Reviews – Colosseum Reissues – by James R Turner

Released and remastered on Esoteric Recordings, these are the first three studio albums from musical pioneers Colosseum, covering a magical musical period in their life from 1968-1970, and complete with in depth sleeve notes, bonus tracks, and on ‘Valentyne Suite’, the complete American version of the album ‘The Grass is Greener’, which differs substantially from the English version.

As a band Colosseum were to have a massive impact on the nascent progressive music scene (a differentiation from what has been lumped together as prog, subtle but vitally important to understand) where they came from the ranks of the Great British Blues bands that stalked the land and led to the emergence of other bands as important as Fleetwood Mac, Cream and CCS among others.

These three groundbreaking albums came from the time when musicians were keen on creating something new, something vital, something brave and original and it shows here, these are no mere copyists doing what someone else does because that’s how it’s done, these are some of the true pioneers of musical innovation.

From John Mayall and Graham Bonds bands came Jon Hiseman, band leader and renowned drummer, Dick Heckstall-Smith legendary jazz saxophonist (whose solo album ‘A Story Ended’ is a tour de force of musical genius) bassist Tony ReevesDave Greenslade came from working with Chris Farlowe and there’s James Litherland on guitar fresh from the Manchester music scene.

Having worked together the core of Jon, Tony, Dave and Dick were already musically tight, and with James adding extra guitar and vocals, the band appeared almost fully formed, and with lots of experience in the jazz and blues scene, and a very clear vision from Jon Hiseman about what the band wanted to achieve.

As a result the debut album, released in March 1969, ‘Those Who Are About to Die Salute You’ (from the phrase Roman Gladiators said to the Emperor before going into the Colosseum – Hiseman is a bit of a Roman History buff) which is reflected in the bands name, and indeed a rather spectacular track Ides of March, which is where they start with a Bach piece and end with a stunning musical moment between Litherlands guitar and Greenslades organ work.

As is usual with debut albums from this period, the majority of the music is what was the band’s live set, recorded on the hoof in between gigs, and features a couple of covers in amongst the bands originals, setting out their stall with a cover of the Graham Bond classic Walking in the Park, complete with Henry Lowther guesting on trumpet, this lays out the band’s stall right at the start.

They were an amazingly tight musical unit, and the combination of Hiseman and Reeves on drums and bass, provide the foundations for Litherland’s guitar, Greenslade’s organ and Heckstall-Smith’s sax to flow freely.

Coming from that loose improvisational musical scene, the melding of the jazz and blues influence into a harder rockier sound comes naturally to the band, and on songs like the Leadbelly cover Backwater Blues, Litherlands vocals, and the astonishing sax of Heckstall-Smith’ takes the blues and pushes it into a completely different direction to the one taken by other former blues merchants like Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin.

Original material like Dick’s The Road she Walked Before, or the sort of title track Those About to Die, which has some amazingly taut musical twists and turns, with some fantastic jazz rock drumming from Hiseman, who always seems to be overlooked when lists of ‘best drummers’ appear, and yet on here he combines power and subtlety as well as being the timekeeper, and holding the band together, again you only get music as good as this from musicians who have all played live together, and can turn that spontaneity and improvisational skill into great music.

To modern ideas it seems inconceivable that you can literally tour and then pop into a studio and bang out your live set as a new release, you know that if you did that today then it would be up on You Tube or some Russian Streaming site before the lights had gone up.

By the second album, ‘Valentyne Suite’, (the three part title track of which makes up the original second side of the vinyl) the band had made an impact, and their debut had made number 15 in the album charts (again with the perspective of time and distance, it’s hard to imagine that happening in this day and age with the whole industry fragmented). With the same line up, and the same producers of bassist Tony Reeves and Gerry Bron, the band had by this time started improvising and writing new material to fit into their live shows.

Again the band were a hard working band, and the albums would be recorded in the daytime before they would fly off in their van to another gig in another town.

The ‘Valentyne Suite‘ record is notable for a number of different reasons, 1) it was the first record released on the nascent Vertigo label, 2) It features that stunning enigmatic cover by Marcus Keef in his own inimitable style, 3) it’s a bloody good record.

