Margaret Aspinall had always loved the Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, so – as a small act of love – her 18-year-old son James bought her the single as a present. Five months later he went to watch Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough and never came home.
After his death his mother found it too painful to play the song, but now, 23 years later, she has renewed reason to listen again. On Monday a star-studded version of the track will be released in time to challenge for Christmas number one, with all proceeds going to the legal costs of a fresh inquest into the tragedy. It is a fitting bookmark to a momentous year, said Aspinall, the chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group. “When we hear that song now, we know it is a tribute to the memories of our loved ones, – and I can’t think of anything better than that,” she said.
The Guy Chambers produced song – featuring Liverpool’s most feted son Sir Paul McCartney alongside stars including Robbie Williams, Shane MacGowan, Holly Johnson and Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers – is the bookies’ favourite for Christmas number one. Four months ago, an independent report revealed the failings that led to the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans in a crush at Hillsborough and the full extent of the cover-up that followed. Beverley Knight, Paloma Faith, Rebecca Ferguson and former Spice Girl Mel C are among the singers, while ex-Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, football pundit Alan Hansen and comedian John Bishop make a less tuneful appearance.
Several musicians have spent decades involved in the Hillsborough families’ campaign. The Farm’s Peter Hooton, toured as part of the Justice Collective last year with musicians including Mick Jones of the Clash and Pete Wylie, to raise awareness of the campaign and money for charity. “There is no way we could have envisaged this a year ago – perceptions have changed so much,” he said. “We’ve gone from playing in front of 1,000 people in the Scala as the Justice Tonight Band to challenging for number one – it’s been a massive journey.”
He Ain’t Heavy by The Justice Collective has all the hallmarks of a Christmas charity single: lush production, soaring accompaniment from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and celebrity hands clasped over headphones. But behind the glitz there is a serious aim, said Hooton. “Hopefully on Christmas Day people will watch the video, think about Hillsborough and see the names of those who were killed,” he said. “We are reaching out to a new generation of people who may not have been born when Hillsborough happened – and now they are asking questions. [The song] is not going to get anyone in court, but if it gets to number one it might just put a bit more pressure on the government and keep the wheels of justice turning.”
For Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Walton who was instrumental in bringing artists together and enlisting the support of the families, the swell of support for the song reflects a transformation in people’s perception of Hillsborough following the report in September. “It felt like finally people were sitting up and taking notice,” he said. “It seems like everybody now is listening and the tide has turned.”
An application to quash the original Hillsborough inquest verdicts is due to be heard at the high court next Wednesday. Attorney general Dominic Grieve has said there is a good case for setting aside the accidental death verdicts and holding new hearings into the deaths in the 1989 football stadium disaster. The choice of song, with its lyrics “The road is long/With many a winding turn/That leads us to who knows where/ Who knows when”, was inspired, said Chambers, who played a key role getting key artists like Robbie Williams to get involved. “The lyrics so perfectly describe that emotion of one person wanting to reach out and help another, and if we don’t help each other then everything is lost,” said the songwriter and producer, who spent part of his childhood in Liverpool. “If this record can help in any way, I wanted to be involved.”
The decision to use the Hollies song came after one of the most extraordinary moments of the 2012 football season. Five days after the Independent Hillsborough Panel report Everton – Liverpool’s rivals from across Stanley Park – paid tribute to those who had died before a match against Newcastle United. Before kickoff two mascots, a girl in Everton blue and a boy in the red of Liverpool, led the players on to the pitch. As they stood holding hands, He Ain’t Heavy was played over the tannoy.
Magaret Aspinall said: “All my hair stood up and I could just remember James handing me the record. I wondered if he was trying to tell me something, and he probably was. He was saying ‘Mum, there’s going to be another version and you are going to like it’.” Aspinall, like many family members, hopes the song gets to number one and keeps their battle justice in the public eye. “Like the song says, it’s been a hell of a road, but we are still on it. We’ve got the truth but that is not the end,” she said. “It’s still a winding road until we get accountability – that’s when this journey will come to an end.”