After last week’s fascinating interview with Guillem Balague, I was asked by Lowdown Magazine to interview Peter Hooton, lead singer of The Farm and one of the people behind the Christmas number one single ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’. Below is the article in full, which will feature in this month’s Lowdown.
Peter Hooton was a key figure in organising this year’s Christmas number one, the re-recording of ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’. The track, originally by The Hollies, features a number of star guest performers, including Robbie Williams, Paul McCartney, Beverley Knight and Paloma Faith. Hooton, famous for his work as lead singer with ‘The Farm’, spoke to us about the moment he found out they had reached number one, how the collaboration first came about and how important it was to produce a fitting memorial to those lost in Hillsborough following the revelations in December.
How did you react when you heard you had reached number one?
We were told to travel down to the Radio One studios a couple of hours before it was officially announced, so we had an inkling. When it was officially announced, we were really pleased, also considering that the organising and planning of it only started in mid-October. So it was unprecedented really. It was because of people helping out who were unpaid, and coming onboard out of the goodness of their hearts. It was good to get a number one instead of the X Factor or other institutions who plan their release nine months in advance. But it wasn’t a celebration as such because of what it was for. Keith out of the band lost one his mates at Hillsborough as well. So instead of a big celebration, we just started hugging each other. When Radio One announced it and we were in the studios, Keith got a bit upset and I got little upset, because of what it really meant to us. I mean to get a number one without any marketing budget is remarkable, because it just shows you ‘people power’ really. We told the press officer though that there was to be no contact with The Sun. Being the biggest selling paper in the country and it usually likes to champion certain causes, they had nothing to do with the single. The biggest selling paper in the country and we banned them from reporting on it! So that was another remarkable thing you know, managing to achieve what we did without needing the biggest newspaper supporting us. To quote Mick Jones “It was one of his proudest moments”. We were sitting in the pub on the Sunday night when we got to number one and he had the official chart banner next to him as he was having a pint saying “We’ve done it. We’ve done it”.
How did the idea to release the single come about?
You see, there was no plan or inkling of what we should do. I spoke with Steve Rotheram (MP) with the idea to release a single in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough. So that really was the beginning of the timeline. He rang me in 2008 and said he’d been in touch with Rick Parry at Liverpool Football Club to see if they’d planned anything special yet for the 20th anniversary. Because he was Lord Mayor at the time he said he wanted to put Hillsborough back on the political agenda because he was in a position to do so. So what he wanted to do first of all was use the power of pop music and make a commemorative record. So we said to do ‘The Fields of Anfield Road’ because there wasn’t a definitive version of it. In the end, that was a massive success for us. We kept it really organic and it ended up selling 50 to 60,000 copies. So I reminded Steve about it and said to try and re-release it for Christmas. In the meantime Everton had done their tribute before the Newcastle game. So when they did that, I said to Steve that that was such a fantastic and iconic tribute, why don’t we re-release ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’, the original Hollies version. This was because it was already October by then, and you just can’t plan to re-record a song, manufacture it, promote it and distribute it in time for Christmas. It’s impossible! But the suggestion was made to re-record it, because if we did, we could get a Liverpool number one. I said to Steve, “what are you talking about? It’s October!” I think October 19th was the first real meeting where we got our management involved. The Farm were playing in Blackburn so we had to send our manager to the meeting, and we were told that we couldn’t release the single in time for Christmas, as it was just impossible. We’d set a date at the end of October to record it, but usually distribution and everything needs to be sorted out six to nine months in advance. But Steve managed to convince them that it was a good idea, and he said to me the next day that we’re going to the trenches with it. He had that natural enthusiasm. Like Bill Shankly used to say “if you’ve got natural enthusiasm, you can do anything”. So we decided that if we can get the right people involved, it could just happen. Maybe not number one, but if we got the right people involved we could at least have a chance at it. The very next day we were on our way to Newcastle to play a gig, and we got a text through from Guy Chambers who said he’d love to get up and play with the Justice Tonight band if they are ever back in London. So with the re-release in mind, Keith rang him up and told him the idea, asking if he was interested. He got back to us almost immediately and told us he was in. And I mean as soon as Guy Chambers is involved, it’s a whole different project, from just doing our best with the re-release, to having Guy Chambers and a list of names he’s worked with over the past years like Robbie Williams, Mel C, Holly Johnson, Rebecca Ferguson. And that’s how we got those people involved. It was only when Guy took control that we started thinking that there’s a possibility here, we’ve got a chance of this going all the way. It was still based on chance and fate really. We went to the studio to start recording, and Guy had arranged to get the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the LIPA Gospel Choir, and everyone happened to be available. So everything seemed to be fitting into place. Then of course Paul McCartney got involved through one of the guitarists who plays in the Justice Tonight Band. It’s Paul McCartney, so of course his diary must usually be booked up, but he happened to be available too. And another chance meeting was when I went to a Liverpool match and I was asked “Are you going to ask Glen Tilbrook from Squeeze to get involved?” and I said I didn’t even know how I’d get hold of him. He replied “I’ve got his phone number. Here do you want it?”