Obscure Records was a U.K. record label which existed from 1975 to 1978. It was created and run by Brian Eno, who also produced the albums (credited as executive producer in one instance). Ten albums were issued in the series. Most have detailed liner notes on their back covers, analyzing the compositions and providing a biography of the composer, in a format typical of classical music albums, and much of the material can be regarded as 20th century classical music. The label provided a venue for experimental music, and its association with Eno gave increased public exposure to its composers and musicians.
In their original editions, all albums used variations of the same cover art of a collage by John Bonis, covered up by an overprinting of black ink. The picture beneath the ink can be seen somewhat clearly under a strong light. Each volume except the seventh has one small window in the black overprint to reveal a different portion of the picture on each album. The red and white label design is a blurred photo that appears to be spires on roofs of buildings.
Brian Eno's album Music for Airports (1978) was intended as the eleventh Obscure album, and has catalogue number OBS-11 written and then scratched out in the matrix area on original UK copies. But this album became the first volume of a new Ambient Records series ("Ambient 1") instead, and this decision marked the end of the Obscure label. The Ambient series consists of four albums issued from 1978 to 1982.
Listed by title first (because all albums have one title, but some have multiple artists), artist(s), year of release, and original label name and catalogue number.
- The Sinking of the Titanic – Gavin Bryars – 1975 – Obscure no. 1
- Ensemble Pieces – Christopher Hobbs, John Adams, Gavin Bryars – 1975 – Obscure no. 2
- Discreet Music – Brian Eno – 1975 – Obscure no. 3
- New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments – Max Eastley, David Toop – 1975 – Obscure no. 4
- Voices and Instruments – Jan Steele, John Cage – 1976 – Obscure no. 5
- Decay Music – Michael Nyman – 1976 – Obscure no. 6
- Music from the Penguin Café – Members of the Penguin Café Orchestra – 1976 – Obscure no. 7
- Machine Music – John White, Gavin Bryars – 1978 – Obscure OBS-8
- Irma – an opera by Tom Phillips, music by Gavin Bryars, libretto by Fred Orton – 1978 – Obscure OBS-9
- The Pavilion of Dreams – Harold Budd – 1978 – Obscure OBS-10
Obscure 4 names David Toop first on the cover, but his tracks occupy side two. Toop's tracks are incorrectly listed in backward order on both cover and label of Island and Polydor editions. The Virgin CD reissue retains the cover and label order, but adjusts the running order of the tracks on the disc itself to match. Obscure 7 names Simon Jeffes as the artist on the label only, on Island and Polydor editions.
- Ambient 1: Music for Airports – Brian Eno – 1978 – Ambient/Polydor/EG AMB-001
- Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror – Harold Budd, Brian Eno – 1980 – Editions EG EGAMB-002
- Ambient 3: Day of Radiance – Laraaji – 1980 – Editions EG EGAMB-003
- Ambient 4: On Land – Brian Eno – 1982 – Editions EG EGED-20
Releases and editions
The first seven albums were issued on the Obscure label in 1975 and 1976, manufactured and distributed in the UK by Island Records whose name appeared at the bottom of the label. These have a catalogue number expressed as "Obscure no. 1" through 7 on the covers, or "OBSCURE-1" etc. on the labels. All albums use the original, mostly black, cover art.
Only two of these albums were issued in the USA in the 1970s, on Antilles Records, a division of Island: album 3 as AN-7030, and album 5 as AN-7031. This edition of Obscure 3 uses new cover art.
In 1978, manufacture and distribution in the UK was resumed by Polydor Records who re-issued the first seven albums and three further volumes as OBS-1 through 10. These continued to use the original cover art. Polydor were able to obtain left-over covers made for Island Records, and issued their new editions of albums 1 through 7 with these covers marked as Island Records editions. Collectors seeking original editions are therefore advised that Island covers may contain Polydor manufactured records within. Later copies of albums 3, 4 and 7 with covers printed with Polydor markings and catalogue numbers have been confirmed. Record labels for the Polydor manufactured editions are similar to Island's, but do not mention Island or Polydor.
Also in 1978, Ambient 1 was issued. Originally intended as Obscure OBS-11, it came out instead as Ambient / Polydor / EG AMB-001. This record has a new label design for the Ambient series, but it was not used on subsequent volumes. An American edition was issued on PVC Records (distributed by Jem Records) as PVC-7908. This edition has a picture label that is taken from the cover art (a different label from the UK edition, although both are similar in appearance), and is therefore a custom label design. Passport Records in Canada copied the US design, rather than using the UK one.
The next two Ambient releases were issued by EG Records in 1980 in the UK as EGAMB-002 and 003. They were also issued in the USA (together with a re-issue of Ambient 1) as EGS-201 to 203. At the same time, Obscure 10 was issued in the USA as EGS-301, and Obscure 3 as EGS-303. All of these editions in both countries have white, non-picture "Editions EG" labels. Both USA re-issues of Obscure albums use alternate cover art, Obscure 3 being the same as the earlier USA edition, and Obscure 10 using a similar, matching layout. Editions EG was distributed by Polydor in the UK, and by Jem in the USA.
In 1982, EG Records re-issued all ten Obscure albums on their "Editions EG" label in the UK as EGED-21 through 30. Albums 3 and 10 use the alternate American cover art in these editions, and album 7 uses new cover art as well. At the same time, the Ambient series was re-issued in the UK with a fourth and final volume added, as EGED-17 to 20. The new volume was also issued in the USA with the same catalogue number, EGED-20.
No complete re-issue of the entire Obscure series has appeared since 1982. However, selected volumes have appeared individually from time to time. Albums 3 and 7 have been in print continuously, but are now regarded as parts of the regular catalogues of Brian Eno and the Penguin Café Orchestra, respectively. These two albums, along with all four volumes of the Ambient series, were first issued on CD in the 1980s on the Caroline Records label, which was the USA imprint of Virgin Records. The complete Ambient series is still in print, now on the Virgin label.