Colosseum & Mogul Thrash interview with James Litherland
Psychedelic Baby Magazine. We have a real treat for you today as James
Litherland has agreed to be our hostage while we ask him a couple of questions.
James really needs no introduction; guitarist and vocalist for progressive
jazz-rock band Colosseum since the band’s beginnings until Valentyne Suite, he
appeared on Supershow, a music film made in 1969, where Colosseum played
“Debut” and “Those About to Die” from their first album. He then went on to
form Mogul Thrash – the main focus of this interview – featuring, among others,
the exceptional talents of bass player John Wetton, later of King Crimson and
James and thank you for agreeing to answer our questions.
years; did you grow up in a very musical household? Which bands turned you on
to music and made you want to learn the guitar?
both loved music and had a record player and would play songs like “20 Tiny
Fingers, 20 Tiny Toes” and “Close The Door They’re Coming Through The Window”,
that kind of thing and my dad used to whistle around the house. When I was
about 2 or 3 my mum would leave me with a friend (child minder) while she went
out to work and her husband (Les) ran a Kazoo band and the girls in the family
would dress in white shirts, short flaired dresses and white plimsoles and
shake these cardboard tubes with paper “tassles” and they were the “Ra Ra
Girls”, they would play and parade at the Oldham town carnival during bank
holidays (a very English tradition) and they would rehearse in the kitchen. I
would watch while waiting for my mum to pick me up after she finished work. Not
long after, my “Uncle Les” formed a harmonica gang and had an act very like
“The Three Monarchs” and the “Morton Frazer Harmonica Gang”. His son Brian was
in the band and I still see him. The format was a Lead harmonica player, rhythm
(chords) section and a bass, all harmonicas, and there was a dwarf who was
always jumping up to try to get to the microphone and they would ignore him or
slap him down, (part of the act a la Morton Frazer) however, when he finally
made the mic, of course he was a great player. I used to sit and watch the
rehearsals and one day, Uncle Les gave me a Hohner Chromatic on which the slide
button had broken off. So that was my first instrument at about 5 yrs old. A
little later my mum bought me a cardboard clarinet and I went to the Oldham
Music College and asked for lessons but they turned me away because it wasn’t a
proper clarinet. Not long after I asked for a guitar for Christmas, which I got
when I was 8. By this time I’d heard Lonnie Donegan doing “Rock Island Line
(Leadbelly) and “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” which was the first tune I
learned to play (only the melody) It’s important to understand that at this
point I’d never seen anybody actually play a guitar.
quickly and the guitar sat in a corner for a couple of years. Then one day I
was watching the television (quite a new thing as my parents had only recently
hired one yes, HIRED, in those days nobody could afford to buy one) and I saw a
play with someone sitting on some stairs playing CHORDS and I thought “Wow I
want to do that” so I went to the the local music shop and bought a book on how
to play guitar (Play In A Day by Bert Weedon, which I still have) and the next
day I was playing 2 or 3 chords and writing songs.
joining Colosseum and could you detail how you ended up getting involved with
Jon Hiseman’s outfit?
time and the next Christmas my mum and dad knew someone who was selling an
Electric guitar (a Broadway) and they bought it for me, along with a Fal amp.
I’ll never forget that Christmas, I played the whole day until late evening, I
loved it. Soon I got to know some other people who played and began to play with
them. The first real band was called “The R & B Sect” and we played “Baby
Please Don’t Go” (before “Them”) “ Too
Much Monkey Business” and other R & B numbers and started doing Gigs
(Weddings etc.) I was 11 by then. Next I joined a band who were quite big
locally. They were called “The Puzzle” and it was because I went to school with
one of them and we got on both musically and as friends.
