[3 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Alan Parsons Project is an interesting anomaly in pop culture history. The outfit is an anomaly because it was a sort of progressive rock band or art rock band that made concept albums chiefly during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a time when most dinosaur rock bands of similar ilk were either adapting to new sounds (Rush, Genesis) or were going the way of the dodo (Emerson, Lake & Palmer). What’s more, the Alan Parsons Project actually had hits, ranging from “Damned If I Do” to “Games People Play” to “Eye in the Sky” to the divine Phil Spector-influenced “Don’t Answer Me”. Part of the reason the Alan Parsons Project was so radio friendly was because it really was a wolf in a soft-rock band’s clothing along the lines of an Air Supply. As such, the band (if you can call them that as they didn’t tour during their heyday and used session musicians) is sort of looked at with some derision today: the Alan Parsons Project was used as a punchline in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and much of their 10 album discography can be obtained by scouring vinyl buck bins in used record stores. (To wit, my vinyl copies of 1983’s The Best of the Alan Parsons Project and 1984’s Ammonia Avenue set me back 50 cents each.) In the liner notes to this “Legacy Edition” reissue of the 1977 sophomore LP, I Robot, Parsons is incredulous that his group was the only rock band on Arista Records at the time (a claim that isn’t exactly true as the Dwight Twilley Band was signed to the label around the same period, and there are probably other examples), and he was rubbing shoulders with the likes of fellow label mates Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston at industry functions. That isn’t so amazing when you think about it, for the Alan Parsons Project wasn’t, at times, too far removed from the easy going sounds of Manilow or Houston.
It may be an era for an Alan Parsons Project revival, however, with the re-release of I Robot here (and there’s also a new Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab limited edition that’s out there, which is just another repackaging of the LP since a 2007 remastered disc), and news that early 2014 will bring a box set titled The Alan Parsons Project Complete Album Collection, which will group all of the band’s albums together along with an unreleased disc called The Sicilian Defence, which was supposed to be the outfit’s fourth album for Arista somewhere around 1979 or 1980. Current day groups such as Muse have arguably been taking cues from Alan Parsons as well, in addition to the fact that I Robot single “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” has recently shown up in the video game Grand Theft Auto V. But there’s another reason why one should look back at the Alan Parsons Project: I can’t think of another example where a noted engineer and producer became a household name in his or her own right as a recording superstar. However, Alan Parsons already had a lot to his name before meeting up with the late Eric Woolfson (he died in 2009 of kidney cancer) and asking him to manage his career as a producer; Parsons had engineered the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be albums as well as, perhaps more famously, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and was working as a producer for a wide range of acts such as Pilot (who have a great ‘70s hit in “Magic”), Al Stewart and Ambrosia. Before long, Woolfson, who was the Alan Parsons Project’s principle lyricist and songwriter, and Parsons were making music and albums together, at first based on the works of other writers. The group’s 1976 debut Tales of Mystery and Imagination was focused on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and, for a follow-up, the duo turned their attention to science-fiction author Isaac Asimov’s 1950 book of short stories, I, Robot. Although Asimov was encouraging of the project, the book was already optioned to a film and television company, so Woolfson had to fudge the concept a little by making a set of songs that was more generally about the relationship between man and machine, and, though the group used the title of Asimov’s book, they had to drop the comma for copyright reasons. And, thus, I Robot was born. While Tales of Mystery and Imagination had been a modest hit, I Robot would eventually go platinum by 1978, and might have benefited from being released just weeks after the first Star Wars movie opened in theatres, which, of course, whetted the public’s imagination for all things involving robots.
