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The Magic Highway

 

Jason Barnard interviewed Jeff Christie for his excellent podcast website, Strange Brew, in July 2010. Here are some excerpts.


JEFF Christie will forever be associated with the country pop rock smash hit Yellow River which hit the top spot across the globe in 1970. However, his career in cult 60s band The Outer Limits and subsequent releases demonstrate that to pigeonhole him would be to greatly underestimate one of the most talented songwriters of the era.

Jason and Jeff

Jason Barnard and Jeff Christie

PART 1: OUTER LIMITS

Jason Barnard (JB): When you were growing up in Leeds in the 1950s did the austerity at the time lead you onto the work like Great Train Robbery and Yellow River which drew upon tales from the old West?
Jeff Christie (JC): ‘I’m a man of many faces’ goes the song and it reflects my need to diversify my songwriting and draw upon any area that fascinates or interests me. I went to America when I was 16 in ‘62 when I was still banging out Shadows numbers with the Tremmers. It was that which changed me. I just fell in love with it - California - the whole way of life. I didn’t see beyond the veneer - there were plenty of problems. But when I compared what I saw over there to over here,. I would come back and look at England. Everything was dinky and small minded and parochial. I just thought that this is not where it’s at!
    However out of that dinky place came great talent and creative forces, which shaped me, but the US had a massive effect on me. Like all other kids I grew up with cowboys and Indians. I was always somehow more in tune with the Indians. I knew the names of many of the tribes and was fascinated by the whole Native American culture. I still am to this day.
    I was completely besotted with it. We were gonna go to the States. The reason we didn’t go was that my brother and I would have been conscripted to Vietnam. My mum’s sister lived in San Francisco. My mum and dad went to the American Embassy and the guy said to my dad that if you come over your sons will be eligible for the draft. That was it - the decision not to go was based primarily on that.

clippingJB: You seemed to be into music from an early age?
JC: My genesis was The 3G’s Plus One. Everyone’s first name started with a G- mine was the only one with a J. All the guys were two or three years older and at university. They were a little bit square but for me it was a chance to get up and play a little bit. One of them was called Gerry and he came with me to the Tremmers while the other guys went off and did other stuff. I taught Rod Brooks bass and then we got Stan Drogie who was a weightlifter. We just went from there - that was the Tremmers.
    The Shadows thing went for so long and then we were into R’n’B. We started off doing not only Shadows but Ventures. A lot of instrumentals. Then we got a few vocalists and got more bluesy etc. Then that morphed into the Outer Limits.

JB: The Outer Limits were more soul influenced?
JC: We came away from the instrumental stuff and became more r’n’b and blues, Smokestack Lightning and all that. We then went onto the Tamla stuff. We were playing with people like Spencer Davis and Stevie Winwood and John Lee Hooker at The Club a Go Go in Newcastle and other places like The Twisted Wheel in Manchester and Blackpool, the Mojo and Esquire clubs in Sheffield helmed by Pete Stringfellow.
    We experimented with musical styles – it was of the times. This was me paying my dues, learning my instrument, assimilating all these different influences.

JB: Just One More Chance was released in 1967. That was such a big change. You wrote it?
JC: Yeah, by now I was really getting it together as a writer. From 1965 we were doing record auditions and doing covers. One A&R man said it’s a good little band you have there but you have more chance of getting a deal if you start writing.

JB: In terms of writing did that alter the sound?
JC: It’s a good question. I was experimenting with sound and feel all the time, and especially by using different guitars. But it just felt a natural progression … I used to play semi-classical piano, and was not that great at it. I would get bored and start doodling. It came out later when it grew into writing songs.
    Just One More Chance originally was called If I Try. We did a demo of it and sent it down to London, a telegram came back from our agent saying “That’s a single”. So we went into a studio and we were as nervous as hell as it was the first time we had been in a London recording studio. I had a terrible cold when we did the b-side Help Me Please.

JB: The difference between the two sides. You wouldn’t almost recognise them as the same band.
JC: It was the two sides of me. Just One More Chance very much epitomises the love of melody. The melodies just work their way in to your brain. Help Me Please was what we were more like on stage – very hard driving. We did a great version of Price of Love by the Everly Brothers.

JB: How did you get to work with Andrew Loog Oldham and release Great Train Robbery?
JC: Andrew liked the band and wanted to produce the single himself after we were recommended to Immediate by Tito Burns, our agent at the time. Great Train Robbery was on Immediate but they created a sub-label called Instant as it was a little more poppier.

