with their gentle acoustic guitars, sound like earnest church youth-camp leaders around a campfire. Or the bouncy volunteers that confront you on the street, asking for your signature in some worthy cause. I’d like to teach the world to sing, In perfect harmony, And I’d like to hold it in my arms, And keep it company… They sound utterly insufferable – in case I wasn’t making that clear – though I wouldn’t bet against at least two of them having a crippling drug addiction, because nobody is naturally this perky. I do like the bass-line, though.

The message is one of peace and love, obviously, which is nice and all. But the lyrics never get above ‘primary school assembly’ level. We’d all like everyone to get along better and love another, obviously, but the Summer of Love has been and gone – with far better music than this – while a couple of years ago it was all doom and gloom at the top of the charts: ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. This record is the sound of people giving up on the hippy dream and/or a cynical counter-culture, and settling for meaningless crap. And listening to this today, given the absolute shitshow that 2020 has been so far, well it’s almost unbearable.

Plus. Plus, plus, plus. The one other thing that everyone knows about ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, other than the sugary chorus, is that it originated from a jingle in a Coca-Cola advert. I’d like to buy the world a coke… etc. etc. For this ‘anthem’ of world-peace to have stemmed from one of the world’s mega-corporations, a company that floods every corner of the globe with its spectacularly unhealthy soft drinks and subsequent litter, is the piece de resistance. It’s actually quite funny.

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I’ll get down from my high-horse now. This record wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously. It’s just a cute little pop song aimed at the kids. But, at the same time – back on the high horse for a second – I can’t help feeling that, for people in 1972, spending a few pounds on this shite was the same as people nowadays changing their Facebook profile to reflect whatever the week’s worthy cause is. Making the doer feel better about their privilege, while making no difference whatsoever to the world’s problems.

In fact, I’ve grown to detest this record so much in the past half an hour that I’m going to make a bold, bold claim. That it is worse than ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Yes. ‘CCCC’ was inane and annoying. ‘ILTTTWTS(IPH)’ – that’s one hell of an abbreviation – is inane, annoying, and has ideas way above its station.

Finally, one question needs answering. What relation did The New Seekers have to The (old) Seekers, the Australian folk-pop act who scored two #1s in 1965 with the average ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’ and the dirgey ‘The Carnival Is Over’. Well, both bands share one member: Keith Potger, guitarist, who founded The New Seekers in 1969. They had scored a #2 the year before with ‘Never Ending Song of Love’ and will, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to discover, top the charts one more time before leaving us in peace forever. Till then…

Follow along through the first (almost) 20 years of the charts, with this playlist: