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Colosseum

+ {Tempest} + {Colosseum II}

Founded in London, in September ‘68, drummer Jon Hiseman and Dick Heckstall-Smith; who’d fronted his own jazz quartet and quintet in 1956/57 (on tenor and soprano sax), joined forces. Both had played in the GRAHAM BOND ORGANIZATION and JOHN MAYALL’s BLUESBREAKERS; and prior to that, Heckstall-Smith had played in ALEXIS KORNER’S BLUES INCORPORATED. They were joined by keyboardist Dave Greenslade (from CHRIS FARLOWE’s Thunderbirds) and bassist Tony Reeves, who had played with them in a musical collective called The New Jazz Orchestra. Together with vocalist/guitarist James Litherland, and a second guitarist, Jim Roche; who left before the completion of the first album, made up the legendary pioneering progressive jazz and blues rock band was born.
COLOSSEUM’s first LP, THOSE WHO ARE ABOUT TO DIE SALUTE YOU (1969) {*7} – a Top 20 album – opened with a high-octane cover of GRAHAM BOND’s ‘Walking in the Park’, which featured the driving brass combo of Heckstall-Smith and guest Henry Lowther (trumpet), a rousing guitar solo by Litherland, and terrific drumming by Hiseman. The track was released as a 45; with the album’s strong closing track, ‘Those About to Die’, as its B-side. There were two out and out blues numbers on the album: ‘Plenty Hard Luck’: with a strong vocal delivery by Litherland and strident soloing by Heckstall-Smith and Greenslade, and an extended cover of LEADBELLY’s ‘Backwater Blues’; with the aforementioned Jim Roche playing guitar. ‘Debut’ was also based on a blues progression and was, as the title suggested, the first song the band played together. ‘Beware the Ides of March’ was based on the same J.S. Bach chord progression as PROCOL HARUM’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, whilst ‘Mandarin’; a Greenslade composition with an arrangement and much bass experimentation by Reeves, pointed the way forward to the band GREENSLADE. Notwithstanding the shortage of original material, COLOSSEUM’s first album was a promising beginning.
The band’s early promise was fully realised on VALENTYNE SUITE (1969) {*9}, which also reached the Top 20. It had the honour of being the very first album released on the Vertigo imprint. There were two versions of this album, the first two parts of the title track having already been included on the US version of “Those Who Are…”, as well as ‘The Kettle’, a much sampled trio piece; a rambunctious bluesy jazz attempt with thunderous bass and drums and some wondrous vocals and guitar ad-libbing by Litherland. This song was written by Heckstall-Smith and Hiseman, although the former didn’t actually play on it. Neil Ardley (ex director of the New Jazz Orchestra) arranged the strings for the stunning ‘Elegy’, with a moving soulful vocal from composer Litherland, perfectly judged sax, agile bass lines. Another Litherland contribution, ’Butty’s Blues’, was a powerful reinvention of the slow blues idiom; “Butty” being the nickname given by Dave Greenslade to him due to his habit of eating thick sandwiches. Greenslade’s organ improvisations and a big brass sound embellished JL’s angst-ridden tale of unresolved love on this one. ‘The Machine Demands a Sacrifice’ was a daring experimental post-psychedelic form of rock, with a lyric by PETE BROWN and technological dystopia as its theme; a brief 12-bar blues section threatening to engulf it until flute, cowbell and whistle entice the machine to sleep before a “cuckoo” wake-up call brought about its sinister resolution. The revelatory piece was the three-part side-long, ‘Valentyne Suite’; with the band in outstanding form throughout. Greenslade, who wrote the first two parts, switched from organ to vibes to piano and back again on ‘January’s Search’; Hiseman revelled in Greenslade’s rhapsodical invention, guitar and brass briefly intervening. There was a piano and sax bridge to second part, `February’s Valentine’; a four note organ descending scale with brief classical quotations that, when the band joined in, would have audiences eating from his hands. A reflective section followed; Litherland showing another side to his singing; Heckstall-Smith’s playing at its most sensitive then, inevitably, becoming more frenzied; Hiseman’s phased drumming and Heckstall-Smith’s sax leading to final movement ‘The Grass is Always Greener’, written with Hiseman. The extraordinary chemistry between Greenslade and Heckstall-Smith propelled the suite relentlessly to its conclusion of effect-laden organ; a “Spanish” feel predominating, bass and guitar soloing, the bass and drums becoming frantic with organ stabs in the background before bass notes reintroduced the memorable sax-led theme.