. So it was all mad. These mad chance things. Everything just fell into place. With Guy, how he recorded it, we were wondering how was he going to do it because I loved the original so much. It was a classic, so how could he emulate it? But he respected the original so much, he even managed to keep the original 60’s tempo, which actually goes slightly out of time. We had Chris Sharrock in as our drummer who had to play along to a click track that went out of time! So it was just amazing how it all came about, you know. It was a journey really from the Justice Tonight band which just kept snowballing, and this was just the logical conclusion. A year or two ago we’d been playing to 800 to 1000 people around the country with the Justice Tonight Band and now we had a Christmas number one. It was fairytale stuff and for what the cause was, it was so important to the families that we got behind it to try and get it to number one.
How did the Justice Tonight Band come about?
We originally did a ‘Don’t Buy The Sun’ concert in September 2011 for the Hillsborough campaign which was also for Jamie McVey, a lad who lost his life in a street attack whose father wanted justice for. His dad wanted a memorial for his lad and asked if we’d play. In the meantime, Billy Bragg had released ‘Scousers Never Buy The Sun’ as a free download. So we thought it would be a great way to have both causes pushed. So we looked to get in touch with some of the people our management have worked with to see if they’d be interested. What you’ve also got to remember is that the News of the World had just shut down, and we wanted News International to swing back towards Hillsborough. All the publicity seemed to be about this hacking stuff and corruption which was current, and we were just thinking that we had this twenty-three years ago. So the idea really came from that. Then we got a call saying Mick Jones wanted to play, and he wanted to do Clash songs. Songs he’d rarely done aside from a few things with Joe Strummer before he passed away. The reason he wanted to them was because he felt it was right to do them because it was about protest and campaigning for justice. So we learnt the songs and The Farm did them along with the rest of the Justice Collective. And that concert was supposed to be one-off. But Mick enjoyed it so much that he said we should take it on the road and use it as a way to campaign for Hillsborough, because at this time the panel was still sitting and we didn’t know what the findings would be. We knew enough about it though to know it was a massive injustice. Mick said that the September 2011 gig was the natural thing for him to do, because he first picked up a guitar at the age of 15 to protest injustices, and now in 2011 he was doing the same.
Are there further plans to tour or record with The Justice Tonight Band?
I’m not so sure. Mick was thinking last year of taking it to America because Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine) wanted to get involved but because of the last few months of 2012 and everything that came out, I think everyone wants a break from it now. I think Mick wants a break and so did we all after the number one, just as a way to reflect really on what came out. There’s no plans to play again at the moment, but I’m not saying that won’t change in the future. There were a few possible projects for us. I think Glastonbury were interested in us playing on one of their stages at one point. But at the moment I can’t see that happening myself.
This week brought the news that all profits made on the single through HMV will definitely be safeguarded. How did you react to this news?
It was great news. Steve Rotheram got in touch with Deloitte and told them that we needed a decision on this quick because this is very important and needs to be prioritised. Deloitte more or less gave him the assurance that the money was protected. It’s not only the money raised, it’s the staff that we were also concerned about, with money being taken when staff members still haven’t been paid. For example, HMV stores in Ireland, a lot of their staff haven’t been paid. I think it was 16 stores. But I think they’ve now been promised they will be back paid too. So everything’s turned out well now. The 50,000 singles that HMV sold were around about a sixth of total sales, but because they were £2 in store, it was a significant amount of money. The money we’ve raised will be put into a trust fund and administered hopefully by the Bishops of Liverpool, and the families will be able to use the money for any future costs. The inquests are paid by the government, but if they’re held in Rotherham, Yorkshire or Doncaster or places like that, the family members have to pay to get over there. I know that a few had to take out loans and second mortgages because they had to travel to Sheffield every day for the inquests. So it’s worked out great that this money has been safeguarded for that.