The Magic Highway


Here's Pt 1 of an interview Jeff did with Ralph Gowling, editor of the UK publication Beat Magazine, which appeared in September 2012.

YELLOW RIVER was the perfect record to start the 1970s because it triumphantly showed that thrilling and creative music-making would not end with the curtain coming down on the Swinging Sixties. The record soared to No.1 in Britain and in 25 other countries across the world, propelling Jeff Christie and his band to international stardom. Jeff wrote the memorable lyrics that conjured up the image of a US Civil War soldier getting ready to go home at the end of the fighting. He also came up with the bouncy musical backing that drove the number along at a fast lick.
 Beat 1 Yellow River helped lay to rest many fears as the 70s dawned that rock music might die because The Beatles and many other acts who had spearheaded the pop revolution that swept across the globe in the 60s were calling it a day or had already disappeared from the air waves.
  Yorkshire-born Jeff was clearly a gifted singer-songwriter and two more major hits, San Bernadino and Iron Horse, ensured that Christie - his appropriately named group - were not just one-hit wonders but an act that would be firmly stamped in the annals of pop history.
  Now he has a fascinating new double-CD package entitled No Turn Unstoned and remains a big draw when he performs live in continental Europe and elsewhere.
  Christie were huge in mainland Europe and South America, and those fan bases have stayed very loyal.
  Jeff was kind enough to give The Beat an in-depth interview, despite a busy period in his schedule to talk about the new CD, which underlines just what a master he is at crafting pop songs with lyrics that tell whole stories and music that helps to build up a full picture. The CD, containing 40 tracks, is on the Angel Air label.
  The CD is a brave venture by Jeff, as he says himself. All but two of the 40 tracks were "warts 'n' all unfinished demos and outtakes that were not originally intended for public consumption until re-recorded and mastered - hence the bum notes, sometimes dodgy tempo variations, and other imperfections and tape drop-outs".
  I personally found the CD a riveting listen because it highlights Jeff's rich creativity. If you enjoy good or interesting lyrics backed by musical imagery, then this is a must-buy.
  I've already listened to all 40 tracks three times since I received a copy a week ago.
  The Beat's interview threw up just how passionate Jeff is about his songwriting, the buzz he still gets when performing live, just how close The Tremeloes instead of Jeff came to having a No.1 hit with Yellow River, the creative energy of the music business at the time, and a vivid picture of what it was like when Christie had the world at their feet.
  If that wasn't enough, he opened the door to the possibility of a UK tour or string of dates - something that would almost certainly be music to the ears of Golden Oldies fans in Britain keen to see "new faces" on the circuit.
  "I'm on a journey when I'm writing songs, and I'd like to take the listener with me as I roam about!" said Jeff.
  "Peter Purnell from Angel Air was keen to put out an album of songs from the Christie period in the 70s. I had quite a lot of songs from that period in the form of unfinished demos, outtakes, rehearsal takes etc., all of varying sonic quality. Some even had tape dropout and various other noises due to deterioration which I had thought would be unacceptable for public release.
  "These recordings were, bar a few exceptions, mainly 'notepad' demos that I did for singles or album consideration in small studios in the Leeds area with time and financial constraints, so the prevailing motivation was not to make finished masters with 'perfect' recordings. I did them fast with the aim of polishing them later at CBS studios in Bond Street, which is where Christie made records.
  "When Angel Air heard the songs they were very enthusiastic and keen to put them out as they were, warts and all. The fact that they were unfinished gave them a certain gritty charm, unlike some records of today that are sonically perfect but somehow often lack character. Angel Air felt these songs were good, and had integrity and character by the bucket load.
  "I began to view them differently, and slowly began to embrace the adage that 'Inspired amateurism can sometimes be more thrilling than professional perfection'. As it took root I then started to sift through my archives and start shortlisting tracks from that timeframe.
  "The first four songs on CD1 were done at home in Burnham on a Grundig tape recorder with band members from the time circa 1973. The remaining tracks in CD1 were done in the Leeds studios mentioned previously. Track 15 on CD2 was done on a cassette recorder at home in Leeds at the end of the decade, tracks 16, 17 at Longview Farm Studios in Massachusetts and 18-20 done at RK Studios, London 1979/80.
