The Magic Highway


JEFF was interviewed by BBC Merseyside's Spencer Leigh for his well-known On The Beat show in September 2009. Spencer has also authored many books and articles on musicians and icons from Liverpool in the UK, including of course the most famous exports, The Beatles. Extracts from the program are provided below.

spencerSpencer Leigh (SL): Tell us about your musical background.

Jeff Christie (JC): My mother was a trained ballet dancer and she instilled in us a love of classical music. I learnt the piano at an early age and I learnt it rebelliously because I had not wanted to do it even though it helped me musically.
   But really what changed things for me was when I heard the Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly records .. my parents took me to see a flamenco guitarist ......... and I was completely smitten with flamenco and I would have liked to have learnt flamenco but there was no way you could have learnt that back then or find a teacher back in those days, 56 or 57. Rock and roll was the next best thing, we had never heard anything like it, never seen anything like it. That inspired me to move off the piano.
   But because I had been learning piano and studying classical theory, I experimented with first playing little tunes on the piano before I played the guitar, and maybe that was a budding start to the songwriting that came through later on. The piano really helped me because I already knew what the chords were on the piano and I just transposed them onto the guitar.

SL: Did you ever use any of your early songs later on?

JC: I think I was 17 or 18 when I first started writing. They were a bit grim and a bit zany. By this time rock and roll had really moved up a gear. The Beatles had happened, the group scene had changed, people weren't wearing red suits and doing Shadows walks anymore. We started going to record auditions, and failed them because we were doing other people's songs. The A&R guy told me afterwards, the band's a good band but you got to do your own stuff. And that was the turning point. If we had to get a deal, then we had to start writing.
   Nobody else was willing to sit around with me to have a crack at it, but for me it was an extension of all the doodling around I used to do on the piano.
   So the first songs that came out that I wrote were probably songs like My Baby Loves Me and Anna that the Outer Limits did very very early on, and as the writing progressed a bit and we got the first record deal, Just One More Chance, by that time the writing had improved significantly.

SL: Just One More Chance was on the Deram label, a progressive label and subsidiary of Decca.

JC: Yes, it came out in 1967 but we must have done it late '66. It was in some suburb of London, the first time I had been in a fashion studio.

SL: You'd been playing all around Leeds, hadn't you?

cavernJC: All over. Been playing everywhere, played the Cavern ..

SL: How well do you remember the Cavern (famous Liverpool club where the Beatles used to play)?

JC: There was a dressing room on either side of the stage, that's what I remember. And when the band had finished on stage, they moved their gear into the dressing room, and it was very much like a rotation thing, there must have been three bands on when we played. We played at The Three Coins, a great club in Leeds, those days there were so many great places to play, great ballrooms to play, we'd play all over the country.

SL: And you toured with Jimi Hendrix.

JC: The Outer Limits toured with Hendrix, The Move, Amen Corner, Pink Floyd. At that particular time I remember we were still doing a lot of Tamla things, and I still didn't have enough confidence to play the songs I had been writing. One night on the tour I decided to slip one of my songs in, we only had a short spot, maybe a quarter of an hour, and we did a song called Sweet Freedom which is on the B-side of Great Train Robbery, and it went down quite well. After the show, Lee Jackson, the bass player with Nice, came up to me and said "What was that song you did?" and I said "That was one of mine" and he said "THAT'S what you should be playing, not all that other Tamla stuff". There's nothing quite like encouragement from your peers is there? If somebody says to you that was great .. that gave me the confidence to keep on writing.
   Hendrix would turn up just before he went on, say something shyly as he walked on stage. I remember one time, I think it was at Sheffield, there was one girl following him around, bugging the hell out of him, telling him he wasn't as good as Eric Clapton!
   He wasn't just a great guitarist, he wrote some great songs. We used to listen to him in the dressing room, with the little speakers he had. He used to count Foxy Lady by jumping up and down on the stage, and that would be the count-in and then they would go into the song.

SL: What is interesting about your songs at that period is the feel of America in them.

JC: Well, we nearly moved to the States when I was a young kid. My mother's sister lived in San Francisco and we were all set to go and then they were told that if their sons come over, they were liable to end up in Vietnam and that was the decision which stopped my parents from moving out there. But we'd been over in 1962, my mother hadn't seen her sister since the war, so we went, my brothers and I, there were four of us kids. my dad stayed behind, so we went out there. I was 16 and I had never seen anything like it in my life. The music was great .. it was the cars, it was the buildings, it was the food, it was the whole culture, something about it so captivated me as a 16 year old kid.
jeffusa   And I had also always had this very strong fascination with the native American Indians as well, when I was a kid I used to be able to rattle off the names of the tribes .. the Sioux, the Cherokee, the Rapaho, the Apache, the Comanche .. I was going to move there later, I was living there in 1975 when Christie broke up, I was actually waiting for a green card and I was living out the West Coast, then my father died and I came back and I got stuck back here. But those influences from America were very, very strong, and they started to come out in songs.
   When the Outer Limits broke up in 1969, I was actually heartbroken, we were so close, we didn't have any money, had a lot of problems and I was also playing at a nightclub in Leeds. I started writing songs, a lot of songs with an American feel, I wanted to just explore, I wanted to know if I could write ballads or rock and roll or a bluesy thing or a country genre. There was one record which I used to love, Leroy Van Dyke's Walk On By, I loved the sound of that record. This influenced me. Yellow River ... I didn't know there was such a place called Yellow River. I've since found out that there are .. San Bernadino came about as I was leafing through the Daily Express and a column called This Is America .. and the headlines said Prison riots in San Bernardino, it just rolled off the tongue. I do that today, if I hear a clutch of words together or everyday phrases, I just sing them and write songs about them because there's something about the magic of creating a song from nothing. Someone might say an innocuous phrase, Another Point of View for example, and I'd go hmmm .. good title, that.

