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Alan Parsons

+ {The Alan Parsons Project} + {Freudiana}

The first signs that prog-rock was switching down a gear into contemporary prog-pop was with The ALAN PARSONS PROJECT, who debuted in 1976 with an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired work. Although arty and conceptually transfixed, the former producer to the stars and his Scottish-born manager-cum-co-composer/multi-instrumentalist, ERIC WOOLFSON, subsequently built (and basically directed) a stellar cast of revolving-door studio musicians, lead singers, chorales and orchestras to serve as rooks, knights, bishops and pawns et al, in his game of musical chess.
Born 20 December 1948, London, England, Alan left school to almost immediately grab a position as an assistant engineer at the Abbey Road Studios; subsequently working on The BEATLES’ `Abbey Road’ LP, in 1969, before taking on the enviable task of widening his pop/rock horizons with PAUL McCARTNEY & WINGS on both `Wild Life’ and `Red Rose Speedway’. Having also functioned well with PINK FLOYD on 1970’s chart-topping `Atom Heart Mother’, PARSONS was the first choice to engineer the ground-breaking sonic aspect of the Grammy-nominated `The Dark Side Of The Moon’ (1973). While duly contributing greatly to respective albums by The HOLLIES, STEVE HARLEY & COCKNEY REBEL, PILOT, AMBROSIA and `Year Of The Cat’ by AL STEWART, PARSONS turned down an invitation to apply his skills on Floyd’s `Wish You Were Here’, instead choosing to form a liaison and working partnership with the aforementioned Woolfson – The ALAN PARSONS PROJECT was borne in 1975.
Intended as a one-off venture, the gothic TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION {*9} was released in summer 1976 by Charisma Records, the concept piece weaving its word-of-mouth way into the lower echelons of the British charts and surprisingly hitting the US Top 40; they’d inked a short-term deal at 20th Century. Introducing the set with an instrumental, `A Dream Within A Dream’ (a narrative by the great Orson Welles was added to the 1987 re-mix), and on to the vocoder-inflected `The Raven’, the aviation process was hand-started by musicians from Scots pop outfit PILOT: Ian Bairnson (guitars), David Paton (bass) and Stuart Tosh (drums). The screamin’ world of ARTHUR BROWN (of hell, “Fire” and brimstone fame) dazzled on `The Tell-Tale Heart’, whilst other notable lead singers such as JOHN MILES (with Terry Sylvester and Jack Harris, in turn) featured on `The Cask Of Amontillado’ and the US-only hit `(The System Of) Dr. Tarr And Professor Fether’. However, the highlight was APP’s cinematic elements which burst through on the 16-minute classical suite of `The Fall Of The House Of Usher’, an epic full of spine-tingling build-ups and crescendos; the addendum climax arriving in the Terry Sylvester-sung, `To One In Paradise’.
Soon afterwards, the fully-functioning ALAN PARSONS PROJECT (with Duncan Mackay added on extra keys), signed a fresh contract with Arista Records, issuing the more conventionally accessible US Top 10 set, I ROBOT (1977) {*8}, based on sci-fi scribe’s Isaac Asimov’s trilogy of the same name. Interspersed by vocal cues from GONZALEZ’s Lenny Zakatek (on the FM/funk-strewn hit, `I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You’), Peter Straker & Jaki Whitren (on `Some Other Time’), ALLAN CLARKE (on `Breakdown’) and Dave Townsend (on `Don’t Let It Show’), there was a definite pop motif to side one. On the flip-side, but just as commercially-motivated, Cockney rebel STEVE HARLEY exercised his loopy larynx on `The Voice’, whilst three cosmos-drifting instrumentals (`Nucleus’, `Total Eclipse’ and `Genesis Ch.1. V.32’) created a magic carpet ride for the soft-rock, Jack Harris-sung `Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)’.
Maintaining their Top 30 status in the US (in Britain, lesser so), 1978’s PYRAMID {*7} – concerning man’s obsession with power via the pyramids of Giza – half a dozen vocalists were on show to complement some enlightening vocal pieces; namely minor hit `What Goes Up’ (lead by David Paton and ex-MARMALADE’s Dean Ford), `The Eagle Will Rise Again’ (introducing COLIN BLUNSTONE), `Shadow Of A Lonely Man’ (with JOHN MILES and Colin), `One More River’ (with Zakatek), `Pyramania’ (with Harris) and `Can’t Take It With You’ (with Ford); Tosh’s berth was filled by Stuart Elliott (ex-STEVE HARLEY & COCKNEY REBEL).