  "I hope the songs will speak for themselves in as much as content over style can, as opposed to the other way round. There are so many different songs here and this is what I love to do - diversify.
  "I have a long history of experimentation with songwriting, given the limits of my ability, and would not be true to myself if I allowed myself to play safe with formulaic songs. The fact that my most successful songs were in the country rock/pop box is immaterial to me and does not define me as a songwriter."
  There have been whispers in the music business of late that Jeff would like to do gigs in the UK again, so is it true and how practical would it be for him and the rest of the current Christie band as they currently operate mostly in mainland Europe?
  "I have been playing in bands for over 50 years and the getting up early for planes and hanging around airports, then maybe driving for hours on end in all kinds of weather, not to mention waiting around for sound checks at gigs, starts to wear you down after a while," he said.
  "I'm not a big fan of that anymore. It just drains all the juice from the battery like a reverse blood transfusion!
 Beat 2 "By the time you get to the actual performance, your energy levels are way below what they should be and therefore it takes so much more out of you.
  "That said, it's hard to equal the feeling of coming off stage to rapturous applause - the high is like nothing on earth!
  "I don't gig a great deal. I try to cherry pick and get a reasonable balance with the odd TV show abroad, plus radio and occasional press interviews from time to time that keep things ticking over quite nicely. It also allows me time to write which is such a release and a kind of therapy for me.
  "Most gigs are outside the UK and we get on planes with our guitars, and all backline is at the gig, which means no worries about equipment or vans breaking down on the way to gigs etc.
  "If a tour or string of gigs were offered in the UK, that would make more sense and be more worthwhile as you would then hire in the help needed, i.e. backline and PA."
Yellow River - with its almost jangly guitar riffs, throbbing bass lines and full drum and percussive sound - was such a huge international success that it has perhaps overshadowed other great Christie numbers like Iron Horse, a personal favourite of mine and many others.
  Did it become something of a millstone for Jeff in meeting expectations or was it an accomplishment that set a high benchmark that has inspired his songwriting over the last four decades?
  "Good question Ralph: there is a truth in both your answers. San Bernadino was also a big hit worldwide and Iron Horse to a lesser extent also.
  "The strange story of Iron Horse is that our manager Brian Longley would get the sales figures from CBS daily when it was sitting just outside the top 30. Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now was selling less than Iron Horse and appeared to leapfrog over us into the top 30 whilst Iron Horse dropped out of the top 30!"
  Of course, it was well known behind-the-scenes at the time that record sales and therefore the charts could be "manipulated" - after all there was a lot of money and prestige riding on success or failure.
  Brian Epstein is reported to have bought thousands of copies of 'Love Me Do' for his record shop in Liverpool in an attempt to get The Beatles' debut single for the Parlophone label into the charts.
  These kind of practices were something the music industry liked to hush up.
Jeff's songs remain in demand across the world and Christie have been incredibly popular in continental Europe and South America for decades now, pulling in huge crowds to shows.
  "I don't know why, but my best guess it all starts with how a song can mean so much to people that they want to own it too. It becomes part of the fabric and soundtrack of their life and stays that way.
  "It's natural then to want to see the artist/creator from whom this 'gift' sprang from, so when the artist or artists come to town there is this sense of excitement at seeing an old friend again, but of course it's more than that.
  "This is the magic of music, and one of many effects it has on people's soul. It crosses all boundaries and can unite everyone.
  "The biggest audience I played to was at the International Stadium in Bogota in the 70s to an estimated 30,000 people, outdrawing Santana who had played there sometime before. Could never get my head round that, but it's something you don't forget in a hurry.It feels like some kind of a trophy now!
  "I played the Schalke Football Stadium in Germany last year and that crowd was over 20,000!"

Part 2