He is called Steve
Bolton and has since played with “Atomic Rooster”, “Paul Young” and I think he
played with “The Who” at one point after Keith Moon and John Entwistle died. We
are still friends.
and were playing Wilson Picket, Lee Dorsey etc. The line up was 2 Guitars,Sax,
Bass and Drums and I was playing lead guitar and Steve on rhythm. We did a lot
of gigs and came to London to make a demo, which is when I first fell in love
in a band and their lead guitarist was brilliant. They had just lost their
rhythm guitarist and asked me to join and, seeing it as a further opportunity
to improve, I jumped at the chance. They were called “The Go Go” and did lots
of Motown stuff and we (as did “The Puzzle’) sang harmony as well. We did lots
some of his songs (Purple Haze, Stone free etc) as the guitarist could play
anything. We rehearsed at the singer’s house (Jack) in the basement. He was
quite a genius and could fix the amps, the van, anything that needed fixing and
he went on to become a nuclear scientist.
Dessert Canoe Club) and by this time I had been going to clubs (and playing at
them) in Manchester and was seeing people like Howling Wolf, T Bone Walker,
Buddy Guy, Sonny Boy Wiliamson etc Also John Mayall, Steam Packet, Cyril Davis
etc. I also, very importantly, had seen The Graham Bond Organisation with Dick
Heckstall-Smith and was very impressed.
job and was doing gigs at night.
was half an inch from getting very badly hurt. The guy I was helping WAS hurt
very badly. It was the fault of the managers / directors of the company and
they blamed us. I was extremely angry and it showed. They harassed me for 2
weeks during which my anger grew to such an extent that I just walked out and
knew that I never, ever, wanted to do another “proper” job. I walked straight
into the newsagents across the road and bought a Melody Maker music paper and
looked in the ads at the back. I saw the ad for Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum
featuring Dick Heckstall-Smith. I didn’t know of Jon but I’d seen Dick and
thought it would be great to audition as, even if I didn’t get the job I would
have learned a lot and played with some top musicians. With the only money I
had I immediately phoned the number on the advert.
was a professional musician working as a member of Colosseum. I never did
another “proper” Job.
of your time gigging and playing with Colosseum? Any funny stories or
near-disasters on stage, that sort of thing!
asked to play, with Jon, on a track that was being produced by Mike Hugg from
Manfred Mann. I was really excited as, only one week before, I had been working
in a job in Manchester and here I was doing a session (paid) for a guy off the
television. After a few hours, whilst listening to the playback in the studio,
I began to get a pain in my stomach, I’d had it before a couple of times but
thought nothing of it. This time however it started to get really bad and I was
sitting on the floor against the wall writhing in agony.
Jon was not happy with what he saw and
drove me to the hospital. I was diagnosed with appendicitis and, although not
life threatening at that time, it needed to be sorted out and so I was booked in
for an operation to have my appendix removed. The debut gig for the band was in
Scarborough in a few weeks time and I was given 2 weeks in which to have the
operation and recover in time for the gig. I had the operation in London and
got the train to Manchester where I stayed for a week and then got the train to
Scarborough to do the gig. The wound from the operation had not really healed
by this time, I still had stitches in and the cut was exactly where my trousers
went round my waist so I had to stuff loads of cotton wool down my trousers to
stop the waistband rubbing on my wound. My biggest fear was that I would burst
the wound open as I was singing. However everything turned out well and the gig
was a great success to a very packed room and critical acclaim. “The Show Must
Fontana label to record Colosseum’s first album, Those Who Are About To Die
Salute You? What memories do you have of those recording sessions?
decisions. I was happy to have got the job and basically did as I was asked.
Jon was the leader and he had everything sorted out with Gerry Bron, the
manager, before I ever came on the scene. I arrived at the studio at the time I
was told, and went with the flow until we finished for the day. I was really
happy to be in that situation and felt very lucky. I had recorded in studios a
few times before but never at this level and to realize that this was my job
was just fantastic. One thing that I do remember very well is that we changed
studios 3 or 4 times because Jon was not happy with the drum sounds and so a
lot of the tracks were recorded 3 or 4 times in different studios.
most well-known album and is widely considered the band’s magnum opus. “Elegy”
and “Butty’s Blues” are both your compositions; could you tell us about each of
those songs and a bit about each of the other tracks on the LP? What were some
of your favourite moments recording that album?