If fans were beginning to think than APP was slightly Caledonian-friendly in its personnel approach, then the introduction of solo artist CHRIS RAINBOW (on `Winding Me Up’ and harmony on `Secret Garden’) for 1979’s EVE {*6}, should’ve convinced them that Woolfson had as much say on the casting as PARSONS. But then again, Zakatek was the man behind the Top 30, `Damned If I Do’ (and also `You Lie Down With Dogs’), whilst Paton and Dave Townsend respectively, pulled out the stops on `I’d Rather Be A Man’ and `You Won’t Be There’. For the first time fully, female leads were chosen, as documented on `Don’t Hold Back’ (with Clare Tory) and the concluding piece, `If I Could Change Your Mind’ (highlighting the wonderful LESLEY DUNCAN).
Now with Rainbow, Zakatek, newcomer Elmer Gantry and Woolfson, himself, on the bulk of the songs on the addictive THE TURN OF A FRIENDLY CARD (1980) {*7} – Lenny on `Games People Play’ and Eric on `Time’ (both US Top 20 entries also) – The ALAN PARSONS PROJECT had gambled on winning over some fresh punters. Returning to the prog-length suite theme on the 5-piece title track (on the back of a MORRICONE-esque `The Gold Bug’ episode), their unique concepts were finding listeners Stateside.
1982’s EYE IN THE SKY {*8} featured the usual suspects on several songs, with only a couple of instrumentals (`Sirius’ and `Mammagamma’) balancing out his biggest hit by far, that of the Woolfson-voxed Top 3 title track. The concept of the “Big Brother” ideology rather than we’re all being watched one way or t‘other, maybe the clues were in `Children Of The Moon’, the 10CC-like `Gemini’ and BLUNSTONE’s pastoral finale, `Old And Wise’.
On the back of THE BEST OF THE ALAN PARSONS PROJECT {*7} compilation CD, released the previous year (short of tracks from their debut), seventh studio set AMMONIA AVENUE (1984) {*6} didn’t quite live up to standards solidified on albums 1-6. Running out of fresh concepts to undertake, APP’s focus was now to challenge the public’s misapprehension of the scientific and modern industrial age. Choosing Woolfson’s vocal contributions, `Don’t Answer Me’ (#15) and `Prime Time’ (#34) for single fodder, over that of Zakatek, Blunstone and Rainbow, the prog-rock motif was somewhat lost in the polished, HALL & OATES-esque pop.
Utilising the lead vocals of Paton once again on modest hit, `Let’s Talk About Me’, the transatlantic Top 50 VULTURE CULTURE (1985) {*4}, brought its own share of doubters from the preying critics. Symbolising greed and the dog-eat-dog nature of the world, there was a sense the combo were marking their own time in `Days Are Numbered (The Traveller)’ (lead vox by Rainbow), `Sooner Or Later’ (Woolfson) and `Somebody Out There’ (Blunstone).
Swapping BLUNSTONE for JOHN MILES (on the title track and `In The Real World’), GARY BROOKER (on `Limelight’) and SCARLET PARTY’s Graham and Steven Dye on `Light Of The World’), 1986’s STEREOTOMY {*2} underachieved in its metaphorical ambition – Edgar Allan Poe-like – to splice men into solid shapes according to social and class demands. No matter the cut of one’s jib, the album was in a word… shite – arena-rock played in the studio for librarians and liberals.
Adding Laurie Cottle (bass), Richard Cottle (saxophone, synthesizers) and singer Geoff Barradale (not Brooker) to supplement Woolfson, Zakatek, Rainbow and Miles, APP drew up plans to end their 11-year tenure by way of GAUDI (1987) {*4}. An homage to Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, but running over similar paths, the tinny-80s production was highlighted on everything from the opening 8 minutes of `La Sagrada Familia’ to the closing Flamenco reels of `Paseo de Gracia’.
This poor effort seemed to be a major setback for the APP team, who remained absent from the music scene for the ensuing three years, until the eponymous/pseudonymous FREUDIANA (1990) {*7}. A rock opera dealing with the life and psychological case studies of Sigmund Freud, only acolytes of PARSONS’ and WOOLFSON’s conceptual journeys through space and time, realised its connections. Starring stalwarts CHRIS RAINBOW (on `Destiny’), Graham Dye (`Little Hans’) and JOHN MILES (on finale piece `There But For The Grace Of God’), plus ERIC STEWART (`Upper Me’ and `The Ring’), KIKI DEE (`You’re On Your Own’), LEO SAYER (`I Am A Mirror’), Marti Webb (`Don’t Let The Moment Pass’), The FLYING PICKETS (`Funny You Should Say That’ and `Far Away From Home’) and phew!… comic actor Frankie Howerd (on `Sects Therapy’) – others by Woolfson – its 75 minutes well worthy of inspection from all and sundry.
