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The Magic Highway

 

Leading music publication Billboard launched a Russian edition in May/June 2007. One of the first people they interviewed was Jeff Christie, because the For All Mankind album is regarded as a masterpiece in Russia. Here's a translation of the text.


By Alexandra Buts

Billboard coverRussia Billboard (RB): After the great success of the first release, why did you change the sound, stylistics and creative approach in such a cardinal way? In general, you trespassed upon another music territory.
Jeff Christie (JC): As a songwriter I wanted the freedom to write and sing whatever I felt challenged me musically, in order to grow and mature artistically. It was just a natural progression for me to experiment with different styles. This had always been how I functioned as a songwriter and singer before Yellow River became a massive worldwide success in 1970.
   My previous group The Outer Limits had some small record success and released two records showing two distinct styles of writing. The first, Just One More Chance, released in 1967, was a smaller hit and was later classed as a blue-eyed soul classic in later years and to this day, still to be found on record compilations of 'fringe' bands' from the 60s. It spawned covers by two American bands - The Hondells who had previously featured Glen Campbell on their studio sessions with a 'Beach Boys' style version; and The Patrick Bradley, a New York band whose version apparently has a mighty price tag on it today and is held in high regard and is, I understand, something of a collector's item. Also an Italian version titled Era Qui by I Dalton added something continental! My own original version was recently re-released as a speciality limited edition on the Acme label fairly recently 40 years later!
   The second release, The Great Train Robbery, might be loosely likened to an early Gibb Brothers ballad with some dark overtones that appealed to the producer Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones manager).
   I started writing songs in 1965, experimenting, listening and being influenced by the great singers and song writers of the '60s who I looked up to, so when Yellow River hit big, five years later, people assumed this was my 'bag' but it wasn't; it was just a country rock style phase and seam that I was to mine for a period of time. I was into a wide range of musical styles from blues through to rock, pop, and country.
   My mother was a ballet dancer and I grew up with a strong love of classical music and flamenco, so given the chance I was bound to try to express my song writing in the widest possible way.

RB: Was this your own decision or a joint one? Did someone advise this to you?
JC: My decision, I was looking for a heavier production than the first album with songs that were a little darker and not so bright and bouncy.

RB: Were the second album songs created beforehand so that they got new arrangement or did you create them directly before the recording?
JC: Beforehand, some on tour, some at home. A deliberate policy to beef things up all round and to reflect the live stage show which, as well as being very visual, was heavier than the records. Without making comparisons obviously, I toured with my then band, The Outer Limits, with Hendrix in '67 and never bought his records because they always seemed to me to lack the sheer power and dynamics of his live performance which was unbelievable, especially when he stayed in tune! I think recording technology has progressed so much that nowadays you can capture the authenticity and power of a live act much better than then.

RB: While creating the songs initially, did you have an understanding of how will they sound like?
JC: Yes, to a certain extent I was able to visualise the feel, tempo, instrumentation and sound of the production that I wanted to achieve in the studio, but sometimes something or other doesn't quite work for one reason or another and you take a different direction, sometimes a mistake can lead to a brilliant reworking of your original idea. On the other hand nothing may work so the song just doesn't make it on to the track list.

RB: Were there any band members changes during that period?
JC: Yes, I replaced the first drummer, who left after a few months, with Paul Fenton, a powerful drummer who was a friend that I had worked with in Leeds in the late '60's, and a larger than life character! His style was more appropriate and solid and more suited to my song writing than the previous drummer.

RB: Did you have a busy concert timetable at that time and did it anyhow interfere with the preparations for the recording?
JC: Yes, to some extent. It's always a trade-off. The first year, 1970, was so hectic with the success of Yellow River and San Bernadino, plus the rushed recording of the first album and touring the world incessantly, it was hard to catch your breath let alone write songs, but somehow all the excitement and adrenalin keeps you 'flying' through it all, and what with CBS, producers, managers, publishers, and agents all screaming for new product, it forces a certain disciplined focus, otherwise you don't deliver, the strain gets to you and you go into meltdown. For all Mankind allowed us a little more slack, and I was able to multi track more instruments after the band went home after initially laying down bass, drums, and guitar.

RB: Did you have a ready concept of a new album when approaching the studio or did it appear during the recording process?
JC: I already had some songs that were loosely conceptual in their anti-war vibe and I think it just flowed from there.