The remastering job on this version of I Robot, overseen by Parsons and Woolfson’s daughter, Sally, is, in a word, phenomenal. It is crisp and clear, with music that just pops out of your speakers, and there is nary any trace of tape hiss or other signifiers of a record that came out of the late ‘70s. Forget about bringing that other noted 1977 release (cough, cough, Steely Dan’s Aja) with you when you’re shopping for a new stereo system: I Robot is just equally as good in terms of a crystalline sound that is virtually flawless. But does the album itself hold up some 36 years later? Well, yes. And no. It has all the hallmarks and indulgences of both progressive rock and Top 40 pop music of the era, and can be quite cornball at times. But that also makes the record rather fun. For instance, if you were to listen to the album’s third track, “Some Other Time”, you might just think that it’s a singular vocalist performing the duties. Wrong. It’s actually the marriage of a male vocalist singing the verses and a female vocalist doing the choruses, and you’d never be able to really tell the difference if you weren’t listening carefully and knew of the history behind the record’s production. That just speaks to the mastery of Parsons as a recording engineer and producer, showcasing something of a perfectionist streak. What’s more, the album as a whole is an interesting amalgamation of art rock, disco, jazz and classical influences, and offers a great deal of sonic wonderment, from the opening funky instrumental track “I Robot”, which shares some similarities to Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” from Dark Side of the Moon, in that a female soprano vocalist sings over part of the track. “Nucleus”, meanwhile, is a picturesque piece of analog keyboards, the ones used here were a precursor to the digital samplers of the ‘80s, washing chords over each other as though waves were crashing down on a beach. “Total Eclipse” is absolutely frightful, with a choir employed to create a stark effect that feels more lifted out of The Exorcist than science-fiction. And singles “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”, with its pseudo-disco riffs, and the soft, soaring ballad “Don’t Let It Show”, later covered by Pat Benatar, are effective, even if they are somewhat dated.
What makes I Robot so interesting is that it shows that the Alan Parsons Project didn’t have the same limitations as a standard rock band. If Woolfson didn’t feel up to singing lead on a particular track, and he didn’t until 1980’s The Turn of a Friendly Card, the duo could just bring in a guest vocalist…or 10. Instead of employing a stable band of musicians, the group could swap people in and out of the line-up, though most of the members of Pilot are employed as a backing band on this recording. And if a track was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, a choir could easily and effectively be brought in to provide overdubs. This aspect of the outfit is given full flower on the bonus disc of material, which really acts as an audio documentary of the making of the album by isolating elements of certain tracks. We hear Hilary Western rehearsing her vocals for “I Robot” and expressing doubts over her performance. We hear the choir used (quite laughably, as it sounds like a chorus of dwarves out of Lord of the Rings) on “Breakdown”. We hear the complete female vocal of Jaki Whitren on “Some Other Time”, and come to understand why Parsons jettisoned her singing on the verses as it’s quite weak. And we also hear “The Naked Robot”, a 10-and-a-half minute suite of early mixes that stitches together some of the album’s instrumentals (“I Robot”, “Nucleus” and “Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32”) and suggests that the album could have taken an entirely different and more heavily progressive tact. Granted, there isn’t really full-fledged material on these demos, which may disappoint some looking for bonus “songs” that were in a state of completion, but this disc is effective as a whole as a “behind the scenes” taster of I Robot that provides a great deal of studio-based insight. There’s even the presence of a US radio commercial promoting the record that is humorous in its hyperbole: “It takes a special kind of genius that can make music that you can see! A rock masterpiece in colours you’ve never heard before!”
Today, I Robot is indeed generally seen as the Alan Parsons Project’s masterpiece – it is the album recommended as essential listening by Allmusic.com, for one – and, unlike many other records of the era, it is notable that even though there are campy elements to the music if you’re looking back on it with modern glasses, the album as a whole is played dead serious. That fact alone elevates I Robot into the pantheon of great art rock records. While die-hard Parsons fans may want to wait until the aforementioned box set is released, as I Robot will be included on it, for those who are actually curious about the producer and what he brought to the table, this would be an effective starting place. (Though, truth be told, you could probably subsist yourself on various ‘best of’ compilations that are out there, and there was one just released in May of 2013.) While the Alan Parsons Project might be best known for being the name of Dr. Evil’s laser to most of a certain age, I Robot proves that the outfit was no joke, and took a very serious approach, if not to songcraft, than the actual cobbling together of albums that pretty much feel like true long-players, start to finish. There’s some great, if hokey, material to be had on I Robot, and yet it is also hugely entertaining and a must have for geeks interested in the late ‘70s sci-fi landscape. Will there be a renaissance for this kind of music? Highly unlikely. Still, I Robot offers a glimpse inside two musical geniuses’ attention to detail, and is a rewarding listen for those running out of Genesis, Jethro Tull and Rush albums to buy.