Jul 10

THE HOLLIES – “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”

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#615, 24th September 1988

Furrowed-brow gospel rock which risks being weighty in all the wrong ways. The title phrase is from a 1940s magazine cover, said by a cute li’l scamp in a “from the mouths of babes” moment. Transpose it to a rock song and you get a stodgy mix of wartime folksiness and King James solemnity (“no burden is he”). The arrangement echoes this unhappy combination: dustbowl harmonica and churchy string section in a forced marriage of two quite different kinds of seriousness.

And even so, if it was 1969 they’d just about get away with it. It’s a type of song which does very little for me – I was harsh on “Hey Jude” partly because it did so much to establish this style, but there’s a real humility and humanity in that record which I was too wary to spot. Pleas for togetherness in the late 60s weren’t entirely homilies: as with “Woodstock” there’s a desperation lurking behind the hair shirts and chest-beating here, a real sense that something important might not be lost if we’re just good to one another. Even if there’s colossal self-satisfaction too.

It’s the self-satisfaction that admen picked up on when they used “Heavy” for a Miller Lite commercial and launched it to the top of the charts. Lite! Not heavy! That’s why they’re called “creatives” you know. But yes, the music doesn’t just work as a pun: advertising is only toxic to pop when it illuminates something in the record, and I think that’s the case here. “Brother” in the original has a gospelly ‘everyman’ meaning; in the context of chugging a brew it’s halfway at least to the modern “bro”, and a bond of humanity becomes a bond of back-slapping masculinity. Which I’m not wholly against, but only in the late 80s did advertisers make it sound quite so smug. It’s hardly the Hollies fault, but observe the fella’s expression as he raises his beer at the advert’s end and learn why I’ve mistrusted this song ever since.



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  1. 1
    weej on 9 Jul 2010 #

    It’s not my favourite Hollies song, and the phenomenon of ‘classic’ reissues on the back of advertising campaigns is absolutely anathema to a healthy pop culture, but this song is still pretty good, an 8 even, when put next to (almost all of) the other #1s of 1988.

  2. 2
    thefatgit on 9 Jul 2010 #

    This must be the point where I temporarily waved the charts “bye bye” and started to look for more Acid House and Hip Hop that was off the radar of the charts and daytime radio.

    I’ve nothing against The Hollies really, but beer adverts getting to the top just confirmed the charts as “boring” to me at this time.

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Another one that I bought in 1988. I think that I found the arrangement and Alan Clarke’s delivery conveyed a sense of genuine gravitas and engagement to me, such as was rarely found in contemporary pop – not even in Phil Collins’ slowed-down emoting of sixties source material – perhaps just because of its out-of-time feeling. I sort of still feel that now, actually. I really like the tension between the bluesy and the churchy in this song now, actually, like shafts of sunlight penetrating through rainy gloom.

    That sodding advert really does kill the mood, though. Its the whacky larks and beery blokiness that repels me. I certainly wouldn’t want to emulate that drinker.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Is this only the second number one for Cook & Greenaway (after ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’)? I can’t understand why no-one ever seems to go on about them, when they wrote so many fantastic singles; Home Lovin’ Man, Something Tells Me Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight, Doctor’s Orders, Melting Pot, Blame It On The Pony Express, I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman…

    But they’ll have another one in 1989, pop pickers!

  5. 5
    Tom on 9 Jul 2010 #

    (Just in case it isn’t clear from the review, if this had got to #1 when originally released and with no advert it would have got a higher mark – a 5 or so maybe. 5 or 6 seems to be the most I’m ever willing to give this sort of thing – cf Caravan Of Love, Bridge Over Troubled Water, etc.)

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 9 Jul 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: The Hollies performed He Ain’t Heavy on Top Of The Pops on five occasions (You’ll have to wait to find out about the Christmas 1988 edition);

    2 October 1969. Also in the studio that week were; Karen Young, Lou Christie and Sounds Nice, plus Pan’s People’s interpretation of Bad Moon Rising. Tony Blackburn was the host. No copy survives.

    15 September 1988. Also in the studio that week were; Bros, The Proclaimers and Phil Collins. Simon Mayo & Peter Powell were the hosts.

