Colosseum - Elegy

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

When it comes to finding the artists that were the foundation of progressive rock – shifting experimental psychedelia to something more focused and sophisticated – one cannot overlook Colosseum, founded by seminal drummer Jon Hiseman after a trip to Rome. While a sizeable portion of their early discography revolves around playing the blues in more jazzy, technical ways, one particular composition sits squarely in the ‘prog’ camp, and that is The Valentyne Suite, a side-long instrumental tour de force that seemed to predict the many epics that would appear in the following decade. This piece alone is worth the price of entry into this career-spanning set of the short-lived original Colosseum (before their reunion in the ’90s).

The set begins appropriately with the wordily-titled debut Those Who Are About to Die Salute You. Given the album’s more primitive nature, compared to its divine follow-up, it’s one I never truly got into before this listen, although I was glad for another opportunity. Yes, there might be a few too many blues songs, but they are quite light-hearted. I’m more interested in the instrumental numbers, of which there are plenty. These tend to take the form of frenetic workouts, but one in particular stands out; Beware the Ides of March seems like a clear plagiarism of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, but the band have vehemently denied this comparison, claiming they were simply inspired by the same Bach piece that Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher were. Dave Greenslade even said the same thing to me in my interview with him, but the fact that you can sing the lyrics to A Whiter Shade of Pale over this track makes me more than a little dubious.

Overall, it’s a solid first album, brimming with ideas and energy, although nothing would prepare fans for what was about to come. In the United States, this album was released later with a different tracklisting, including some numbers from Valentyne Suite including an early version of the suite itself that featured Beware the Ides of March as the final part. Thematically, it would make sense as the three sections reference January, February and March, but the group would decide to improve on the track and substitute The Grass is Greener on the UK release. Having been unable to find the American version of The Valentyne Suite anywhere, I was really hoping that it would be featured as a bonus track in this box set, but alas it is not. The booklet notes do clear up some of the confusion, however, mentioning that the only reason Beware the Ides of March was added to the end of The Valentyne Suite on the US version is because of a time crunch, and the band never truly considered the two tracks to be related, despite the use of month names in the track titles.

My introduction to the group was with their seminal second album, which kicks off with The Kettle, a balls-to-the-wall rock/blues extravaganza that features Jon Hiseman at his most powerful best. Three more blues numbers fill out the first side, the tight Elegy, the langorous, jazzy, big band Butty’s Blues and the slightly more experimental The Machine Demands a Sacrifice, which culminates in a bizarre ⅞ breakdown.

This takes us to the central attraction, which truly broke all the rules. Unlike the more loose compositions of the past, The Valentyne Suite feels very tightly composed, with the band members doing slight improvisations around a rigid structure. Split into three rather different parts, there is a connecting theme that signals the beginning of a new section and makes the suite feel that much more cohesive. As much as I love the progressive leanings of January’s Search, which features a spectacular Greenslade solo, the closing The Grass is Greener is easily my favourite part of the track, featuring a very simple idea that is executed flawlessly. Starting with a loud fanfare, this section becomes very quiet in the centre before speeding up and getting louder in a pyrotechnical crescendo. I’m honestly not quite sure how Hiseman even keeps playing at the final tempo. Featuring proggy motifs throughout, The Valentyne Suite is a masterpiece that’s made all the more notable by being one of the very first progressive suites ever made.

Over in the US, a different album was released in its stead (as the band’s first album over there already featured The Valentyne Suite, albeit in a different form). The Grass is Greener was made after new guitarist and vocalist Clem Clempson had joined the group, so this weird hybrid album featured a mixture of new songs and old songs that had been re-recorded with Clempson’s vocal and guitar parts. The only untouched track is Elegy, which still features James Litherland’s vocals. It’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, if you ask me, but it still holds together pretty well. My favourite part once again is the title track, which is similar to the UK release but has some notable differences. In the US version, for example, the band slow all the way down at the centre of the track, with Hiseman stopping completely, offering the most contrast. I rather like this detail, but then I also prefer some of the drum fills and the flow of the UK version, so I tend to listen to both tracks, depending on what mood I’m in. The Clempson version certainly gets more demented before the final reprise of the main theme.

The follow-up Daughter of Time would add a new vocalist, Chris Farlowe, and change the band’s sound completely. The blues factor that seemed to almost define the band was suddenly gone and we’re into more experimental fare. The lack of direction is a bit concerning and when the band changes their tune from track to track it feels a bit hard to get settled into this wild album. All the same, there are plenty of proggy moments to satiate the listener, such as in the intro to the title track.

Only the opening track features all the band members, as the line-up was in turmoil at this time, and this does show through the unevenness of the album. The biggest surprise to me was Theme for an Imaginary Western, which I had always associated with Greenslade’s band, but now came to learn wasn’t even first recorded here – it was on Jack Bruce’s 1969 album, Songs for a Tailor. I then find out this album featured Colosseum members Jon Hiseman and Dick Heckstall-Smith and also featured Rope Ladder to the Moon (featured on The Grass is Greener). I suppose Hiseman and the rest liked those songs so much that they wanted to nab them for themselves.

