The Magic Highway
Jeff Christie spoke to Andy Potter from BBC Radio Derby in August 2012 to reflect on his songwriting career and publicise the album No Turn Unstoned. Here are some excerpts from the excellent interview.

Andy Potter

Andy Potter (AP): Yellow River was written by band leader Jeff Christie, who was awarded the prestigious Ivor Novello and Carl Alan awards. Jeff has also had songs recorded by the likes of Leapy Lee, REM, Quicksilver, the list goes on. He's got a new double album out called No Turn Unstoned, it goes by the name of Christie but basically it looks back at four decades of songs and compositions and Jeff putting them down onto tape. I asked Jeff what's it like in 2012 with a new album coming out?

Jeff Christie (JC): Well, it's a brand new old album, but it's a throwback to the 70s, they're all old demos done when I was with Christie, and I'd record them in these little studios around Leeds when I'd come off tours. I'd knock them out pretty fast and not worry about perfect vocals, the main thing was to get the idea down. I had to pay for these, these weren't record company-funded, and there were time constraints. Very often I'd play the tracks all myself and would sometimes pull in whoever was there, for example my drummer at the time, Paul Fenton. Some of the tracks were done at home and some have tape dropout. I was a bit reticent at first when Peter Purnell of Angel Air (the record label for the album) asked me if I had any stuff. I sent some songs down to him and he got back to me and said "They're gems". I said "They're not finished and weren't meant to be listened to as finished products". He said that's what's great about them, they're rough and ready, warts-and-all ragged glory songs, and that's what the album's all about. You're listening to songs, not perfect finished things. It's sort of a raggedy unplugged kinda thing.

AP: Could you put yourself back into the time when you recorded them? Can you put the order together?

JC: I can. The first four tracks on the album were done in Burnham, when I was living there, so that would be 1973, just outside London. Two of them were when the band was together and we were using a Grundig tape recorder, and done in one take. From there on, the rest of side one were tracks I used to do when I would come back to Leeds during the breaks. These songs are ones which had been written and for whatever reason were displaced, or some were kept for future Christie albums or b-sides, or even a-sides, but the fact was that Christie folded in 1975 and these tracks were just sitting there for ages.

AP: Listening to this, you can see a stream of consciousness as well because you can hear how your songwriting technique is changing and what's going through your mind .. do you listen to this as somebody learning their craft?

JC: Definitely, as a songwriter I was experimenting with different styles. You're always trying to write the perfect song. Of course there's no such thing but you gotta aim high, and I think that's what keeps you going. And I think there's a level of maturity in a lot of these songs. The songs I wrote in the 60s were my first efforts at writing. I feel that songs from the 80s and 90s reflect more life experience and you've got so many years under your belt, so your palette is much wider. Everything you see and everything you hear, even on an unconscious level, just what you absorbed in your life, and when you've been around the block a few times, which I have, you've seen a lot of stuff. So there's a lot to write about, even if you're just writing a simple love song.

An extract from the double album's booklet.

AP: When do you know you've made it as a songwriter? When you get your first PRS (performance rights) cheque?

JC: I think that goes some way to validate it. The fact that here you are making a little bit of money on something that you've done. It does feel good but on another altruistic level, when I started to write songs, it was because no-one else in the band was prepared to write them. For me it was a natural thing that I wanted to do because as a kid when I was playing the piano, I'd always experiment making up little tunes and stuff. I took to it like a duck to water. It's a great feeling writing songs, especially when you get good chords and a really good top line, good structure. And you'd find a title and there's the challenge, what can you with the title?

AP: Is it a natural talent then, do you hear things and sounds, can you be taught to be a songwriter?

JC: I think you need to have sense of affinity, some sense of lyric writing. Some people just write great words and team up with great tunesmiths. I would write both words and music. But the first thing is you really have to want to do it. And then you have to learn as much as you can about the craft. The more time you invest in it, the greater the dividends.

AP: You gave Yellow River to the Tremeloes. Had the Trems gone with the song and you had not formed Christie, would your career had taken a different track?

JC: Quite possibly. Assuming Yellow River for the Trems would have the same sort of global success, it would have catapulted me to a different level as a songwriter. So I would have been in much more demand as a writer. Because at the time all sorts of people were already asking me to write for them. Had the Trems done it, who's to say, I might have had a lot more covers out by other artists. But really what's important to me is being a good and successful songwriter. All the fame stuff is .. and I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it .. but it's a bit of an impost, it's a job.

AP: What was it like when you were walking down the street and you heard you song coming out of a radio?

JC: It was a great thrill obviously. It's like asking somebody what do you feel like when you realise your dream has come true? In a way it was quite scary. First of all it was never what you imagined it to be. I remember in London one sunny day getting into a car and hearing it and it sounded great on the radio. I knew the first play was going to be by Tony Blackburn and I was still living at home in Leeds when it came out in April 1970 and I had the transistor radio by my bed and I knew it was going to come on at about 8 o'clock. It sounded so great when it came blasting out and Tony gave it just a great plug. At that particular point it hadn't broken through, it had just been released. Watching the song climb and breaking all records ... at its peak Yellow River was selling 80,000-90,000 records a day! It's mind-boggling and really hard to take in. To this day it feels like somebody else's life!

AP: And here we are now. This has been a lifetime career, hasn't it?

JC: I just love music so much. I live and breathe it. It's not just pop music or rock'n'roll or the blues. I love classical music, and flamenco and guitars. I just wish I could play or write better and that's what I aspire to. And that's the thrill of it all. I really feel sorry for people who have no desire to excel at anything. I don't know what I would have done otherwise. I didn't want to work in a bank or in a factory. I've been very fortunate to have music as a career.

AP: Here's a cliched question. What song would you like to play from the 40 songs on this album and why?

JC: I'm gonna plump for a song called Troubled Times. It's pretty pared down and I did this by myself. But it's got something to it, it's got an atmosphere to it.