MAGNA CARTA CELEBRATES 50 YEARS ON THE ROAD
Sometime in April 1969 the English folk rock band Magna Carta was founded in London. Founder and band leader Chris Simpson is still performing fifty years later and the only original band member.
Chris Simpson was born on July 13, 1942 in the Yorkshire Dales, the beautiful and hilly area of northern England, which became very well-known from TV series such as James Herriott’s ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ and ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’. This area and the people who live there are often the subjects of the songs he writes.
How it started
Sometime at the end of 1967 Chris formed a Simon & Garfunkel-like duo with Australian singer/guitarist Lyell Tranter. They regularly performed in bars and other small halls. Simpson used Paul Stewart as his stage name at that time. He started writing lyrics and poems at a young age and, after learning to play the guitar, he began composing his own material. He soon started playing in all kinds of bands, often performing rock & roll music. He was captivated by the work of Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters such as Donovan and Paul Simon. Shortly thereafter, singer (and later actor) Glen Stuart, after an audition, joined Simpson and Tranter and the band was complete. From the beginning, almost all songs were written by Chris Simpson.
The first album
Fairly quickly they managed to secure a record deal with Phonogram, simply by getting the A&R man so drunk that they signed a contract on the back of a beer mat… They recorded their first full-length four-track album in the Philips Studios at Stanhope Place in London. It was entitled ‘Times Of Change’. When the recordings were finished, they still had two problems to solve: they didn’t have a music publisher (they didn’t even know it was needed) and they didn’t have a band name. The first issue was quickly resolved, that became Belsize Music. Several band names were reviewed, including ‘The Genesis’ proposed by Chris, a name that the other musicians found ‘too biblical’ and eventually they agreed on the name ‘Magna Carta’, which was the very first English constitution from 1215. It is unclear when the band first performed under their new name. For years it was reported that this was on May 10, 1969 and this is the day Chris considers correct but a date in March has also been mentioned.
The second album, a concept album about the four seasons, entitled ‘Seasons’, which was released on the new and progressive Vertigo label. This album, produced by Gus Dudgeon, brought the band a lot of success, partly due to the hit single ‘Airport Song’. Well-known musicians participated on the album: keyboardist Rick Wakeman (Yes), bassist Danny Thompson (folk group The Pentangle) and arranger Tony Visconti plus the prestigious The London Symphony Orchestra. With this album the band toured large venues such as the Royal Albert Hall in London. This concert was recorded by the BBC, but unfortunately the recordings were initially lost. After decades of searching, Chris Simpson managed to find them in the archives and, after much legal wrangling, they were released on cd in 2014. Lyell Tranter married and returned to Australia. He was replaced in the band by a young and very talented Scottish guitarist, Davey Johnstone.
Songs From Wasties Orchard
The third album, ‘Songs From Wasties Orchard’ was also a commercial success, Shortly afterwards, in 1971 the band were in Concert at The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, as the support act for popular Dutch singer Liesbeth List. Her performance that evening was recorded and the recording engineer and producer decided to record Magna Carta’s performance as well. Both the record company and the band were very happy with the result and it was decided to release the recording as their first live album. This too became a major sales success.
Lord Of The Ages
Gus Dudgeon became too busy with his work for rising star Elton John and was thus unable to collaborate on Magna Carta’s next album, ‘Lord Of The Ages’ (1973). Davey Johnstone by this time had left the band, having been recruited by Elton John (he is still his regular guitarist), and had been replaced by Stan Gordon. The album and the long title song ‘Lord Of The Ages’ remain among the highlights of Magna Carta’s repertoire. The cover was designed by internationally acclaimed designer Roger Dean (he designed the logo and many albums by British progrock band Yes) and the album is partly counted as progressive rock. It remains one of the most popular Magna Carta albums selling well, also after its later release on cd.