Back in a solo capacity, although Bairnson (upgraded to co-composer), Elliott and R. Cottle were still part of ALAN PARSONS’ solo set up for TRY ANYTHING ONCE (1993) {*6}, the angle was of mood, not of conceptual ritual, despite hovering around religion and the afterlife. Stuck in the 80s, hence its lowly peak position of #122, its character was in the retro/soft-prog aspects of singers Chris Thompson (from MANFRED MANN’S EARTH BAND), David Pack (from AMBROSIA) and Jacqui Copland, to administer their two-pennorth by way of several vocal tracks; `Wine From The Water’ and `Siren Song’ (featuring steadfast ERIC STEWART) the pick of the bunch.
Duly pitching an album title that suggested some distant BBC recording, 1996’s ON AIR {*6} was clearly not such a set. A concept centring on the studio boffin’s preoccupation with flight, with respective vocal cameos from CHRISTOPHER CROSS, ERIC STEWART, Graham Dye, Steve Overland (of FM) and newcomer Neil Lockwood, tracks such as `Too Close To The Sun’, `So Far Away’ and others, gelled for the most part. An orchestra arranged and conducted by Andrew Powell, track 6 `Brother Up In Heaven’ was dedicated to the recent passing of Erik Mounsey, while world champion skysurfer Rob Harris was the thinking behind track 7, `Fall Free’; the voice on the follow-on piece, `Apollo’, was of course, J.F. Kennedy.
A more illustrious array of guest singers graced THE TIME MACHINE (1999) {*5}, with the likes of Tony Hadley of SPANDAU BALLET (on `Out Of The Blue’), BEVERLEY CRAVEN (on `The Very Last Time’) and MAIRE BRENNAN (on `The Call Of The Wild’) adding lustre to the album’s existentialist themes and abstract, electronically-influenced textures; Dye, Lockwood and BLUNSTONE shared the remainder of vocal cues, whilst Bairnson and Elliott supplied individual pieces that begged the question why this was not a bona fide APP album.
Fast-forward five years, 2004’s A VALID PATH {*5} once again ran the risk of sounding too formulaic, albeit with intangible studio guests from The CRYSTAL METHOD (Scott Kirkland and Ken D. Jordan), his guitarist son Jeremy Parsons and DAVID GILMOUR (on `Return To Tunguska’), to P.J. Olsson, Simon Posford, Nortec Collective and even actor John Cleese; the reprise of `A Recurring Dream Within A Dream’ (featuring the voice of Orson Welles) was a nice touch.
Since the death (on 2 December 2009) of old mucker ERIC WOOLFSON, only ALAN PARSONS’ solo-billed concert sets have hit the market. For a decade past, he’d toured sporadically with Olsson and others at his side, so with EYE 2 EYE: LIVE IN MADRID (2010) {*6} – recorded at the Plaza Mayor on 14 May 2004 – and ALAN PARSONS LIVESPAN (2013) {*6} – cut at Beethoven Halle Stuttgart, Germany, 24 March 2013 – fans were able to at last taste the APP’s greatest hits and more out in open play.
2019’s long-awaited studio reappearance, THE SECRET {*6}, was just as one would expect from a fading septuagenarian star who’d always stuck by safe symphonic soft-rock. Indeed, the “solo” ALAN PARSONS never ventured far from his trademark late-70s/early 80s “project” formula. The set promised much as it kicked in with its opening grandiose Paul Dukas move, `The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (starring the guitar work of STEVE HACKETT), but it was in AP’s vocal appointments that had reviewers at odds. The breezy AOR vocal touches from JASON MRAZ (on `Miracle’) was such misnomer, while the showcase for the relatively unknown Todd Cooper (on no less that three cuts: `One Note Symphony’ `Requiem’ and the dual `Soiree Fantastique’) was beyond baffling. Long absent from his time as lead singer of ill-fated power-poppers, The Pillbugs, Mark Mikel was handed the reins for the set’s best showing, `Fly To Me’ (very BEATLES), while FOREIGNER fave Lou Gramm soared high on `Sometimes’. However, the whole concept seemed stilted and stale.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2016-Jun2019

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