excellent interview with Jeff Christie by Dimitry Epstein,
who runs the music site Let
long boy, you can take my place. Got my papers, I've got
there anyone who doesn't know and can't sing - maybe in
their own language - "Yellow
one of those perennials eternally woven into our collective
consciousness. In this case, "eternally" means
for almost 40 years. But, while most of us are familiar
with the song, far less know that its performers, a band
called Christie, were essentially one man who gave the collective
their name: Jeff Christie.
still very active, writing and playing; now, perhaps, only
slightly less active than in his halcyon days. All of which
is quite a reason for some small talk.
Q: Jeff, there seems to be a resurgence
of interest in all things Christie. Do you have an explanation
for this little phenomenon?
A: Well, it's the 40th anniversary of the release
of Yellow River next April,
so this could be something to do with that, or people just
wanting to stay in touch with songs they grew up with that
made a huge impact on them at the time: nostalgia is a very
Also that particular song means
so much to so many people - a simple anti-war song that
the listener can instantly connect with, that has a timeless
and universal theme, applicable to any zone of war or conflict.
Or is it like the old Heineken advert, 'It reaches the parts
other beers can't!'?
Also, with so many famous and not
so famous cover versions all over the world, the song sooner
or later threads its way back to the composer or group which
is me, Christie. So one way or another, that "River"
Q: Is it stressing to be a prolific
songwriter and living in the shadow of only one song?
A: Yes and no. In fact, I am not uncomfortable with the
fact that, as a songwriter, I can lay claim to four respectable
international hits along with various one-off hits in different
territories such as Navajo
reaching pole position in Mexico in 1974.
As for these four, the first would
be Just One More Chance by
The Outer Limits which in 1967 nudged the Top 50 in the
UK and reached number 1 on the Berlin chart.
The second, Yellow
River, pole position in the UK plus 26 other countries
and Top 10 in the rest of record buying countries. It was
Top 20 hit in the US and stayed in charts for six months.
It sold in excess of 20 million and still is selling. It
continues being played all over the world on radio, TV in
films on the internet and is widely regarded as a classic.
The third was San
Bernadino with Christie with top position in Germany
and GAS territories, number 6 in the UK, small hit in the
US and Top 10 in many countries around the world. It was
nominated as official City Song for
San Bernardino, California, USA a few years ago, and
also spawned many cover versions, giving it continual airplay
and status around the world.
The last one, Iron
Horse, scored Top 50 hit in the UK and several European
countries and was turned into many cover versions, including
France's Joe Dassin who also covered Yellow
River as L'Amerique,
and YouTube train videos.
All in all, I continue writing songs
and still feel my best is yet to come.
Q: That early band Outer Limits: limits
of what, please?
A: We were all sci-fi fans and there was a cult US TV show
at the time called "The Outer Limits". It was
in recognition of this, but it was also wordplay hinting
at stretching boundaries and reaching into the unknown musically,
like 'way out man'!
Q: Was recording in Nashville
in later years a dream come true?
A: Not especially, because by this time I'd had plenty of
experience and some success in some great studios, although
it was great to be asked to record there because of its
history and legendary status, and the whole set-up was really
together and of a high standard. I was looked after and
made to feel comfortable while I was there and have great
memories of my time there. They put me in a swish hotel
called Knox Manor
with a guitar shaped swimming pool - perfect!
You've always been rejecting the Creedence
comparisons. How come, then, that you performed John
Fogerty's songs in the 90s?
A: Well, I think this has been misreported over the years.
I wrote Yellow River and San
Bernadino in early '69 and remember Bad
Moon Rising as a great song and very much the kind
of direction songwise I was also heading at that time -
I had been listening to Tony Joe
White, Joe South and Jerry Reed and a host of black blues
Delta artists as well as West Coast country rock acts like
Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds, so my country rock phase
was influenced by all that. I think when that comparison
was first made by some journalist I was more flattered than
anything else and had, and still do have, a healthy respect
for John Fogerty.
