Man of Many Faces
Jason Barnard talks to Jeff Christie of the Outer Limits and Christie – Part 2
There’s that famous story about “Yellow River” and the tape for the Tremeloes..
By this time I had met Brian Longley who was their publicist and he had heard my demo. In those days you could access people at Batley Variety Club, very close to Leeds, that had all the successful artists and bands, many who I worked with previously with the Outer Limits. I went to see the Tremeloes as I’d written a song called “Tomorrow Night”, I wrote that and thought – ah The Tremeloes. It wasn’t my kind of song at all. I took it to them and they said it was exactly the type of thing that they wanted to get away from. They wanted to write their own stuff.
It’s hard to be exact but I reckon it must have been early 69 that I wrote “Yellow River” and that was on the tape. When it got to “Yellow River” I was about to turn the deck off and then they started tapping their feet and started singing along with it. They said play that one again and they got hooked on it. So they took it away and spent a lot of time recording it. It was going to be an album track, a b-side and maybe an a-side. 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… 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.
Was it their backing track? It’s really good.
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 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. I’d had two records out. “Just One More Chance” very nearly happened. I’d got on the Hendrix tour. Andrew Loog Oldham produced “The Great Train Robbery”. I’d a great CV but still hadn’t cracked it. 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….
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?
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. But “San Bernadino” I had written within three or four months of Yellow River. I was reading the Daily Express and I looked down and it said “Riots in San Bernadino prison”. Something triggers something and off you go. You go upstairs, get the guitar or sit on the piano. 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.
Did you write it quickly?
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 the 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. I toured with Scott MacKenzie in Germany in the 1990s and he told me it was a big Vietnam song. There’s letters on the website from Vietnam Vets and that was one of the songs that they related to.
Nice to see that parallel though.
Yeah, I’m not unhappy with that. It was of its time but originally it was meant to be about a soldier in the Civil War. It was trying to capture in 2 and a half minutes the feel of a young soldier getting away from the frontline and going back home.
You sold a lot of records when Christie were at there height?
We were selling 80 to 90 thousand a day at one point. There’s something about that record that just had that magic to it. Even to this day. I’ve heard 20 million sales and other figures equally flattering from industry figures over the years but eventually it becomes a numbers game. The point is it still gets played worldwide and still pops up on compilations, youTube etc. It was a massive universal hit, reaching pole position in 26 countries. “San Bernadino” was a massive hit around the world also.
There was a French version.
Joe Dassin was very big over there. It’s called “L’Amérique”. I quite like it.
Was there only two singles off the first Christie album?
“Inside Looking Out” was seriously considered for a single but just 2 singles were the final yield.
Vic Elmes joined on lead guitar and sung backing vocal. That first album featured Hugh Grundy 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.
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.
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.
A bit more “Iron Horse”?
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, and like tied numerically chart wise with Johnny Nash who had a record out called “I can see clearly now”. We would get all the figures and we were completely wiping the floor with him in terms of sales. Next week he went into the top thirty, and we exited the top 50!
I heard something about chart rigging?
Well, we could never figure it out. We lost a lot of momentum. That should have been top ten.
Yeah, it’s just as strong as “San Bernadino”.
To this day, “Iron Horse” was 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.
I’ve seen the “Iron Horse” video and you all seem to be dancing. That doesn’t seem to be the band, was that the record company?
Everyone wanted to use “Hard Day’s Night” as a template. But why? The Beatles were unique in their day. I started putting forward ideas but unfortunately the band were not big enough to dictate to CBS in terms of money spent on artistic integrity in the form of these promo films that were pre-video era and we were constricted from the start.
Also from “From All Mankind” was “Picture Painter”.
That was my homage to the Creation and “Painter Man”. I played with them at Leeds Uni in the ‘60’s and felt they should have made it.
There’s a lot of songs that are inspired by others.
Somebody made the comment that some of the tracks on the “For All Mankind” album sounded like the Who- I loved the Who and played with them at Leeds University and at an all nighter at the Queens Hall Leeds with the Outer Limits.
After “For All Mankind” the band members left.
Yes. Paul Fenton left to join Carmen. Paul ran into Carmen in Kensington Market. I think Paul wanted a change and said “I’ve met these guys and they are unbelievable”.
Didn’t getting stuck in Africa take a lot out of your schedule?
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. It was originally 10-12 days but ended up being two to three months. We were working our way down. 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.
And Vic then left?
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.
I’ve read that the period after this was a time of self-reflection.
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 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.
Like “For All Mankind” the song.
Yes, it’s a special song in many ways. It’s a universal wish for peace. You wish we could live in a world where people could all live together. I remember when I was doing the vocal I was very emotional and felt it strongly. I wanted to do it with the Black Dyke Mills band, a Yorkshire brass band. I put it to CBS but they wouldn’t budge at all. I wanted a soaring guitar solo, cutting through a very Hovis Brass Band sound!
I saw clips of the Russian gig a few years back.
That was awesome. There were people who came up to me who said they were waiting since 1970 to see Christie. We did a song festival in Sopot in Poland, and it was beamed behind the Iron Curtain. I had no idea of the influence it had. That was definitely a highlight.
I am the fiercest critic of my own work, pick holes in it, but I can listen back now and think yeah, it’s alright.
Out of your whole career, whether it was a hit or not, what is your favourite track?
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.
Going forward, what are your plans for the future?
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.
Almost the entire output of the Outer Limits, including demos, plus solo tracks are captured on the brilliant “Outer Limits/Floored Masters-Past Imperfect” cd set. Why not check out the website for Jeff Christie and his music at http://www.yellowriver.0catch.com/