There’s a reason why an over-40 viewer of Mike Myers’s 1999 Austin Powers sequel The Spy Who Shagged Me will likely guffaw when the hapless Dr. Evil names his moon-based “laser” “The Alan Parsons Project” – and why it’s just as likely that anyone under 30 will be quietly puzzled.
That’s because there was a time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Alan Parsons Project was at the zenith of the pop world, zinging off a string of ambitiously conceived and lushly recorded progressive rock concept albums that struck a chord with listeners for whom the likes of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a little too jarring. Call it progressive easy listening perhaps, but albums like 1977’s I, Robot (based on the work of sci-fi icon Isaac Asimov) and 1982’s landmark Eye in the Sky provided a warm, reassuring soundtrack for those who felt awash against the twin tsunami tides of new wave and disco.
And then, like the trajectory of most pop music outfits, by the late 1980s the group disbanded, its household name relegated to the classic rock radio bins of pop history and film farce punch lines. However, for Alan Parsons, the band’s namesake, the Project was just one phase in an illustrious career – as one of the music world’s top producer/engineers – that had already scaled musical heights before the band’s formation, and that continued to flourish after its demise.
As a young assistant studio engineer in the late 1960s, the teen-aged Parsons found himself manning the boards at the famed Abbey Road studios in his native London when a combo named The Beatles happened to be working on albums like Let It Be
and Abbey Road
(named after the studio).
“I was very green and very new to the recording process,” the 61-year-old Parsons recalled in a phone conversation with The Jerusalem Post
last week from his home in Santa Barbara, California.
“It was an apprenticeship, pretty much. I was the assistant engineer, and my main job was to push the ‘record’ button on the tape machine, and to know where the various songs were on the tapes when they say ‘go to the second verse.’ That’s more difficult than it sounds. We didn’t really have accurate counters, so you really had to know your stuff.”
“I never knowingly got any feedback, positive or negative, from The Beatles. Typically, the engineer was in the control room and kept his mouth shut, while The Beatles and George Martin were in charge. It wasn’t my place to talk or make suggestions.”
However, the young Parsons, who had grown up mastering the guitar, piano and flute, must have made some kind of impact on Paul McCartney, because when the ex-Beatle went solo with McCartney and Wings
’s Wild Life
and Red Rose Speedway
, Parsons was on board in the expanded role of full-fledged engineer.
AS HOUSE engineer at Abbey Road, Parsons went on to work with many more British artists, including The Hollies, for whom he engineered such hits as “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother” and “The Air That I Breathe.” But, undoubtedly, the early pinnacle of his career – one which earned him the first of many Grammy nominations – was his involvement in Pink Floyd’s legendary 1973 album Dark Side
of the Moon.
Parsons was responsible for much of the spacey, psychedelic aspects of the album, which included some of the first usages of tape loops, analogue synthesizers and spliced in speaking parts and sound effects. He also brought to the session’s female singer, Clare Torry, who contributed the memorable non-lexical vocal performance on “The Great Gig in the Sky.”
“I think everyone knew [‘Dark Side of the Moon’] was going to be a powerful work, but nobody could have predicted its impact,” Parsons said. “I know Roger [Waters] has said publicly that he was very confident that it would do well, but the group didn’t seem to be overly enthusiastic about it at the time.”
In the early 1970s, Parsons ventured into production, scoring hits with the British band Pilot and their song “Magic” (“Oh ho ho, it’s magic…”) and masterminding the career surge of singer/songwriter Al Stewart for three albums, including Year of the Cat
Parsons laughingly explained that his criteria for producing an artist was a simple one – “Am I going to get paid?” – before delving into the difficulties of working with sensitive artists.
“Sometimes it’s difficult in the early stages of working with somebody – you don’t know how it’s going to go. There may be moments when you think it’s not going to work; you think, ‘I’m not the right person to be working with this artist.’
“For other artists, working together is a pleasure, but there comes a time when you realize it’s time to move on, like with Al Stewart – we reached a point after three albums of saying, ‘that’s enough.’”
IT WAS around the time in the mid-1970s when Parsons was running from one production job to the other that he began toying with the idea of recording songs he had begun writing with a friend and colleague, songwriter and lyricist Eric Woolfson.
“It seemed like the logical next step. I had already written quite a few pop songs, but hadn’t had much success with them,” said Parsons. “Eric was the ideal partner for what became the Alan Parsons Project, because we shared similar sensibilities.”
Conceived as a free-flowing pool of musicians and singers, depending on the song and the mood, the group was a full-on studio creation, where Parsons and Woolfson could experiment and overdub to their hearts’ content.
The Project debuted in 1976 with Tales of Mystery and Imagination
, a collection inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and over the next decade regularly appeared on the charts and in both Top-40 and FM rock radio with precise, expansive albums like The Turn of a Friendly Card
and singles like “Time” and “Games People Play.”
One thing the band didn’t do, however, was tour. Ever. Much like The Beatles in their later years, Parsons and Woolfson were loath to attempt to replicate the complex instrumentation they were using in the studio
“We actually played one show – in Belgium, with a full orchestra. We just didn’t feel the need to recreate what we had done in the studio, but when we got a chance to play with an orchestra, it was a rare treat,” said Parsons.
BY THE late 1980s, Parsons and Woolfson had decided to go their separate ways, and as technology like digital samplers began to solve some of the problems of recreating the sound he was making in the studio, Parsons decided to begin taking the Project on the road, which he has done sporadically ever since, as the Alan Parsons Live Project. The revue will be making the first stop on a European and Asian tour in Tel Aviv on March 7 and 8 at Mann Auditorium.
“Interestingly, we have an Israeli band member – our bass player Guy Erez. He knows the place pretty well, so we’re counting on him to show us around,” said Parsons, referring to the producer and songwriter who has worked with Ryan Cabrera, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and produced Israeli rockers Missflag’s debut album To Infinity
For an artist who created some of the most pristine and studio-centric music of the late 20th century, Parsons didn’t have many compliments for the current state of the recording industry.
“I think today’s studio technology has made people lazy. For instance, you only need to sing a chorus once, then you can just tape it into the next chorus,” he said.
“I think that people play less interactively; there’s a tendency for people to play not as a band, but as individuals. There’s a click track, then you lay down a keyboard track, guitar part, vocals – all separate.”
That’s an interesting observation coming from someone whose name is synonymous with studio perfection and overdubs – the clear crisp production on the mega-hits of the Alan Parsons Project directly contributed to the rise of the punk do-it-yourself movement of the 1970s by young musicians who felt that rock had been commandeered by studio pros. But Parsons claimed that the music the Project made was more organic than most people realize.
“It’s always better to have people playing together. We always started with at least four people recording together, then we did overdubs. I found it much easier to sense what the arrangement should be by hearing that core band,” he said.
While Parsons is clearly the musical director of the Alan Parsons Live Project show, he takes a side role on stage, primarily strumming an acoustic guitar and overseeing things like a benevolent dictator. He’s content to let his featured musicians and vocalists take the spotlight, just like in the hit days of the Project.
Still, he doesn’t mind accolades once in a while, even when it’s in the form of the off-the-wall Austin Powers reference.
“It was a nice little boost to my career, sort of like a feather in my cap,” said Parsons.
“I wasn’t even aware of it. A friend of mine rang and said, ‘go see
this movie, you’ll understand why afterwards.’ I jumped out of my chair