Russian article

RB: What was the reaction of CBS to such a change? Were there any disagreements, arguments or attempts to prevent you from this change?
JC: CBS wanted Yellow River, parts 1,2,3,4 ad infinitum. They were on to a good thing and not wanting any deviation from course, which from a business point of view I can understand, but I was artistically motivated, not money-motivated, and I found a way through, although they never gave it the same promotional support as the previous stuff and as a result sales suffered. They would no doubt dispute this.

RB: Describe the recording session process itself - how was it held, who was participating, which studio was it held at, how long did it take, were there any special events or moments that you still remember during the recording process?
JC: The band was still a three-piece at the time; it became a four-piece later. The procedure as a rule was, after writing the songs, I'd bring them in and rehearse them with the others somewhere; sometimes in dressing rooms, on the road, or in a country cottage just outside London where we'd come off the road for a week maybe and learn the songs. I'd slip a few of them into the shows to try and gauge audience response and to discover how they worked in a live context. This helped shape the arrangements with dynamics, light and shade, attention to weak points that would need strengthening or re-thinking until hopefully the infant grows into a strong adult, so to speak!
   Mostly, by the time we hit CBS studios in Old Bond Street we had the rhythm section rehearsed and learnt usually. In the studio we'd start by putting the bass, drums and guitar down first and then either double track the guitar, and add a pilot (guide) vocal, then adding acoustic guitars and some keyboards (piano, organ, harmonium, etc). Once a good feel had been achieved and track was about 70pc finished, I'd try and get the best vocal I could and then add finishing touches like percussion, real handclaps, harmonies and back-up vocals and guitar solos.
   Once the song was finished the mixing process would begin, overseen by the producer Martin Clark and Mike Ross, the sound engineer. I co-produced all tracks and was always there for the mix. The other two went home usually after putting down their respective tracks and after hanging around for a while to see what else might be added, but the whole process, being somewhat experimental, meant lots of listening and going over stuff endlessly, as well as looking for faults or mistakes, so it can be very boring unless an individual is actually totally committed and absorbed by the whole process which can be very exhausting.
   The record would have my name on it, I felt responsible, and therefore gave it all my energy, heart and soul through the entire process. The studios were CBS studios in Old Bond Street and my partners in crime were Paul Fenton, drums and percussion, Vic Elmes, guitar and vocals, myself on bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards, and lead vocals (except Magic Highway and Country Sam) and any other instrument I could get a tune out of that was lying around in the studio!
   As far as special moments, there were two that stand out: For All Mankind, the title track was special, originally conceived with a brass band in mind. CBS wouldn't pay for the sessions which I thought was a big mistake. It would have been wonderful, but they couldn't see it, so I had to keep it intimate and as plaintive as I could, hopefully I achieved that to some extent.
   After we'd put down the basic track the boys left and I sat down at the harmonium, which had a beautiful, sorrowful and haunting accordion-like sound. It seemed to drip with emotion and drama, inspiring some aching vocals and a great guitar solo from Vic, added later. I think that vocal was done in one or two takes and the atmosphere in the studio was electric, perhaps it had something to do with the giant spliff Martin rolled and handed to me before the take!
   The studio lights were down, I stood at the mike in the big room with no one else around except Martin and Mike in the control room, and sang my heart out, cheesy but true!
   If Only was built up entirely on my own. I started with double tracked Gibson Jumbo acoustic, and added tambourine, harmonium, some guitar picking and a vocal. Even though the vocal was less than perfect technically it had that plaintive, vulnerable quality that summed up this yearning love song. The chord progression, I felt was adventurous and distant from any previous country influence or style. Also the single note ascending, and descending harmonium figure helped build tension and added a subtle dynamic to the track.
   I'm proud of these two songs, for their simplicity and emotional structure, even though they both have somewhat complex chord progressions. The whole album took a few months, due to tour schedules and other artists already booked in to the studio, but in terms of actual recording time, I'd say about six weeks.

Russian articleRB: We would like to learn more about the sound engineering of the record and moreover about the technical side of the recording: what equipment was used, what instruments?
JC: I think I answered this in the last question, except for the desk, which I think had just been changed from a 4-track to an 8-track SSL probably. I don't think it was a Nieve, but it was a long time ago! One change was very little vocal double tracking on my voice, which I'd always quite liked; Martin wanted it as dry as possible and a close microphone technique. I think the effect worked for the most part. The exception was Man Of Many Faces, the third single and more hooky than most of the other songs, warranting a tight double tracked vocal in the chorus.

