How I wrote ‘Yellow River’ by Christie
The English rock band’s founder, vocalist, bassist and songwriter Jeff Christie explains the creation of their 1970 chart-topping hit single
Leeds-born Jeff Christie formed his eponymous rock group in 1969 with Vic Elmes on guitar and Michael Blakley on drums. Just a year later, Christie would become a household name, thanks in no small part to their chart-topping hit Yellow River. The single sold in excess of 20 million records, reaching No 1 in 26 countries, netting 10 gold discs and many other accolades including an Ivor Novello Award and a Carl Allan Award.
Yellow River also earned Christie a BMI Citation of Achievement Award, in recognition of the national popularity as measured by broadcast performances in the USA, where it stayed in the national Billboard charts for 32 weeks. The song has been covered by many artists over the past five decades, including R.E.M. and Elton John, and continues to be heavily synced in film.
On the 50th anniversary of Yellow River‘s release, we asked Jeff to tell us about the song’s inspiration, its genesis, and how he feels about its enduring appeal…
“I was always fascinated with the American Civil War and when I heard Glen Campbell’s Galveston, written by Jimmy Webb, it lit the spark that inspired me to write my own Galveston. It was one of those songs that ticked every box in the craft of modern songwriting, production, arrangement and performance. I was a big fan of them both, Glen Campbell was a great singer and guitarist with a talent for arranging Jim Webb’s songwriting genius.
“Listen to Jimmy’s original Galveston from his archive recordings and then compare it with Glen’s transformative brilliant more ‘commercial’ arrangement. Glen was also the guitarist in the West coast group The Hondells in the 60s who recorded my song Just One More Chance though unsure if he was on that actual recording session. It would have been cool if he was.
“I wrote Yellow River alone in the lounge of my folks’ house in Leeds in early 1969 when a Mac was something you wore to keep the rain off! The actual writing process was first on a piano using a rolling effect by alternating left-hand octave bass notes with right-hand chord work. Afterwards, I tried it out on the guitar to see if the ‘feel’ would coincide with the piano effect which it did nicely and helped that rolling feel that I was after.
“Not long after that I then recorded the demo at BBC Radio Leeds for a local affairs programme after successfully blagging my way into being able to use their studios to make the song a bit more of a better listening experience before I could hawk it around as having no band at the time the only way to get my songs out there was to get other artists to record them.
“Working alone, I first put down the piano track, then guitar and snare drum and finally vocals. In those days the Beeb’s regional recording facilities were primitive compared to today and the multi-track facility was down to about four tracks only.
“The concept was loosely about a confederate soldier’s relief and feelings on surviving the civil war, going home and hoping to find everything as it was and still in its place and if ‘the girl that he knew’ had stayed true and remained faithful. The major and minor chords for tension and dynamic, the beat, topline melody and first two lines of verse one flowed quite naturally in that order. The chorus and remaining verses just gradually fell into place as the writing momentum kept its flow.
“It took approximately two to three hours. Nothing is effortless in songwriting, but some songs come easier and faster than other ones. Yellow River was fairly quick in that respect. In those days I was writing every day almost and coming up with about three or four songs a week on average. Looking back I was really highly motivated and totally immersed in aspiring to be a good songwriter.
“I had set my sights on being as good as I could be at my chosen craft of songwriting and I had spent the 60s listening and learning from the great songwriters of the age as well as the decade before and the great rock ‘n’ roll writers like Leiber and Stoller and the Brill Building writers who were so original and exciting to me.
“I was determined somehow to try and follow in their footsteps even though they were impossibly big prints to fill and to make my love of songs and music my ‘proper job’. My mum and dad were really supportive throughout that period, their belief in me helped me to believe in myself whenever I got downhearted at not being able to break through, something I never forget and am grateful for to this day.
“At that time of writing the song, I had no band as my band The Outer Limits had already split up in mid-1968 after touring with Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd at the end of ’68. On that historic tour, Lee Jackson from The Nice encouraged me to sing my own songs instead of other peoples, after hearing us sneak one of my songs Sweet Freedom into our short opening set. The Nice were considered very avant-garde at the time and a ‘happening’ band, so praise from them gave me extra confidence in my writing ability, I guess.
“That remaining year and all of ’69 was totally devoted to knocking out songs daily. By the time Yellow River was penned, I thought the song had hit potential but others in the industry were convinced it could be a smash, and they were right as after release it took off like a rocket all around the world.
“I’m still amazed that for 50 years this song is still played all over the world, covered by hundreds of artists in all languages and used in TV and movies, most recently in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2019 Oscar and BAFTA-winning foreign film Roma.
“Such a diverse collection of cover versions still keep popping up all over from bluegrass to reggae, to Peruvian panpipes and German techno to name a few. But when people like Elton John and R.E.M. record it, and the latter say they loved the song when they were an aspiring young band, I know I did something right. So many people over the years have said how special it is to them and that’s a good feeling to have – it’s also quite humbling.”