In progressive rock circles, Magna Carta are a bit like the Little Engine That Could -- from relatively modest beginnings in 1969, they've endured across 36 years and counting, even as their louder, more heavily amplified rivals from the same era have long since been consigned to history. Acts such as King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer may be better (and much more widely) known, but Magna Carta have stayed together, making music decades longer. The group was founded in 1969 by Chris Simpson (who also sang) and Lyell Tranter on acoustic Gibson guitars and Glen Stuart singing harmony. Formed in London, they made their debut at the Coalhole Folk Club in Cambridge, and coming off of the enthusiastic response to the ten songs they did that night, Magna Carta were rolling. They were not, strictly speaking, a pure folk group even then, but utilized folk and traditional elements very heavily in their songwriting and sound, in a manner similar to that adopted by John David Gladwin and Terry Wincott of the Amazing Blondel at approximately the same time. They were signed to Mercury Records' British division and debuted with a self-titled LP. They were then shifted over to the related Vertigo label -- which was more specifically devoted to progressive rock acts -- for their second album, Seasons. By that time, their sound had solidified around Simpson's singing, songwriting, and steel-strung Martin D18; Tranter's arrangements and nylon-strung Gibson; and Stuart's vocal arrangements and his five-octave harmony range. Seasons, produced by Gus Dudgeon, featured as its centerpiece the side-long title work, and also a much larger contingent of musicians, among them Tony Visconti on bass, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Tim Renwick on flute, and Davey Johnstone on guitar; it was also the group's first record to be released in America, under license to Dunhill Records, though it made virtually no impact on the U.S. side of the Atlantic.
When Tranter decided to return to his native Australia, Johnstone, a virtuoso-level guitarist fluent in several styles, replaced him in Magna Carta, leading to the core lineup that recorded Songs from Wasties Orchard and the live album In Concert before Johnstone was stolen away -- with help from Dudgeon, who used him on his sessions -- by Elton John and, later, Kiki Dee. Johnstone's replacement was guitarist Stan Gordon, who worked on Lord of the Ages (1974) and was joined by bassist Graham Smith. By 1975, however, the group was down to one member -- Gordon and Smith left in 1974, and a disagreement about their sound and future direction led to Stuart's exit in 1975 after the release of Martin's Cafe (the latter also marked their final release on Vertigo).
When the appropriately titled Putting It Back Together was released in 1976 -- featuring Simpson, guitarist Tommy Hoy (late of the Natural Acoustic Band), and bassist Nigel Smith, with Chris Karan and Pick Withers on drums -- the group was on Polydor (the parent label of Vertigo) in Europe and Ariola in the United States. Withers later became an official member of the group for a short time, before joining Mark Knopfler, David Knopfler, and John Illsley in what became Dire Straits, and other new members from this period included Robin Thyne and Lee Abbott, who ultimately took over the bassist spot. Thyne and Hoy only lasted a couple of years, and for the next three years the membership in Magna Carta became rather fluid, with Alistair Fenn, George Norris, and future Albion Band member Doug Morter passing through on guitars, along with several drummers, including future Icicle Works alumnus Paul Burgess. They enjoyed an unexpected radio hit during this period with "Highway to Spain" off of the 1981 LP Midnight Blue, and Simpson also released his first solo album, Listen to the Man, around this same time. The turning point for Magna Carta and Simpson, both professionally and personally, came the next year when he met Linda Taylor, a Yorkshire-born singer and guitarist. At the time, Simpson was promoting his solo single "Sting of the Gin," and she was recording a material of her own. He ended up playing on some of her sides, and she appeared on some of his new songs, and by 1983 she'd joined the group. Her arrival reinvigorated Simpson's work, and through 1984 -- a point where virtually all of the other progressive rock bands with which they'd started had long since ceased working -- Magna Carta kept performing and recording, with Simpson and Taylor, supported by Abbott, at the core of the lineup. The middle of the decade, however, saw the pair withdraw from performing -- instead, for two years they ran a music club in the Middle East. It was in 1986 that they revived the group, with Abbott once more joining them in the core lineup and a considerably expanded sound, including a keyboard player (Gwyn Jones) and lead guitarist (Simon Carlton).
In 1990 Simpson and Taylor married, and since 1992 with Abbott's exit, they've comprised the core of Magna Carta, which continued to tour Europe -- where the band had a large audience -- regularly. In keeping with their appeal as a live act, most of their releases since the early '80s (with the notable exception of 2001's Seasons in the Tide) have been concert recordings. Polygram reissued the group's early Vertigo albums at the end of the 1990s, and in 2004 Repertoire Records re-released Seasons in a mini-LP gatefold edition re-creating its original packaging format in miniature. Although some critics, embarrassed by the more pretentiously "arty" and fey sides of progressive rock (especially in its folk division) have expressed disdain for Magna Carta, that reissue and the periodic release of anthologies of the group's work testify to the existence of an audience for their work, even 40 years into their history. ~ Bruce Eder