“So long boy, you can take my place. Got my papers, I’ve got my pay…” Is there anyone who doesn’t know and can’t sing – maybe in their own language – “Yellow River”? It’s 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. He’s 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.
– Jeff, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in all things CHRISTIE. Do you have an explanation for this little phenomenon?
Well, it’s the fortieth 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 powerful emotion! 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” keeps rollin’!
– And how would you define yourself – as a songwriter or a musician?
– Is it stressing to be a prolific songwriter and living in the shadow of only one song?
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 ’74. As for these four, the first would be “Just One More Chance” by THE OUTER LIMITS which in ’67 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 twenty six 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 twenty 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, that’s CHRISTIES’ “Iron Horse” which 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.
– That early band OUTER LIMITS: limits of what, please?
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’!
– Where does your fascination with country music come from?
Country music is just one of many music forms that I love and have listened to over the years. I’ve always seen myself as a songwriter not restricted to any particular genre, but more of a disposition to sit down and think ‘I’d like to write something with a country rock feel or a ballad, or a Big Chorus Pop Song’. Basically, it’s about freedom to express myself in whatever musical style that appeals to me – and that’s a large canvas! If you listen to “Floored Masters“, that is typical of a varied style, difficult for record companies because they like to put you in a box and label you for marketing purposes. But country rock music, arguably, has proved the most successful of my writing efforts.
– Was recording in Nashville in later years a dream come true?
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 Nineties?
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 song-wise I was also heading at that time – strangely enough. 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 Nineties, 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 Sixties and Seventies.
I’ve 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 twenty, thirty and now nearly forty 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 CLEARWATER REVIVAL songs a contender for obvious reasons. I would love to include more of my own songs from that period but the programme works really well and there’s an old saying, “If it aint broke dont fix it”!
– What do you think of other British country rock bands such as BRONCO and COCHISE?
Are they ‘now’ bands or from the past? I don’t know them but Cochise was a Chiricahua Apache chief and one of my childhood heroes – great name for a country rock band! I remember REDBONE, though: they really were a Native American band.
– Cochise as one of your childhood heroes? Who were the others, then?
Too many to mention, depending on what phase I was going through between childhood and teenager: Billy the Kid, Crazy Horse, 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.
– Did discovering America somehow influence your songs’ imagery?
Definitively. As a writer you reflect and mirror what’s around you. All the influences, stories, minutiae and evocative stimuli that seep into a young creative mind will find expression in the creative process of dance, theater, poetry or, in my case, songwriting.
– 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?
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. “Yellow River” 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!
– Wanting to write hits for others, who did you envision singing your songs?
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.
– Another of your early ambitions was “to buy parents a house with a swimming pool”. Were you able to do so?
No, but I was able to help them financially in other ways that made a difference.
– There are quite a few “Yellow River” covers. Which one impressed you the most?
Doyle Lawson and QUICKSILVER – viva bluegrass! I also love Sweden’s SATANIC SURFERS versions of “San Bernadino” and “I Gotta Be Free” from the first CHRISTIE album.
– Late Sixties and early Seventies produced some great power trios. How did you feel performing as a three-piece?
It was a challenge but also restrictive as you have to arrange more carefully to accommodate and cover what’s missing, and your songs have to be tailored for that, certainly in a live context. THE WHO and ZEPPELIN were masters of the power trio genre. 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 shines through.
– You call THE WHO and ZEP power trios. Don’t you count the singer as part of a band?
Of course, but I was referring strictly speaking to the rhythm section that’s the power house behind the vocalist!
– CHRISTIE being your band, was it easy for you to let others contribute to songwriting and singing?
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 seventeen, 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.
– Were you a fan of CAPABILITY BROWN whose members were incorporated into CHRISTIE?
I’d not heard of them until half of them auditioned for the CHRISTIE gig, but they brought some fresh blood into the band for a while.
– How would you explain CHRISTIE’s popularity in the most unlikely – then – places like Africa?
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!
– 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?
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 thirty 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’t even born then.
– Pop demands from the rock band that your ensemble endured… What was your own stylistic plan for CHRISTIE and did you achieve what you wanted?
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 a 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. “Iron Horse”, the fourth single, charted somewhat lower and restored, to some extent, the hit credibility of the band but successive 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!
– You missed on the chance to meet Prince Charles. Did you ever regret it?
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.
– With your predilection for the Latin-inflected music, flamenco in particular, was there ever a temptation to join CARMEN?
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!
– The “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?
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.
– How did you hook up with Simon Phillips?
He was booked for the “Most Wanted Man” session, and I was impressed how quick and efficiently he got it down. I think he became much more well-known after that.
– While many of your songs were based on imaginary subjects, how do you feel about “Fools Gold” in retrospect?
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!
– Don’t you think that the brilliant melodies somehow distracted the listeners from the political message of your songs?
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.
– When and why did you decide to come back from bass to guitar?
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!
– CHRISTIE toured a lot. Were there ever any live recordings made?
There was a 90-minute TV show in Buenos Aires in the early Seventies. 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.
– In the early Seventies you were asked to score some Italian film. Did anything materialize?
Nothing materialized as touring and recording schedules were so heavy there really wasn’t much time for anything else. I was asked to do the 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 Eighties but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I thought so, eventually, I found my way back to recording, writing and gigging in the Nineties.
– There were some chances for you to release a solo album. Is it still possible for you to get detached from the band?
If you mean, did I have the chance to do a solo album when CHRISTIE was active in the Seventies, 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 experimentation of styles that followed.