By Stephen M. H. Braitman
Progressive rock, as a mainstream music genre, blew out its welcome in the punk era where the D.I.Y. ethic effectively shut down music that was pretentious and pompous. Pretentiousness and pompousness were still to be found, even in punk and post-punk intellectualism, but prog rock’s distinctive elongated grandiosity left the limelight.
However, like rockabilly, country blues, swing music, and disco, it never went away. Unlike those other ancient music forms, progressive music has actually grown stronger as a niche genre than it ever was mainstream. A short breeze through Google listings will show robust activity world-wide with hundreds of bands categorized as prog on a dozen or more labels solely dedicated to the music. Comparable to the success of metal and jam bands, prog rock knows who its audience is, and its audience knows what it likes.
From a collector standpoint, prog has many opportunities for discovery. And profitability. Some of the highest selling records on eBay and elsewhere now are progressive rock. This is due to a few factors.
First, many of the more distinctive, odder, and strange releases were on small labels with limited marketing (Spark, Delta, Stable, Cube, Nasco), or they were simply swamped by the dominance of Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson and the other major acts of the time.
Second, many of the records being sought now were not originally identified as progressive rock when first released. In the late ’60s and throughout most the 1970s, there was so much experimentation and (mind/music) expansion that no one really could keep up with all the tangents being explored. Prog rock 35 years ago pretty much meant rock with a symphony orchestra, or at least a band playing like a symphony. Now it can mean a much wider range, from some of the jazz rock fusion ensembles of the ’70s to heavy metal with a Lord of the Rings complex. German experimental bands like Neu and Can have been accepted under the prog rock banner, as well as some of the more idiosyncratic English folk rock bands, and, yes, even “On The Corner” by Miles Davis.
Third, the influence of progressive rock on music around the world had an immense impact, with completely separate lines of development spinning off the original sources. Italy, Peru, the Scandinavian countries, even the Philippines all had their prog rock bands and thriving scenes. It is a keenly competitive game finding many of those original vinyl LPs. It’s a challenge, and often a major investment. A copy of the 1972 album by Tarkus from Peru last sold on eBay in 2009 for $3,050. The “One” album by Norwegian band Flax from 1976 topped out at $900+ in its last eBay appearance last November.
Not all prog rock is highly valued, or at least much can still be had for relatively bargain prices: Traffic Sound (Peru), Terco (Brazil), Crucis (Argentina), Kozmic Muffin (Spain), and Egg (U.K.) all sold for under $100 last year. One can argue quality, or quantity, or ignorance as factors affecting value, but generally it’s still happy hunting grounds for the savvy collector.
Searching for unknown treasures still yields good results if one is willing to expand the parameters. The fact is that almost any obscure album from the 1970s (extra points for unpronounceable name; double extra points for incomprehensible cover art) that is not instantly recognizable as something else can be called prog rock. It’s a genre that one never needs to explain, yet fits so many in its very big tent.
The Prog Rock Archives (www.progarchives.com) is the definitive starting point for all things prog, from histories and discographies, forums, buying and selling, and even listening: They have a comprehensive list and links to progressive rock radio programs around the world. This Quebec-based Web site could hardly be more comprehensive.
Stephen M. H. Braitman is a music writer and collector. The first LPs he ever purchased for himself were Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye & Hello,” Kaleidoscope’s “Beacon From Mars,” and Pink Floyd’s “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.” He is also a music appraiser; visit www.MusicAppraisals.com.