JB: Sweet Freedom was the b-side and is a brilliant song.
JC: Well, there’s an interesting story. When we were on the Hendrix tour we used to open it and Amen Corner were coming after us. We’d do 10 minutes, 15 minutes tops. Even the top of the bill did 35-40 minutes back then. We were still doing Motown and soul stuff, I was writing but didn’t have the confidence to play my songs in a live context. That was the turning point. On that tour we were doing Reach Out I’ll Be There and This Old Heart and so on and then one day for some reason I decided to put Sweet Freedom in.
    We stuck it in and it was well received. Lee Jackson (The Nice) came up to me afterwards and said “What was that song you did after Reach Out?” I replied that it was one of mine, it’s called Sweet Freedom and he said “That’s what you should be doing”. The Nice were in ascendancy and that gave me confidence. That was an amazing tour to be on and I went up a level. By 1970 I had an amazing CV and played with anybody who was anybody.

hendrix tour

JB: In terms of the tour, there were great bands like The Pink Floyd, Hendrix, The Move, Amen Corner, The Nice, Eire Apparent. Did you hang out with those guys or get to play with them?
JC: All the bands would hang out backstage to watch Jimi. I wasn’t really into Floyd. They were more interested in their light show. The Move were great. Roy Wood was an inspiration and Carl Wayne was a great frontman.

JB: Did you get to play with Hendrix?
JC: There was a bit of a jam. One day, at one of the venues I can’t remember where it was, he was sat in the dressing room jamming and there were a few of us. I picked up a guitar for 10-20 seconds and played a couple of chords but I don’t think I added too much, it was enough to be there, a great memory. He filmed all the bands onstage during the course of that tour, I never did see Jimi’s super 8 film of the Outer Limits, maybe one day it’ll surface along with all the other bands – that would be interesting.

JB: Of the Outer Limits demos recorded which are your favourites?
JC: Mr Magee’s Incredible Banjo Band, I love that. I wanted to have loads of banjos playing. Funny Clown was based on the Pagliacci opera. It’s been used a lot - the clown laughing but tears inside. A lot of these songs would have been enhanced by better production, although they do have character and a certain organic charm.

JB: Where they all recorded at the same time?
JC: They were all recorded over two to three years [1966-68]. The tracks would have formed the basis of singles, b-sides and album tracks.

JB: How did the Death of Pop Group documentary come about?
JC: I was going out with Liz Fox, who fronted a Yorkshire TV program called Calendar at the time and she introduced me to the producers. At the time the band broke up there was no money. You can see how jaded we were. Someone thought it would make a good TV program and Austin Mitchell was a sympathetic interviewer. The band all wanted to quit but I didn’t. I was always the engine of the band, I would find the songs, learn the chords and do the arrangements in the band so it wasn’t that bigger step to focus on my song writing which I concentrated on after the break-up.

Read the full interview here.

Christie

PART 2: CHRISTIE

JB: There’s that famous story about Yellow River and the tape for the Tremeloes..
JC: I was gutted when they changed their mind on it as they were a big band at the time. They went and did it but decided to pass. They’d written a song called By The Way which is a nice song … but it was to be their biggest career mistake. They all said it would have been the biggest song they ever did and could’ve extended their chart career by over five years.

jeff lynne

JB: Was it their backing track? It’s really good.
JC: Yes, it’s a good track. In the time they had it the song was creating such a buzz in the industry. Loads of people wanted to do it. There was a lot of pressure from the record company. The Tremeloes were with CBS so I kind of got into that camp. Brian Longley said that the track was already done, there’s a lot of people who want to do this, we need to move quickly. I was persuaded. I was young, I was 23 and I’d been trying to make it for years.
    The thought of using someone else’s backing track horrified me. I thought “I can do this”. But there was a lot of pressure. They said “We can do this quick. We don’t need to re-record it.”
    We put it out and signed up to the Tremeloes publishing company Gale Music ….

JB: That first album and San Bernadino – was that all your songwriting that you were trying to get to other artists or was it that you did Yellow River and you were under pressure to do a similar sound?
JC: Well there was always the pressure to repeat the success of Yellow River. But I had actually written San Bernadino in the same time frame and Long John Baldry wanted to record it. There are similarities between San Bernadino and Yellow River. I’d hit on that chord sequence for Yellow River, using a lot of minors, together with majors. And that’s why it was unusual. There was nothing out like it, even though it’s country pop rock. A lot of the country songs have three or four chords. There are quite a lot of chords in there and is very interesting musically.

