The Best Restaurant in Rome (If You're a Lion)
This stateside only release from 1970 has come to resemble something of a curio in the Colosseum discography. It was rushed out with rather indecent haste just a few months after the successful Valentyne Suite (presumably under the pretext of James Litherland having being replaced in the interim by Clem Clempson) Anyways, given that it features the new singer and guitarist on alternate versions of previously released numbers, plus some new and old material, it still hangs together surprisingly well as a stand alone document and not some expedient ploy designed to plunge our short arms into deep pockets. Litherland's departure is a mixed blessing for your reviewer as I prefer his guitar work but favour Clempson's lower vocal range. Tensions had been running high in the band for some time prior to Litherland being asked to leave and he cites soloist's egos, over elaborate arrangements, and a dearth of 'in the pocket groove' from drummer Hiseman as all being contributing factors to his estrangement from his colleagues. More pointedly perhaps was him discovering quite by chance that his band mates were being paid considerably more than he was as the singer, guitarist and composer. How ironic therefore that the man they nicknamed 'Butty' (after the Mancunian slang for a sandwich) was toast after claiming he received too little bread (Man)
Jumping Off the Sun - This unique song was written by the rather tragic figure of one Mike Taylor, an incredibly original and talented jazz pianist who ended up drowned in the River Thames at just 30 years old, purportedly under his own hand. It's one of the most unusual and unnerving compositions I've heard in a long while and seems in places almost to defy the trumping gravitational pull of tension and its release we crave for in diatonic music. Even the chorus type 'hook' betrays a maverick agenda by landing on a lacerating discord. There are weird jutting cadences, sly metric jesting and unresolved harmonies at play here that apart from maybe Syd Barrett and Thelonious Monk, have no precedent I can cite.
Lost Angeles - It's fascinating to hear this early run-through of a number that was given its definitive reading on the stirring Live version from '71. Greenslade's murky organ occupies a less prominent role here but his gossamer chiming vibes are captured beautifully and Heckstall-Smith interjects some bluesy strands of noirish sax to cinematic effect. Hiseman is an incredibly accomplished and technical drummer but despite Litherland's claim that his playing lost much of its visceral pulse hereabouts, I find his contributions to be unfailingly supportive of the musical materials to hand. Although Clempson is not on a par with the masterful Chris Farlowe he does a decent job and at the very least we are spared his coma inducing solo from '71 that is so odiously predictable, overlong and cliche filled it was used in torture experiments conducted from behind the iron curtain designed to break western spies during the Cold War.
Elegy - An odd name for such a funky little monkey y'all? This is James Litherland singing and his highly strung tonsils are a perfect match for material like this (it should be, he wrote it) By some weird perverse reason best known to the mental health profession I always envisage this is what Sly and the Family Stone gettin' oreo on us would sound like? Identical to the track that appears on the Valentyne Suite.
Butty's Blues - Another Litherland piece which would be a rather ordinary 12 bar but for the highly imaginative and refreshingly original take on da blooz courtesy of Neil Ardley's brilliant arrangement. Neil was the musical director of the New Jazz Orchestra from 1964 to 1970 which employed some of the best young musicians in London including Ian Carr, Jon Hiseman, Jack Bruce, Tony Reeves, Barbara Thompson, Dave Gelly, Mike Gibbs, Don Rendell, and Trevor Tomkins et al. A veritable who's who of fledgling UK fusion circa the mid 60's. They recorded at least one album I know of called Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe which is well worth tracking down and, despite the gauche double entendre in the title, is not filled with stoned hippy jazz w.a.n.k and also contains two compositions by the aforementioned Mike Taylor.
Rope Ladder to the Moon - Almost a sister song to Taylor's Jumping off the Sun and one of Jack Bruce's finest creations which to this day, I haven't the foggiest idea what he's banging on about. It hardly matters so just enjoy this oriental inflected slice of angular 60's kitsch for what it is. Not quite as assured as the road tested version on Live from 1971 but that's to be expected with what was new material of course. Clempson struggles with some of the higher notes but on this occasion such flaws imbue his delivery with an endearing vulnerability.
Bolero - My old geography teacher perhaps put it best when he described my crammed essay on soil erosion as 'long winded graffitti that would shame even a condemned building'. Yep, Ravel is subjugated to the indignity of being rendered 'diggable' by those who should have been rendered senseless with a shovel. Clempson's flimsy Davy O'List impersonation in the middle is unbearable, unforgivable, inexcusable and credible reason enough to dispense entirely with electricity.
The Machine Demands a Sacrifice - Memorable chorus hook certainly and Greenslade's organ solo is well worth the wait but this is two good ideas stretched to breaking point.
The Grass Is Greener - I've always adored this section from the Valentyne Suite and it appears to be pretty faithful to the album version, albeit it's Clempson, not Litherland on guitar. Dave Greenslade's subtle but always commanding Hammond is a salutary lesson in how to steer a vessel without recourse to a gangplank. Once again alas, Clempson's creaking blues rock excesses are completely oblivious to the economy mirrored by Heckstall-Smith's indelible main theme and so keelhauling the insolent cur would be the only humane verdict all told.
There is some anecdotal evidence that had Colosseum been touring on the east coast of the USA in 1969 they would have been invited to perform at Woodstock. What this would have done for their subsequent career trajectory is at best speculative and at worst disingenuous. Forgive me for using a football analogy here but it's the most apt way I can think of to describe the demise of yet another delightful but doomed ensemble: Colosseum are perhaps comparable to the Dutch national football team i.e. they have thrilled audiences with their wonderful skill and technical mastery over many a lesser opponent but have won precisely zero, nada, squat with regards to trophies. Eleven brilliant players is not a 'team'