The US version had a different title, THE GRASS IS GREENER {*7}, and was released following the departure of Litherland, who went on to form MOGUL THRASH. His replacement was David “Clem” Clempson (ex-BAKERLOO). Despite having a similar sleeve, this LP differed significantly from the UK version. Only ‘Elegy’, ‘Butty’s Blues’, ‘The Machine Demands a Sacrifice’ (excluding the strange ending) and the third part of ‘Valentyne Suite’: ‘The Grass is Always Greener’ (now called ‘The Grass is Greener’ with guitar overdubs by Clempson) appeared. ‘Lost Angeles’ was an integral part of the COLOSSEUM live set at the time, where it would be extended interminably. The album started with ‘Jumping Off The Sun’, a track in psychedelic style similar to CREAM, adorned by tubular bells and a well-constructed guitar break, and written by two English jazz musicians, Dave Tomlin and Mike Taylor. Litherland’s distinctive vocal style was missed in Clem Clempson’s rendering, and Greenslade’s vibes and Heckstall-Smith’s sax parps on the cover of JACK BRUCE and PETE BROWN’s `Rope Ladder To The Moon’ were excessive. A rather twee and clumsy version of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’; with an out of place heavy guitar solo, also weakened this version of the uber-tampered ‘Valentyne Suite’.
COLOSSEUM’s third album was DAUGHTER OF TIME (1971) {*6}, which didn’t quite make the Top 20. Clempson was now fully installed as guitarist and the bass duties alternated between Mark Clarke and Louis Cennamo; the latter ex-HERD and ex-RENAISSANCE. The rest of the line-up stayed the same except that Chris Farlowe was recruited as the permanent replacement for Litherland. Hiseman wrote most of the lyrics, including opener ‘Three Score And Ten, Amen’ (asking what happens then?), and the only track to feature all of the band’s new official 6-piece line-up, with Clempson adding a wah-wah guitar break, and Heckstall-Smith some narration. ‘Time Lament’ was another stylistic departure; a Greenslade/Hiseman composition, with another fine Neil Ardley arrangement, and Chris Farlowe on vocals with full band backing plus violin, viola and cello. Many significant guests appeared on the album including BARBARA THOMPSON, who contributed sax, vocals (and flute on ‘Take Me Back to Doomsday’, which was a piano led soulful rock piece on which Heckstall-Smith would play two saxes simultaneously on stage). The title track had lyrics by American actor/singer Barry Dennan, and had a big jazz band sound, a strong vocal performance by Farlowe, and some bluesy guitar licks. ‘Downhill and Shadows’ featured Heckstall-Smith prominently with his distinctive crying sax blues sound. Clempson’s clean guitar cut through the number as Heckstall-Smith got a rest, and Greenslade provided the organ backing. ‘Bring out Your Dead (Ides of March’) had echoes of The NICE, with added sax of course; Greenslade switching to vibes when the wah-wah guitar came in, but soon reverting back to organ on which he delivered a fine solo. The album ended with a classic drum solo taken from a live performance; the 8-minute length too much for some listeners, and also included a credible version of JACK BRUCE/PETE BROWN’s ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’. With the change of vocalist and the addition of extra musicians the COLOSSEUM sound changed more in a jazz rock direction, although the blues roots were not completely excised. They indeed sounded like a band in transition where in truth they were a band in dissolution, and fans would have to wait 25 years for a proper reformation, and a year more for another studio album.
