Originally intended to be the name of a single album and not an ongoing band, the Alan Parsons Project was a bold concession to early 70s art-rock and progressive rock, fusing the expansive (and often lengthy) compositions of such acts as Yes with the conceptual cohesion of Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer. And ironically, the idea behind the Project (for the purposes of that first album) was to dispense with the focus on the performers and place the emphasis entirely on the concept. Little did Parsons – whose experience had included engineering major hits with Pink Floyd, The Hollies and Paul McCartney – realize that the Project would become one of the most enduring lineups of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
The Project was the brainchild of Parsons – acting as producer and musician – and Eric Woolfson, a musician, songwriter and vocalist in his own right who was serving as Parsons’ manager in 1975. Woolfson and Parsons, with the help of orchestral arranger Andrew Powell (whose contributions to the Project would span the next two decades), devised a musical suite based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. With several solid rock songs, and almost half of the album written as a purely orchestral work, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe was quite unlike anything else. The Moody Blues, The Beatles and Electric Light Orchestra had fused classical instrumentation with rock numbers, but none of them had given virtually one entire side of an LP over to a session orchestra. The rock numbers were skillfully executed by members of Ambrosia and Pilot, whose most recent album Parsons had been involved with, including the amazing guitar virtuosity of Ian Bairnson, who would also stay with Parsons through the end of the Project’s existence and beyond.
Only one plan fell through in the making of Tales: actor Orson Welles had been tapped to read some of Poe’s prose, to be mixed into the album’s opening number as well as to narrate part of the orchestral suite. Parsons elected not to use the Welles narration, however, and the album now opened with a wordless instrumental, as did the suite on the LP’s second side. (The Welles material was eventually reinstated when Tales was remastered for CD release in 1987.)
Tales turned out to be a successful experiment in sales terms, at least in the UK; it did catch the ear of some listeners in the US, but the fashion there had turned from art-rock to stadium rock, disco and early punk acts. The Alan Parsons Project would always remain an odd curiosity with a loyal underground following in the US.
Parsons and Woolfson began work almost immediately on their next Project, which was intended to be a similar literary-musical survey of the works of Isaac Asimov. Instead, the idea gradually changed for various reasons, both conceptual and legal, though the second album (and its first track, a dreamy instrumental with a wordless female vocal soaring over a funky clavinet number) was titled I, Robot. By the time it was recorded, I, Robot had nothing to do with either Asimov or his writings, merely offering a somewhat dystopian future – or, as the publicity material at the time put it, “a look at tomorrow through the eyes of today.” I, Robot introduced Lenny Zakatek and Eric Woolfson as recurring vocalists, and continued the tradition of handing at least one number – usually orchestra-heavy – over to Andrew Powell.
The Project’s output continued consistently for the rest of the 1970s, with the underrated Eve offering a musical view of the battle between the sexes (complete with female guest vocalists alternating with the Project’s now-regular stable of male singers), and the superb Pyramid examining the themes of mortality and achieving immortality by what one leaves behind. 1980 saw the release of The Turn Of A Friendly Card, a concept album revolving around gambling and games of chance which also bore the Project’s first two major hit singles, “Time” and “Games People Play”. The success of Time, with Woolfson’s operatic lead vocal, led Arista – which had picked up the Alan Parsons Project’s albums starting with I, Robot – to “suggest” that Woolfson provide the lead vocals on more songs in the future. In 1981 he did so with the band’s next major single, Eye In The Sky (also the title track of the group’s sixth album, which reflected George Orwell’s 1984 strongly in theme if not in title). That album also yielded two surprising hit instrumentals, “Mammagamma” and “Sirius”, the latter of which is still used to introduce the Chicago Bulls basketball team to this day.
Arista’s “suggestion” for more Woolfson-led songs wasn’t the label’s only request. With the last two Project albums having spun off substantial hits, Arista wanted Parsons to get to work on his seventh project immediately. Exhausted from turning out an album a year for several years, Parsons and Woolfson responded to the label’s demands by turning in an album of instrumentals under the title of The Sicilian Defense. Arista rejected the album, repeating its insistence for more radio-friendly rock numbers with Woolfson vocals, and upon the rejection of that album, Parsons and Woolfson considered themselves released from the contract with Arista and began shopping around for a new label. Arista promptly filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for breach of contract, and much of 1981 going into 1982 was spent resolving the issue. The Sicilian Defense remains unreleased to this day (though it’s entirely possible that its instrumentals were subsumed into later albums (with or without lyrics added), but neither Parsons nor Woolfson has ever said anything about what was on the mystery album). The label’s demand for a new album in 1982 was, however, met by a Best Of collection featuring one new song, “You Don’t Believe”.
That song reappeared on the next album, 1983’s Ammonia Avenue, which was heavy on Woolfson vocals, as was 1984’s Vulture Culture. Both albums brought synthesizers and electronics to the fore, as well as saxophone. Vulture Culture, however, didn’t sell as many copies as Eye In The Sky or even Ammonia Avenue, and Stereotomy (1985) didn’t even fare that well. With sales dropping off, and newer stars like Whitney Houston rising in the label’s roster, Arista was now more than willing to give Parsons and his cohorts a rest. During this period, Parsons also produced Andrew Powell’s all-instrumental score to the movie Ladyhawke (which generated controversy for featuring contemporary, synth-heavy rock ‘n’ roll in a medieval setting), which was performed largely by the Project’s long-standing core musicians. Those musicians also got together and wrote songs for their own side project, the one-off Keats, which Parsons also produced. Sonically, the sound of Keats and the Alan Parsons Project were virtually indistinguishable, and the group only released a single album – but proving their songwriting chops would pay off in a few years.
