The history of nearly every successful rock music professional can be traced back to that proverbial first big break—and the multi-platinum career of Alan Parsons is no exception. Unlike most, however, Par-sons’s golden opportunity had nothing to do with endless performances at dingy clubs nor recording contracts won or lost: it came when he landed a job as an assistant recording engineer at Abbey Road Studios in 1967. “I played lead guitar with a blues band during the blues boom of the late ’60s,” Parsons told Keyboard magazine. “I was just another guitar player trying to sound like Eric Clapton. But at the same time I was trying to get a job at Abbey Road. Eventually, Abbey Road became more important than trying to be a struggling musician.”
Under producer George Martin’s tutelage he worked with the Beatles on their albums Let it Be and Abbey Road. The recording and production techniques he learned from Martin and the Beatles would serve as the foundation for his later endeavors. “I was just an assistant who made tea and pushed buttons,” Parsons later explained. “But I did get to watch how he [Martin] works.”
After the Beatles went their separate ways, Parsons continued to engineer at Abbey Road, working with solo Beatle Paul McCartney on his albums Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway. In 1973, he had the opportunity to engineer Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for which he received a Grammy Award nomination. Par-sons’s work with Pink Floyd was a major landmark in his career, as it gave him the confidence he needed to become a producer in his own right. Following Dark Side of the Moon, he went on to produce albums for the Hollies, Al Stewart, Cockney Rebel, Pilot, and Olivia Newton-John, among others.
It was during this period that Parsons met future Project collaborator Eric Woolfson. Woolfson was working as a songwriter and producer at the time, but was so impressed with Parsons’s talents that he quickly signed on as his manager. After a few years of moderate success as a production team, the two decided to put together their own record based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, an idea Woolfson had been toying with for some time.
With Woolfson as lyricist collaborating with Parsons on the music, engineering, and production, the Alan Parsons Project’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was unveiled to the world in 1976 after nearly two years of effort. A major achievement—especially for a debut
For the Record…
Born in 1949 in England.
Recording engineer and producer, 1967—; with Eric Woolfson, formed the Alan Parsons Project, mid-1970s; released debut album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1976; signed with Arista Records, 1977; produced documentary London Calling, MTV; collaborated with Woolfson and Brian Brolly on Freudiana (stage production), 1989; recorded first solo album, Try Anything Once, 1993.
Addresses: Home —Sussex, England. Record company—Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
offering—Tales of Mystery and Imagination included the core of all future Project releases: a wide range of lead vocalists (including Woolfson); guitar- and keyboard-based songs with long, lushly orchestrated instrumental passages; a pervasive central theme; and, of course, immaculate production. It remains one of Parsons’s favorites.
“To me, Tales of Mystery represents everything that was right about what the Project was meant to be,” Parsons told Keyboard.”It took risks. It was experimental. It had some good songs. It had a good choice of vocalists and musicians. Everything about it was right. It did well, and it paved the way for the future.”
The Alan Parsons Project was soon after contracted to Arista and, with the release of I Robot in 1977, began a decade of surprising chart success—surprising for a band which never played live and whose principal members hardly appeared on the albums. The Project scored eight Top 40 singles—including “Games People Play,” “Don’t Answer Me,” “Time,” and “Eye in the Sky”—and seven Top 40 albums, as well as several Grammy nominations.
Unfortunately, this success was not without its negative side: Parsons and Woolfson began to feel that record company pressures were robbing them of artistic control. “We were manipulated into making music that was too commercial for what the Project originally set out to do,” Parsons told Keyboard.”It was not meant to be acommercial band. Itwasmeantto bea band that went in its own direction, not into a safe area as defined by the media or a record company, which is where we were in fact led.”
Added Woolfson : “We felt very much in tune with Arista when we started out with them in the days of I Robot. But I can’t pretend that we’re traveling along the same road these days. They don’t know how to promote quality product like us outside of hit singles, and that’s a problem for them and us. These sorts of problems will always exist between artists and record companies.” Indeed, disagreements between the Project and Arista resulted in several bitter contract disputes during the early and mid-1980s.
Despite the unexpected prosperity, Parsons continued to widen his musical breadth throughout the 1980s—both with the Project and on outside production jobs-while still managing to hang on to much of his original vision. The Project continued to feature a plethora of vocalists, including such notables as Terry Sylvester and Allan Clarke of the Hollies, Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, and Gary Brooker of Procul Harum. Each vocalist was carefully chosen according to his or her suitability for the material.
“I think artists have a problem when they make an album that has the same vocal sound throughout,” Parsons said in Billboard.”It’s hard for any listener to spend 40 minutes in the company of a single voice. That’s why compilation albums do so well: you get variety.” “Not having a fixed personality does mean listeners don’t immediately know ‘this is the Alan Parsons Project,’” Woolfson added. “But quality itself is a valuable market commodity.”