When I reformed the band in the
90s, we were playing the nostalgia circuit to some extent,
and as there were only three Christie hits to draw from,
it made sense to include other songs that 'time and chart'
had put in a similar bracket. We were also playing on bills
alongside other acts from the 60s and 70s.
often been asked by diehard fans who come to these shows
as to why I don't include more Christie songs from flip
sides and albums, and the answer is that after 20, 30 and
now nearly 40 years after the breakthrough, the majority
of people who come to these shows want to hear songs from
that period as well as mine, which makes Creedence songs
a contender for obvious reasons.
I would love to include more of
my own songs from that period but the program works really
well and there's an old saying, "If it aint broke dont
Q: Who were some of your childhood
A: Too many to mention, depending on what phase I was going
through between childhood and teenager: Billy the Kid, Crazy
Horse, Cochise, Geronimo, Hopalong Cassidy, Tex Ritter,
Gene Autry, Elvis, Buddy [Holly], Little Richard, Everly
Brothers, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Al
Jolson to name a few.
Q: Did discovering America somehow
influence your songs' imagery?
A: Definitively. As a writer you reflect and mirror what's
around you. All the influences, stories, minutae and evocative
stimuli that seep into a young creative mind will find expression
in the creative process of dance, theatre, poetry or, in
my case, songwriting.
Q: You said you formed Christie
as a vehicle for releasing Yellow
River. Does it mean there'd
be no such band if there wasn't this song?
A: Probably. The Outer Limits was very much my baby, and
when the band broke up shortly after the Hendrix
tour in late '67, I was on my own writing songs and
playing in cabaret clubs at night to bring in some money.
By '69, I couldn't see me in another band and wanted to
develop as a songwriter writing hits for others and then,
once I got established with some credibility, try to get
my own recordings out.
changed all that as it created such a buzz in the
industry that the decision to front another band was made
for me in a sense. My song was like a runaway train and
I was just trying to hang on!
Q: Wanting to write hits for others,
who did you envision singing your songs?
A: Dusty Springfield, [Frank]
Sinatra, Tom Jones, Roy Orbison
and any artist whose songs and/or performance I admired
who didn't write themselves, that I could envisage singing
my songs. I rarely sat down to write specifically for a
particular artist, but as a song evolved, I could see its
potential for an artist performing it and so tailored the
song to the one who it reminded me of at an early stage
of the song's progress.
Q: Another of your early ambitions
was "to buy parents a house
with a swimming pool". Were you able to do so?
A: No, but I was able to help them financially in other
ways that made a difference.
Q: There are quite a few
Yellow River covers.
Which one impressed you the most?
A: Doyle Lawson and
Quicksiler - viva bluegrass! I also love Sweden's Satanic
Surfers versions of San Bernadino
and I Gotta Be Free from the
first Christie album.
The late 60s and early 70s produced some great power trios.
How did you feel performing as a three-piece?
A: It was a challenge but also restrictive as you have to
arrange more carefully to accomodate and cover what's missing,
and your songs have to be tailored for that, certainly in
a live context. The Who and Led Zeppelin were masters of
the power trio genre - the rhythm section that's the power
house behind the vocalist. When I wrote Yellow
River, I had not envisioned it played by a three-piece
and so as soon as I could, I expanded to a four-piece.
The formation of Christie Mark I
was somewhat political, to back up the record success and
one which I was reluctantly talked into. It took me some
time to reset the parameters closer to my earliest intentions.
Although the second album, For
All Mankind, featured many songs written with a three-piece
mindset, that would translate well to live performance,
apart from the title track which was more anthemic and needed
a Northern Brass band on it, but CBS didn't go for it citing
extra expense - a great shame and an opportunity missed.