Still there was recompense in the release of a live double LP, COLOSSEUM LIVE (1971) {*7}, which returned the band to the Top 20. This was recorded at two gigs: Manchester University on 18th March, and Big Apple, Brighton on 27th March. Part of the appeal of the album was that it showcased material not previously available on studio albums. An intense, accomplished rendition of the aforesaid BRUCE and BROWN’s ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’ opened the album with Greenslade’s vibes, Farlowe’s “holler” and bluesy guitar from Clempson making an early impact before an extended Greenslade organ improvisation, some powerful Hiseman drumming, and some vocal harmonising in the finest tradition of CREAM, elicited an ecstatic audience response. That connection continued, with a brief quotation from ‘Spoonful’ in the introduction to a loose, hard-rocking version of ‘Walking In The Park’, which included excellent solos by Greenslade, Heckstall-Smith and Clempson respectively. The vocal scat between Farlowe, Clarke and Clempson, was a treat as the energy and enthusiasm of the band radiated to bring the audience to their feet once more. A marathon Clempson/Hiseman blues number, ‘Skellington’, followed with extensive guitar soloing, and it was indeed hard not to think of CREAM again when listening to the style of Clarke’s bass playing. ‘Tanglewood ‘63’ was a jazz number written by Mike Gibbs with some more scat vocal harmonising involving Clarke, Clempson and Farlowe; and featuring Greenslade’s organ and Heckstall-Smith’s sax. A funky impromptu, ‘Encore…Stormy Monday Blues’, followed, while a 15-minute plus version of ‘Lost Angeles’ concluded the album; Clempson honing guitar soloing skills would become a feature of HUMBLE PIE live performances in the near future.
After three years of intensive touring, COLOSSEUM was truly “burnt out”. Hiseman and Clarke went on to form TEMPEST with guitarist Allan Holdsworth (ex ‘IGGINBOTTOM and NUCLEUS) and vocalist/keyboardist Paul Williams (ex ZOOT MONEY’S BIG ROLL BAND, JOHN MAYALL/BLUESBREAKERS and JUICY LUCY). This team recorded their first LP, TEMPEST (1973) {*6}. The opening track, ‘Gorgon’, reflected the Celtic snake imagery of the album cover; the opening acoustic guitar arpeggios atypical of the hard-rock direction in much of the rest of the LP; Paul Williams’ voice coming from a distance to clarity in similar register to his predecessor FARLOWE. ‘Foyers of Fun’ had echoes of MOUNTAIN, so too did ‘Dark Horse’; with vocal harmonies reminiscent of CREAM, while ‘Brothers’ was as close to Colosseum as the band could achieve. Most of the songs on side one were written by Clarke/ Holdsworth, with Hiseman providing the lyrics. Opening side two was ‘Up And On’; also released as a single, and written by Holdsworth. It was the first suggestion of the unique legato soloing technique and unusual chords, progressions and scales he perfected throughout his career which would veer in the direction of jazz rock fusion post-Tempest. Clarke took the vocals on ‘Grey And Black’, which had promise but seemed incomplete. ‘Strangher’ was back to hard rock; the bass playing earthy on this one; the drumming superb throughout. Holdsworth’s guitar explored the 12-bar format to its extremities here. ‘Upon Tomorrow’ was the most prog piece, with more space for interplay; Holdsworth adding some violin, and Williams, electric piano. Overall the set was a decent start but lacked a clear direction and originality in places.