RB: Who is the artist who made the record-cover artwork? Were there any other versions of it? Could you please describe the artwork concept? Whose tombstone is depicted on the front cover? What was the idea of placing a photo of Hiroshima inside?
JC: Well, the art direction was by John Hayes and the front cover tombstone photography was by Campbell MacCallum. I think there were some other ideas for the cover but I remember asking Brian Longley (manager) if we could get some kind of pictorial link to the anti-war sentiment of several of the songs and the consequences of war, but at the same time the hope that peace, and understanding could prevail. A tall order I suppose, the artwork team just came back with the tombstone and Hiroshima pictures, a bit in your face you might say!
   It took me all my time to struggle for some degree of artistic control musically, CBS weren't going to let me call the shots on much else, the same went for all the promo films we did for all the single releases. I had my own ideas of what kind of promo film should go with whatever the current release was, but all the thinking was locked in to that idiotic 'Hard Days Night/Help' cloned antics; great for the Beatles, but they were out on their own anyway. Why copy that, it could never be as good!
   The tombstone depicted was for Richard Bamfield and it was discovered somewhere in Cornwall. The writing on the stone was definitely not cheerful, almost apocalyptic with its universal message, in the sense that no one gets out of here alive! "Reader who ere thou art that view this stone, Bamfield's fate will one day be thy own"!

RB: Who was the cut-engineer of the record and which factory did the production?
JC: I don't remember who actually cut it, CBS would use a cutting team, and unless you had a specific favourite or recommendation they just got on with it. There were often several cuts before a final decision as to which was the best cut. I think CBS had their own set up for factory production at that time, again I can't be certain.

RB: Were you satisfied with what you did at the moment of the album's release or did you have an impression that you didn't manage to realise all of your ideas in the way you wanted to?
JC: In truth I don't think I've ever been totally satisfied at the end of any recording process for various reasons. Sometimes it's down to money for special equipment or effects, or extra musicians that were not made available, or maybe simply because an artist nearly always strives for perfection, which is impossible, but if you aim high, you might just get a better result than if you aim low, and easily satisfied, or artistic integrity is not your ultimate goal. As I already said I was disappointed to not get a brass band on the title track, and in hindsight other ideas come to light that didn't at the time, but you do the best job at the time with the tools available to you and hope you get it right. In some areas it was under produced but that also gave it a very pared down, tight, direct, and punchy feel to the album, and I still enjoy listening to much of the album from time to time.

RB: What was the circulation number of the record and where was it distributed? Were there any reissues of the record? Did you follow the sales reports? In which other countries was the album released?
JC: The circulation number was CBS 64397, and it was distributed in the UK and Europe mainly. I don't think, or I don't remember it being released outside those main areas in its entirety, although some of the tracks would find themselves on Christie albums sprinkled with various A sides and B sides that didn't necessarily get a place on the original FAM album. These would appear in South and Central America as well as the Far East and other territories.
   I think in many of those places the record company, be it CBS or their subsidiaries, couldn't handle putting out an album that was so radically different to the first album so they just balanced out the heavier stuff with other stuff that was a little lighter and sunnier! It was re-issued in 1997 by Sony, following the re-issue of the first album in 1996, and also just recently by Repertoire Records in 2005 alongside the first album. In both these re-issues, bonus tracks were added and particularly the Repertoire releases included all Christie recordings from the 1970's, allowing many fans to buy the complete Christie record catalogue on CD for the first time. These re-issues were again mainly for UK and European markets, but orderable all over the world.
   Companies don't give you very good information about sales reports and even then it's hard to understand, it's like they have their own code, which you have to crack before you can understand the figures. Some of the sales figures look good and some not so good, and over the years particularly with Yellow River and San Bernadino, 20 or 30 million units plus would be spoken of by industry figures without batting an eyelid! When you consider YR alone topped charts in over 26 countries and was and still is covered by hundreds of artists worldwide, it's plausible.

RB: How did the release of the second album influence the touring? Did you perform this album's songs live and what was the reaction of the audience?
JC: It didn't influence the touring much because people came to hear the hits and we toured incessantly for five years before burnout, but several of the album's songs would be featured and usually were well received.

