An Interview with David “Clem” Clempson of Humble Pie & Colosseum

The conversation regarding “Guitar Gods,” usually begins with the likes of Jimmy, Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and of course, Eddie Van Halen. If you’re into the more modern era, perhaps you’d bring up Greg Howe, Vinnie Moore, or George Lynch.

But what of the forgotten?

The era of guitar-driven music, which for all intents and purposes was spawned in the late 1960s, featured countless droves of underrated, underappreciated, and underexposed players. Players by rights deserved their share of the limelight. Players who helped define an era. And players whose songs, riffs, and solos are ingrained in our hearts and minds, all the while, remain nameless.

David “Clem” Clempson is one of those players.

Clempson broke the scene in the late 60s with his band, Bakerloo, and when faced with the choice of keeping to his Blues Rock roots, Clempson pivoted, instead choosing to step into the great unknown in joining Colosseum, a semi-established, cult favorite, Jazz-Rock-Fusion outfit.

The two albums which followed, The Grass Is Greener, and Daughter Of Time, are pioneering records for the time, and for the genre. While Colosseum’s initial run was short-lived, Clempson would remain on the move, and after a chance meeting with Steve Marriott, Clempson joined the stalwart Blues-ladden, Hard Rock outfit, Humble Pie, for a string of quintessential records in the 1970s.

Since his time in Humble Pie came to a close, Clempson has continued to ingratiate himself into the fabric of Rock, in working with the likes of Cozy Powell, David Byron, and eventually, reforming Colosseum, a band which is still running strong to this day.

With his late ’58 Gibson Goldtop slung over his shoulder, Clem Clempson’s voice still reverberates through the annals of Rock history. Once forgotten, but now, waiting to be discovered by legions of new fans throughout new eras.

In this career-spanning interview, we caught up with Clem regarding, among other things, his origins in music, entering the Fusion scene with Colosseum, pushing the sound and boundaries of Humble Pie to heights unknown in the 70s, nearly joining Deep Purple, jamming with David Bowie, and a whole lot more.

If you would like to learn more about Clem Clempson, or Colosseum, you head over to their respective web pages, and Facebook pages, and dig in.

Andrew:
As a young musician, what were some of your earliest leanings which shaped you as a guitarist?

Clem:
My piano studies from the age of four to around fourteen had a huge influence on my guitar playing, and my entire career; I believe my approach to playing the guitar is a result of having had an education in music before I had even touched a guitar. For instance, when I’m taking a solo, in my mind, I’m seeing notes on a keyboard rather than shapes on the guitar fingerboard. And being able to read music enabled my success as a studio musician.

When I fell in love with the guitar it was as a result of being taken by my auntie to see the movie Rock Around The Clock; the guitar solo in the title track still blows me away. Then, The Shadows came along, and it was pretty clear to me that my future as a musician would be far more exciting as a guitarist than it would playing Beethoven sonatas on the piano. [Laughs]. So, I sold my train set and bought my first guitar, a very cheap acoustic.

Andrew:
You broke in during the early era of guitar heroes, which featured the likes of Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, and more. As a guitarist, what was it like breaking in during a time of such great innovation?

Clem:
I was just a fan of all those guys. I was a little younger, and still at school when I first heard Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, etc. I aspired to emulate them, and developed my playing skills by learning their songs and solos; but I never imagined I might someday be mentioned in the same breath as those legends. My bible in the early days was a monthly magazine called Beat Instrumental. I would read every issue avidly from cover to cover, trying to learn everything I could about my heroes, and their equipment. So, one of my earliest thrills was being voted into the top ten guitarists in the Beat Instrumental poll along with those guys, although I’m sure it was largely because of the huge popularity of Colosseum.

Andrew:
Your first larger gig was with Blues Rock power trio, Bakerloo. Paint a picture for me of those early days, and the importance of that band on your larger development.

Clem:
Bakerloo evolved from my previous bands, Harwell Reaction and The Pinch, and it provided the opportunity to not only improve my guitar-playing by performing regularly in public, but to also earn a living at it! And one of the biggest breakthroughs of my career came when John Peel heard us play at Mothers in Erdington, and invited us to record a session for his Top Gear radio show. At that point, we moved up from playing pubs, and bars around Birmingham, to getting booked into the top Blues venues like The Marquee, and the university circuit. And it was on a gig supporting Colosseum at Cambridge University that Jon Hiseman noticed me.

Andrew:
After Bakerloo, you joined the deeply underrated Colosseum. You alluded to meeting Jon Hiseman at Cambridge University. Take me through your induction into the band.

Clem:
So, I got a phone call from Jon, who told me it had been decided that James Litherland would be leaving the band and invited me to their London rehearsal room to see how we got on together. Bakerloo had already broken up at this point, although there was a plan for a new three-piece consisting of myself, Cozy Powell, and Dave Pegg. But the chance to join Colosseum was too good to pass up, so I went to London and after playing through “Those About To Die Salute You” once, Jon told me the gig was mine!

