Tony Cummings spoke at length to one of the UK's most popular artists of the '70s, LEN MAGEE
Before Delirious?, before the World Wide Message Tribe, even before Graham Kendrick developed his worship persona, the most popular purveyor of Christian music in Britain was a country-cum-folk-cum-pop singer called Len Magee. Throughout the '70s Len was an omnipresent on the scene clocking up nine albums and with the bookracks offering his autobiography Coming Home: The Len Magee Story. Then suddenly, Len left music behind him, as he developed his preaching gift and is today the pastor at Tweed Heads Christian Life Centre in New South Wales, Australia. Len spoke on the Rimmerama programme about his life in music and ministry. "I was born in West Ham, but I was sent to Australia at the age of six and I was one of the forgotten generation."
On his website Len filled in a few of the gruelling details of his traumatic childhood. "At the age of six, with absolutely no idea what was happening to me, I was put on the P&O Strathnaver in 1954 and travelled from England to the other side of the world and arrived at Fairbridge in Australia. What a shock that was! Nothing in my small life could ever have prepared me for what I was about to experience during the next long 10 years of my life!
For the next six years I lived with 14 other boys in a sparse wooden cottage with a cottage mother who I'm sure was the inspiration behind the cartoon character Cruella Deville. She successfully managed to suffocate and crush our little spirits before they had a chance to even surface. We were beaten, intimidated and filled with such fear that our lives would never be normal again! Somehow I found some solace in winning a scholarship to Hurlstone Agricultural High School in Sydney where apart from my holidays back working on the Farm I spent three years. Eventually when I left Fairbridge at the age of 17, I was insecure, unskilled and socially inept. I was unable to open a bank account or even use a telephone. The lack of loving nurture and parental support had taken a heavy toll over those early formative years! I joined the railway and worked in small towns such as Narromine and Coonamble in NSW and eventually joined a pop group in the country city of Orange. A year or so later I went to Sydney and joined another group called the Cavemen as their lead singer. The musicians were John Elmgreen, John Beshelle, Quentin Belshaw and Peter Stevenson. (I'm still looking for my old friend Michael Hollick who originated in Narromine.)
Len's life spiralled downwards. "I was mixing various stimulants with alcoholic drink - creating a poison that can send people insane. I broke my best friend's nose one night. I couldn't - or wouldn't - work. And I was lonely, desperately lonely." He told Buzz magazine in 1974, "I didn't need to be taught or provoked into reckless living. It more or less bubbled up from inside me. Drunkenness, fighting and vice became a constant routine."
Len decided to begin the mammoth journey back to England. With just a suitcase, a sleeping bag and a guitar he set off. On the way he spent six months in a tent in the desert, working to save money for his homeward trip. Len's last night there ended with him spending the night in gaol having been convicted of drunkenness and wrecking a café in a brawl. The journey home took Len through Singapore ("where I spent a week stoned"), Calcutta, Northern India and the ancient city of Kathmandu, Nepal. With a throng of hippies Len sat for seven days in various Buddhist temples "straight and turned on". Len's verdict: "Buddhism was a flop."
In October 1968 Len finally arrived back in Britain. He recalled, "I was a physical wreck. My health had gone - and my mind was going. I'd become dishevelled, disillusioned and felt like ending it all." He continued, "I hadn't seen my mother in 14 years, and I was heavily involved in the drug culture. I was actually converted when I was smoking opium and hashish in my bedroom in 1968. I found a Bible in the cupboard in my bedroom. I was angry and hurt having been given away and been betrayed. Betrayal is the worst thing that can happen to a child. Someone had said it was a good trip to read the Bible whilst stoned; it's not by the way... It was frightening actually.
"What freaked me was, it says right at the beginning God made the heavens and the earth and God made the stars also. If I had made the stars I would have said a bit more about it! It's pretty awesome... As I read I began to realise that I was in serious trouble, and I was convicted by the Holy Spirit. I read right up to Esau and Jacob where Esau realised he lost his birth right and got on his knees and said, 'Father have you not got a blessing for me, bless me also.' With tears running down my face, on my knees I cried out 'Lord Jesus'. I didn't realise the correlation between God and Jesus, I found this out later. But I just cried out to God and I was born again as a new person. I had no idea what had happened to me."