TEMPEST reverted to a power trio for LIVING IN FEAR (1974) {*8}, that consisting of Peter “Ollie” Halsall (ex-TIMEBOX and PATTO) on guitar, keyboards, vocals, with Clarke and Hiseman as the rhythm section. The LP started with a stirring send-up of the British Empire in Halsall’s ‘Funeral Empire’, followed by a straight cover of The BEATLES’ ‘Paperback Writer’ – apart from the wild guitar break and the sustained gong at the end that is. This song provided the mandatory 45 from the album. ‘Stargazer’ was a funky rock piece and was the first of a series of compositions by Clarke with his new songwriting partner Suzy Bottomley; the 7:50 of ‘Dance To My Tune’ completing side one. It provided a more progressive adjunct to the hard pop rock approach thus far and allowed space for two breaks by Halsall (on Moog and guitar respectively), demonstrating what a deft touch he had. The title track was impressive, showing Halsall’s growing confidence as a songwriter and singer with witty lyricism, tinkling piano, and fluid bluesy guitar lines contributing to the success of the piece; the rhythm section as energetic and inventive as ever. Final number, ‘Turn Around’, was another Clarke/Bottomley heavy rock song; Halsall driving the band on with some inventive guitar playing.
Five years after COLOSSEUM disbanded, Hiseman re-formed the band with a completely different line-up and named it er… COLOSSEUM II. The line-up comprised Gary Moore (ex-SKID ROW, ex-THIN LIZZY) on guitar, vocals (who, incidentally nearly joined Tempest), Scottish singer Mike Starrs, keyboardist Don Airey, bassist Neil Murray (ex-GILGAMESH, ex-COZY POWELL’s Hammer) and Hiseman.
The opener to first album, STRANGE NEW FLESH (1976){*6}was, essentially, in two parts, a strident keyboard-dominated section giving way to a less demonstrative passage with guitar and bass more to the fore; though the title ‘Dark Side of the Moog’ pretty much gave it away. The style was very much in the vein of similar contemporaneous prog fusion bands like BRAND X, BRUFORD and The MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA. A 9-minute interpretation of JONI MITCHELL’s ‘Down To You’ followed with incisive guitar by Moore; a soulful rendition, the mid-section written and arranged by Airey. ‘Gemini And Leo’ was back to fusion, with elements of funk this time; drum driven with a spirited guitar solo by Moore. The somewhat repetitive ‘Secret Places’ opened side two, but ‘On Second Thoughts’ was more representative of the Colosseum oeuvre; Starr’s strong vocal performance and sensitive Moog and guitar by Airey and Moore respectively, combined to make this the strongest composition on the album. The longest number was the 10-minute long ‘Winds’. The beginning showcased Hiseman’s fluent but belated drumming, and ‘Winds’ was another highlight, with Murray’s articulate bass lines and finely judged electric piano and organ, and a transcendent synth solo from Airey; the band full of invention and creativity.
Dispensing with a dedicated vocalist, ELECTRIC SAVAGE (1977) {*6} saw Moore taking over the singing duties (only one track had vocals), which he coped with admirably as demonstrated on the sensitive ballad ‘Rivers’. With newcomer John Mole on bass, the first side of the album also had three instrumentals, two of them written by Moore and Hiseman: ‘Put It This Way’ providing an outlet for Moore’s considerable guitar skills. Airey finally got his chance in the limelight on the final track, ‘Scorch’; the music closely resembling the approach taken by ELP with copious use of the Moog synthesiser, plus the guitar of course! Moore’s anthemic style of playing would be amply demonstrated on ‘Lament’ and, again on ‘Desperado’, a high-paced romp. Airey was getting more involved in the writing and his keyboard synth lines echoed Hiseman’s drum beats and Mole’s busy bass on ‘Intergalactic Strut’, which had an eastern feel, while Moore exchanged solos with Airey’s synth, often at breakneck speed. The penultimate track, ‘Am I’, featured some of Moore’s best guitar playing on the album; clever harmonics employed to create a violin sound.