Andrew:
Colosseum’s initial records are extremely well put together, and well crafted. The Grass Is Greener, and Daughter Of Time are pioneering records in the genre of Jazz Fusion. If you can, dig into the writing, and recording of those records.

Clem:
The material was produced by a combination of individual group members’ original ideas, sketches, and a lot of ensemble work in the rehearsal room. The recordings were all performed by the whole band “live” in the studio, with the occasional overdub.

Andrew:
What led to the decision to disband Colosseum in 1971?

Clem:
Things had become rather stale; we were tired of the material we’d relied on for our live performances but were struggling to come up with new songs. Jon took me aside one day, and said he was thinking of breaking up the band, and asked if I would be interested in continuing with him and Mark Clarke as a three-piece. I wasn’t interested in that and decided soon after to leave the band, at which point Jon decided to disband Colosseum.

Andrew:
Shortly after the end of Colosseum, you replaced Peter Frampton in the legendary Blues/Hard Rock band, Humble Pie. How did you get the gig?

Clem:
Steve [Marriott] heard my Blues solo in Skelington on the Colosseum Live album and invited me to his house for a jam. The two of us chatted and jammed a while; he asked me to come to a rehearsal with the other guys the next day, and when I arrived, I found it had already been announced to the press that I was the new guitarist in Humble Pie!

Andrew:
Starting with Smokin’, Humble Pie delivered a string of now-classic records in Eat It, Thunderbox, and Street Rats. Looking back, what do you recall regarding the recording of those records?

Clem:
The sessions for Smokin’ were some of the most joyous times I ever spent in a recording studio, or anywhere else for that matter! I was very excited, of course, about the beginning of a new chapter in my career, I loved the music, and the guys I was working with.

We had a lot of fun recording Eat It; it was recorded in Steve’s newly-built studio, so there were no constraints about the time we spent working on the record, the first time I’d ever been in that position. The Blackberries, and sax player, Sydney George, came over from the US, and all in all, it was a lovely experience!

Thunderbox was recorded in the same way, same studio.

Unfortunately, recording Street Rats wasn’t such a great experience, due to various personal and financial problems that were causing us all a lot of problems, and which soon after led to the demise of the band.

Andrew:
Give me the background on Strange Brew, a band that you and Greg Riddley formed with Cozy Powell. That band seemed to have all the ingredients, ultimately, why didn’t it get off the ground.

Clem:
Strange Brew didn’t get off the ground principally because, in the early stages of rehearsals, I broke my wrist playing football, and while I was wondering whether I’d ever play the guitar again, Cozy was offered the gig with Rainbow.

Andrew:
I also wanted to touch on your audition for Deep Purple. How did you come into contact with the band? It’s said that you nearly had the job, but lost out to Tommy Bolin in the end. Is there any truth to that?

Clem:
I’d met Jon Lord on the road, and I got a call from him out of the blue asking me to fly out to LA with him and try things out with the band. I had a nice couple of weeks living in Malibu, spent a memorable, and very late evening jamming with Glen Hughes, and David Bowie ’round at David’s house, during which a new band was formed, based on the idea of “Mahavishnu Orchestra with vocals!” Strangely, it was never mentioned again once the effects of the various substances imbibed that evening had worn off!

It didn’t work out with Purple, because although we had a great time jamming together in rehearsals, they were looking for a guitarist who was also a prolific songwriter, and able to provide the new material they needed, and I wasn’t able to fulfill that requirement.

Image credit: Pop

Andrew:
Both yourself and Uriah Heep singer, David Byron, formed another short-lived project, Rough Diamond. Take me through the formation of that band. What became of it?

Clem:
I’d arrived back in the UK after playing with Steve [Marriott] on his first solo tour of the US, and I got a call from one Steve Barnett, a manager who was looking after David and helping him put a band together following his departure from Uriah Heep. I wanted to continue working with keyboard player, Damon Butcher, who’d also been on the “Marriott’s All-Stars” tour, and David’s new band offered us that opportunity; Damon and I had been writing quite a bit, and David was keen to contribute lyrics.

Unfortunately, Barnett’s ambitions for the band caused us to be thrust into a very uncomfortable situation, which we didn’t want, and ultimately, our only option was to walk away.

Andrew:
When Humble Pie reformed in 1980, you chose not to participate. What led to that decision?

Clem:
I flew out to join up with Jerry [Shirley], and Steve in San Francisco, to see what was going on, but it just felt like being back in the Street Rats days, with the same problems, so after only a couple of days, I returned to London.

Andrew:
The late 70s and early 80s were an interesting time for Rock music. Looking back, what are your thoughts on the era as it shifted toward Disco, Punk, and New Wave. If you can, paint a picture of that time.

Clem:
I was having the time of my life working with the likes of Jack Bruce, David Sancious, and Billy Cobham, and the Punk thing seemed like a different world entirely that didn’t affect me! On the road with Jack, David and Billy, we got back to our hotel from the gig one night to find we were staying in the same hotel as The Clash, and the bar was completely rammed with their entourage and fans. It was a bit scary but nevertheless, we went in, managed to find a table, and to our surprise, Topper Headon, recognizing Billy Cobham, went round all the tables, and made the punks put out their cigarettes because he knew Billy hated smoke!