The next albums ‘Took A Long Time’ (1976), ‘Martin’s Café (1977) and ‘Prisoners On The Line’ (1978), had ever-changing line-ups. Especially after the advent of singer/guitarist Tom Hoy, the band began to play different styles of music. Albums were released on a variety of labels. Concert locations became smaller, even though the band remained very popular in The Netherlands and Norway. The LP ‘Live In Bergen’ (Norway) from 1978 sold well again on mainland Europe. The albums ‘Prisoners On The Line’ (1978), ‘No Truth In The Rumour’ (1979) and ‘Midnight Blue’ (1982) performed reasonably well in terms of sales.
In the meantime singer/guitarist Linda Taylor had joined the band and shortly afterwards she became a couple with Chris Simpson. Because the number of performances declined further and further, partly due to the punk and new wave explosion, Chris and Linda left for a number of years heading off to the Middle East. There they gave performances on behalf of the British government for expats and other interested parties in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Abu Dhabi. They performed mostly as a duo but sometimes also incorporated other musicians, such as the recently deceased George Norris. They also played in Spain and India. The album ‘Sweet Deceiver’ was released in 1983 and ‘One To One’ was released in 1988, but shortly afterwards the record company sadly became insolvent.
It wasn’t until 1992 that a new album was released, under the title ‘Heartlands’. This was produced by (according to Chris Simpson) ‘the Dutch John Peel’: Jan Douwe Kroeske. The cd was released by Sound Products, which went bankrupt shortly after its release. Then it was released by CNR, which also went bankrupt… Yet Chris, Linda and their varying musicians continued to perform and their sold out concert in 1993 at Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht was recorded and released on cd. In 1994 their 25th anniversary was celebrated with a concert at that same venue. There were numerous guest musicians such as Jan Akkerman, Flairck and Bert Jansch.
In the years that followed, Chris and Linda continued to tour as a duo mainly in The Netherlands, then again with a band, then again as a duo. Tours were usually twice a year: in the spring and in the fall. By this time Linda Simpson had also written many songs which were performed by the band.
In 1999 they came into contact with renowned Dutch pop producer Jan Schuurman, who owned his own studio alongside a mobile studio, both called The Van, in the IJsselmeer village of Spakenburg. A year later they recorded the album ‘Seasons In The Tide’ in this studio, which was released in 2001 on the American label Gold Circle Records. Vic Emerson (Sad Café, 10cc) produced the album and some former band members also contributed: Doug Morter, Paul Burgess (10cc) and Jonathan Barrett (The Tangent). Later that year a performance by Chris and Linda was recorded in a small theatre on the Dutch isle of Texel and filmed by the men of The Van. This became the dvd ‘Ticket To The Moon’ which was released in early 2002.
Magna Carta performed with the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in The Netherlands in 2002. Whilst there they met a young Dutch violinist/mandolin player named Matthijs (“Matt”) Barnhoorn. They clicked immediately and soon Matt became a member of the band. Magna Carta was a trio once again. In addition to the two annual Dutch tours, they played in the United Kingdom, Canada and South Africa. Chris and Linda continued to write new songs. Although no more studio albums were released, several live albums and compilations were released.
By 2008 the marriage of Chris and Linda was over and it was decided to end their collaboration in May 2009 with a farewell concert at The Royal Dutch Theatre Carré in Amsterdam (the Dutch equivalent of the Royal Albert Hall). This sold-out concert was not only a farewell but also a reunion of various former band members, such as Tom Hoy, George Norris, Lee Abbott and Doug Morter. It also included a number of renowned Dutch guest musicians such as percussionist Eddie Conard and keyboardist Mike Roelofs.
This turned out not to have been the real goodbye. Of the trio of Chris, Linda and Matt, Chris most enjoyed performing live and, after a few solo appearances, he went on tour through South Africa at the end of 2008 with veteran Magna Carta member, Tom Hoy. A year later he did the same with Nick Hall. Later, when asked, the Dutch multi-instrumentalist Laurens Joensen seized the opportunity to accompany Chris to that beautiful country. In 2011, Magna Carta was a trio once again with Chris and Laurens being joined by veteran George Norris. They did a good number of (mainly theatre) performances in The Netherlands, under the title ‘The Return’. A year later there was another change in the line-up, with Laurens Joensen being replaced by violinist Wendy Ross. The new line up performed in Luxembourg. In 2013 Chris, Wendy and Laurens performed 3 concerts at the annual Canterbury Festival in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada and a short Dutch tour. In 2014 the last studio album ‘The Fields Of Eden’ was recorded and Magna Carta performed only one concert, in Grassington. In 2015 the new line-up consisted of Chris Simpson, Wendy Ross, Doug Morter (guitars, vocals) and young fretless bass player Will Stock performed a fully sold out concert at Hetties’ Bistro in Skipton, North Yorkshire, again at the annual Canterbury Festival in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada and later that year at the Great British Folk Festival at Butlins in Skegness, Lincolnshire.