“Those About To Die” by the time it came to the second album I was finding my
feet much more and was writing much more and was getting more confident as I
was having my songs accepted.
“Butty” being the nickname that Colosseum had given me (It is what they call a
sandwich in Manchester). The best part of that song, and I feel the reason for
it’s success, was Neil Ardley’s arrangement which was really superb. It was fantastic
hearing my song given that treatment. Interestingly I have never played Butty’s
Blues since the day I left Colosseum, I wouldn’t even know the words unless I
listened to the album again.
situation and I felt that it stood on it’s own merit as a song, no matter what
the arrangement, in fact, when I play live even now, if it’s an acoustic gig I
play it on an acoustic guitar.
completely in the Writing “Zone” and thought of stuff continually. I woke up
one morning at about 4.00 am and had the whole thing in my head. I got up,
wrote down the words, played the chords on my guitar which was by the bed and
went back to sleep. It must have taken less than 5 minutes. The rest, as they
say, is history.
Colosseum – too many to list, I’m sure! If you could only pick a couple of
memorable gigs, which would you choose?
Scarborough as it was my very first professional gig.
of people that I’d looked up to not long before I was in that position. Stephen
Stills, Buddy Miles, Buddy Guy, Roland Kirk to name just a few of the greats
that were there that day.
which was the first time I’d ever done a gig where there were people as far as
the eye could see (I think about 50,000).
© Al Bye
But THE most memorable gig without a doubt
was when we played at the Filmore West in San Francisco (It may be of interest
to your readers that this was at the exact time that Woodstock was happening
and we were booked to play The Filmore and then The Whiskey A Go-Go in L.A. Had
we been on the East coast at that time we would have been on Woodstock. Of
course no one knew then how big that was going to turn out).
“The Rock Machine Turns You On” etc which were huge influences on me, Paul
Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, Mike Bloomfield etc so just to be there was
fantastic. We played there for 3 nights and were bottom of the bill to The
Youngbloods, and a band called CTA (Chicago Transit Authority, later to change
there name to Chicago) and I thought they were just fantastic.
SONGS and I felt that Colosseum were mostly not on the same wavelength. They
were much more into solo’s and that kind of thing and I was beginning to feel
that Jon especially was not “laying down the groove” enough. I was beginning to
struggle with the feel of the material we were doing. When I stopped playing
rhythm (to do a solo) I felt that the rhythm section fell apart and although it
was very “clever” I was beginning not to feel it any more.
curtain on all the things I was feeling.
but they were “jazzy” in a very “rocky” way. I knew at that moment that the
feelings that had been creeping up on me for a while were totally valid and
this put substance to them. I knew now why I had been feeling the way I was.
before was that they had small amps and were miking everything up, which meant
the Brass could hear themselves and because they had a guy on the desk, the
balance out front was fantastic. Most guitarists at that point (me included)
had Stacks taller than themselves pumping out so much volume that the balance
on stage (and off) was terrible.
could you tell us how Mogul Thrash came together? I understand you’d formed
James Litherland’s Brotherhood and that with the addition of John Wetton, the
band changed its name to “Mogul Thrash”. How did John Wetton come on board?
Just before we left for the States I found
out by accident that everybody in the band was getting more money than I was
and although I certainly wasn’t there for the bread I felt insulted and hurt. I
was, after all, doing three jobs, writing, singing and playing and I certainly
felt that I was pulling my weight. I think my attitude changed at that point
and it must have come across. After the Fillmore and a few problems we had on
the tour it was probably apparent that things were changing and me not being
known for my diplomacy, I probably didn’t do myself any favours.
leave. Although I was a bit shell shocked, I also felt that I hadn’t been
treated particularly well and so I thought it was opening the door to my next
project and I made my mind up to form a band. The best band that put into
perspective what I needed I had recently seen in San Francisco and that’s what
the “Jade” album and he played trumpet as well as guitar. I met Malcolm Duncan
via Pete Brown, a good friend of Dick’s and he knew Roger Ball from Scotland.
