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Magna Carta

+ {Chris Simpson}

Formed 1968 in London by Chris Simpson (vocals and acoustic guitar) and Australian Lyell Tranter (guitar, bass and vocals), MAGNA CARTA brought many facets to the world of prog/folk-rock music; arty, pastoral and baroque would describe at least three of them. With the addition of Glen Stuart (vocals, glockenspiel and harmonium), the trio opened their concert account at the Coalhole Folk Club in Cambridge. Featuring harmonies on a par with SIMON & GARFUNKEL, AMAZING BLONDEL or The MOODY BLUES, the group were snapped up by Mercury Records, who duly released their eponymous MAGNA CARTA (1969) {*7}; one can vouch for delicate and pretty tunes such as `Times Of Change’, `Emily Thru’ The Window Pane’, `7 O’Clock Hymn’, `Spinning Wheels Of Time’ and the single `Midwinter’.
Moving along the corridor to Britain’s newest prog-friendly label, Vertigo, It was indeed no surprise that their follow-up concept set, SEASONS (1970) {*6}, produced one side-long title-track piece running at over 22 minutes. Rather ambitious and overly self-indulgent for what was basically orchestrated soft-rock intertwining with fairytale folk-pop, the set also had some easy-going slices of sunshine pop and others like `Elizabethan’, `Scarecrow’ (very ISB) and one-that-got-away (single-wise) `Airport Song’. Produced by Gus Dudgeon and showcasing excellent extended band session work from Tony Visconti (bass), Tim Renwick (flute), Davey Johnstone (guitar) and RICK WAKEMAN (keyboards), the record was their only chart entry at No.55.
The first of a string of personnel changes occurred when Tranter upped sticks to his Australian homeland; his full-time replacement in some respects, the aforementioned Johnstone, was already in place for album number three, SONGS FROM WASTIES ORCHARD (1971) {*8}. Virtuoso guitarist Johnstone added another dimension (and a few songs, including the Celtic-like `Sponge’ and `Down Along Up’) to a band that had already premiered jewels `Time For The Leaving’, `Isle Of Skye’, `The Bridge At Knaresborough Town’, `White Snow Dove’ and the comic hillbilly track `Country Jam’ at a prestigious concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Albert Hall.
Recorded live at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam that November, the IN CONCERT (1972) {*6} set was the final reminder of how integral Johnstone was to the trio before he was whisked away into the ELTON JOHN Band.
Stan Gordon was in place (as was the ubiquitous DANNY THOMPSON on session bass) for the group’s next studio venture, LORD OF THE AGES (1973) {*5}, a slightly timid and sugary set which verged on singer-songwriter territory, cloning SIMON & GARFUNKEL on `Two Old Friends’, a track sitting uncomfortably with the poetical 10-minute title track. Subsequent upheaval and confusion beset the MAGNAs in the early months of ‘74, when Stan took off, his replacement being former session bass player Graham Smith, who only stuck around for the recording of MARTIN’S CAFÉ {*4}, a mediocre LP which was shelved by Vertigo for three years. During the months that followed, Glen Stuart was awkward with the band’s new direction (and the addition of a new bassist, Mohammed Amin), and he too left to run his pet shop in Richmond, Surrey.
Sole survivor Simpson was forced into enlisting a whole new bunch of musicians, headed by former NATURAL ACOUSTIC BAND leader, Scotsman Tom Hoy, plus part-timers Nigel Smith (bass), Chris Karan and then Pick Withers (drums). 1976’s TOOK A LONG TIME (re-titled PUTTING IT BACK TOGETHER (1977) {*6}) was indeed their transitional album, a record took them into the realms of electric-folk (`Wild Bird’, `Painted Eyes’ and `Lady Take Me Down’ prime examples), while the acoustic side of the group shone out via a cover of DYLAN’s `Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ and the initial title track.
Another refugee from Scots folkies The NATURAL ACOUSTIC BAND, Geordie-born Robin Thyne, was added to brief full-timer Pick Withers, but PRISONERS ON THE LINE (1978) {*5} was nowhere near the album it should’ve been; the Dutch-only LIVE IN BERGEN (1979) {*6} identified MAGNA CARTA as a quartet with the temporary addition of fiddler TOM McCONVILLE, soon to be a solo star in his own right and a member of DAB HAND.
With Lee Abbott (fretless bass and vocals) effectively superseding Nova Carta-bound Hoy and Thyne, plus the addition of English guitarists/vocalists George Norris and Alastair Fenn, MAGNA CARTA were once again re-invented; 1979’s NO TRUTH IN THE RUMOUR {*5} was afforded only a Dutch release. When the latter pairing departed, two further temps were found by way of Doug Morter and Paul Burgess (ex-10CC), who complemented a couple of other Dutch and Spanish-only LPs, MIDNIGHT BLUE (1982) {*5} and SWEET DECEIVER (1983) {*5}; Morter would join The ALBION BAND.
A solo album by CHRIS SIMPSON, LISTEN TO THE MAN (1983) {*5}, ironically found new recruits for a re-formed MAGNA CARTA, the mainman and Abbott enlisting Chris’s girlfriend Linda Taylor (guitar, vocals, woodwind and percussion) and guitarist Willie Jackson for their “comeback” 45, `Love Is Forever’. The mid-80s MAGNAs featured Simpson, Taylor, Abbott, the returning Paul Burgess, lead guitarist Simon Carlton, plus fiddler John Carey; Glyn Jones (keyboards) was a member until he left just prior to the recording of 1988’s ONE TO ONE {*5}.
The arrival of the 90s (and indeed the following decade) saw the duo of Chris and Linda tie the knot, also taking MAGNA CARTA into a new phase, kicking off with the first of several CD albums, HEARTLANDS (1992) {*4}; others were mainly live efforts, with the exception of SEASONS IN THE TIDE (2001) {*6} and the double disc IN TOMORROW (2005) {*6}, which was “Mostly Studio” and “Mostly Live”.
When Chris and Linda informed the public that they would divorce, the MAGNA CARTA treaty looked to be in jeopardy, but by autumn farewell gigs ensued; Hoy even re-joined for a tour of South Africa in 2009; Nick Hall took the latter’s place a year later. By 2011, Simpson was joined by guitarist George Norris and a multi-instrumentalist Laurens Joensen, although the revolving-door aspect of the outfit, led to violinist Wendy Ross, bassist Alan Thomson and guitarist Douglas Morter taking the berth of Norris for “comeback” studio album, THE FIELDS OF EDEN (2015) {*7}.
An hour long and at times laid back (not surprising for Simpson; now approaching 73 years old), the sentimental `Walk Away From Heaven’ was the single force here, although this is followed by the part-narrative, 16-minute PETER BELLAMY-meets-MARK KNOPFLER-styled title track. Adding a touch of nocturnal jazz in `The Same Rain’, C&W-folk in `Greenhow Hill’ and flamenco by way of `European Union Blues’, MAGNA CARTA magnify a sunny-day warmth all over. Nothing in the class of `Airport Song’, but that would be asking too much.
© MC Strong/MCS 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Jun2015

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