The Fields Of Eden
In 2014 a cautious start was made with new recordings for Magna Carta’s first studio album since 2001. The new album was constructed around the title song ‘The Fields Of Eden’ which also became the name of the album. The song had been in the band’s repertoire since 2004 and had always produced a standing ovation. In the Soundworks Studio of former Magna Carta member Will Jackson in Leeds, recordings were made for the new album which was released on 15 June 2015, exactly 800 years after the original Magna Carta was published. The album received rave reviews everywhere. In 2018 the double CD ‘Love On The Wire’ was released which comprised 36 live recordings (including BBC sessions) between 1971 and 2014.
In 2015 the band consisted of Chris Simpson, his old buddy Doug Morter on guitar and vocals, Wendy Ross on violin and the young and talented fretless bass player Will Stock. They went to Canada in the summer and in 2016 they did a British tour with Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle as well as a Dutch tour called The Fields Of Eden Tour, which was (according to Chris) the last one. They played in ten sold out venues across the low lands. In 2017 Doug was replaced by Ken Nichol (formerly in Steeleye Span) and they played, with John Shepard on drums, two concerts in Spain and some British ones.
The years sadly started to catch up with Chris. Despite various operations it had not been possible to repair the damaged nerve in his right arm so he no longer has any feeling in it. Reluctantly, Chris decided not to tour extensively, at least for no longer than a few weeks with sufficient rest days in between. The last two years have been mainly about “single” band performances, especially in the United Kingdom. In 2019 a concert has been arranged in Canada and the last British date in 2020 was held in the Yorkshire town of Ripley, which sold out very quickly and was filmed for later dvd release. Magna Carta’s line-up in 2020 is Chris Simpson (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Wendy Ross (violin, vocals), Ken Nicol (guitars, mandolin, vocals) and Will Stock (fretless bass guitar). John Shepard (drums, percussion) quit after the Ripley gig. Due to the Covid-19 virus the planned last Dutch tour in September was postponed to 2021.
Chris Simpson has always had a good eye for musical talent. Over the years he managed to attract musicians who became famous in other bands after they left Magna Carta. Some examples: Davey Johnstone (still Elton John’s regular guitarist) and drummers Paul Burgess (10cc), Matt Letley (Status Quo) and Pick Withers (Dire Straits). He also managed to attract musicians from other, well-known bands to play on Magna Carta’s albums. These included Rick Wakeman (Yes), Elliott Randall (Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers), Ken Nicol (Steeleye Span), Derek Nash (Jools Holland) and Alan Thomson (The Pentangle, John Martyn, Martin Barre).
Magna Carta have released around thirty studio albums since 1969 and various live and compilation albums. Like many bands that emerged in the sixties, Chris Simpson and his followers experienced ups and downs, such as a manager who ran off with the money to a tropical island, even though he didn’t enjoy it for long! It was not until the 1990’s that Chris received the gold and silver discs to which he had been entitled for more than twenty years. Magna Carta has performed in about 78 countries during these fifty years, but the band was most often seen in The Netherlands.
50 years of Magna Carta wasn’t really celebrated in 2019. Chris Simpson ‘just’ continues to write songs, texts, poems and books. He’s released a very well received short novel entitled ‘The Visitor’ in 2018 and his book ‘Seasons In The Dale’ will probably be released later this year, with stories about special people from his native region, the Yorkshire Dales.
Written by Harry Pater for Classicrockmag.nl – translated by Chris Abrams