Certain songs, like Mrs Robinson of Simon & Garfunkel, Forever Young by Alphaville, the American classic California Dreamin’ and almost everything from The Beatles really have a special power: as soon as you hear the first note, you immediately get catapulted back in time – and the real miracle here is that it’s a time you may actually not have lived.
No matter how hard you try, you will not remember the first time you heard these songs: you have no memories of a day in your life when this timeless music wasn’t there.
To remain relevant is possibly the rarest achievement to accomplish for a song and the author who penned it, and Jeff Christie is one of the few who managed to make it.
The former lead vocalist of the 1970s British rock band Christie is the man behind the remarkably phenomenal song Yellow River released in 1970 which reached number one in 26 countries and became one of the biggest worldwide hits of the decade.
Now, it’s not that Yellow River may remind you of The Beatles because of some obscure Yellow Submarine affinity; it is because of that exquisite 1970s feel and because you feel a little bit happier after you hear it, which is just so very Beatles in the end.
The 50th anniversary of Yellow River was celebrated in 2020 and offered the opportunity to arrange this interview with Ivor Novello Award-winning Jeff Christie about his signature song, the other tracks that followed including San Bernardino and Iron Horse, the state of rock music in the 1970s and what it was like to have Yellow River featured in the 2018 Academy Ward-winning movie Roma by Alfonso Cuarón.
Jeff, how do you feel when you hear Yellow River playing on the radio?
I wrote Yellow River in 1969 and I would never have predicted that after 50 years that song would still be playing! It is a lovely feeling after 50-odd years. If somebody would have told me when I wrote the song that 50 years from now that I’d be driving along, I would turn on the radio, and then I’d hear my song playing, I would have been like “Oh, come on!”. But that’s what’s happened, and it’s fantastic, it’s just wonderful. The other two big hits from Christie were Iron Horse and San Bernardino which still get airtime too. Every year that goes by, I never would have thought radio would still be playing my songs 50 years later. But somehow, it doesn’t stop and that river keeps on rollin’.
Why does it sound a bit like a Beatles’ song?
Well, well, I’m very surprised to hear you say that, that’s actually the first time I’ve ever heard anybody say that. To me, it sounds nothing like The Beatles. I take it as a great compliment, though. ll. But I would never have thought Yellow River is anything like a Beatles’ song. That’s very interesting and flattering I guess and just shows you when you write a song how people interpret it how they want. And I guess it means different things to different people and different cultures.
What was your relationship with The Beatles and Beatlemania?
The Beatles opened the doors for so many of us. I mean, before The Beatles, it was just Elvis, and then McCartney and Lennon came along, and they wrote these songs and sang them, and after that, everybody else realised you didn’t have to go according to the old order anymore, which was like getting established songwriters to provide the songs and then artists would record them, that’s why lots of people say that The Beatles made it possible for all of us to write our own songs. I don’t know anybody from my era, from the 1960s or 1970s, who hasn’t been influenced by The Beatles, that would be impossible. There was always this friction between Lennon and McCartney, they were always competing with each other. They were both brilliant in their own way. McCartney had a genius for melody, so did Lennon, and Harrison did too when he could get a look in. With my band, we played at The Cavern Club in Liverpool, and the last time I was there a BBC Radio presenter and a journalist called Spencer Leigh showed me a brick in the Cavern wall with The Outer Limits – which was the name of one of my first bands – written on it. All the bands who played there had a brick in the wall named after them, so to be included is quite a cool thing. We used to play alongside Bluesology at the University of Leeds, and they had this keyboard player who was as quiet as a mouse, and so under the radar called Reg Dwight who a couple of years later morphed into Elton John.
What was the British music scene like in the 1960s and 1970s?
The 1960s and 1970s have been a golden era for British music, with so many great songwriters. It is hard for people that weren’t around in the 1960s to know what kind of such an incredible atmosphere with young people there was. All of a sudden, we had all this great, great music, we had fashion and a lot of other very very cool things that were coming out. We sort of took American music and we repackaged it and sold it back to them: that’s what The Beatles did. Black artists were often completely disregarded over there, and it took people like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and the British blues bands to take that music, recycle it and get it back to them. I played with many of these amazing people in the early days, people like Cream [Clapton, Bruce, and Ginger Baker]. I remember playing support for many great bands like The Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, Spencer Davis with a young Steve Winwood, and Jethro Tull. Edwin Starr, John Lee Hooker, Ronnie Wood when he was in The Birds, the list goes on. But, you know, in the old days, in the 1960s and the 1970s, there was tremendous pressure – if you had big success with hit records – to repeat that formula which is not good for a writer’s creativity. Some people could escape that if they were very, very big, you know, like The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, to name a few, but very few people back then could just do what they wanted in terms of creativity, the power was centralised with the record companies mainly – to use a 1970s expression: “money talks, bullshit walks”. In the early 1970s, now with Christie, we had death threats in Africa, because we were playing in Lusaka. The security was so bad and there was a mighty thunderstorm and it was outdoors in a football stadium with no overhead shelter so we had to abandon the concert as there was a real fear of electrocution, there’s a lot of stuff about this documented on my website. And I could talk all day about touring with Jimi Hendrix in 1967, this was an amazing experience. Everybody on that tour was famous, and if they weren’t famous at the time, they became famous later, like The Nice, or Amen Corner and Pink Floyd, who had just started to break through, plus this guy from the Outer Limits called Jeff Christie who hit the jackpot a couple of years later!
