Arguably one of the greatest acoustic acts in the world, they have transcended the fluctuating fortunes of the music business to remain a superb concert and recording act, surviving for an astounding thirty five years.
What is the secret when so many artists bite the dust and disappear without trace?
MAGNA CARTA was founded by Chris Simpson, a Yorkshire Dalesman, in London in 1969.
After University he worked a strange assortment of jobs to keep body and soul together ranging from traffic engineer to post-mortem assistant. By night he played guitar in a variety of venues and with a society orchestra, working the houses of the rich and famous across the south, the great London hotels and one memorable gig for the Royal Family.
There was a lot of rock n’ roll in the Witches Cauldron, Belsize village; steamy nights in dives and blues joints, and one memorable gig supporting Cream at Sussex University.
He recalls, ‘Eric (Clapton) didn’t have any guitar picks, so I gave him mine. In return he let us use their gear. It’s the first time I had seen Marshall stacks and they frightened me to death. We stuck with Vox AC/.30’s. Eric came out with a beautiful lady and danced to our set.’
He realised that his forte lay with the acoustic guitar, and after catching Martin Carthy and the Thamesiders in the King and Queen, Foley Street; Davey Graham at Cousins; Alexis at the Marquee and the fledgling Pentangle in Tottenham Court Road, that was to be the road.
Dylan had landed in Britain with Joan Baez, ringing the changes that were to go on to shape a whole generation, and the folk boom spilled over the edges of accepted formats to become a tour de force.
Lonnie Donegan had kick started the whole thing with skiffle- a style that was not too demanding musically but broadened the appeal of the guitar. Without Lonnie there would have been no Quarrymen. Without the Quarrrymen – no Beatles.
In 1969 a combination of luck and opportunism saw MAGNA CARTA record their first album with Danny Thompson on bass.
They starred at the Cambridge Festival and by now were packing out the acoustic venues in the UK and Europe.
They followed Seasons with Songs from Wasties Orchard featuring the molten talents of Davey Johnstone – still Elton John’s longest running sideman.
He replaced Magna’s original Lyell Tranter, and they went on to record In Concert at the Concertegbouw, Amsterdam, beginning their lifelong love affair with Holland and around this time they performed ‘Seasons’ in the Royal Albert Hall conducted by John Dankworth and backed by the Royal Philharmonic.
Phonogram lost the tape. It re-surfaced last year
The next album was the highly acclaimed Lord of the Ages, referred to by Rick Wakeman as ‘one of the greatest albums of its kind ever made’. With a Roger Dean cover it was to become Magna’s Sergeant Pepper, and became the subject of a book in Europe.
Throughout this time MAGNA CARTA toured continuously, from the Albert Hall to Kensington Palace; from Katmandu to St Moritz World Festival of Youth Orchestras, the road stretching through clubs, festivals; concert halls and radio and TV shows too numerous to mention.
The journey claimed its casualties though, resulting in a number of line-up changes, but that special something that is MAGNA CARTA carried on regardless.
Ten albums were made for Phonogram and one tour of Holland consisted of 63 dates – a record at the time.
Chris wrote the music for a Scottish BBC TV series, and Magna Carta played for Royalty at the London Palladium and in Den Haag, and other prestigious events around the world.
The road is never an easy task master and for some time the conflicting personalities of Simpson and Stuart had rubbed off on each other to the point where their respective roads had to divide. Glenn Stuart was showbiz personified; Chris was grass roots and home grown. Whereas Glen’s idol was Doris Day and the great musicals, for Chris it was Elvis and the Sun Sessions; Robert Johnson; J.J.Cale; Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, and the whole rich panoply of American culture. Not forgetting, of course, that the only reason that he ever wrote a song in the first place was due to the inspiration of John and Paul.
Tom Hoy, who astounded Chris in the first place by turning up in a pair of silver boots, had watched the sad demise of his group, The Natural Acoustic Band, and being at a loose end came out on the road as a technician for Chris and Glen. He then started to play guitar with them.
The schism widened and Chris and Tom started picking up duo gigs.They toured South Africa with Glen, but somehow the fates were set and Glen Stuart plyed his last gig with Chris and Tom at the Peeler’s Folk Club in London. He was not happy that it was a club, but as it all started, so it ended for him.
Waiting in the wings was Nigel Portman Smith on bass and piano. The three put together a show and headed out on the road. There was a zest and freshness that was apparent away from the glitzy showbiz straightjacket. Three albums were made. Took a long Time, with Pick Withers (later to join Dire Straits) drumming, and the great Dave Bromberg guesting; Live in Bergen, when an exhausted Magna in the middle of a sixty three date tour of Holland filled three of their rare days off by hurtling up to Bergen, Norway, more dead than alive, to perform a show and record an album in the Grieghalle, and finally Prisoners on the Line.
By this time the road had taken its toll once more and the cracks were beginning to appear again in the Magna facade. Chris and Tom were very much soul bothers but as they said in the song, it took a long time to get there. Chris hates ‘Prisoners on the Line’, mostly for the production by Emil Zhogbe, a warm and charismatic South African who simply did not understand Magna Carta.
Tom headed off with vocal, percussion and woodwind virtuoso Robin Thyne and formed NovaKata. From Chris’s point of view the least said about that the better. They made one album, ‘Roadworks’, and then disbanded. All’s well that ends well, as someone once said, and Chris and Tom to this day are the friends they always were,and Simpson was touched and proud when Tom guested on a live Magna set, Evergreen. He was nervous but the same old Tom, and very, very good.
