The Magic Highway


An interview from the Yorkshire Post, May 2010

It's 40 years since Yellow River topped the charts, and now it's been reworked into a World Cup anthem. Chris Bond talks to Jeff Christie about his most famous song.

MANY musicians dream of having a number-one single, but few ever have one.
  Fewer still produce a smash hit so big it changes their lives.
  But for Jeff Christie, Yellow River did exactly that. As well as topping the UK charts, it reached number one in 26 countries, selling more than 20m copies and securing a place in pop music's hall of fame.
  Now, 40 years after it was first released, Christie has teamed up with producer David Robertson to rework his classic song into an unofficial World Cup anthem for England's football team.
  Ironically, the song that Yellow River knocked off the top spot was Back Home – England's 1970 World Cup single.
  The new version, Hat Trick Of Lions (Come on England), features Christie and ska musicians along with up-and-coming rapper Aggi Dukes.
  But when Robertson first approached Christie with the idea, the Leeds-born musician wasn't sure about it.
  "There have been hundreds of cover versions over the years, including some great ones by people like Elton John and REM, but I couldn't see how this one would work," he says.
  But Robertson's persistence eventually paid off.
  "He gradually made me realise that it was a bit of fun and it could work, and when I heard the final version, I was really impressed. There's never been a version like this before."
  As with all great songs, Yellow River has that little sprinkling of stardust and if music is, indeed, somehow magical, then Christie was hooked from an early age.
  "My mum used to take me to Roundhay Park to watch the brass bands and she said I'd be mesmerised. Even then, music to me was pure magic."
  At the age of eight, he began piano lessons and became besotted with flamenco music, until rock 'n' roll came along and changed everything.
  "A whole generation was inspired by people like Elvis, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. We all went out and bought guitars and played until our fingers bled, trying to sound like these people from across the water."
  As soon as he was old enough, he joined his first band, Three G's Plus One, before going on to form The Tremmers.
  "Everyone talks about getting in a band to pull the girls, but I really wanted to be a musician from an early age and I felt it was something I could do."

"There's never been a version like this before."

  In the early days, Christie just played guitar, but when a singer failed to turn up for a gig in Leeds, Christie took on the vocal duties.
  "We were playing at a club in North Street called the Tahiti, and someone shouted at me to have a go because I was the only one who knew the playlist, so I did and that's how it started," he says.
  "I never regarded myself as a vocalist and I still don't, but as long as you can carry a song, that's all that matters."
  By the mid-60s, the band had morphed into the Outer Limits. Christie had also started writing songs and one of his compositions, Just One More Chance, became a minor hit in 1967, which was enough to get them on the bill of a pop-rock tour alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and The Move.
  He remembers watching Hendrix in the wings one night at Newcastle City Hall.
  "He used to finish with Wild Thing, and during his guitar solo he would juxtapose it with the song Strangers in the Night.
  "But that night he was having trouble keeping his Gibson Flying V in tune and at the end he hurled it like a spear straight at the stacking system behind him. To everyone's incredulity, it stuck slap bang in the middle of the stack.
  "The audience went bananas thinking it was part of the show and carried on stomping and shouting for encores long after Jimi had walked off."
  By the end of the decade, he had formed his band, Christie, and was honing his songwriting skills, inspired by luminaries like Jimmy Webb.
  "One day, I heard a Glen Campbell song called Galveston on the radio and I just loved it.
  "Sometimes, you hear someone else's song and it inspires you and that was the song that inspired me to write Yellow River."
  A couple more hits followed, including San Bernadino and Iron Horse, but by 1975 the band had split up and Christie moved to the US in a bid to get a deal as a writer. But this failed to materialise and following the death of his father, he returned to Leeds.
  Out of the blue, he was offered the chance to make a new album but after working on it for two years, the record company went bust.
  Disillusioned with the industry, he took a hiatus from performing until 1990, when he reformed Christie with a local band he had been producing.
  Since then, he has continued playing gigs across Europe, and a retrospective double album, Jeff Christie – Outer Limits/Floored Masters Past Imperfect, was released last year, which is available to download.
  Despite the fact that his subsequent career never matched the heights set by Yellow River, he regards his defining record with genuine affection.
  "I knew I had a good song but I didn't in my wildest dreams believe it would still be talked about 40 years later. I'm still dazed and amazed that I came up with something that had such a universal impact.
  "It changed my life."