Daughter of Time concludes with an eight-minute live drum solo titled The Time Machine (because a drummer keeps time, get it?). This is further evidence that the band were struggling to make new material at this time and should possibly have waited another year to let things settle down and write and record a more cohesive album. Even though I’m a drummer myself, I can readily admit that a drum solo is absolutely one of the most boring things to listen to on a live album, let alone a studio album. When you’re watching a drum solo live, it feels more exciting and personal, but this energy does not translate to a recording. Hiseman is a fantastic drummer and he has exceptional chops, but even he isn’t outstanding enough to make an eight-minute drum solo feel worthwhile on an album. I’d prefer to have another song or two, frankly.

This just leaves the live section of the set, spread over two discs, the first being the official Colosseum Live album released in 1971 and a second disc of rejected live recordings made at the same time. This section reveals just what a powerhouse the group were live, with an exuberant energy that seemed to last the entire set. With extended versions of their songs that stretched to ten minutes or longer, it can often be quite an exhausting listen and one needs to be in the right frame of mind for it. Satisfyingly, the bonus disc fixes a glaring issue with Colosseum Live by adding a 21-minute live recording of The Valentyne Suite to end the set. It’s just as brilliant to hear this stellar track live although I noticed that saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith seems to lose all his energy right at the very end, not playing along with the reprise of The Grass is Greener’s main theme.

An extremely thorough history of Colosseum’s initial period is covered by Malcolm Dome in a gargantuan 6,000-word essay, that I suspect has been created by merging his pieces for the individual reissues together. While it is a long read, it’s delightful to have all of the information in one place, just as it is wonderful to gather together all of Colosseum’s original releases into one tidy package. Even if the majority of their work doesn’t shine quite as brightly as the band’s magnum opus, Colosseum are still an essential band in the formation of prog as a genre and if you haven’t listened to them yet, you owe it to yourself to get this sparkling collection.

DISC ONE: Those Who Are About to Die Salute You

01. Walking in the Park (3:56)
02. Plenty Hard Luck (4:28)
03. Mandarin (4:25)
04. Debut (6:20)
05. Beware the Ides of March (5:37)
06. The Road She Walked Before (2:43)
07. Backwater Blues (7:38)
08. Those About to Die (4:57)
~ Bonus Tracks – recorded at Pye Studios, November 1968:
09. I Can’t Live without You (4:15)
10. In the Heat of the Night (4:48)
11. Those About to Die (demo) (4:10)

Time – 53:12

DISC TWO: Valentyne Suite
01. The Kettle (4:28)
02. Elegy (3:14)
03. Butty’s Blues (6:47)
04. The Machine Demands a Sacrifice (3:56)
05. The Valentyne Suite (16:59)
~ Bonus Track:
06. Tell Me Now (3:41)

Time – 39:02

DISC THREE: The Grass is Greener
01. Jumping Off the Sun (3:36)
02. Lost Angeles (5:33)
03. Elegy (3:13)
04. Butty’s Blues (6:45)
05. Rope Ladder to the Moon (3:44)
06. Bolero (5:29)
07. The Machine Demands a Sacrifice (2:51)
08. The Grass is Always Greener (7:38)

Time – 38:45

DISC FOUR: Daughter of Time
01. Three Score and Ten, Amen (5:39)
02. Time Lament (6:12)
03. Take Me Back to Doomsday (4:25)
04. The Daughter of Time (3:33)
05. Theme for an Imaginary Western (4:07)
06. Bring Out Your Dead (4:20)
07. Downhill and Shadows (6:14)
08. The Time Machine (8:13)
~ Bonus Tracks:
09. Bring Out Your Dead (demo) (4:45)
10. Jumping Off the Sun (Lansdowne Studios – 3rd May 1970) (3:37)
11. The Pirate’s Dream (12:04)

Time – 63:05

DISC FIVE: Colosseum Live
01. Rope Ladder to the Moon (9:47)
02. Walking in the Park (8:23)
03. Skellington (14:59)
04. I Can’t Live Without You (7:52)
05. Tanglewood ‘63 (10:16)
06. Encore… Stormy Monday Blues (7:32)
07. Lost Angeles (15:48)

Time – 74:33

DISC SIX: Live Recordings 1971
01. Rope Ladder to the Moon (live – Brighton 1971) (10:58)
02. Skellington (live – Brighton 1971) (14:44)
03. I Can’t Live Without You / The Time Machine / The Machine Demands a Sacrifice (live – Manchester University 1971) (21:42)
04. Stormy Monday Blues (live – Bristol University 1971) (5:14)
05. The Valentyne Suite (live – Manchester University 1971) (21:20)

Time – 73:57

Total Time – 5:42:32

Jon Hiseman – Drums
Dick Heckstall-Smith – Saxophones
Dave Greenslade – Organ, Keyboards, Backing Vocals
James Litherland – Guitar, Vocals (discs 1 & 2)
Dave “Clem” Clempson – Guitar (discs 3-6), Lead Vocals (disc 3), Backing Vocals (discs 4-6)
Tony Reeves – Bass (discs 1-3)
Mark Clarke – Bass (discs 4-6)
Chris Farlowe – Vocals (discs 4-6)
~ With:
Jim Roche – Guitar (disc 1, track 7)
Neil Ardley – Conductor (disc 3, track 4), String Arrangement (disc 3, track 3; disc 4, tracks 2 & 4)
Barbara Thompson – Flute, Saxophones, Vocals (disc 4, tracks 1-4)
Louis Cennamo – Bass (disc 4, tracks 2,3,4 & 7)

Record Label: Esoteric Recordings / Cherry Red Records
Catalogue#: ECLEC62861
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 29th March 2024

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