JB: Did you write it quickly?
JC: Fairly quickly, probably in a couple of hours. But I was writing a lot. By the time I hit pay dirt I had a backlog of these country pop rock songs. There’s lots of songs that didn’t even go on the album which I had done demos. I remember starting writing Yellow River on the piano in the lounge of my parents' house in Scott Hall Road, Leeds, in ‘69 and I have a memory of getting out an acoustic guitar after I’d been going at it for a while and trying it out upstairs and then downstairs to see how I could bounce some ideas off the different room ambiences.
    That song was inspired by Galveston by Jimmy Webb. They thought it was a Vietnam song because apparently there was a place … a transit camp called Yellow River in Vietnam or the Deep South. There’s letters from Vietnam Vets and that was one of the songs that they related to.

hugh grundy

Hugh Grundy: one of the drummers on Christie's first album

JB: Were there only two singles off the first Christie album?
JC: Inside Looking Out was seriously considered for a single but just two singles were the final yield.
    Vic Elmes joined on lead guitar and sung backing vocal. That first album featured Hugh Grundy from the Zombies and Clem Cattini exclusively on all the drum tracks between them. Clem’s on the faster ones like Mississippi Line and San Bernadino, although I had to overdub Clem’s drums on San Bernadino as they were not loud enough.

JB: If the first Christie record was the country rock album, the second, For All Mankind, released a year later, felt like the anti-war record.
JC: Yes, it was the zeitgeist. I was left-leaning at the time. But it was altogether a bit heavier and a bit darker.
    It’s funny how the album has grown in stature. It came out after the first yellow album which was very country/rock/ pop and quite good in its own way. Some of the songs have been covered by Swedish punk and Russian grunge bands. But because of the song writing I didn’t want to be pinned down. For me I went through the country rock phase, but it was just one genre of song writing.
    One of the ads that were run by CBS when the album came out was “Christie’s music runs a lot deeper than Yellow River” but it never really got across. The problem was that when it came out, the Man of Many Faces single got rave reviews in all the heavyweight papers (Melody Maker, Sounds) and it completely died in this country. It was a hit in Germany. It was coming after San Bernadino. Everybody wanted this sort of Yellow River sound. I should have gone a little bit slower and brought the fans around gradually.

JB: A bit more like Iron Horse?
JC: Yeah, the thing about Iron Horse was that even though we had lost some momentum with Man of Many Faces, when Iron Horse came out we got great radio play, a turntable hit and it started moving into the top 50. It got to something like 42 or 43 and we were poised to break into the top 30 with the good sales figures we were getting.
    That should have been top 10.
To this day, Iron Horse is considered a hit. It should have been much bigger. It’s got that great hook, jangly guitar, which had become a Christie trademark, a neat subject matter about pushing west across the Prairies and pushing the Indians out the way. But it wasn’t to be. These days it’s got its own set of enthusiasts on youtube with their train videos using that song.

JB: Didn’t getting stuck in Africa take a lot out of your schedule?
JC: The Equals played in Zambia and we ended up out there. There were riots in one place and we ended up out there far longer than we should have been. Brian our manager had to fly back and plead our case with the Musician’s Union asking us what we were doing in Rhodesia - but we were there to flee death threats. We had no money and we were being sued for the gigs we were supposed to be doing in England. It broke the back of the band financially and caused all kinds of problems. It wore everybody out and things went down hill from there and Paul left for Carmen soon after.

JB: And Vic then left?
JC: I dissolved the band and wanted a rest. I was greatly disillusioned. However, after a few months, I reformed the band with new members but it was never the same. The last Christie record was The Most Wanted Man which came out in Germany in 1976.

JB: I’ve read that the period after this was a time of self-reflection.
JC: I moved to the States and I was recording some of the tracks that were later released on Floored Masters. I had an apartment in LA but came back after my father died and stayed here. Two years later I got a call from Robert Kingston at RK records and I started writing all these songs. There are a lot of demos from the time and there’s over an album's worth of stuff there to be released.
    I aspire to be a good songwriter but sometimes feel I’ve been overlooked in many ways. Many people are just not aware of my range and body of work.

JB: Out of your whole career, whether it was a hit or not, what is your favourite track?
JC: That’s such a difficult question. I think you can’t leave Yellow River out. It’s been such a special song and even though sometimes I can get tired of performing it, it has such a life of its own. It’s become a classic. There are songs that I recorded that I’m very proud of that are not even on general release.
    For All Mankind is up there. It’s a beautiful song. If Only is a good one, I sit down to play it and I’m struggling to remember the chords! There are some that stand out. Turning to Stone is sort of autobiographical.

JB: Going forward, what are your plans for the future?
JC: I keep on writing and performing and try to be the best I can be for as long as I can. I keep playing gigs although it doesn’t get any easier. But there’s nothing you can compare with the buzz you get with several thousand people singing your song back at you on stage, even after 40 years later, it’s the biggest high. I love to write and record. There’s a life outside of this but I don’t make too many far reaching plans other than to just keep on keeping on.

Read the full interview here.