Len continued his dramatic testimony. "I was full of joy and laughing and crying. I remember going to an Anglican couple Vic and Thelma Dallymore. They had written to me when I was in Australia, but I threw the letter away thinking that the Christianity stuff was nonsense. They were a couple who had been to a Billy Graham crusade to become Christian counsellors, but found in the crusade that they weren't actually born again themselves. So they got saved and became counsellors. I arrived at their door in the clothes I stood up in, I was 21 years old, and standing at their door crying saying, 'I don't know what's happening'. They invited me in and explained to me how God had taken all my sins and loneliness and pain and laid it all on Jesus who died in my place. They explained that God is now my heavenly Father. That was the beginning of my spiritual life. They took me first to an Anglican church then an Elim church. In those days I was so excited that if they didn't have a church meeting I would invent one! I was in church every night of the week. My mother hated it and really thought I had gone mad. But about a month later, I led her to God and she became Christian."
The newly converted Magee felt God's call on his life and enrolled at Elim Bible College. There he met a couple, Helmut and Elizabeth Kaufman, who in the next few years were to become seminal figures in the development of UK Christian music as the founders of Eastbourne's ICC Studios. Remembered Len, "Helmut was learning recording engineering and Elizabeth would sing along with some of my songs; she had a beautiful voice. The songs matured as I was at college. But a girl called Lorraine Peters came out of college with a tape, which she gave to Dave Paine, Peter Meadows and others at MGO. I knew nothing about this. I remember they rang me and asked would you like to make a record? I was pastoring in High Wycombe at the time and was very surprised. I said, 'Who am I?' They said they thought they might sell 600. I added up all my friends and enemies and thought I couldn't give 600 away! But they went ahead and got John Pantry to produce it."
Music Gospel Outreach (MGO) was an acorn from which an oak tree was to grow. Launched in 1965 with the publication of Buzz magazine - largely targeted at young Christians involved in the UK's Christian music ministry - it began putting on national Christian music and evangelistic events and by the '70s had established two independent record labels Key and Dovetail which released a stream of British Jesus music as well as occasional American albums leased from companies like Maranatha!. MGO was to go on to be the foundation stone for Kingsway Music. The album Dovetail released in 1973, 'Len Magee', was nobody's idea of a classic ("it was recorded at R G Jones Studio in Wimbledon; they only had four tracks and it was all made in a week"). But with jauntily strummed pop country numbers like "Freedom Road" and "Mary Mary" and a guest appearance from the then popular Gwen Murray it sold in numbers way beyond the expected 600 and with Len appearing at various crusades (Ron Jones of British City Temple wrote the sleevenotes for 'Len Magee') and the engaging singer/songwriter regularly appeared at MGO organised events including ones at the Royal Albert Hall and Bella View Manchester.
After the surprise sales success of 'Len Magee' MGO quickly got their singing pastor back in the studio and in 1974 Dovetail released 'The Presence Of Your Spirit Lord'. Again produced by John Pantry, though this time it was at Eastbourne's Echo Studios - the early name of ICC. "You Can Know" was a solemn ballad with what sounded like a guitar or keyboard recorded backwards but mainly it was more country-tinged pop compositions from Magee like "The Ark" and "Only A Prayer". Again it met with major sales in UK's Christian bookshops and even gained released in the US by Impact Records. Magee is refreshingly candid about the popularity he found.
"I look back with a big smile on my face I see it as quite a cosmic joke. Because God loves taking people who are not very good at doing certain things and using them to surprise and amaze everybody. That's really what happened. Nobody was more surprised than I was, because I was relatively incompetent. If I had the brilliance of Paul McCartney, and I was highly talented and very musical, then I could understand why it took off. But I was relatively hopeless. But God used it in such a way that I can look back and see it was definitely a miracle of God, all praise and honour to him. I am not saying that to be self-demeaning, it really was a miracle of God. I was just thinking about Graham Kendrick actually. Graham was the most highly talented musician around then, and still is today. I met Graham and he really is a genuine musician. But I would never put myself in the same league as Graham and people like that, not at all."
In the late spring of 1975 Len recorded his third album at Grosvenor Studios in Birmingham. Compared with his first two budget line recordings 'The Prince Of Peace' was a decided step up. "It was a big studio. It was about 32 tracks, it was huge! The tapes in those days were about a foot wide. It was really exciting because modern technology was coming along and we had so much more space on which to record."
As well as people like Elizabeth Kaufmann, Gwen Murray and Dave Pope providing bvs, Dave Anfield wrote arrangements for woodwind played on flute and clarinet. Len singled out Gwen Murray for special praise. "I owe a lot to Gwen Murray, because she was sort of the voice behind the scenes who sang a lot of the vocals with me. Gwen is in Qatar at the moment, she has been there for many years. She serves and loves the Lord. We were in college together and used to sing and travel together, she's a fabulous girl."
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