It could have been a classic cut. To this day, there are
many people who feel that the great song was let down by
its lack of production, even though it's haunting quality
Q: Christie being your band, was
it easy for you to let others contribute to songwriting
A: Good question. Well, Christie was always supposed to
be a vehicle for my songwriting, and that was understood
from day one by all parties, but success can have that effect
on people, and suddenly everyone wants to write the next
big hit! A compromise was reached where the odd 'B' side
or album track would be assigned to other members.
From my first songwriting efforts
at 17, I knew my future would evolve through and around
my songs that I wanted to play and record, and that was,
and always has been, my modus operandi.
Q: How would you explain Christie's
popularity in the most unlikely places, like Africa?
A: I have no idea other than the large expat communities
in South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, followed the
UK charts and wanted to see the hit acts like anywhere else.
We started with a short tour of Zambia because The Equals
had just returned from there and said Yellow
River was played all the time and there was interest
to see the band.
So we went, but after
riots at a stadium outside Lusaka due to lack of security
and rainstorms we had to flee after death threats and that's
how we came to be in South Africa and Rhodesia - just trying
to work our way back home!
Q: Christie are often referred
to as the first Western band getting behind the Iron Curtain.
Did somebody ever mention to you that the Rolling Stones
had played in Poland in '67?
A: Just goes to show you can't always believe what you read.
People say stuff, and if no one comes forward to dispute
it with fact, it kind of sticks. I didn't know The Stones
played Poland, but the show Christie played in Sopot, Poland,
was, I was told, the first to be televised across the Soviet
Union to more than 250 million people.
When I played Moscow
and St. Petersburg in 2001, people were coming up to
me saying they had waited to see the band for 30 years after
watching the Sopot song festival back
in '70 or '71. I've been told that that TV show started
a lot of young groups and even now there are Russian artists
doing my songs. There's a young looking group called Dizzy
Cats playing Country Boy from
the first album on YouTube, for example, and these kids
weren' even born then.
What was your own stylistic plan for Christie and did you
achieve what you wanted?
A: Up to a point. Looking back, there was a change of musical
direction for For All Mankind
to move away from the country-rock-pop of the first album
to a heavier sound more suited to a three-piece, using the
catchy single Man Of Many Faces
as the gateway, hopefully drawing listeners in easily with
a smooth transition to a different Christie than they had
previously been familiar with. The music press almost unanimously
gave the single great
reviews remarking on the transition of style as a positive
step, yet the single failed to chart in the UK and although
it saw some success in Europe, it slowed the momentum of
successful singles, the first two being massive hits worldwide.
the fifth single, charted somewhat lower and restored, to
some extent, the hit credibility of the band but succesive
singles failed to reach the heights of the earlier ones.
With this came the African tour debacle that should have
lasted three weeks but stretched out over two months that
had a draining effect on the everyone and another loss of
momentum in writing and releasing singles - that's hard
to do when you're fleeing riots and death threats a long
way from home!
This is a long story which I just
touch on but another turning point in the band's downturn.
All these things can have a diverse effect on the creative
process plus negative publicity at refusing to wear
dinner suits to receive an award by Prince Charles.
From a musical and stylistic standpoint, I generally moved
in the direction I wanted to pursue but didn't get the support
from CBS to really make it happen in a bigger way. I wanted
better independent producers instead of in-house CBS ones
who had no great desire to think out of the box. But for
a while, we flew high!
Q: You missed on the chance to
meet Prince Charles. Did you ever regret it?
A: Not really. I'm sure he's a man of conviction and stands
up for what he believes, but it would have been on a superficial
level anyway which is what awards ceremonies are. Of course,
one can brag and namedrop but what's the point? And it's
all a long time ago. No disrespect to Charlie, but in my
circles, having toured, jammed and chatted with [Jimi] Hendrix
drops more jaws than meeting Royalty.
Q: With your predilection for
the Latin-inflected music, flamenco in particular, was there
ever a temptation to join Carmen?
A: No, but I was a big fan and I
did help out on three tracks from their last album,
The Gypsies, which was recorded in the Boston area in '74.