I’d heard of a drummer and bass player playing with a guy called Jess Conrad
(sorry John) who was a bit of a musical joke albeit very likeable. So we went
to see them and asked them to join. It was John Wetton and Ed Bicknell. It wasn’t long before it was
apparent that Ed was not going to work out. Although we all liked him, his drumming
wasn’t up to it.
great about it, he totally understood. I think I did him a massive favour as he
went on to manage Dire Straights and to the best of my knowledge still manages
company and it was then that we found Bill Harrison for the drumming position.
He came to an audition and all the other drummers thought I was looking for a
budding Jon Hiseman. Bill sat down on someone else’s kit (his was coming from
Germany where he’d been gigging with Glass Menagerie) and as soon as he’d tuned
it to his liking started playing a (Loud) groove. Everybody in the band looked
at each other and John and I jumped up and started jamming. There was no need
to discuss anything, he was IN.
name to Mogul Thrash.
Who came up with the name “Mogul Thrash”?
used to watch on a Saturday night called the Michael Miles Show and he had on
it a game called the “Yes No Interlude” where he would ask contestants
questions very quickly, and they would have to answer without using either Yes
or No. If they did, a man standing next to them would hit a gong and the
contestant was out.
show and it was hilarious and the band would watch it every week without fail,
sometimes we would be in tears of laughter.
wearing a false nose and called him Mogul Thrash.
The Kitchen”, followed by a full-length, self-titled album on RCA in 1971. What
can you remember about the recording of that album and what gear did you use
why it isn’t on it). ‘Sleeping In The Kitchen’ was written by myself and Pete
Brown and came out really as a taster for the next album which obviously didn’t
and was produced by Brian Auger who was also managed by our manager. He was a
very genuine and good man and an excellent musician who really let us have our
head. We all got along very well and had a great time.
at as I write this, and a Vox AC 30 amp.
bass amp that was made by his friend in Bournemouth.
the engineer, doing an edit on the 16 track tape.
studio all day and he was pretty gone and he took the 2 inch tape into a small
room with a razor blade. We looked in and there he was, glassy eyed, tape all
round his ankles and little bits of16 track tape everywhere, we were horrified.
A few minutes later he came into the studio, put the tape on the mutitrack
machine and pressed play…..PERFECT. We gave him a standing ovation.
for Colosseum’s Valentyne Suite – “Elegy” – a personal favourite of mine. Could
you comment on this and any or all of the other tracks off the Mogul Thrash
album (anything that comes to mind, be it how each song was built up or any
interesting bit of information).
Elegy but by now I looked at it in a very different way and felt that although
the song was strong, it certainly didn’t reflect the way I had heard it when I
wrote it and by now I was much more confident in my direction.
Mogul Thrash and I wanted to put the record straight.
we were moving in the right direction and we were all now getting involved in
the writing process and songs and the feel were far more prominent. Johns voice
was coming through and he and I had a good vocal blend. He too was gaining in
confidence and started coming up with some really good stuff (e.g. St Peter).
1971, the tracks from which can be found on a recent CD reissue. Among them,
“Fuzzbox”, “Conscience” and “I Can’t Live Without You” are not from the LP or
single. Would I be right in thinking the last is another number you
tracks to feature on a subsequent album, had there been one?
and I was actually reminded of them when someone recently sent me a link to
something on Youtube.
Without You” but when I heard the other 2 songs I vaguely recalled them and we
were probably going to record them for the next album had they been approved
but that was the time when things started falling apart and so were a bit of a
disbanding” for a more in depth analysis.