    22 September 1988. Also in the studio that week were; Pet Shop Boys, Bill Withers and Rick Astley. Nicky Campbell & Andy Crane were the hosts.

    29 September 1988. Also in the studio that (SAW-friendly) week were; Sinitta, Hazell Dean and Bananarama. Gary Davies & Mark Goodier were the hosts.

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    rosie on 9 Jul 2010 #

    It was a great smoocher in 1969 but I don’t get the feeling Tom likes smoochers and several number ones have been marked down for a slow tempo. Those who conceived the notion of “Dance” music in the 1980s, as if dancing was a revolutionary act nobody had ever thought of before, seem to have stripped all the eroticism from it. A vertical expression of a horizontal desire no more.

    It’s a long way from the Hollies’ best (I’d nominate Bus Stop myself – they survived the departure of Graham Nash just about but it didn’t last as they moved from the pop venues to the cabaret circuit. But behind the opportunities for getting to know your companion and the state of his intentions, it’s a nice song, well-executed, and if I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to it, it would please me if I happened upon it. Thus making a good 5 or possibly 6.

    The Hollies, I feel, were the most underrated of the big name groups of my adolescence.

  8. 8
    Tom on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Highest-rated “smoocher” is “Moon River” with a 9 so you’re probably right! (though there’s a bunch of 8s which qualify).

  9. 9
    vinylscot on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Billy @4 – this was written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell, not Cook and Greenaway, who wrote the Hollies US #1 “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress”.

    Neil Diamond’s version of this was quite good – it always made my mum cry…

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 9 Jul 2010 #

    I’d forgotten that this was used for a commercial so it doesn’t have that association for me – and I’m not sure that the song can be blamed for that association. I like the melody and Allan Clarke’s vocal. The lyrics are pushed a little too hard which only draws attention to their worthiness in places but if written in 1969 may well have reflected the influence of The Basement Tapes’ return to awkward simplicity. Nevertheless, I find myself humming, even singing along to it when I hear it and so it gets a 6 from me.

    According to Wikipedia the original recording features Elton John on piano.

  11. 11
    swanstep on 9 Jul 2010 #

    HAHHMB is just a little too stately for its own good methinks (and isn’t the overall feel too churchy and also too familial for a successful smoocher as such?). Still it’s got some tasty chord changes and feels technically impeccably constructed. For example, bouncing the strings off the harmonica really works I find. It’s surprising, even ingenious or inspired.

    Of course, the Hollies really mastered this style and tempo a few years later with ‘Air that I Breathe’ (which was kept off #1 by the wretched ‘Billy don’t be a hero’ apparently). *That’s* a gold-plated 10 I’d say, whereas HAHHMB is only a 6 or a 7. That (new to me) ad is truly revolting, just as Miller (let alone Miller Lite) beer is. Beware: Miller beer is not only watery/tasteless/weak, it also gives the most horrendous hangover headaches. It’s the worst beer I’ve ever had the misfortune to drink.

  12. 12
    punctum on 9 Jul 2010 #

    By 1969, not only was the dream over, but after the departure of Graham Nash many thought the Hollies were over, or at least irretrievably lost to cabaret and MoR; one of the Beat Boom groups who saw the future (“King Midas In Reverse”) and didn’t much fancy it,, or were afraid of it. That having been said, “He Ain’t Heavy” was as elegiac a retreat from the wreckage of that dream as Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” or indeed CSN’s own “Long Time Gone,” even though its heavily telegraphed lushness, with full orchestra, harmonica, choir and florid fills on piano (the latter supplied by the session player then still just about known as Reg Dwight) and subject matter of the bloodied survivor attempting to escort, or drag, his friend back into the world of the living make it the missing link between “The Long And Winding Road” and “Two Little Boys.” It is melodramatically effective; note Allan Clarke’s anguished, suppressed howl on the “If I’m leaning at all” line in the bridge and how Bobby Elliott;s emphatic drum figures slow down the song at the climactic “Does-n’t-weigh-me-down” when the protagonist is doing everything to avoid collapsing himself.

