Alan Parsons was an assistant engineer for the Beatles' last two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, and in 1973 he engineered Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, thus lending his talents to three iconic albums that will be played as long as there are stars in the sky. An accomplished musician himself, Parsons wanted to do more than engineer and produce, he wanted to write and create - and so, in 1975, he joined forces with Eric Woolfson, and the Alan Parsons Project was born. This was unique in the music industry - because the focus was on the composition, production, and engineering, rather than the band. For each track, Parsons recruited local musicians that were appropriate for the song. You rarely hear the same lead singer twice. And yet, there is a consistent feel to all the albums, a common musical style. By analogy, you might recognize an Alfred Hitchcock film when you see it, even though the actors and actresses have, perhaps, never starred in a Hitchcock film before. The lighting, the dialog, the suspense - it just has to be Hitchcock. So it is with Parsons' music.
The Project comprises a dozen studio albums from 1975 to 1990, along with some compilations and live albums, and further releases by Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson on their own. These albums attained modest commercial success, with approximately one song per album making the radio. This did not constitute enthusiastic support by the music industry. Stations promoted a few songs that were deemed commercial, but only sporadically. Today, some 35 years later, you can listen to the radio for a week without hearing one Parsons cut, and that's a shame.
The first 6 albums are on my "must have" list, but I'm afraid the subsequent albums did not peak my interest. For what it's worth, the public seems to agree with me, as record sales declined. Perhaps they ran out of steam, or perhaps Ammonia Avenue marks a transition in their musical style. In any case, I just couldn't grok the fullness of their later releases. This is subjective of course, but hey, it's my article. if you haven't heard The Alan Parsons Project before, I recommend 1, 2, 3, or 5, as per the list below. I think you'll like them.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination - 1976
This album is as original as The Project itself. Each song recapitulates a story or poem from Edgar Allan Poe. The first voice you hear is none other than Orsen Wells, as he recites the words to A Dream Within a Dream. This is followed by The Raven, Poe's best known poem. Parsons used the digital vocoder to great effect. "To my amazement, there stood a raven, whose shadow hung upon my door." [listen] Other tracks include The Telltale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Fall of the House of Usher. For some, side B is anticlimactic, as it is almost all instrumental. My friend remarked, "If side B was like side A, this would be my favorite Parsons album hands down." Well - even if all you got was side A, it would be worth it.
I Robot - 1977
This is a tribute to Isaac Asimov's Robot Trilogy, with undertones of science fiction and artificial intelligence. From the third track: "Could it be that somebody else is looking into my mind? Some other place, somewhere, some other time." The fourth track, Breakdown, made the radio. [listen]
Pyramid - 1978
This is a concept album based on the pyramids of Giza, and questions of mortality and eternity. "What goes up, must come down. … If all things must fall, why build a miracle at all. … If all things must pass, even a pyramid won't last." This album did not receive a lot of air play, and I don't understand why, because it is my favorite Parsons album. If you are looking to test the waters, this is a good one to buy.
Eve - 1979
This album is a bit more commercial, 8 songs about love and relationships, primarily from a woman's point of view, with a couple instrumentals thrown in for good measure. Damned if I Do reached the top 30 in the U.S. [listen]
The Turn of a Friendly Card - 1980
As you might imagine, this album centers on gambling. "The game never ends when your whole world depends on the turn of a friendly card." It produced two hits, Time, sung by Eric Woolfson himself, [listen], and Games People Play. This is my wife's favorite Parsons album. In fact she doesn't have much interest in the others, but she really likes this one, especially the title track, which never made the radio.
Eye in the Sky - 1982
Eric Woolfson steps up to the microphone once again for the title track, which was another hit for The Project. [listen] The lead instrumental, Sirius, was also a hit, and has been adopted by many college and pro teams, including the Chicago bulls from the 1990's to the present.
For many bands, an instrumental is just filler. They have a deadline to meet, and no more songs in the pipeline. Not so for Parsons. His instrumentals are musically interesting, and diverse one to another. These are not just an after thought. In fact, they were released in one compilation album in 1988. This is nice background music, when you're trying to concentrate on something else.
Some of the singers are well known, but perhaps not recognized out of context. Examples include Chris Rainbow, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), and Colin Blunstone (The Zombies). You might not think you know The Zombies, but you do: Time of the Season, She's Not There, and others. Blunstone sings The Eagle Will Rise Again (from Pyramid), and Old and Wise (from Eye in the Sky). It's fun to hear different singers on The Project, like watching the guest stars on The Twilight Zone.
I will close with The Time Machine, an album by Alan Parsons after he left The Alan Parsons Project. Like most of his albums, he leads off with a great instrumental. [listen] Unless I'm reading it wrong, or there is a typo, this is SERIOUSLY overpriced at Amazon.com - so buy it used, or from some other source. To be honest, I wasn't that impressed upon first listen, but after a few plays I realized there are several pearls here, and now it sits happily on my shelf next to albums 1 through 6.