Their commitment to quality was undoubtedly responsible for much of the Project’s success, and a large part of this hinged on Parsons’s skill with the latest recording technology. His unrelenting efforts to achieve the perfect sound even forced him to try his hand at building his own equipment. When recording Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Parsons and Woolfson constructed a unique musical machine. Woolfson explained in Keyboard: “When we did Tales of Mystery and Imagination, there was no such thing as a sampling keyboard, but even then we wanted to take a lot of sounds that we had developed and turn them into full keyboard things. So we built an instrument called the Projectron, which was based on tape loops, more or less along the lines of the Mellotron. It was enormously complicated. Not being too technical, I have no idea how it actually worked. Equipment has since come along that can do in moments what it took us days, weeks, or months to do on the Projectron. But we were at least able to build up some sounds of our own.”
Unlike some, however, Parsons doesn’t believe that technology is the ultimate destination of recorded music. His aim of achieving the best possible sound drives him to do whatever is necessary for a particular song, whether it be the spontaneity of a rock band playing live in the studio, the studied expertise of a symphony orchestra and full choir, or the computerized overtones of a synthesizer. Parsons believes that focusing too much on the recording technology can produce a sterile result. “I think that great records come from great moments—not great equipment,” he told EQ.
The release of Gaudi in 1987 concluded the Project’s contractual obligations to Arista, and Parsons and Woolfson began to explore other artistic outlets. Among other things, Parsons directed the documentary London Calling for MTV; built a home studio he dubbed Parsonics; moved to the United States; decided he didn’t like it much and moved back to England; and lectured and wrote extensively on sound and recording techniques.
Woolfson became interested in musical theater, and collaborated with Parsons and Andrew Lloyd Weber associate Brian Brolly in creating the stage show Freudiana, which Variety described as “a highly theatrical evocation of the phobias and psychic archetypes identified with the godfather of psychoanalysis.” The well-received show ran in Vienna for more than a year.
Following Freudiana, Woolfson decided to further his interest in theatrical productions. Parsons, on the other hand, longed for the studio. In 1993, he recorded Try Anything Once at Parsonics as a “solo” album, which, in spite of past problems, was released by Arista. Try Anything Once contained all the trademark Parsons touches: long orchestral passages; melodic, elaborately arranged songs; and, naturally, a wide range of vocalists. As before, Parsons considered himself to be the musical analog of a film director. Like a director who doesn’t write the script or appear in the film, Parsons (for the most part) didn’t write the material or appear on the album, but was largely responsible for the artistic impact of the finished product.
Parsons has enjoyed “getting his hands dirty” once in a while, playing an occasional guitar or keyboard and contributing an odd vocal here and there. “Hitchcock liked to appear in his movies in a small cameo,” Woolfson explained in db. “Alan likes to do the same thing on his records, he always likes to do a little something.”
Try Anything Once did nothing to injure Parsons’s reputation as a creator of new sounds and novel production techniques—although the bottom line was, as always, making a good record. “I’m not really the best judge of whether we are innovative or not,” he explained in Melody Maker. “If I was to make the next album based around dustbin lids, then you could say it’s innovative. There are certain areas in contemporary pop which have been accepted and which people enjoy listening to and that’s all we’re trying to do. We’re trying to entertain people, give them what they want to hear. If, on the way, we can give them something that they haven’t heard before and they like it, that’s fine.”
Unfortunately, even after all this time Parsons still finds himself misunderstood by press and fans alike. “To this day, there are people who find it hard to accept that I’m not the singer,” he noted. “They’ll say to me, ‘You’ve got a really diverse style. How do you manage to sing in all those different voices?’”
Parsons’s recipe for the future calls for generous helpings of current trends and technologies blended with an undiminished sense of the importance of quality in sound and music. “The last thing I want to do is to grow old gracefully,” he told Keyboard.”I like to feel that we’re right in there competing with everybody else. It would be a disaster to fall into a middle market and become adult contemporary, when we should really be album-oriented. I would hate to be on the same program with Frank Sinatra and that type. I want to be thought of as someone whose music could be played on a current kids’ radio station at any time.”
(With Eric Woolfson) Freudiana (soundtrack), EMI, 1990.
Try Anything Once, Arista, 1993.
With the Alan Parsons Project
Tales of Mystery and Imagination, PolyGram, 1976, remastered with new performances, 1987.
/ Robot, Arista, 1977.
Pyramid, Arista, 1978.
Eve, Arista, 1979.
The Turn of a Friendly Card (includes “Games People Play” and “Time”), Arista, 1980.
Eye in the Sky (includes title track), Arista, 1982.
The Best of the Alan Parsons Project, Arista, 1983.
Ammonia A venue (includes “Don’t Answer Me”), Arista, 1984.
Vulture Culture, Arista, 1984.
Stereotomy, Arista, 1985.
Gaudi, Arista, 1987.
The Best of the Alan Parsons Project Volume 2, Arista, 1988.
Instrumental Works, Arista, 1988.
Anthology, Arista, 1991.
Billboard, March 15, 1986; November 13, 1993.
db, May/June 1986.
EQ, January 1994.
Keyboard, August 1986.
Melody Maker, July 10, 1976; July 30, 1977; July 15, 1978.
Stereo Review, October 1978.
Variety, January 7, 1991.
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