SL: Did you try and get someone else to record Yellow River?

JC: At that time I didn't have a band, and I was trying keep body and soul together, I was working at a nightclub, I was playing bass, doing standards, and I was writing during the day, I was going round seeing all the acts that were playing at Batley Variety Club and at that time, Batley was a big venue .. this little mill town 10 miles out of Leeds, Louis Armstrong had been there, the biggest stars from all over the world would come and play there, and a lot of the English bands that had been in the charts would also play there ... New Seekers, Alan Price, Tremeloes .. and I had always managed to get backstage, being relatively local, I knew people there and I knew the guy at the door and in those days you could access the artists, you could get to them. There were a lot of bands not writing their own stuff, and by now I felt that I was writing good songs. And Yellow River was just one of a whole bunch of songs.
   I had a Grundig tape recorder, a reel to reel tape, and I'd pick out songs for the artists, I wasn't writing stuff specifically for them, I was trying to break through as a songwriter. I'd take my tapes to them, they'd listen to the songs, the Tremeloes were one group that picked up on Yellow River. They ended up taking a copy with them, they had it six to eight months, first of all they were going to put it on an album, then they were going to put it out as a single themselves, then they said they weren't going to do it. And I was pretty gutted because at the time the Tremeloes were a pretty big band, and everything they had was top 10.

   And then their PR guy Brian Longley got in touch with me and said The Tremeloes aren't going to do it, but I've heard your demo and they basically followed your demo, I've heard you singing it and there's nothing wrong with you singing it. You've done a couple of records alteady, how about having a crack at it yourself?
   We ended up going to the studio and ended up using their track and I put lead vocals on their track. The Tremeloes said themselves it was the biggest mistake they ever made because if they had put Yellow River out themselves it would have extended their career, as they never had a hit after that.
   You could see there was such a buzz about this song, there were so many people in the music business who wanted to get this out quickly, Gordon Mills wanted to manage me, and had Leapy Lee who was going to do it, the thing was hot. I thought that if this created too many waves, this wouldn't come out at all. I was inexperienced and I allowed myself to be pressured, and I got steamrollered into doing it.

SL: And it didn't come out under the name of Jeff Christie.

JC: No, because a group was put together and Brian suggested a name Christie because it was the fashion at the time to use the lead singer or writer of the group's surname, like Santana or Manfred Mann, I thought that was a good idea later on, so it came out as Christie.

SL: There were three of you in the group and one of them was Alan Blakley, the Tremeloe's, brother.

JC: Yeh, it was all very political how that band was put together. The Tremeloes were with CBS, Mike Smith was the producer for the Tremeloes, and they were just cracking the whip, they were saying this is how this is all going to happen. I was just a young lad from Leeds, overawed by it all. I met these two guys from London, Mike Blakley and Vic Elmes, they'd been playing for years and years trying to break through, they had groups like The Epics and Acid Gallery, and had all this help from Alan Blakley, and still hadn't made it. We started rehearsing, it was ok but I wasn't happy at all. The song was No 1 and we went all over the world and they were putting us out on tours, but I really felt it just wasn't good enough. I said to management either they go or I go, and I sort of closed the band down 18 months later. I resurrected it and put different people in. Over the next five years different people would come into the group, and it didn't matter because really it was only a vehicle for me and my songs.
   (In the 90s) I put a band together again because people had been getting in touch with me for the nostalgia circuit, in places like Germany. That band's been with me now nearly 20 years.

thommySL: That explains a German album I have called Thommy's Christmas Party, which features two songs from the new band.

JC: They wanted a lot of bands to do two tracks each for a Christmas album .. one would be a classic Christmas song and the other one of your own. I had a song of my own called Northern Lights, which I changed to Yuletide Lights. So then I had to choose another song, a cover, and I thought, "What's left", I don't like most of them anyway, and it dawned on me that probably the best Christmas song was Happy Christmas War Is Over, and I thought, dare I do that? It was a great song and me tipping my hat to Lennon and the Beatles because they kicked the doors down for the old regime of what music was in this country, and have a crack yourselves.

SL: People can still book Christie and you do stuff like Yellow River and new songs.

JC: Yes, we're out this week in Germany and been to Spain this year doing TV and we have a big show in Belgium coming up, there's always been a strong reverence in Germany for British hit bands of the 60s and 70s. Probably goes back to the Beatles Hamburg thing? Yellow River and San Bernadino have become two very big worldwide hits and Yellow River in particular has become kind of a standard, kind of a classic.

SL: Using Yellow River for Yellow Pages .. that must have been your pension.

JC: No, no, believe it or not .. these things are done by the publishers, I had no say in it at all. At first I thought it cheapened the song in some way, fingers walking and stuff like that, but if it had come to me in the first place, I would have probably said No. Songs are like your babies, you nourish them and send them out into the world, and if they're really, really successful, they have a life of their own, you can't always control them.

SL: Jeff Christie, it's been great talking to you, thanks very much indeed, and we hope to see you playing Yellow River live in Liverpool at some stage.

JC: Well, I'd love to come to Liverpool and play at the Cavern!