Jul 10

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

Popular58 comments • 6,230 views

#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. 31
    Jet Simian on 9 Jul 2010 #

    In NZ we never got the Miller Lite ad, but the song had a very earnest return to telly screens in 1991 as part of a spearhead PR campaign for the New Zealand Police and the recently-invested National government who’d made boosting their numbers a key election pledge the previous year. Apologies for poor quality video, accents etc:


    I’m pretty sure the original ad as I recall it didn’t have the voice-over and was the more effective for it.

  2. 32
    admin on 9 Jul 2010 #

    The Hollies song “I Can’t Tell The Bottom From The Top” … was co-written by Guy Fletcher, whose son Justin is now known as “Mr Tumble” on CBeebies


  3. 33
    intothefireuk on 9 Jul 2010 #

    A song I didn’t fully appreciate when it was first a hit and one that seemed to have been around forever. I wasn’t particularly drawn to it on it’s 88 revival either and it did seem an incongruous and backwards looking number one. However it does have a sincerity and warmth which despite the semi-religious lyrics and overly nasal vocals put it head and shoulders above most of the rest of 88’s number one offerings. A comfortable 6 heading towards 7.

  4. 34
    Mark G on 10 Jul 2010 #


    You mean the discrimination against people with Crohns disease? You bastards!

    Oh hang on, it’s spelled wrong…

  5. 35
    adam t on 10 Jul 2010 #

    In Canada we got this song in a long-running anti-drug PSA: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6rO3TGDAHs

  6. 36
    JonnyB on 10 Jul 2010 #

    I like it. And the thing I like best is the absence of ham. There are certain songs that are destined (or written) to fulfil the market for cloying ham, and this is one of them – as several minor cover versions have demonstrated. Whereas the original has a biggish production and big vocals but still – to me – sounds simple and slightly sincere.

    I recall the existence of the commercial, but no more than that so no negatives from me. A vegetarian 7.

  7. 37

    “Anachronism” means — literally — something lie “untimeliness”l; but if “chronism” therefore means “timeliness” i’m not sure it means it the way english means it (i suspect it just would mean “concerned with time” in a vague all-purpose way)

    for purposes of clarity (and handy rhetorical singong) i’d opt for a counter-prefix, hence maybe isochronism (which does pretty much mean “contemporaneous”) or if you wanted to be more socially conceptual, epichronism (meaning i’m not sure what, as i think I just invented it, but something like “concerned with timeliness”, on the principle that “anachronism” has taken on the meaning “unconcerned with timeliness”, which it maybe sorta kinda has…)

  8. 38

    (ps someone who actually reads classical greek may want to step in here^^^)

    also we could get back to discussing the hollies i suppose: i found this a hugely weird record at the time — it pushed buttons, but in such a jumbled-up way; i am susceptible to the resigned blue-collar decency assumed to suffuse the post-hippie shabby small-bar-blues ethic, nostalgic and utopian, self-deprecatingly reactionary, the music of a soured or overlooked world nevertheless struggling for a social space for affability and moments of ease, a world that’s pulled its militant horns in but hasn’t forgotten its — never-very-well articulated? — ideals, etc etc. I think the success of this song as an advert does indeed — as Tom notes — highlight a flaw in this ethos: the advert magnifies the flaw until it overwhelms not just the original mood of the song itself but also the world the song came from (or perhaps more accurately, it OBSCURES and BANISHES the world it came from; places it beyond the reach of those who weren’t already in it; helps allow the substitution of the organising principle of open and generous collectivity for one of self-important cliquieishness, the signifers of the former now attached to the latter)

    which is sad: because i think the song is basically true to the earlier world and the near-political concept at its heard, and that world (a failed but dogged attempt to resolve contradictions by non-tribal kindness) is by no means to be reviled — the Dance Revolution that’s already pullulating under and through the charts will of course in summer 88 declare itself the “second summer of love” and throw the rave world’s arms wide, turning its labyrinth of clubby cliques into another utterly open loved-up come-one-come-all heaving vertical bed-in, as generous as it too was doomed…

  9. 39
    thefatgit on 10 Jul 2010 #

    P^nk s has made a very valid point. The fact that I remembered HAHHMB more as an advertising jingle rather than a song in it’s own right (note I had heard the song before the ad, but I don’t remember being “affected” by it) means that any sentiment the song conveys is buried under a swathe of marketing nonsense. Shame really, because listening to it now (a very safe distance from the influence of the piss from Milwaukee) it’s a fine gospelly flavoured pop song. By this time in 88, I was sporting an acid-yellow bandana and board-shorts and anything with a smiley on it (ugh!).