They returned the compliment by aiding and abetting me on
a couple of tracks from those same sessions that I was working
on for a solo album, of which Turning
To Stone features on Floored
Masters. Also, there were too many conflicting egos
fighting for control - what's new! I would've had to totally
subjugate all my musical ambitions or ideas in that band,
although in a different place and time I could have been
tempted just because they were so damned good and different.
They took my manager, drummer, sound man, what the hell!
Most Wanted Man In The USA single
was released under the band's name when there was no band.
Were you afraid still of putting your own name on the sleeve
or still didn't decide on the solo career?
A: At the time of recording it, there was a contractual
obligation for another Christie single to be fulfilled so
that was the reason. Every Christie single and album cut
prior to that always saw me doing most of the overdubs when
the others got bored and left the studio. The only difference
this time was the use of a session drummer and bass player,
then Steve Elson, producer, and I just finished it off with
overdub vocals and guitar work.
Q: While many of your songs were
based on imaginary subjects, how do you feel about Fools
Gold in retrospect?
A: Well, not all songs were imaginary - San
Bernadino, for instance, was a real place, I just
wrote a song around it. Fools Gold
was, like most songs, part autobiographical and part
fiction. It also reflected the disillusion that I discovered
about fame, in that it's not all it's cracked up to be,
has a ruthless downside and takes no prisoners!
Q: Don't you think that the brilliant
melodies somehow distracted the listeners from the political
message of your songs?
A: Thank you for the compliment. That's not too political
I hope, but that's how I write - melody is King. Old-fashioned
as that may be, whatever I write, I always want to be moved
by a beautiful or haunting tune. That's where I start from,
followed by lyrical observations, reflections, or feelings
about what's inside of me or what's going on around me.
All the great songwriters that I
admire all have this trait, or gift for melody, such as
Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, [George] Gershwin, Cole
Porter, Leiber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Burt Bacharach,
Jim Webb, [Roy] Orbison, [Buddy] Holly, Brian Wilson, Lennon
and McCartney, Hollands and Dozier, Ray Davis, Becker and
Fagen, Henley and Frey etcetera, etcetera - don't start
me talkin'! Hopefully the listener will be drawn in by the
tune and then go deeper to what's being said.
Q: When and why did you decide
to come back from bass to guitar?
A: Historically, piano and guitar were my choice of weapons.
I did play bass when I needed to for the purpose of recording
in the early days so it was never a problem, although not
my chosen instrument. I was quite comfortable with it and
it also gave me another perspective playing in a band on
a different instrument. The formation of Christie needed
a bass player as the other two's instruments were drums
and lead guitar. Like I said before, there was much about
the formation of the band that was not my choosing, more
a case of needs must!
Q: Christie toured a lot. Were
there ever any live recordings made?
A: There was a 90-minute TV show
in Buenos Aires in the early 70s. Our own show with
guests on, although we never received a copy. There were
a few bootleg things but with poor sound quality so that's
probably the reason why they never surfaced.
Q: In the early 70s you were asked
to score some Italian film.
Did anything materialise?
A: Mothing materialised as touring and recording schedules
were so heavy there really wasn't much time for anything
else. I was asked to do a Coca Cola ad plus a few more film
scores, but I was just too busy and committed to what I
was already doing. It was only once I'd stopped live gigging
that I started doing a few radio and TV ads in the 80s but
it wasn't as fulfilling as I thought so, eventually, I found
my way back to recording, writing and gigging in the 90s.
Q: There were some chances for
you to release a solo album. Is it still possible for you
to get detached from the band?
A: If you mean, did I have the chance to do a solo album
when Christie was active in the 70s, the answer is, I never
wanted to as I was committed to the band which was a vehicle
for my songs anyway,
albeit in a certain style. Once I got out of that environmental
pressure cooker in '75, I was able to function as a songwriter
whose only loyalty was to myself hence the wide experimetation
of styles that followed.