From the opening The Kettle, the band have melded into a tight and powerful unit, and that shows in the fact that the only guest writer was Pete Brown (Jack Bruce lyricist and friend of the band) who contributed the exceedingly accurate lyrics, foreshadowing events in his usual style, to The Machine Demands a Sacrifice, James Litherland’s maturity as a songwriter and guitarist shows here as he adds his vocals to the damn fine Elegy, as well as the driving Butty’s Blues.

However the centrepiece here, and one of the most important tracks on the album, and indeed in the bands career, is the three piece suite Valentyne Suite, which with it’s linked parts, musical themes and powerful performance was responsible for showing bands how long suites can work on record, and is as fine a piece of true progressive music as ever there was. From recurring musical motifs, some sublime sax work from Dick Heckstall-Smith (there is nothing finer in the world than hearing a sax solo in full flight) and the combined musical prowess of the band, every member shines as the Valentyne Suite propels music forward at a rate of knots. Flitting dexterously from jazz to blues, to rock, and with recurring themes and riffs reappearing, the idea that rock music can create mini concerto’s is shown here to best effect, with the band making it seem effortless as the music fills the room. Ably aided by arrangements by Neil Ardley throughout the album the band’s ambition matches their performance. The Valentyne Suite is an absolutely brilliant piece of music, and released in November 1969, a scant 8 months after their debut was released, it shows just how far they had come in terms of compositional style and musical prowess.

This expanded edition includes the American release ‘The Grass is Greener’ (named after the closing section of the Valentyne Suite) in January 1970, by which time James Litherland had left the band and been replaced by Bakerloo guitarist Clem Clempson (and if you haven’t heard Bakerloo’s album, it’s worth a spin) and this release took the tracks Elegy, Butty’s Blues, The Machine Demands a Sacrifice and The Grass is always Greener, remixed and with Litherland’s guitar work replaced by Clempsons (although Litherland’s vocals remain on Elegy) and 4 new tracks recorded by the new line-up, the powerful rock song Jumping off the Sun (a track given to Hiseman by the late Mike Taylor) which shows Clempson’s different style to Litherland, and how easily he fitted into the ethos and sound of Colosseum, whilst the Greenslade/Heckstall-Smith composition Lost Angeles (with Clempson’s superb vocals adding to the sound), with the power underneath, hints at how the band were developing, especially with Clempson’s sublime solo work. Rope Ladder to the Moon is a cover version of the Jack Bruce song, with some great swinging performances from Heckstall-Smith and Greenslade, showing how versatile this band could be, whilst Bolero is exactly as it says on the tin, Ravel’s Bolero Colosseumed up to the max, with some great guitar work from Clempson, and some musically deft touches from Greenslade.

As a holding exercise, this is a great album, and one that shows the power of this line-up, being the only music recorded prior to Tony Reeves departure, and now again it’s inconceivable that the same band would have a record released in the States that was different to the one in the UK.

Pulling together this collection is great as it shows how the band were evolving and developing as they grew. I would say if you are a fan of truly progressive music (not just prog) then you need the ‘Valentyne Suite’ in your life, and it’s probably as good a place as any to start with Colosseum.

Released in December 1970, their third album ‘Daughter of Time’ saw the bands line-up evolve even more when Tony Reeves left to go into production, being replaced initially by Louis Cennamo from Renaissance, who didn’t quite fit, so Mark Clarke came in on bass joining the core of Hiseman, Greenslade, Heckstall-Smith and Clempson. The band also decided that they needed a vocalist, so Greenslade approached his old colleague Chris Farlowe, who surprisingly said yes.

This is a revelation of this album, as the bands compositional scope grew, so did their musical ambitions, and with Neil Ardley helping with arrangements for brass and string sections augmenting the mighty six piece, this is an album that could only have been recorded and released in 1970.

That doesn’t mean it has aged or dated at all, it just has that power, that scope and that imagination that musicians in those days had, the idea that nothing was beyond your reach or aim and that freedom to do what you wanted.

The opener Three Score and Ten, Amen is a statement of intent, with Farlowe’s powerful vocals even stronger than Ian Gillan’s, and the addition of Clarke on bass to replace Reeves is perfect, as he works so well with Hiseman, and throughout the musical confidence is so strong that this is a track that grabs you by the scruff of the neck, pulls you in and demands you listen.