There were no limitations about WARDANCE (1977) {*8}, which featured both Colosseum II’s best song and best instrumental. ‘Castles’ was the song, and showed Moore’s growing confidence as a singer delivering the high notes and a haunting chorus. Airey and Moore seemed to be less in competition and working more as a unit, with Airey restricting himself to shimmering electric piano, organ and string sounds, which greatly augmented the song. The instrumental was entitled ‘The Inquisition’; played at a whirlwind pace, with a wonderful Spanish guitar sequence; Moore’s flamboyance complemented by Airey’s stoical organ chords. ‘Fighting Talk’ was a heavy riffing rocker with piercing guitar, a great echo and groove with some melodic guitar lines recalling Moore’s time in THIN LIZZY. Airey also got into the act, delivering a fluid synth solo. ‘War Dance’ provided an excellent opener signalling the increased confidence of the band; Don using more organ and less Moog; content to lay down a solid backdrop for Moore’s brilliant soloing. There was also an interesting trilogy of musical sketches totalling just six minutes: ‘Star Maiden / Mysterioso’ / Quasar’ with subtle melodies; a bell cunningly used as a bridge between the pieces, dramatic imaginative synth, and more exquisite guitar work from Moore. The band would split just as things were really coming together.
To mark their 25th anniversary, COLOSSEUM toured once more. To mark the occasion their Cologne concert was captured on COLOSSEUM LIVES: THE REUNION CONCERTS, 1994 (1995) {*7}. Farlowe’s performance on past songs like ‘Those About to Die’ and ‘Elegy’ demonstrated what a great front man he was. Clempson was also in top form, his soulful fluid guitar lines with the blues at their roots captivating the audience; Heckstall-Smith’s soprano and tenor sax, sometimes played simultaneously such a hallmark of their sound; Greenslade mostly on organ; Clarke’s agile bass lines and Hiseman’s astounding drumming ability undiminished with the passage of time, all holding the music together, apart from on the entire ‘Valentine Suite’ and ‘Lost Angeles’, where Greenslade came into his own. Great though the playing was, it was an inexplicable decision to release a fragment of the concert, including a 12-minute drum solo in ‘Solo Colonia’, great though it was, a situation rectified by the release of a DVD of the full concert in 2003, although the CD remained “concert highlights”.
It was a long wait for the “Daughter of Time” band to reassemble and go on tour to promote two albums of new material and revisit past glories. BREAD & CIRCUSES (1997) {*7} featured the full Colosseum Mk II band of Hiseman, Farlowe, Heckstall-Smith, Greenslade, Clempson and Clarke (with additional sax players and brass arrangements by Barbara Thompson), and was a worthy return. Gone were the lengthy tracks and experimentation, however what emerged was a tight musical unit and a solid blues/jazz rock band, retaining a progressive approach. Opening salvo ‘Watching Your Every Move’ signalled the intention; driving jazzy rock with a thoughtful lyric, a fine sax break and a strong gritty vocal from Farlowe. This segued into the title track, also lyrically and musically memorable with the mandatory ballad, ‘Wherever I Go’, showcasing some visceral guitar from Clempson. Greenslade was on top form with his bluesy organ solo on ‘High Time’, while ‘Big Deal’ was a great song in the STEELY DAN tradition. ‘The Playground’ had haunting reverberated sax and guitar arpeggios with environmental concerns as its subject matter. ‘No Pleasin’ had a strong vocal refrain and soaring guitar breaks indicative once again of a band firing on all cylinders. There was still time for a reflective slow and simmering blues entitled ‘Storms Behind the Breeze’, with Farlowe at his soulful best, and ‘The One That Got Away’, the only instrumental on the album, before ‘The Other Side of the Sky’ with its gorgeous brass led coda.
