Founded in 1968 by two escapees from the Graham Bond Organisation and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Colosseum combined jazz, rock and blues in an innovative style. Indeed, the five-piece, led by drummer Jon Hiseman and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, were praised by Tit Bits magazine as “The best in progressive British music.”
Sticking by their maxim “no drug addicts and no time-wasters”, Colosseum recorded two albums – Those Who Are About To Die Salute You and Valentyne Suite – in one highly productive year. The presence of the devilish old gaffer Bond looms from the outset, with his composition Walking In The Park and the blueswailing Plenty Hard Luck. Debut is the kind of uptempo groove which would have kept the all-night patrons of Soho alight, with plenty of room for characterful solos. Like Roland Kirk, Dick Heckstall-Smith was a keen advocate of the principle ‘never blow just one sax when two will do the job’. The jaunty gladiatorial title track will be familiar to viewers of 1969’s Supershow all-star jam, where it rolled over the credits. Things take a melancholy turn on Beware The Ides Of March, reminiscent of the King Curtis sax version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale as featured on the OST for druggies and time-wasters, Withnail & I.
Second album Valentyne Suite, incidentally the Vertigo label’s first swirl, contains the immortal opening line ‘Why the kettle dry?’ The Machine Demands A Sacrifice gives up more portentous verses and just when we think the cowbell has faded into the distance, back it comes for more. Imaginative musicianship abounds and the tripart Valentyne Suite is a triumph, with keyboard maestro Dave Greenslade in full flight.
These days singer/guitarist James Litherland is more often referred to as the father of James Blake, rather than one of the members of Colosseum, who continued touring until 2015. So it seems timely to give another appreciative round of applause to the prog pioneers whose performances rarely fell below peak.