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Colosseum on the radio

This month we bring you a rare radio broadcast of a performance by Colosseum at the Ruisrock Festival in Finland in August 1970. 
Colosseum on the radio

Words by Jonathan Beckitt
5 years ago

This month we bring you a rare radio broadcast of a performance by Colosseum at the Ruisrock Festival in Finland in August 1970. 

Colosseum coalesced in the spring of 1968 around drummer Jon Hiseman and sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith.  The two had played together in The New Jazz Orchestra and The Graham Bond Organization (Hiseman had replaced Ginger Baker, no less, in the latter combo), and were then playing in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, having recorded the Bare Wires album the same year.  Also on bass on Bare Wires was Tony Reeves, a friend of Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith of longstanding.   Having the nucleus of a new band together, they also recruited keyboard player Dave Greenslade.

Hiseman came up with the band name, having seen the Colosseum whilst taking a holiday in Rome (Hiseman had a bit of a thing for Roman history – the first Colosseum studio album was called For Those About To Die, We Salute You, which was the phrase Roman Gladiators used before a contest).  The band also recruited a guitarist, Jim Roche, and guitarist / vocalist James Litherland, although Roche lasted in the line-up long enough to record one song.

From the start, Colosseum’s imaginative commingling of improvisational jazz, rock and fine musicianship was well-received.  By 1970, the band had recruited guitarist Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson on guitar and vocals, and for a brief spell, Louis Cennamo on bass, to be replaced by Mark Clarke.

This performance features the classic band line-up with songs from the debut album (‘Walking In The Park’ – a Graham Bond composition), the second album, Valentyne Suite (‘The Machine Demands A Sacrifice’ – the album is also notable for being the first to be released on the newly-formed Vertigo label, with its distinctive ‘swirl’ logo), the third album, Daughter of Time (‘Downhill and Shadows’ – the third album would not be released until December 1970), and the tracks ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’ and ‘Lost Angeles’, which was released on the US-only album, The Grass is Greener, which was a kind of alternate version of Valentyne Suite with some re-recorded vocals and a slightly different track listing.  ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’ was taken from the Jack Bruce album, Songs For A Tailor, released in September 1969, on which Heckstall-Smith and Hiseman both played.  

The band is on fine, frenetic form, with Clem Clempson handling the lead vocals (they would shortly recruit the great British rhythm and blues vocalist Chris Farlowe to their ranks, allowing Clempson to focus squarely on playing guitar), and illustrate the brilliant musicianship in their ranks.  Colosseum tempered their instrumental flair without lapsing into over-indulgence – everyone makes their mark, but it is the collective weight of the band that holds sway.

Of course, those were fast-moving times, and by the end of 1971, Colosseum were no more. Hiseman would convene Colosseum II a couple of years later, with Gary Moore on lead guitar.

Jon Hiseman, the de facto leader of Colosseum, passed away on 12th June 2018. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and had successfully undergone surgery to remove it, however, complications from the surgery resulted in a bleed on the brain a few days later, and he never regained consciousness.  The many obituaries that appeared in the press following his passing gave rich and fond praise to a supremely gifted musician who was genuinely loved by band mates past and present, and who still had much to offer.

In 2017, Hiseman convened the power trio JCM, along with guitarist / vocalist Clem Clempson and bass player Mark Clarke, and recorded the wonderful album Heroes, a robust, brilliantly-played set that paid homage to the deceased musicians that the three members of the band had played with over their lengthy careers.  It’s bitterly ironic, therefore that Hiseman shortly would join the likes of former colleagues such as Gary Moore, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce, Ollie Halsall, Alan Holdsworth and Larry Coryell to whom he paid such eloquent homage on the album. JCM did manage to complete several shows in the UK and in continental Europe in the Spring of 2018 before Hiseman’s illness curtailed their tour, and the band were enthusiastically and warmly received. Indeed, Clempson and Clarke are carrying on the JCM concept with Ralph Salmins occupying the drum stool in Hiseman’s place.

In 2016, when he won Prog magazine's Visionary award, Hiseman commented: “I didn’t feel like a visionary at the time.  I fell in love with jazz but also other music, like Elvis Presley.  But how do you mix that together?  Well, I thought you could take great vocalists and mix it together with that kind of music.  It took me a few years to get the mix right, but with the live album (1971's Colosseum Live)  we certainly got it right.  That brought it all together and the audiences really took to it immediately.  Maybe the world was a lot more open in those days.”

With thanks to Alan Robinson


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