Thrash played at and again, our readers would love to hear any great stories
from ‘on the road’!
club in Palermo, Sicily, for a week or so, to warm the band up before we did
any gigs in England. At that time they had never seen anyone with long hair and
we all had really long hair. Everywhere we went we would be followed by dozens
of children and as we passed a barbers shop an old guy with a beard came
running out to see, one side of his face was shaved and the other side had a
full white beard and he had the towel still round his neck, it was like a
cartoon. The day after we arrived we had to go and meet the guy who had booked
us at the Palermo Travel Agency, he was called Joe Napoli and he was from
Chicago, I think that should just about tell everything. Because we couldn’t
get around even to eat, we were transferred to a house near the beach. Mike
Rosen was Jewish and was 6 feet 6 inches (about 2 metres) tall with a black
beard and long black hair. Anyone having seen the MT album cover will know. We
went swimming one day and when Mike came out of the sea the beach cleared, they
thought it was the 2nd coming.
and we did a club in Milan for a week. We should have gone onto another city
but the people who had brought us out thought we were much too loud and so we
were thrown out without getting paid.
We had 2 vans, one for the gear and one for the people (it was a six piece band
most of whom were over 6 ft tall). On the way, as we were going over the Alps
into Germany, the people van broke down. We called the ADAC to see if we could
get sorted out but it was late on Thursday evening and, as it was the beginning
of the holiday, they couldn’t help until the next Tuesday morning. As we had no
money the thought of 4 or 5 days sleeping in a van with no food was very
unappealing so although some were prepared to do it, I said I was going to hitch
hike back to London. At that point they all had second thoughts and so we took
out two seatbelts, tied them together and towed the van on the seatbelts all
the way back to London. As the seatbelts kept snapping, by the time we got home
it was about 1 metre long and full of knots.
Roundhouse in London which we played at a number of times on Sunday afternoons.
We were very popular there and the sound was really good so we usually played
we auditioned for Atlantic Records. Nesuhi Ertegun (Ahmet’s brother, who owned
Atlantic) came to London to listen to us at a pub in Kings Cross. He loved it,
and we really liked him a lot and, as he had recorded John Coltrane, the brass
section got on great with him. He wanted us and we wanted him. Atlantic was a
great company who really got behind their artists and we were very excited.
Then when we had a meeting with our manager, she told us that she had turned
him down, we couldn’t believe it .It was the best company in the world and she
turned it down. She signed us to RCA who turned out to be a complete disaster.
Sunday evenings on Radio Luxenburg. The DJ was David “Kid” Jenson and his show
consisted of a “Chart” that was made up from requests from all over Europe.
Over a few weeks Mogul Thrash was No 3 in the charts, everybody wanted it.
album into the shops and nobody could buy it. It was a catastrophe. We were
extremely annoyed at having been put in that ridiculous position by our
management. Then we got wind of a few things going on behind the scenes and
people in the band wanted to leave the manager, who, up to this point, had done
a good job. So we left, she sued us for the money that she had put in and
eventually lost. However, meanwhile, as we were looking for new management
other things happened.
the longest Ford strike in history and we couldn’t get parts and therefore
couldn’t do gigs and so were broke. At that point Malcolm and Roger wanted to
work with Alan Gorrie from Forever More, a
band in the same management company, and good friends of us all. Alan
was a great singer, writer and bass
player and they asked me to go with them. I didn’t feel that I wanted to go in
that direction, and felt that the type of stuff they wanted to play had no room
for my kind of approach to the guitar, and so I said no. They became The
Average White Band and although I think they’re great, I don’t regret that
decision. Meanwhile John had been asked to join King Crimson and I had met a
bass player and drummer that really excited me.
bass and Theadore Thunder, a 17 year old American drummer, both sang well and
so we formed a 3 piece where we all sang. It was a great band, we called it
albums Bandit (1976) and Everything Stops for Tea (1972), by Bandit and Long
John Baldry respectively and on which you played?