Image credit: George Quartz

Andrew:
What led to the reformation of Colosseum in 1994, and the subsequent recording of Bread And Circuses in 1997? How do you feel the band’s later material stacks up to its classic output?

Clem:
We met for a surprise birthday party for Dave Greenslade, with the exception of Mark Clarke, who was living in New York; it was the first time we’d been together since the split in the early 70s, and we really enjoyed the evening. The talk turned at some point to the notion of some kind of reunion tour, and Jon mentioned that he’d been approached many times by promoters asking if there was any chance of that happening. The next day, I called Jon and said, “Well, what about it?” The next job was to track down Mark, and of course, he was very much up for it, so plans were made for a tour. We needed a new recording to promote the tour, and played a show at the E-Werk in Cologne, in order to record a promotional video, and we didn’t really plan to do any more than that, but we had such a great time that we decided we wanted to continue, so we needed to make a new record, which was Bread And Circuses.

As with the earlier material, I think we came up with one or two gems such as “No Pleasin'” and “Tomorrow’s Blues,” which worked very well for us in our live show alongside the old favorites, and quite a lot of songs which were good but were never going to be classics.

Andrew:
There has been a bit of confusion on the status of Colosseum, with farewell shows played in 2020, but it seems the band may still be forging onward after all. What is the status of Colosseum as we move forward?

Clem:
The “farewell” show of the original line-up actually took place in 2015. Then, in 2017, Jon asked me if I would be interested in finally forming the three-piece band he’d suggested back in the 70s, with Mark. So, we made a record as JCM and went out on tour in the spring of 2018, but sadly, Jon became seriously ill after a few days on the road and passed away soon after.

Mark and I continued the JCM project eventually. It was fun playing with a three-piece again, going back to my Bakerloo days; however, Mark and I really missed playing the great Colosseum classics that we’d had so much fun with and decided that for the next JCM record, we would bring in keyboards and saxophone, which would enable us to perform that stuff. Then Chris Farlowe joined us for a couple of shows and said he’d like to be involved in whatever plans we were making. So, one thing led to another; people around us were saying, “You’re half of the band, and you want to go out and play Colosseum material, so it makes sense to call the band Colosseum!” So, after getting the go-ahead from Jon’s family, we decided to go out as a new version of Colosseum. We hoped Dave Greenslade would join us, but unfortunately, he feels his health is no longer up to all the traveling.

So, joining Mark, Chris, and myself are keyboardist Nick Steed, drummer Malcolm Mortimore, and Kim Nishikawara on saxophone — all fabulous players who not only have the talent to step into some very big shoes but also approach the music of Colosseum with the utmost respect.

Image courtesy of Clem Clempson

Andrew:
As for Humble Pie, will we ever see you take the stage with the band again?

Clem:
Although there have been several versions of Humble Pie, I was never really interested in getting involved. We did have a great night at Steve’s memorial concert, when Jerry, Greg, Peter Frampton, and I played a set together, and I could have been tempted to do more with that line-up, but it didn’t happen.

Andrew;
What guitars, effects, pedals, and amps are you using these days?

Clem:
I still love to play the ’58 Goldtop, which has been with me throughout my career. I bought it in 1968, and I thought it was pretty old at the time! I can’t use it as much as I’d like, because of the difficulty these days of traveling with an instrument; not so long ago it was possible to carry it onboard an aircraft, but not anymore!

I use mostly Marshall and Fender amps; my favorite is an old Fender Bandmaster, which was modified by Brinsley Schwarz to provide an overdrive channel, along the lines of the holy Dumble Overdrive.

I have quite a few pedals, of course, my favorites are my Centaur Overdrive, and the Vertex Ultra Phonix.

Andrew:
What’s next for you, Clem. What do you have on your docket moving forward?

Clem:
I’m looking forward to finally being able to take the new Colosseum line-up on the road and at last, things are beginning to look more promising for a return to live gigs.

Our record company, Repertoire, has expressed a wish about a new “solo” album to follow up my first, In The Public Interest. But for now, Colosseum is most definitely at the forefront of my plans!

Interested in learning more about Humble Pie & Colosseum? Check out the links below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found VWMusic in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Idle Chatter. Over time, the column grew into a website that now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process. Some of Andrew’s favorite artists include KISS, Oasis, ACϟDC, Elvis Presley, Ace Frehley, The Rolling Stones, Rush, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, The Gaslight Anthem, Iron Maiden, John Lennon, The Melvins, Noel Gallagher, Regina Spektor, Rory Gallagher, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Neil Young, Blur, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more.
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2 thoughts on “An Interview with David “Clem” Clempson of Humble Pie & Colosseum

  1. Great Pie coverage but, Obviously Clem would have also loved to have talked more about his YEARS playing with JACK BRUCE — a high point in any musician’s career including the guys in Colosseum.

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