What do you think of today’s music?
A lot of the songs that you hear these days are so processed and formulaic, I just find the lyrics just kind of bizarre. But look, it’s a whole different generation and they have their music just as we had ours, and there are gifted writers and artists around. Amy Winehouse was one massive talent, how gifted and tragic was she thought, sometimes genius will find a way to self-destruct. If you think about my generation of songwriters, we’re on a different level, it’s just a different, different time. You had some great stuff in the 1980s and also some great stuff in the 1990s. But, you know, much of the stuff that you hear today comes down to a certain style of singing, it’s like vocal gymnastics and there’s not a great melody behind it and very often confined to a few repetitive notes and uninteresting chord structures but although there are many talented artists and writers out there today the creative bar was set so high in the 1960s that comparisons are a bit pointless. As for myself, I’ve always been a melodist. I listened to classical music and still listen to lots of classical stuff like that, and melodies are just so very important. Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Wagner, and Beethoven were melodists and masters of their craft. You know, I’d always been a very curious kid who loved classical music and Italian Opera Arias. Nessun Dorma and those types of things just hit you immediately, they go straight towards your emotions. Even if you don’t speak Italian and you don’t know what the song is about. Italian is a beautiful language and is perfect for this sort of music just like English is perfect for rock ‘n roll.
Who are your greatest musical influences?
So many, it’s a long list but I was influenced a great deal by the early American rock n’ roll writers like Lieber and Stoller, Carole King and all the Brill Building songwriters in New York, also the great American Songbook songwriters. During the 1960s, as well as the Lennon/McCartney/Harrison triumvirate and Ray Davis, Pete Townsend and other Brits there was a whole new breed of American great writers like Jimmy Webb, Bacharach and David, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Curtis Mayfield. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were also big influences for me. I saw most of these people when they came over except Elvis as he never left America. We were just so lucky, we had all these fantastic influences. And then, of course, The Beatles exploded on an unsuspecting world and that was the changing of the guard. In the UK, I was influenced, as were so many, by seminal British bands from that time, and also by blues artists like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, so you have all these incredible musical influences, that sort of mesh together, and eventually, you get your own style. I think it’s hard for me to define my own songs, some of them are mid-tempo, there are two or three up-tempo songs, and some of the songs are sort of philosophical. Others just come from trying to write down what I feel, and what I see around me, and sometimes it is a little bit dark. I think, as a songwriter, it’s a very mixed bag. There are two or three songs that are really old songs that I have re-recorded and completely rearranged to give them a complete face-lift, so they’re almost unrecognisable. And the rest of the songs are kind of hard to describe, I am a songwriter that comes out of the 1960s. Basically, the great writers from the 1960s and 1970s were my influences.
What was your dream job as a child?
One of the things that I always wanted to do was become a Spitfire pilot – a childhood fantasy I guess, that was at a very early age, but then, probably from about 11 or 12 years old, it was all about music. Music had such a grip on me. My mother was a ballet dancer, and she introduced us to a lot of ballet and Opera, she exposed us to the arts, the great classical composers, and to Flamenco which I was besotted with. I wanted to learn Flamenco guitar but there were no Flamenco guitar teachers in Leeds in those days. So, in the mid-1950’s I learned to play the piano very early on. I remember learning to read music and playing music and then getting frustrated playing this music written by geniuses that I could never in a million years play as well as, so I started making up my own little tunes and melodies which was in hindsight obviously more than just an act of rebellion but a need to express myself creatively within a musical framework. So that’s how in a sense I got into songwriting by default. By the time I was 13, I knew I wanted to somehow earn a living as a musician, it would be just the coolest thing I thought, and I was starting to get tired and bored of piano lessons. Then I heard Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel on the radio and the sound and the singer just sounded so exciting: rock’n’roll had arrived and the excitement of what I felt listening to it reminded me of how I felt when I first heard Flamenco. So I nagged my dad for a cheap Spanish guitar and took to it like a duck to water, I improved quickly and formed a group and within a couple of years, I started playing small gigs and progressing nicely until we were good enough to try to get a record contract. But then we were playing other people’s songs as most bands didn’t have a contract. It was now in the mid-1960s and I remember an A&R guy once told me “You’re not going to get a record contract by playing other people’s songs, you’ve got to write your own songs”. And so I started listening to more and more great songwriters and I picked up ideas and began to learn the craft of songwriting. I was very, very driven and determined to succeed in spite of the odds of being successful. I don’t know what I would’ve done had I not been successful as I just had no interest in being anything else than a musician, that was my dream job and thankfully it paid off.