  10. 40
    Rory on 10 Jul 2010 #

    @18 @34 @37 You do all know that it was meant to be an amusing bit of wordplay, I hope…

    Fun fact: achronism = anachronism, according to the OED.

  11. 41
    TomLane on 10 Jul 2010 #

    A good solid 7, which is where this peaked in the U.S when first released. The word “nice” has been bandied about for this, and that pretty much sums up the whole recording.

  12. 42
    lonepilgrim on 10 Jul 2010 #

    I’m not sure I buy into the idea that a song’s ‘meaning’ can be irrevocably undermined – although I can see that a generation more familiar with the beer ad would struggle to connect with the earlier utopian associations. I’m not sure that HNHHMB was perceived as an authentic articulation of that ideal, any more than Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco’ was seen as a genuine hippie anthem – the Hollies’ version is a little too well arranged. I guess that the ‘meaning’ has never been entirely agreed at any time.

    Dylan pissed his fans off (yet again) when he licensed ‘The Times they are a changing’ for use in a bank ad a few years back – but whether he was trying to prove anything or even cared one way or another is open to debate

  13. 43
    rosie on 11 Jul 2010 #

    lonepilgrim @42:

    ‘Meaning’ is such a fragile thing though, and the meaning you find in a song is synthesised in your head by the reaction of the song with your own experience.

    I think Tom’s parallel between HAHHMB and Woodstock is a valid one. In 1969 the guard was being changed an a generation of pop was moving on as its dream faded. Much of the Hollies’ classic 60s canon was an evocation of innocence, young love, coming of age. This is that generation realising that the innocence of youth has been shattered and realising that they are faced with the task of making their way in a cynical world. For a later generation it’s just a catchy song from an advert, something different perhaps from what they’re used to, but for them it will be forever tangled with laddishness and pseudo-beer (it’s made from rice, FFS!)

    Persse McGarrigle, the Parsifal figure in Small World, David Lodge’s Arthurian satire of the academic world, accidentally discovers post-structuralism when he slaps down the distinguished academic who is patronising him about his thesis. Oh no, he lies, it’s not about the influence of Shakespeare on Eliot, it’s about the influence of Eliot on Shakespeare and how could you avoid reading Hamlet through the lens of Prufrock. Or something. The example I like to quopte is Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure, who “keeps a bawdy house in the suburbs”. Of course the meaning of ‘suburbs’ has changed since Shakey used it and now it’s impossibl;e not to think of Cynthia Payne.

  14. 44
    lonepilgrim on 11 Jul 2010 #

    @ 43 I agree that ‘meaning’ is a fragile thing and not fixed.
    Consequently I don’t think that the song had one (nostalgic/utopian) meaning for an earlier generation that has been replaced by another, more cynical, meaning by a later generation. There’s a danger of ascribing beleifs about the song to ‘a whole generation of pop’ when, more likely, there was, and still is, a range of interpretations across generations.

  15. 45
    wichita lineman on 12 Jul 2010 #

    There’s always the Vietnam angle (there always is with a ’69 single). Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City used it as a backdrop to the Korean War which, for some unlucky souls, involved British soldiers less than a decade after WW2 ended. It’s a flawed but beautiful film; it’s made me listen to this song afresh, and I think it would flush the Miller Lite memories out of anyone’s system.

    Re 42: Far from Utopian, it feels like a song that audibly wades through mud, the biblical stuff tying it to centuries-old memories, trying to rise above (which is why the arrangement works for me – it would be a desperate trudge if it was ‘arranged’ like, say, The Weight).

    As for Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco, it was written by John Philips, anticipating the forthcoming summer of love, as he was putting the Monterrey festival together. So the hippies were WRONG! It’s, uh, the real thing!!

