20 of the most obscure prog albums
Prog picks 20 of the most obscure prog albums that you might have nestled at the back of your collection. Some that could even unearth you a small fortune…
So there was Prog, in the confines of the local boozer, when the question came up: “What is the rarest and/or most valuable record in your collection?” Needless to say, it got us all scratching our heads. The dictionary definition of obscure reads: “Not discovered or known about.” In the prog world, calling something rare – nay, obscure even – means that even a prog aficionado may not be able to claim knowledge of its existence. Indeed, a discussion on the most obscure progressive releases of all time is likely to end up in the same kind of heated, unending debate as posing the question: what is prog?
So for the purposes of actually having a finished article to offer you, we pooled our resources and came up with a list of 20 of the most obscure prog albums to kick-start an occasional series on prog rarities, some of which are worth a hefty price. We also want to hear from you, the readers – tell us the rarest prog album in your collection, where you got it, how much it’s worth, and what it means to you. From the inevitable bulging email inbox, we’ll curate a follow-up to this feature, and then we’ll take things on from there. See the end of this feature to find out how to get in touch.
For now, though, enjoy what we have to say about these 20 valuable curios and rarities…
Having started out as a journeymen in the UK R&B boom in the late 60s, The Stormsville Shakers dropped out to become Circus, a more hipper, happenin’ kind of moniker. Fronted by future King Crimson sax player Mel Collins, they became part of the underground scene, enjoying a prestigious residency at The Marquee in London as part of the New Paths season. Here, they shared genre-blurring bills with the likes of the acclaimed Keith Tippett Group and John Surman’s Octet. Sunday Times music critic Derek Jewell was an early champion of the band, describing them as showing “poise and imagination”.
Signed to Transatlantic Records, their sole album is an eclectic mix of pop, jazz and rock. The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood gets the Vanilla Fudge-style heavy treatment, as does Charles Mingus’ jazz anthem II BS, while two Mel Collins-penned ballads lend an air of melancholic baroque pop.
Circus’ cult status failed to help sales. With the band splitting upon Collins’ departure for King Crimson in early 1970, a subsequent lack of promotion ensured the few surviving copies fell into obscurity.
That vinyl editions of the album still change hands between excited collectors for large sums of money is a source of bemusement for Collins: “It was fresh at the time, of course, but I couldn’t tell you why it’s become so sought after these days. Perhaps its because there’s a few interesting cover versions on it? There’s things I don’t like about it, of course, but I suppose it’s of its time. We were so enthusiastic and there were some great ideas in there, but I’m amazed it keeps coming back. Very strange.”
Value: For an original pressing graded on Discogs as Very Good, you can expect to pay upwards of £40, and all the way up to £330 for a Mint copy. SS
AMM was a floating free-music outfit formed by guitarist Keith Rowe, experimentalist Cornelius Cardew and others who felt confined even by jazz. Syd Barrett was heavily influenced by Rowe’s unorthodox guitar techniques and was said to have been at Sound Techniques studio in June 1966 when AMM recorded their one album for Elektra Records, with early Floyd manager Peter Jenner one of the producers.
The ominous drones and random creakings are not for the faint-hearted, expecting songs (subsequent onslaught The Crypt rose to terrifying levels of bombardment). An AMM line-up still operates today.
Value: Although later reissued, Elektra originals have sold for £700. KN
Eela Craig (1971)
Austria has never been one of prog’s great outposts, but it did give us Eela Craig, a hairy sextet whose debut LP was a dense synthesis of foraging jazz blues and keyboard-heavy psychedelia. Led by Fairlight pioneer Hubert Bognermayer, they signed to Virgin in the mid-70s, by which time they’d become altogether more symphonic and had begun singing in a variety of tongues, including Latin.
Original pressings of their first album remain ridiculously obscure, largely due to the fact that it was issued in a limited run of 1,500 on a tiny local label, Pro-Disc.
Value: Expect to pay upwards of £500 for a decent copy. RH
Principal Edwards Magic Theatre
John Peel saw Principal Edwards Magic Theatre play their debut gig at Portsmouth Guildhall and was so taken by their strongly narrative song suites, accompanied by choreographed dance and mime, that he signed the 14-person collective (including sound engineers and lighting designers) to his nascent Dandelion label, on which Soundtrack was one of the first releases in 1969.
The follow-up was The Asmoto Running Band, produced by Nick Mason in 1971, and the band left Dandelion shortly before the label went under. But even without the benefit of the stage show, Soundtrack more than holds its own as a musical statement from this most singular of progressive
Value: Upwards of £40 for a copy in Very Good condition. MB
Formed in 1967, Gracious! were initially a pop band under the auspices of legendary producer Norrie Paramor, but were soon having loftier ambitions. Keyboardist Martin Kitcat introduced classical elements and by 1969, their music had become increasingly eclectic.
“I’m not comparing us specifically with King Crimson,” says guitarist Alan Cowderoy, “but they had a progressive thing with a collision of jazz and rock that hadn’t really been done before. Ours was that kind of collision but on a much smaller scale.”
“We sat Norrie down and played him some more ‘underground’ music, longer pieces,” says drummer Robert Lipson. “He said, ‘Listen guys, I can’t do anything for you. It’s not in my area, but I’d be happy to help you wherever I can.’”
Gracious! released a single, Once On A Windy Day, in 1970 and were obliged to cut it down from the 18-minute version that they were playing live. Their self-titled debut album included the 17-minute long The Dream – which they were required to record in a single take – and was one of the highlights of the early Vertigo catalogue, featuring a striking Barney Bubbles cover design.
David ‘Kid’ Jensen devoted an entire show on Radio Luxembourg to the group and they played at the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival. But Vertigo weren’t having much success with their more progressive groups and Gracious! weren’t doing enough gigs. Lipson and Kitcat left due to a lack of income, disputes arose over writing credits and by 1972, the group who had promised so much were no more.
Their second album, This Is… Gracious!, was passed over from Vertigo to Philips, to be released posthumously in 1972 as part of their budget series. Although the first pressing of their debut had been distributed across Europe, no more were manufactured and it soon became a collector’s item.
Value: A hefty £375. MB