March 29, 2024

The Valentyne Suite may not have been the first full-side piece of music to see the light of day (The Nice and Procol Harum did so a few months earlier than Colosseum) but it’s surely the first that sounds close to the classic prog rock that emerged in the ‘70s.

The story goes that in 1968, Jon Hiseman, the drummer in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers at the time, went on holiday to Italy. He visited the Palatine Hill and admiring the view across to the Colosseum said to his wife ‘I am going to start a band and will call it Colosseum’. And that’s exactly what he did, although I suspect Hiseman wouldn’t have dreamed of the enormous influence Colosseum would have on the future development of the progressive rock and jazz-rock genres.  Colosseum are still active today, albeit sadly without Hiseman who passed away in 2018, but their true legacy revolves around the material the band put down in the period 1968-1971. All that material has now been put together, extended with bonus tracks, and lovingly remastered by Esoteric Recordings making this six-CD compilation essential listening for fans of the band or indeed for anyone who wants to delve into the murky origins of progressive and jazz rock music.

To turn Colosseum from idea into reality, Hiseman coopted saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith (his bandmate in the Bluesbreakers), along with two old friends: bassist Tony Reeves and keyboardist Dave Greenslade. The final piece in the jigsaw was the guitarist. Initially the band went for two guitarists: James Litherland (who also sang) and the more technically minded Jim Roche to do the solos. Roche didn’t quite fit in and left rapidly although one of his solos made its way onto the debut album, Those Who Are About To Die Salute You that was recorded in late 1968 but only released in March 1969.

A youthful Jon Hiseman

What is remarkable about the album is how jazz dominates the sound of the album.  It isn’t the sort of easy on the ear jazz-fusion that became popular in the ‘70s, but instead is closer to a pure jazz album with plenty of blues and big band sound thrown in. The album title derives from the salute that the gladiators gave to the Emperor prior to combat in the Colosseum. Hiseman had wanted to use the original Latin phrase as the album title and was wisely dissuaded by the PR folk, but perhaps to appease him the Latin version is printed on the cover as a sort of subtitle. Tracks such as Those About To Die, and Beware The Ides Of March, might give the impression of some sort of concept album but the music doesn’t support that theory. Those About To Die is a sprightly and cheerful instrumental, and mostly a showcase for Greenslade’s impressive organ playing. Definitely nothing to do with death in the arena! Beware The Ideas Of March is another instrumental, this time a fine reworking of the Bach / Whiter Shade Of Pale theme with the sax taking the lead.

While the above two songs display some exquisite interplay between Greenslade and Heckstall-Smith, the parts that introduce Litherland’s guitar seem a little jarring and slightly out of place. Litherland seems more at home with the blues number, Backwater Blues (a traditional song written way back in 1927), even if his voice lacks some of the grit that you expect to hear in a blues singer. There’s something of a live feel about this album which shouldn’t be a surprise because basically they recorded their live set (including the bass solo in Mandarin!) and padded that out with a couple of covers. There’s space on the first CD for two further songs which didn’t make the cut for the debut album – the energetic I Can’t Live Without You and the sultry blues of In The Heat Of The Night are both solid tracks – plus a demo version of Those About To Die.

The classic cover of Valentyne Suite

While it shows its age, Those Who Are About To Die Salute You remains a startlingly unique album. Astonishingly, it reached number 15 in the UK charts which was a remarkable indication of the openness of the British public to new avant-garde music. Today such an album would probably struggle to sell 15 copies!

After that successful launch, Colosseum didn’t rest on their laurels and several months later had issued Valentyne Suite, probably their best-known album and certainly a seminal release in the story of progressive rock. Side one of the original vinyl contained a mixed bag of four songs with the groovy Kettle being the highlight with its catchy chorus line (something of a novelty for Colosseum). But it is side two of the vinyl where things got really interesting. This consisted of just a single track (in three parts), The Valentyne Suite. This nearly seventeen-minute masterpiece is an instrumental (apart from some vocalizing) and is an astounding slice of progressive rock music. Greenslade’s organ work is exceptional and his use of different textures (in particular, the xylophone) terrific.  The three parts are dominated respectively by keys, sax and guitar but it’s the brilliant band interplay that drives it along, underpinned by some top-class drumming by Hiseman.  The Valentyne Suite may not have been the first full-side piece of music to see the light of day (The Nice and Procol Harum did so a few months earlier than Colosseum) but it’s surely the first that sounds close to the classic prog rock that emerged in the ‘70s. Like its predecessor, the album reached number 15 in the charts, but whereas the debut album has been all but forgotten about, Valentyne Suite still holds a revered place in the history of prog rock.

To wrap up the second CD, there’s a bonus track in the form of Tell Me Now, a pleasant enough pop tune that nails the future style of Oasis (really!). Things then got a little messy with their next release, The Grass Is Greener, which was aimed specifically at the US market. It was a mix of new songs, covers, and tracks from Valentyne Suite. This all happened at the same time as Clempson replaced Litherland which resulted in the material from Valentyne Suite being re-recorded for The Grass Is Greener to include Clempson’s guitar and vocals.  In many ways, being able to compare Clempson with Litherland is the main interest here. Vocally, it must be said that there isn’t much difference – neither of them had a particularly strong voice. Where Clempson wins is in the guitar work which has a more modern ‘70s feel to it compared to Litherland’s which was very much stuck in the old ‘60s blues style. It’s difficult not to conclude that it’s a pity he didn’t join one album earlier.  