  16. 46
    Tom on 12 Jul 2010 #

    Of course the beer ad is traducing TWO utopian ideals – that of the late 60s, but also the older ideal of pub-going sociality (probably of more importance to me!)

  17. 47
    Old Fart!!!!!!! on 12 Jul 2010 #

    I seem to remember this load of old guff also got a leg-up from being featured prominently on the charity appeals in the very first Red Nose Day tellyboxcast in ’88!!!! I must say by the end of the proceedings, I absolutely blooming sick of hearing that “harmonica going off-key” intro!!!!! And that was even before The Hollies appeared in one of the most tediously smug and self-satisfied performances I have ever witnessed on TOTP!!!!!! Even the tellybox directors colluded in the smugfest, carefully composing shots of the band singing in three-part harmony, JUST LIKE A CLASSIC SIXTIES BAND, KIDS!!! And even worse, the close-up on the face as he sings into tha camera “He ain’t heavy…. [smugface] He’s my brotheeerrrrr”, by which time the Old Folk’s home has turned into a vomitorium!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  18. 48
    rosie on 12 Jul 2010 #

    Some nugger has stolen the 1/! key from my keyboard.

    Waldo? Is that you?

  19. 49
    23 Daves on 12 Jul 2010 #

    @ 47 – I was about to say that. What turned me off this song at the time wasn’t the Miller advert, but the pompous TOTP studio performances, complete with furrowed brows, sincere stares, and long, lingering camera shots designed to hammer home the “seriousness” of the track. Much of this may have been down to the TOTP production team, of course, but a hell of a lot of the blame lay at the feet of the band themselves. “The Hollies,” as a friend of mine said at the time, “what a bunch of prats”. Thinking back, perhaps they were over-compensating for the way the Miller advert had trivialised the song – although the use of it in that context must surely have been their fault too.

    Now that memories of both things have been pushed to the back of my mind, I have to say that I find this to be a really effective single. I’ve arrived late to this discussion, so many people have already commented about the arrangement and vocal delivery, although nobody’s mentioned that bassline yet, which seems to be slowly strolling ahead doggedly in a very determined way. Neither Hollies number one is their best work by a long chalk, but this still stands up perfectly well.

  20. 50
    Sad Stories on 14 Jul 2010 #

    i used to love this album..
    Sad, Sorrow and Sadness | Sad Songs of Love | Sad Quote of Love | Sad Love Poems

  21. 51
    wichita lineman on 16 Jul 2010 #

    A beautiful, unlikely disco track from their Polydor period:


    It ended up on the b-side of the horrible Soldier’s Song, an old Terry Wogan favourite written by Mike Batt.

  22. 52
    Paytes on 16 Jul 2010 #

    #51 Lovely stuff, thanks! (unlikely)Balearic gold!

  23. 53
    ace inhibitor on 19 Jul 2010 #

    odd that two songs from 1969 on almost precisely the same theme should get to number one 20 years apart.

    From a Leavisite perspective, of course, ‘Two Little Boys’ is the better of the two, because it renders in concrete and particular narrative imagery what ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’ makes generalised and preachy. Rolf shows where the Hollies tell.

  24. 54
    Snif on 20 Jul 2010 #

    And for the hopelessly juvenile among you, have a cheap laff at this (you’ll know which one to click on)


  25. 55
    Billy on 27 Jul 2010 #

    The number 1 the day I was born. Despite my massive love of music from my birth decade, it’s ironic that my birth #1 is a song from 20 years earlier. I’ve never associated it with the Miller Lite advert because I’ve never seen it, instead I just hear a quite beautiful song. One of the oldest songs I have on my iPod, though copied from my vinyl of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music 13’…

  26. 56
    Martin Skidmore on 28 Jul 2010 #

    I think this is a quite nice, genuine song, well sung – maybe as an old bloke who already knew it well, any ad context did nothing to undermine its modest place in my heart.

  27. 57
    hectorthebat on 23 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 401-500
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  28. 58
    Gareth Parker on 1 Jun 2021 #

    A Hollies classic in my view 8/10.

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