Thursday, 10 September 2009

1988 The Hollies: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

And still the cover versions a-keep-on-a-coming. And now not just a plain old cover version, but one that's a straight re-release of a song with almost twenty candles on its cake; 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' was originally a number three hit for The Hollies in 1969.

Though he didn't write it, Neil Diamond provided the first recorded version though to be fair, it's become as closely associated with The Hollies as robins are to Christmas. This re-release wasn't part of yet another jeans campaign, but instead arrived on the back of a television advert for lite beer ('He Ain't Heavy'.... Geddit? I'll let you take a few moments while you zip up your ribs).

The origins of the title may be disputed, but there's no doubt as to meaning of the metaphor; the selfless act of looking out for someone else to your own detriment, a sixth form version of 'Two Little Boys' if you like. This chimed well with the message of love and peace that was prevalent in the late sixties and, as 'Two Little Boys' is a favourite of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it sits as comfortably in the 1988 chart as a case of irony piles too.

But as Ian Hunter once sang, 'Old Records Never Die' and the quality of the track and the performance spans the twenty years in an eyeblink. In 1969, the string led backing and floating, minor key harmonica riff could have been cribbed directly from the 'How To Do West Coast Hippie' manual, but the epic feel of the song and the sense that it had something to say for itself raises it well above the merely derivative and now sounds timeless rather than of its time.

It's certainly a departure from the snappy pop that used to be The Hollies stock in trade and the impassioned lead vocal from Allan Clarke can perhaps be seen as a two fingers to former member Graham Nash, recently departed to ply his trade on that same West Coast, to show that The Hollies could do hippy idealism along with the best of them.

And that's why I commented on the 'sixth form' nature of the song; 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' is as idealistic a song as they come, a dewy eyed plea for getting along beamed direct from an era where such messages were ten a penny. Which isn't necessarily cause to damn it in modern eyes, but I think it speaks volumes that the song's own internal message was enough to carry it in 1969, though by the time the self obsessed individualistic society of 1988 rolled around it needed a quirky advert for piss weak lager to set it on its way.


  1. Not sure about the =sixth form=, the writers bobby scott and bob russell were getting on. The tone is more wistful than idealistic. =the road leads who knows where...= The altruism is not quite selfless sentimentality but more balanced as in =For I know, He would not encumber me....= I think it is an old and young song. =While we're on the way to there Why not share....= Almost religious thinking about.... Regards D.Turner

  2. By 'sixth form' I had in mind an idealistic mentality that's born out of an education not supplemented by life experience, though you don't need to be sixteen to be in that place. Wistful as a song maybe, but I find Clarke's vocal too forceful for that; he puts me in mind of someone who does a lot of charity work and DOES want to talk about it. Thanks for reading though.