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…)