What did you do after the 1970s?
I had a good five years working with Christie in the 1970s, and once the band finished in 1975, I stopped playing for about 14 or 15 years, and then I started playing again in the 90s as there were a lot of people telling me there was a nostalgia circuit interested in hearing my songs again. I resisted it at first, but then I kind of fell in with the idea. There were these guys I discovered in a good local band 10 years younger than me playing Christie songs at their own gigs as well as playing 1960s and 1970s stuff, and I was like ok, let’s rehearse a little and see how it goes. Their enthusiasm dovetailed with my missing playing live, and the rehearsals went well so from then on it was onward and upward so to speak. I eventually started doing a few gigs in the UK and Europe and it built up over the ensuing years. A high point was playing at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow and St Petersburg in 2001 and doing TV appearances all over Europe. I think it was Keith Richards or Charlie Watts who said that when you play live, you actually spend 90% of your time hanging around and only 10% of the time playing. And that’s what’s exhausting. I stopped playing live performances after I had some spinal damage in 2013, and it just became very, very difficult for me to play as fluently as I could play before and I kind of struggled with that for about a couple of years until it just became too difficult for me to continue getting on and off planes and waiting around in airports, hotels, dressing rooms etcetera. But my voice is still working okay, so I still can play and sing a little bit. I looked for a situation where I could work and record my songs and do things at my own pace, very slowly and methodically and adjust my focus solely on writing and recording in the controlled environment of the recording studio, because playing live is one thing, and playing and recording is another thing, totally.
Recording is much more scientific and more focused. When you’re playing live, it is for the eyes and the ears, whereas when you’re recording, it’s just for the ears, if you understand what I mean, and so you can experiment a great deal more. I have always loved working in studios because I could just follow my muse, but when you’re playing live, that’s exciting and immediate and in the 1990s and noughties I was playing live in this nostalgia circuit, mainly with bands from the 1960s and the 1970s with some very big audiences in Europe, Germany, Scandinavia and Holland to name a few, and all they want to hear are the hits, they want to hear Christie’s hits, and also to hear music from that era. It was fun but very restrictive; we would go out and play my songs, but also, we’d be putting other songs in from that same time period that were of a similar nature because that’s what the audiences were paying for so the whole experience of origins was a trip down memory lane. That’s the whole point of the nostalgia circuit. With this recording, I don’t have to do that. I mean, I can wear different hats: Christie was very much a sort of country pop-rock band if you like, and that sort of style was our signature. I think of myself more as a songwriter and recording artist these days. I need to be free to roam musically and I don’t like to be tied to one style. Now, whether this is a money-making prospect is doubtful in this age of streaming. That’s another conversation and not my raison d’être for being a songwriter. A poet writes poetry because that’s what he or she does. And a songwriter writes songs because that’s what he or she does. An artist doesn’t want a record company or management telling them that the next four songs must all be the same successful formula because that goes against the grain. There are dry periods that can go on for a period of several weeks and nothing happens, then suddenly, out of the blue something happens and I’ve got an idea. I sit down and before I know, I’ve got, you know maybe half or somewhere near three-quarters of a song. And this is what’s been going on for years and years and years. But when I was playing, I didn’t really give the songwriting aspect enough space, I suppose, because I was playing and touring a lot. But now that’s gone and life changes whether you like it or not, I found a great little studio not far from where I live, which is very convenient for me, it has some really good equipment and a good engineer and so I’ve been able to really wrap myself up in it and I’m absorbed and focused on all aspects of the writing, arranging and production and performance of these songs, which is very fulfilling as well as time-consuming. I’ve never stopped writing songs. I mean, sometimes I just think it’s not me writing songs, I think they write me.
Pictures provided from Jeff Christie’s private collection © belongs to their respective owners
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★ In 2021, Jeff Christie was approached by Italian singer-songwriter Lorenzo Gabanizza to perform a duet of You’re not there, a song dedicated to Lorenzo’s late mother who was the greatest fan of Jeff. Their partnership went on with the release of I Guess I Am The Only One in 2022