Of the two brand-new songs on The Grass Is Greener, Jumping Off the Sun (written for Colosseum by Mike Taylor) has a distinct American psychedelic pop feel to it, while the lengthier Lost Angeles showed how comfortably Clempson was integrating with his new bandmates. As well as a run through of a rather ordinary Jack Bruce song, Rope Ladder To The Moon, the album included a good prog version of Ravel’s Bolero. Overall, The Grass Is Greener, doesn’t really shine and represents something of a marketing necessity rather than a creative release by the band.

The expanded six-piece trying to fit in the van?

 The band’s fourth album (or third proper release, if you prefer) was Daughter of Time, released at the end of 1970. By this time, Tony Reeves had left the band and was replaced initially by Louis Cennamo who didn’t quite fit, and then Mark Clarke, who did. To confuse matters in terms of the band lineup, both appear on Daughter Of Time. More significantly, they recruited a dedicated vocalist in the form of Chris Farlowe, perhaps an odd decision for a band that was clearly happy with instrumental music but a winning choice as it turned out.

On Daughter Of Time, Colosseum returned to a more regular four tracks per side album but maintained their strong progressive rock leanings. Many fans consider this album to be the highlight of their career. It is certainly a more rounded and mature release than Valentyne Suite, aided by the addition of a strong vocalist and strong bass player(s). The album opens with the quite brilliant Three Score And Ten, Amen. Its epic cinematic opening minute clearly reflects the influence of King Crimson’s debut album. But rather than just developing that initial idea, the music changes to a madcap fast section that then verges into a bluesy chorus. Dave Greenslade has said about this album that ‘It’s so bonkers in places that I don’t know how we ever managed to record it’, and the sort of chaotic juxtaposition of ideas seen in Three Score And Ten, Amen is a good example of the unchained creativity on show in Daughter Of Time.

Other highlights include The Daughter Of Time which has some beautiful sax work and an inspired vocal section, and Time Lament which is another that shows the King Crimson influence. The Daughter Of Time only lasts three and a half minutes but feels much longer and it could have been extended to three times that length without wearying the listener. As a side point: have you spotted that none of the four albums have a title track despite going excruciatingly close every time!

The blues roots have almost disappeared but there is one out and out blues number, the quite impressive Downhill And Shadows, where Farlowe shows his predecessors how to really sing the blues and the sax seems to be reminiscing on a Valentyne Suite theme. Less interesting is the cover of Jack Bruce’s Theme From An Imaginary Western, which is decent but doesn’t disturb Mountain’s position as having recorded the quintessential interpretation of that song.  What looks like it is going to be a consistently outstanding album is spoilt by the inclusion at the end of a live drum solo called The Time Machine. Sure, Hiseman was a great drummer, but did we really need this? Amidst the bonus material from this period is a twelve-minute opus entitled The Pirate’s Dream which piqued my interest. It’s an interesting piece, especially the instrumental middle-part. It’s not a lost classic by any means but would have been a better album closer than Time Machine.

Band shots grace the cover of the bonus live disc

With Daughter Of Time, Colosseum had finally stumbled upon the perfect lineup. They might have gone on to greater things but sadly the band would disintegrate before any further studio material was put down. But, prior to that happening, serendipity struck in the form of enterprising fans who started circulating vinyl bootlegs of a gig played in Munich. Hiseman admitted they signed hundreds of them at gigs! The positive fallout of this was that Hiseman was able to go to his management and argue the case for an official live album to be released. That was the origin of Colosseum Live which hit the streets in 1971.

Anyone who has read this far is likely to be familiar with that live album. As a double album with just seven tracks, it demonstrated the band’s extraordinary ability to extend and improvise songs and it manages to achieve that without getting boring or self-indulgent (unlike some other live albums of the period I could name!). The triumvirate of guitar-sax-key are equal partners and it’s their synergies that keep the performance captivating. The Colosseum Live double album is included here as the fifth CD but there’s a treat in the form of the sixth and final CD which contains further material recorded on the same tour. The standout on this final CD is a compelling live version of The Valentyne Suite which is stretched out to over twenty minutes.  The remaining material is also of very high quality although some self-indulgence does creep in in the form of a twelve-minute drum solo.

I’m not familiar with the original recordings so cannot make a comparative comment in terms of the quality of the remastering, but the remastered sound is certainly clear and each instrument easy to pick out. The package is completed by a lengthy illustrated essay full of fascinating insights and band quotes. If you are not familiar with early Colosseum, or only partially aware of them from Valentyne Suite or Colosseum Live, then this is a perfect way to get a complete picture of those early heady days when the group’s creativity was instrumental in creating the progressive rock and jazz-rock genres.