    It was one of the Hollies’ biggest international hits; in Britain it peaked at number three in 1969’s troubled autumn. But then in 1988 it quite unexpectedly became the latest beneficiary of the backward-looking advertising ambulance when it was used to soundtrack a very strange advert for the aforementioned Miller Lite ; the tall, mulleted, bowler-hatted scruff who wanders through the streets of his town helping out, working small miracles and inevitably getting first crack at orders at the bar. The song thuds out of an ancient, cobwebbed puppet band, through ancient, cobwebbed speakers, David Lynch could have directed it and no one would have been surprised.

    There was a rival version at the same time by, of all people, Bill Medley, from the soundtrack to, of all films, Rambo III, which skated the edge of the top 30. But the Hollies’ original was lapped up like chewing gum wrappers in the Dead Sea and gave the group only their second UK number one, and their first in 23 years. All around, the future of music was booming; and yet this unceasing return to the security blanket of the past – a doubly strange number one, with its themes of compassion and cooperation, in the age of devil take the hindmost Thatcherism – was embraced. “He Ain’t Heavy” was possibly the most problematic number one of its year; a reasonably successful single in terms of its ambitions and delivery, but really, in 1988, it lends itself to the misguided belief of many that the only way was back.

  13. 13
    LondonLee on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Not only is Miller Lite weak gnat’s piss but the ad makes me want to punch that bloke in the face. There were a lot of those “chirpy lads having fun” beer ads around at the time (Black Label, Hofmeister) when you knew that once they’d had a skinful they’d be down the local curry house loudly abusing the waiters and puking up in the road afterwards.

    The record is probably an 8 from me though, I just love those bursting harmonies (especially “but I’m strooooooonnnnggg”), and the ad hasn’t stuck in my memory hard enough to taint it. ‘The Air That I Breathe’ would be higher.

  14. 14
    Tom on 9 Jul 2010 #

    I don’t reeeeeally like “The Air That I Breathe” either to be honest, though probably more than this.

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    MikeMCSG on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Tom, it also got a sales push from being featured on DLT’s “Golden Oldies Picture Show” with a very literal video.

    I agree with Rosie that they never got much kudos in their heyday so it was quite pleasant to see them back in the saddle for a brief moment.

    Good time to mention “The Air That I Breathe” as two songs down the line we’ll be coruscating its author.

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    punctum on 9 Jul 2010 #

    “The Air That I Breathe” which is widely thought to have been a major melodic inspiration for one of the better known songs (a UK top ten hit in 1993) by another major act who won’t be bothering Popular

  17. 17
    Rory on 9 Jul 2010 #

    I’m drawn towards a 6 for this, admiring various aspects but with no desire to own it. Fortunately that awful ad means nothing to me, or that would be knocking it down a peg. As for being an anachronism, well, yeah, but 1988 was hardly a year where chronism was a virtue.

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    punctum on 9 Jul 2010 #


  19. 19
    Rory on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Not a real word, unfortunately, but it should be!

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    Erithian on 9 Jul 2010 #

    A few factoids about this:

    The phrase “he ain’t heavy…” was featured in said magazine cover (“The Messenger”, 1941), and was adopted as the motto of a children’s residential centre in Nebraska known as Boys Town – one version of the story states that the illustration was of a former resident of Boys Town who wore leg braces and the other boys would take turns carrying him. The phrase was used in the Spencer Tracy film “Men of Boys Town” also in 1941. (By the 80s, the name “Boys Town” meant something else altogether…)

    The song memorably featured in an edition of “Noel’s Christmas Presents” in the 90s, in a feature where a Hollies fan, born with spina bifida and who had recently lost both parents, was called into his back garden by a friend to discover the Hollies in the garden performing “He Ain’t Heavy…” A nation suddenly realized it had something in its eye.

    The Hollies song “I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top”, as recently featured in “Which Decade”, was co-written by Guy Fletcher, whose son Justin is now known as “Mr Tumble” on CBeebies. (Tom will be nodding sagely at this point.)

  21. 21
    Tom on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Boys Town Gang’s “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” would have got a high mark from me!

    Also: my first encounter with the phrase, and the song no doubt, came at the end of “The Return Of Rico”, the Judge Dredd story in which his no-good brother gets released from space prison and Dredd ends up killing him in a shoot-out. At the end, Dredd, carrying his brother, says.. well, you can guess what he says. (But never having heard the song the ending seemed tonally off to me – the emphases suggested it was a phrase I ought to know, but I didn’t, but at the same time the set-up made it feel like a punchline more than anything else.)