On this, what would turn out to be their last original studio album, the only cover is the Jack Bruce/Pete Brown track Theme From an Imaginary Western, given some real musical clout here (and again showing how close these bands all were, with members of Colosseum having played with Bruce in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, as well as contributing to his solo albums) and Farlowe is again outstanding on vocals.

Musically at this point Colosseum were a big band, and they needed someone with the vocal chops to stamp his mark all over the material, and Farlowe more than puts his stamp over it.

Again when you look at your Gillans, your Plants and your Rod Stewarts from this era, its astonishing Farlowe doesn’t get the recognition he deserves as he has everything on this album, power, swagger, an amazing range, and in parts his voice is another instrument to be utilised.

New boys Clarke and Clempson fit right into this incendiary musical mix, as Dave Greenslade stamps his personality on this, with all but two of the original tracks being co-writes (and in certain areas you can see where he’d go next with his eponymous band).

The fantastic Take Me Back to Doomsday features Clempson on lead vocals, recorded prior to Farlowe joining, and it sounds amazing, and Clempson, despite having a superb voice would rather focus on his guitar work.

That is not to the detriment of the album, each musician, particularly Greenslade, Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith had developed a groove and a natural way of working together, and as Clempson, Farlowe and Clarke gelled so well, this album is the most accomplished, most satisfying and most ambitious of the three studio sets.

Of course, this being 1970 it features a drum solo by Hiseman, recorded live and included on the record called The Time Machine (because that’s what he was) and yes, it’s a drum solo, but John Bonham was doing them, even Ringo Starr did on Abbey Road, so it’s very of it’s time, but as an example of Hiseman’s musical prowess it is a fantastic calling card.

This was a fantastic run of musical quality by anyone’s standards, and it just seems that in this musical world today there aren’t enough musicians out there willing to take the risks that Colosseum did, and make this kind of music.

If you are looking for real progressive music and not just prog, then this is for you. This is musicians flying by the seats of their pants, doing it because they could and working their arses off touring it and playing it, working on the old adage if we make it they will come.

Now whilst these were the only studio albums, prior to them splitting they did release one live album, the imaginatively titled ‘Colosseum Live’ was released in 1971, and remastered and expanded back in 2016 on Esoteric, but I thought it worth revisiting it here as part of the bands original story.

This is the classic ‘Daughter of Time’ Colosseum line up of Hiseman, Greenslade, Heckstall-Smith, Clempson, Farlowe and Clarke, and whilst they are imaginative on record, live they had to adapt as they didn’t have the brass and string section from the studio. But as all great bands prove live is where there power came to the fore, and this is a double disc expanded set of the legendary double album from 1971.

The original album contained only a couple of tracks that had been on the studio recordings, with material like Rope Ladder to the Moon and Lost Angeles only being available on the American ‘Grass is Always Greener’, and Walking in the Park kicking off their debut album.

Here, the 6 piece band were at the peak of the powers, and this set reaffirmed their skill and power, as they adeptly worked their way through a collection of classic live tracks like Skellington and Tanglewood ’63 and the musicianship throughout is superb, as Hiseman’s drums and Clarke’s bass anchor the sound, allowing Greenslade’s organ and Heckstall-Smith’s sax free range whilst Clempson’s guitar work is superb and, as you would expect, Chris Farlowe is never less than magnificent. Originally released on two LP’s the original live album is now on disc one of the set. Meanwhile it’s on the second disc of additional live material recorded at the same time that we get a full live version of their Valentyne Suite, which is worth the price of admission alone, the ambitious musical works getting an amazing live rendition, which not only does the original work justice, but adds so much to it, as any live performance honed over the years really perfects the track.

I see with bands like Colosseum the studio works being the starting point, and it’s only as the band work and perform and improvise and hone the music night after night, do you get the finished product (well at that particular gig anyway) as the music grows and evolves, and listening to this album you see how far the band have travelled in such a short space of time, before they splintered and continued on solo or other group journeys, where they took the Colosseum ethos and spread it even further across the genres.

This was a highly regarded live album from a potent live band who managed to straddle a multitude of genres and create something genuinely new when they arrived on the scene, and with the bonus tracks it just reminds us of what an innovative and powerful band Colosseum were.

Order all the Colosseum reissues from Cheery Red Records at this link



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