and, although I didn’t know it at the time, Rod Stewart and Elton John, who were
very good friends of John Baldry wanted to put him back on the “blues map” John
had lost his way by singing “Mexico” and “Let The Heartaches Begin” but his
thing was the blues, and I have to say he was fantastic. We were asked to join
and we did the “Everything Stops For Tea” album, produced by Rod Stewart, and
quite a few gigs.
got jealous of Theadore who, although wasn’t gay to the best of my knowledge,
was sometimes mistaken for being so. John’s boyfriend started rows and fights
with Theodore so we left. Long John Baldry was a really good guy and an
absolutely brilliant singer and it was a shame but it was time to move on.
Rose on keyboard and did an American and European Tour with Dick
Heckstall-Smith playing his “Pirates Dream” concept, supporting Deep Purple.
Sayer and did his “Just A Boy” album and toured with him, both America and
player with a band called “Home” with Laurie Wisefield (who has since been with
Wishbone Ash and Tina Turner). I became good friends with Cliff and thought it
would be good one day to work together.
a girl I knew in San Francisco, asking would I be interested in playing with
her band doing the Bay Area. I jumped at the chance and flew over and had a
great time for about a year. I played with some great people, Gaylord Birch
(Pointer Sisters) Greg Erico and Bobby Vega (Sly And The Family Stone) Billy
Roberts (writer of Hey Joe) just loads of good players. Then just as I was
ready to come home I got a call from Cliff. He wanted me to join Bandit. It
seemed perfect so I came home to London and joined them. Their drummer wasn’t
happening for me and so I suggested Graham Broad. I’d played with him some time
before in Dave Rose’s band. They loved him and he joined.
on the same day that he signed Whitney Houston.
and did the Bandit Album. We also did a European tour with Alexis Korner. We
played as the support act and then came on as his band. He was another great
guy. I loved his singing and he was a pleasure to work with.
fantastic publishing deal.
politics became unbearable, so many bad things went on.
Test (another nightmare) and the
following day a meeting was called and Cliff and I parted company with Bandit.
The lawsuits went on for 20 years, fortunately I wasn’t involved in any of
is still with them to this day. Graham plays with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and
Roger Waters. Danny McIntosh is with Kate Bush.
most recent album, Real Men Cry, being all-acoustic. Could you tell us more?
bands and decided to make a living playing music without all the managers /
lawyers / record companies etc as up to that point I had never made any money.
I did sessions and gigs, independently so I went off the radar but I’ve always
loved playing and have always been playing. I was also at the forefront of home
recording technology and as soon as serious recording quality became affordable
I jumped on it and have never recorded any of my stuff in a commercial
recording environment since. I’ve had a studio at home for over 20 years. When
I brought out 4th Estate (named before the book by Jeffrey Archer) I formed a
great band but could not get the gigs to pay for it and I felt that if it
didn’t pay for itself I wasn’t going to do it. I’m definitely not going to do
the “Pay To Play” thing, I’m not a “bread head” but there is a limit, so the
next album I did was all acoustic which
the songs as there is nowhere to hide on acoustic guitar, if the song doesn’t
work that’s tough.
could work without a band when necessary and still make a living.
have done quite a few gigs with Tony Reeves of Colosseum recently, and did The
Edinburgh Jazz And Blues Festival amongst other things, so I like to keep
again for granting us this interview and ask you what your thoughts are on
Mogul Thrash looking back all those years? What would you like to say to all
the Mogul Thrash fans out there?
it’s not something I usually do, I’ve usually got something going to
concentrate on. Looking back on Mogul Thrash now, there are some great
memories, we had some great times and made some music that I’m really proud to
have been involved with. One great buzz is that one of my son’s favourite
tracks of all time is “What’s This I
Hear” My son has turned out to be a great and innovative musician in his own
right. I turned down a lot of opportunities because I wasn’t prepared to
compromise on certain things. One thing that I’ve learned is that you can’t
have everything but I’ve had most of the things that mean a lot to me.