RB: Please make the third album story clear for us. Did you record it? Was it officially released?
JC: The pressure of non-stop touring eventually began taking its toll and that meant my song writing output began to suffer. A few other songs from different writers were offered and sometimes used, but I still managed to come up with songs, just not as often as before. Some songs were recorded in between touring, but also by now there started to be more personnel changes in the band and apart from being distracting, it takes time to break in the new members which all slowed the process down.
   We had had a disastrous three-week tour of Zambia where due to bad security, riots broke out and concerts had to be cancelled for reasons of personal safety and we started getting death threats so had to flee Zambia to take refuge in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and then again to South Africa, all the time losing a lot of money and facing a musician's union ban back home for being in Rhodesia! What should have been three weeks away turned in to nearly three months before getting back home. This was a difficult time and not very productive, so it took time to crank up the machine and get motivated again after losing precious time.
   Lastly we were primarily known as a 'singles' band and CBS were more interested in keeping up the flow of singles to tie in with the global demand of touring and TV shows than spending time in the studio experimenting on a third album, which would have been costly and not guaranteed to make their money back. This was not official but everyone knew it to be the case. As time went by with half an album just about ready, in 1974 CBS decided to not take up the option and so we were out of contract, so everything was shelved and as a result no effective third album was ever released.
   However we continued global touring till the end of 1974 and at a press conference in Mexico City announced the break-up of the band.

RB: How do you evaluate For All Mankind now? Looking back do you regret that you decided to release an album of that kind?
JC: I hope it was a good album, and for me it was, in spite of flaws, but it's for others to judge. I just gave it my best shot and leave judgement to others. No regrets, but we're all geniuses with hindsight and I could have tried to bring 'my audience' with me on a somewhat slower journey by putting out a less radical album and graduating to the eventuality of FAM afterwards, but I was young and headstrong.

JEFF comments on each track:

Magic Highway: written by Vic Elmes, is about self-delusion, denial, and the dogged pursuit of fantasy. A tight and punchy opener, the band really cooks on this. I like the intricacy of the guitar and harpsichord arpeggios, which were a challenge to play fast - demi semi-quavers! Also the mesh of the guitars and harpsichord with a little distortion give it a manic kind of tension. Featured in stage act sometimes.

Man of Many Faces: written by me. The third Christie single, and a heavier, darker departure from San Bernadino. Theme - does anybody really know anybody! Tight Christie trademark jangly guitars and good vocals. I tracked up my own harmonies, which make the vocal track very tight and synchronised. Plenty of air in the track. Featured in stage act.

Picture Painter: written by me. Theme - how does self-image compare with the way other people see you. Band playing to its peak! Tight, funky little rocker punctuated with rolling drum breaks and power chords. Featured in stage act sometimes.

Martian King: written by me. Theme - based on the assumption that life, if it exists on other planets, would be peaceful, and to take a warning there of how we screwed up this planet with war, famine, etc and not to make the same mistakes. Pompous, naïve, but well meaning - and today more than ever! Me tracking up my harmonies again. A nice 6/4 time signature twist prefaces the guitar solo that whines and wails its warning. Featured in stage act sometimes.

For All Mankind: written by me. Theme - the eternal struggle of the human spirit to overcome all obstacles and that good will hopefully overcome evil eventually. Inspired optimism - "out of darkness, we'll bring light". Lone piano entry sets the scene for a somewhat autobiographical emotionally raw vocal. The song keeps building with poignant harmonium and eventual drums, bass and tracked guitar figures. Great guitar solo tails the song out on a high!

Peace Lovin' Man: written by me. Theme - anti-war, pro-life. Band rocks out beautifully, some of these were done in three or four takes only, hardly any overdubbing. Raw, high-energy performance again, really caught the band at its peak. Featured in stage act sometimes.

My Baby's Gone: written by me. Theme - boy meets girl, boy goes round the world, girl meets new boy! Nothing deep, just stuck in a hotel room, raining outside, somewhere far from home, reflecting how hard it is to keep any kind of relationship together when you're living out of suitcases and never home. Me tracking up all harmonies. Nice economical instrumental break that builds tension, sometimes less is more. The track goes downhill after that production-wise, as the last verse should have added more instrumentation or maybe a key change, but kind of picks up again just before the end. Featured in stage act sometimes

Country Sam: written by Vic Elmes. Theme - I don't know, except Country Sam's a Superman! Good, tight performance with trademark jangly guitars, nice harmonies, and - the joys of country life!!

I Believe In You: written by me. Theme - trust, hope, promises and lies. It sounds so cheesy now but in truth this song was an imagined conversation I fantasised having with world leaders, trying to hold them to account for their actions of an escalating arms race. The song didn't name names or try to use the blame game; it was just trying to start a dialogue of mutual trust instead of Mutually Assured Destruction! I was so young! Me tracking up all harmonies. Menacing opening, leads into rolling guitars, big drums and lots of tape echo!

If Only: written by me. Theme - a love song lamenting the limitations of time, space, and displacement, and being stuck in one time zone when your heart's in another. Slavonic influence.