In the early 80’s they were criss-crossing the world on many tours for the British Council taking their music into the remote corners of the planet from the Rain Forest to Damascus and the Gaza Strip. Two new albums were made, No Truth in the Rumour, and Midnight Blue, the latter spawning the hit song Highway to Spain that was to remain on the BBC playlists for ten years
Punk had crashed onto the stages and the ears of the world and even the very best of acoustic music seemed doomed to oblivion.
At the time Magna Carta was a band of five and in the prevailing musical and economic climate Simpson saw the writing on the wall.
He recalls being ‘adrift on the tide going nowhere’ until Nigel Schofeild of Bradford’s Pennine Radio hauled him in for some sessions and this led to him writing some five or six songs a week, and even DJ’ing the Saturday rock show for a while.
‘All comes to he who waits’ and indeed it did in the form of Linda Taylor, a young, talented musician with a fine line in vocals; guitar and woodwind.
She joined Chris on the sessions.
Following on from a previous full band British Council tour of the Middle East, Chris and Linda went back to Abu Dhabi and stayed there for two years running an acoustic club in the luxurious Intercontinental, sharpening the style and repertoire that shaped the next decade.
On return to England with different lover and friends, they could have gone their separate ways but fate decreed otherwise.
CD’s were making their presence felt in the market place and because of this came a world-wide interest in catalogue material, something that MAGNA CARTA had in abundance. ‘UNPLUGGED’ became a household name and a revival had begun.
The album One to One (a strong candidate for the worst sleeve of all time) for Tembo records later to be re-titled, Rings around the Moon, was recorded at Blue Strike studios in Harrogate, and many of the tracks featured originally came into being on Nigel’s Pennine sessions.
1990 saw Chris and Linda return to Europe and in Holland they began their ascent all over again, cutting two albums Heartlands and the live State of the Art. Re-releases of Magna classics were selling well on CD and compilations of their material surfaced all over the world.
It was a whole new phase of the journey as they travelled back and forth across the globe, with the British Council, in Iraq ( they were possibly the last Europeans to meet the Maa’dan, the Marsh Arabs before Saddam annihilated them) Damascus; Tunisia; Norway; Venezuela; Nicaragua and Costa Rica to name but a few. It was not just music either. Chris did a week of lectures in Tunis and there were workshops and symposiums.
Linda and Chris married in 1990.
For 15 years they have lived in Grassington in the Dales and continued to travel and record. A double album set A touch of Class, consisted of live recordings from the famous Grassington Festival. At one of the shows, Sir Jimmy Savile presented Chris with six Gold and four Silver albums.
Chris and Linda with their Gold ALbums
In all this Chris managed to write a spiritual mystery story called ‘The Visitor’. It was on limited release but pulled in superb reviews and sold out.
Together with Linda, the beautiful hardback, ‘Complete Works of Magna Carta’ was compiled and produced by Eric Laurant.
The Autumn sees a big tour of Holland and the release of a double set of one DVD/ one audio currently titled In Tomorrow on River Records. They will be joined on stage by Matt Barnhoorn, a friend and superbly talented musician, who guests with Fairport Convention when they are in Holland.
He plays mandolin and fiddle.
Don’t Stop Me is currently climbing to be a radio hit in Holland and may be included. Chris had forgotten all about this stomping track with Rick Wakeman on keyboards, recorded back in ’76.
Plans next year include a box of all the singles and then, hopefully the recording of the Fields of Eden which has been stunning audiences everywhere this year, superb, sweepingly provocative and achingly poignant, this picks up where ‘Lord of the Ages’ left off.
MAGNA CARTA have performed in 59 countries so far across the world. They have worked with the best and the worst.
Their story is one of the most unique in the contemporary music business; from the deserts to the sea, through the cities and the heartlands around the world their dales based music has been heard.
Simpson’s voice, like his songs, has been tried and tested by the road and his guitar playing goes from strength to strength, a style recently described as “one you could recognise from the other side of a football pitch.”
The songs speak for themselves and come from the heart – for there is no other way.
The accolade ‘star’ is wearily over-used these days but when one describes Linda, no other word will do. She will draw you into her performance with the effortless grace of one who is born to the stage.
Together they are a devastating combination.
… they have a repertoire that allows their inimitable guitar sound and style, coupled with Linda’s superb voice and woodwind playing to come together in that special blend that is so unique and so MAGNA CARTA. Add to this Chris’ incredible storytelling, down-to-earth Yorkshire humour, and ability to relate to his audience, and an unforgettable experience awaits. To hear them once is an unforgettable experience. To know their work is enrichment.
NIGEL CHAINEY – Bardwell, Suffolk.
…depth, social comment, humour, poignant songs, ballads and on through blues-tinged work to rock n’ roll, it is all there in the phenomenon that is Magna Carta.
They are the whole story of contemporary folk music and that is one stupendous achievement.
COLIN IRWIN – Melody Maker.
Chris Simpson, the English Paul Simon…
FRED DELLAR – MOJO
Dear Chris, Linda and Matthijs,
Thank you for a wonderful evening at the Oldfenzaal Theater. Both me and my wife left the theatre in an unreal state of mind like if we here still floating on the music you played. It took a long walk before we actually said anything to each other. We now found what real beauty is. Thanks.
Harm and Jaqueline
…dear friends, musical icons, heroes and idols, I want to congratulate you on 35 years of music… with love and admiration…
TABBY MAY – singer/songwriter.
Stunning – those harmonies and twin guitars. ‘Classic’ is the only word that springs to mind. I swear that the only sound apart form Magna Carta, was the noise of collective jaws dropping.
‘Fields of Eden’ – Chris’s Sistine Chapel and a work of genius.
NIGEL SCHOFIELD – Radio presenter Pennine Radio, Telegraph and Argus.
BOB DYLAN – singer/songwriter.