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Colosseum: Elegy – The Recordings 1968-1971, 6CD Box Set

Mar 15, 2024

Encompassing their first five albums with this set, Colosseum demonstrates that they were at the forefront of the fledgling ‘Progressive’ scene as the sixties drew to a close. An incredible transformation took place thanks to the emergence of the Beatles and The Rolling Stones in 1962, who left behind boy meets girl pop ditties and inspired a whole new genre – ROCK! Britain became a musical melting pot as the scene exploded and this collection captures a band at their pioneering best, melding rock, blues and jazz into a cohesive whole. The whole enterprise was impressive from the outset with a line-up that included ex Bluesbreaker Jon Hiseman on drums, Dave Greenslade ( ex Chris Farlowe ) on  keyboards, legendary saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, bassist par excellence Tony Reeves and guitarist James Litherland – all acknowledged as serious players by their peers.

Signing a management deal with hotshot producer Gerry Bron the band wasted no time in putting their debut album together. Released on Fontana ‘For Those About To Die We Salute You’ was effectively their live set and set the bar high for future releases. No matter that it contained a few cover versions, they were a breath of fresh air and stretched the boundaries of rock. Overlaying solid rhythms with stratospheric tenor sax, Greenslade’s  distinctive keys and Hiseman’s  bravura drumming, comparisons at the time were made with American jazz rockers Chicago, but their smoother sound never approached Colosseum’s rawer free-form approach.

Following  just  7 months later (this was the norm back then remember) and the first release on the iconic Vertigo label, ‘Valentyne Suite’ was generally considered to be the band’s most successful album both artistically and commercially. By this time Colosseum had refined their sound and the amalgam of rock, jazz and blues, together with a pop edge at times, had definitely taken the band forward. The music veered from the Hendrix styled psych-rock of the opening ‘The Kettle’ through to the grandiose title track replete with additional brass supplied by New Jazz Orchestra’s Neil Ardley – a wild trip that truly lived up to the term progressive. Crashing into the UK Top 20, it’s hard to imagine an album of such sophistication achieving the same feat today.

Due to personnel changes in the band, in the USA and Canada the album ‘Valentyne Suite’ appeared in different form in 1970 as ‘The Grass is Greener’. Remixed and featuring new member Dave “Clem” Clempson (guitar, vocals), who replaced Litherland in the group, the album featured a series of songs unreleased in the UK. Half of the album ( Jumping Off the Sun, Lost Angeles, Rope Ladder to the Moon and Bolero) were all new and the side long  Valentyne Suite is offered in truncated form. Clempson also replaced much of Litherland’s work. It all sounds like a recipe for disaster but it worked rather well and the whole package stands on its own.

Bassist Tony Reeves joined Litherland in departing the ranks as the experimental ‘Daughter Of Time’ album saw a new line-up with Mark Clarke and vocalist Chris Farlowe replacing them. Farlowe was seen as the vocal powerhouse needed to aid the evolution of the group and though he divided opinion with the critics there is no doubt that his bluesy timbre suited the new material very well. Clempson definitely added a more pronounced blues flavour to the music, but it blended well with Dave Greenslade’s complex keyboard work. Adding Farlowe meant a less instrumental approach but to these ears it was a step forward. Highlights include the spine tingling ‘Three Score and Ten’ where Farlowe’s vocal gymnastics are simply spellbinding, ‘Take Me Back To Domesday’ featuring a surprisingly excellent lead vocal from Clempson  and a rollicking version of Jack Bruce’s ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’. An album that Melody Maker reckoned was ‘their most satisfying production to date’.

In response to a deluge of bootlegs the double LP ‘Colosseum Live’ – taped at Manchester University and the Big Apple, Brighton, in March, 1971, – was released with the band featuring many tracks they had never recorded before. It may be more rock than prog but who cares! They open with a blistering version of Jack Bruce’s ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’ that sees the band cooking from the off and the audience are simply roaring with delight. A highly improvised performance overall with Farlowe’s wailing and Clempson’s guitar pyrotechnics dominating, it never descends into chaos and any band that can take a standard like ‘Stormy Monday Blues’ and keep it fresh are masters of their craft.

The remastered box set with informative interviews  concludes with bonus live recordings taken on the 1971 ‘Daughter Of Time’ Tour in Manchester, Brighton and Bristol including a superb version of the epic ‘Valentyne Suite’.

As Jon Hiseman once said : ‘From the inside, Colosseum can be a pretty exhilarating experience and one which I have always wanted to share. Close your eyes, turn it down to deafening and these tracks will put you in the driver’s seat.’

I’ll go along with that.

Lyndon Noon

CherryRed.co.uk

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