Another COLOSSEUM album followed six years later in TOMORROW’S BLUES (2003) {*5}. Crisp drumming and Hiseman’s trusty cowbell, incisive guitar from Clempson, Farlowe in great form, Latin touches in the rhythm, Heckstall-Smith blowing away in classic style, all coalesce to get the album off to a good start. A brass quartet augmented the Greenslade ballad ‘Come Right Back’, with the addition of two guest trumpets and an extra tenor sax on this and another Greenslade composition later on the album: ‘Take The Dark Times With The Sun’. ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ was a sultry blues variation of a QUINCY JONES from the 1967 film of the same name. PETE BROWN provided the lyrics for three of the songs, two with Clempson and one with Heckstall-Smith, however his words lacked the impressionistic impact of earlier days. Greenslade’s ‘No Demons’ ended the recording career of COLOSSEUM on a poignant note with reference to fading hopes from the past and the need to dream new hopes for the future, though it was noticeable that Hiseman had taken a back seat from composing, which never came naturally to him anyway; a lack of memorable or innovative material dogged the band as it had on ‘Daughter Of Time’. What remained, despite the excellent musicianship, was a lack of the invention and flair of the first two albums, and a rather slick sound that would not satisfy their more progressively minded fans. Sadly Dick Heckstall-Smith became seriously ill and would pass on 17th December, 2004. Barbara Thompson deputised for him on tour before becoming a full member of the band.
COLOSSEUM was always a touring band and now they had new material to incorporate into their established repertoire. Recorded evidence of this appeared in LIVE 05 (2005) {*8}, which turned out to be right up there with their more famous live 1971 album. New songs like ‘Come Right Back’ were more vibrant than the studio versions and Clempson was once again on top form. Thompson proved to be a worthy successor to Heckstall-Smith live, and the rhythm section had lost none of their flair, nor Farlowe his infectious enthusiasm and powerful delivery. Similarly an extended ‘Tomorrow’s Blues’ sounded better than ever with a fantastic performance from Thompson. Greenslade once again shone on ‘Valentyne Suite’ and ‘Lost Angeles’, and there as were the two aforementioned BRUCE/BROWN numbers. The group’s penchant for re-inventing their own music with variations on old standards and re-workings of more recent pieces was once again revealed.
Just when fans thought it was all over as far as studio albums were concerned, TIME ON OUR SIDE (2014) {*7} appeared. It was a more broad-based album than its predecessor. Boasting a wonderful collage of band members, the sleeve promised much and the music delivered. ‘Safe As Houses’ was a protest song with effective bass work and mellifluous sax played by Thompson; military style drumming and the suggestion of an air-raid siren concluded a grand opener. ‘Blues To Music’ was written by featured singer Ana Gracey (Hiseman and Thompson’s daughter), and was a timely and poignant reminder of the effect of music on lives, contemplating the impossibility of life without music. ‘Anno Domino’ was a return to jazz fusion. Clempson’s ‘City Of Love’ was also grounded in jazz; that is in Dave Brubeck ‘Take Five’ style, with lyrics by PETE BROWN, as on most of the album. The elasticity of Clempson’s guitar, Farlowe’s powerful vocal, Thompson’s sax interjections and occasional vocal multi-part harmonies, Clarke’s walking bass, and Greenslade’s simmering organ, all combined to make this a standout; a real group effort. ‘You Just Don’t Get It’ was another Clempson/Brown number, a simmering blues with Farlowe swapping vocal exchanges with Clarke and Clempson. Again it featured some fine vocal harmonies, Thompson’s deep sax solo squeezing every ounce of emotion from her instrument, Clempson’s slide guitar equally effective. ‘The Way We Waved Goodbye’ benefitted from notable vocal harmonies, slick sax and finely judged guitar work. ‘Dick’s Licks’ had a shuffle beat, a fitting tribute to Heckstall-Smith, with lyrics by Pete Brown. ‘Nowhere To Be Found’ featured a fine lead vocal by Clarke and was an effective ballad (as was Greenslade’s ‘New Day’), a track in similar style to some of the material on JACK BRUCE’s early solo albums, with Greenslade switching from organ to piano then electric piano, and Clempson providing nice acoustic guitar.
Sadly, Philip John Hiseman (b. 21 June 1944), one of the greatest drummers of all time, died on 12th June 2018.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2000 // rev-up Phil Jackson (PJ) Nov2019

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