1987 saw the release of Gaudi, an understated album concerning the life and goals of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, but what no one knew at the time was that it was officially the last Alan Parsons Project album. Following Gaudi, Woolfson began working on ideas for the next Project album, Freudiana. But having developed a fascination for stage musicals (and indeed, many a critic over the years had compared the Alan Parsons Project’s more grandiose songs to musical theater), Woolfson became interested in turning Freudiana into a theatrical piece. With several hits as both co-writer and vocalist to his credit, Woolfson didn’t take long to round up investors and artists interested in staging the production, and thus ended the Alan Parsons Project. Woolfson continues to create musicals, and has based several on Parsons albums and their themes, including Gaudi and The Turn Of A Friendly Card, and Freudiana – not attributed to the Project, but featuring the group’s stable of musicians, vocals by Woolfson and Parsons’ signature production style – was released in the UK and Europe only as a “studio cast” album (though none of the Project musicians ever appeared in a staged production of Freudiana).
With Woolfson having departed, Parsons decided to move onward, but without the “Project” name, as he felt that the band wouldn’t be the same without Woolfson’s compositions or vocals. It was 1993 before the group resurfaced, simply called Alan Parsons (which most of the public didn’t notice, as radio DJs had been dropping the “Project” for years for the sake of brevity). As with all of his previous albums, Parsons still didn’t sing lead vocals, only doing very sparing backing vocal duties when necessary and preferring to stay in the mixing booth. Most of the songs were written by the band members themselves, who had displayed their abilities on the Parsons-produced Keats album, and the result was the criminally underrated (and under-promoted) Try Anything Once. Though Parsons has said that he was too busy worrying about the music to dictate a cohesive theme to the songwriters, it nevertheless seemed to convey a message of taking a chance and doing or saying things that one might not do or say otherwise. Arista released the album, but the underwhelming sales (despite a brief swell of radio and music video channel support for the single “Turn It Up”) left Parsons without a label for his next album.
During the break between albums, Parsons and his band did something they hadn’t done since the promotional push for Tales in 1976: they mounted a world tour with a fan-pleasing cross-section of new material from Try Anything Once and all of their previous albums, even including Tales. Neil Lockwood joined the band on vocals at this point, having just left ELO Part II, and BMG briefly picked up Parsons and company for a live album chronicling the 1994 tour. (If nothing else, the live album is worth it for its rocked-out melding of two classic Project instrumentals, “Lucifer” and “Mammagamma”.) I got the chance to see the band when it toured again in 1996 in support of On Air, and the sound quality (to say nothing of the mind-blowing light show) was phenomenal.
In 1996, On Air, an album about the history, mythology and symbolism of flight, was released. Guitarist Ian Bairnson led the effort to return to a concept album, the centerpiece of which was his ballad “Brother Up In Heaven”, about a cousin of Bairnson’s who was killed by friendly fire during multi-national patrols over Iraq’s no-fly zones in the years following the first Persian Gulf War. The album spread its wings to cover everything from the myth of Daedalus and Icarus to the space age, with one song sung by Christopher Cross and another, a lengthy instrumental called “Apollo”, weaving John F. Kennedy’s moonshot directive into a jamming techno piece. Ambitiously packed in with a CD-ROM reflecting the album’s theme and featuring educational material and some simple games, On Air was released by Parsons’ own River North label. The perils of releasing an album on an indie label caught up with On Air, leaving it in cutout bins – and out in the cold when it came to radio airplay.
The Parsons story picked up again in 1999, with the release of The Time Machine. Originally devised as yet another literary homage, The Time Machine became an album about the idea of time travel, and featured some stellar guest vocalists like Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley and MaÃ¬re Brennan of Clannad. (Brennan in particular does the wistful vocals on a lovely song which is as close as anyone in the human race has ever come to writing an anthem for our entire species, “The Call Of The Wild”.) Through a series of coincidences, Parsons’ last album of the 20th century got a bit of a boost when the Alan Parsons Project was mentioned in a throwaway joke in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Parsons hastily got permission to do a remix of the album-opening title track featuring lines from the movie, and while The Time Machine benefitted from the cross-promotion, but flew under the radar of radio and retail when the US release was delayed until after the movie’s initial burst of publicity. Following The Time Machine, Bairnson, Powell and the other band members parted ways to work on their own projects.
Parsons began working intermittently on his next solo album, stepping firmly into an electronic vein – though the end product, 2004’s A Valid Path, wound up being not too different from some of the instrumentals from Time Machine and On Air, featuring writing, production, and instrumental collaborations with some of the better known artists in that genre. After nearly 30 years, Alan Parsons’ latest project was still riding the cutting edge, sounding fittingly futuristic.