  22. 22
    thefatgit on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Punctum, that Bill Medley version from Rambo III was a wretched piece of cack. That’s the one where Rambo goes to Afghanistan and single- handedly bitchslaps the entire Soviet Army…along with the help of some brave and plucky Mujihadeen (those who we tend to call the Taleban these days) of course.

  23. 23
    mike on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Why The Reynolds Girls Had To Happen: From the artfully forward-thinking Seventies references of S-Express, The Timelords and Yazz, we’ve now had two consecutive backwards-facing Sixties re-treads, which must have delighted large chunks of Radio One’s ever-aging demographic. (See also: Why Matthew Bannister Had To Happen.)

    However, my chief memory of this song concerns the time I saw Neil Diamond perform it, at Nottingham Arena in July 2002. So perhaps a nine year old re-release warrants an eight year old copy-and-paste job:

    “There is a fine line between populism and schlock. This line comes perilously close to being crossed during the perhaps inevitable September 11 tribute, with its dedication to the police officers, fire fighters and service personnel involved. I feel myself beginning to wince, as each group is applauded in turn. As the crowd applauds “those brave servicemen who risk their lives, every day”, the nice lady next to me notices my half hearted clapping and nudges me. “That’s us lot he’s talking about”, she says, smiling, and motions towards my hands. I don’t suppose she gets thanked very often by her heroes. She’s probably more used to the poorly concealed wincing. Anyway, we’re not applauding the institutions here – we’re applauding the individuals. The tribute song turns out to be He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. I get the message.”

  24. 24
    Steve Mannion on 9 Jul 2010 #

    Why Enya Had To Happen!

  25. 25
    Paytes on 9 Jul 2010 #

    #16. Radiohead ‘fessed up and the writers of ATIB are credited as co-writers of Creep …


    still shocks kids of a certain generation (<30 yrs old) who've grown up with Creep when you play them ATIB …!

  26. 26
    Andrew F on 9 Jul 2010 #

    It still shocks me that anyone thinks that the common elements are the most interesting thing about Creep, what Radiohead added was several levels more engaging than the clay they worked with.

  27. 27
    Paytes on 9 Jul 2010 #

    The Pixies have got a lot to answer for …

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    anto on 9 Jul 2010 #

    It struck me that this is the first of two consecutive number ones where it’s a non-American band attempting an American roots sound.
    In the Hollies case they manage it well in so much as they could pass for American. As for the song I would say it’s concillitary tone carries it for the first 2 or 3 listens, but after that I come to find the harmonica theme dreary, the vocal a bit too nasal and the earnestness is layered on ( ” His welfare is my concern ” and that kind of thing). The middle eight and the coda are good but they draw attention to how plodding the verses are.
    I think Punctum@12 sums it up well. In 1969 the likes of Canned Heat and the Band helped form a wider constituency for songs like He ain’t Heavy.
    In 1988 probably the most incongruous number one since Jim Diamond.

  29. 29
    Abe Fruman on 9 Jul 2010 #


    “whose son Justin is now known as “Mr Tumble” on CBeebies”

    Indeed, but it’s only in the companion role of “Grandad Tumble” where I feel that Justin really excels.

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    wichita lineman on 9 Jul 2010 #

    I thought this was a Bobby Russell song (Little Green Apples, Honey), but in fact it was written by a 55-year old called Bob Russell who had worked on a bunch of film soundtracks but never scored a real hit single before. He died a few months after the Hollies recorded it.

    Neil Diamond’s version apparently predates the Hollies, though Russell’s son-in-law introduced them to the song so that could be a Wiki half-truth.

    This was a song which seemed hugely important when I was a kid – along with Something In The Air, its maybe the most claustrophobic ’69 song. When I was old enough to understand it was post-Nash, cabaret era Hollies I found it pompous (Punctum, I think that line is “if I’m laden at all…” which is another boggy biblical line), but I was so much older then. Now I find its muggy air is sliced apart by Ron Richards’ high string arrangement and the weary but optimistic harmonica with its echo of the (then current) Midnight Cowboy theme.

    The advert doesn’t affect the way I hear it at all. Its heart-in-mouth use in Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City certainly does.

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