Most people of my generation — whatever we’re called — hear the name the Alan Parsons Project and immediately think of Austin Powers. I think of taking baths when I was seven.
The Alan Parsons Project is among the few bands that I associate with my childhood, and with the period prior to when I started really getting interested in music other than what my parents were listening to. I delved into the Project for a time in my early teens, but outside of a few songs, I haven’t really listened to them in almost 15 years. So the recent reissue of six of their albums has provided an amazing opportunity to get reacquainted with some music that’s practically a part of my DNA.
A bit of background on Mr. Parsons and his eponymous Project, because it’s extremely relevant in terms of how the group would come to function: Parsons, as is well known, worked on the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which would have been enough of a legacy for most of his peers. But he teamed up in the mid ’70s with Eric Woolfson, a successful pop songwriter, and the duo wound up releasing 10 concept albums of meticulously crafted progressive art-rock. Most of these records were commercially successful, and the Project were able to maintain a consistent sound despite the unconventional structure of the group.
Unlike most popular bands, the Project were not a touring act, and their leader was primarily a producer/engineer. The core band for much of the Project’s history was made up of guitarist Ian Bairnson and bassist David Paton, both of Pilot, and Cockney Rebel drummer David Elliott. (These players also provided the backbone for Kate Bush’s brilliant early work, a bit of trivia that I’m not exactly sure how to handle.) And what really set the Project apart was their use of a rotating cast of vocalists, with second-tier pop stars like Colin Blunstone, Allan Clarke and Gary Brooker contributing over the years, along with several lesser-known singers, including chief songwriter Woolfson.
From the Beatles, the Project took a desire to be both experimental and popular; from Pink Floyd, an occasionally outer-space feel, a propensity for high-mindedness and instrumentals, and an obsession with obscuring dreary subject matter with pretty melodies; and from Woolfson’s tenure as a songwriter, a system that allowed the creators to be mostly faceless and behind the scenes. It proved to be a workable combination, even if the resulting music had zero sense of humor or soul, and pretty much lacked any trace of personality.
After debuting with albums based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Isaac Asimov, the Project turned to a somewhat less enduring literary source, G. Patrick Flanagan’s Pyramid Power, for inspiration for their third album. Pyramid is an aurally stunning but meandering song suite and hasn’t aged all that well, criticisms (plus one compliment) that could be levied at much of the Alan Parsons Project’s output. In 1979, the less thematically-inclined Eve — allegedly about “the feminine psyche,” as though that subject had never been probed in pop music before — was tighter and produced a better batch of songs. The Turn of a Friendly Card and especially Eye in the Sky (the Project’s most commercially successful album, and already reissued a few years ago) were their strongest records conceptually, and achieved a near-perfect balance of ideas and good songs. 1984’s Ammonia Avenue was a radio-friendly not-quite-masterpiece, not tethered to a strict conceptual albatross, and the least pretentious album the Project ever made. But it was all downhill from there, as the wretched Vulture Culture led to the Project’s final years and the albums Stereotomy and Gaudi, on which the group sounds like post-Peter Gabriel Genesis in all the worst ways.
At the peak of their game, though, the Alan Parsons Project were serious hit-makers, particularly in the United States (“Eye in the Sky”, “Time”, “Games People Play”, “Don’t Answer Me”). Although theirs were perfect examples of albums that were intended to be heard in their entirety, what holds up best are the singles, which, unchained from their conceptual prisons, are some of the crucial records of their time.
When I describe the Project’s albums as conceptual prisons, I don’t think I’m being overly negative. There is little joy to be found in the lyrics of these songs, because all of the records are about conflict, about being stuck in situations where you have to make a decision: “I’m so afraid of being on my own / But I don’t wanna go home”; “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t / But I love you”; “When you can’t hear the rhyme / And you can’t see the reason / Why should the hope remain”; “Don’t wanna live my life in the real world”; “There’s evil brewing / Getting out of control / And I’m helpless / I can’t put it right”. The world is nasty, people deceive and argue with each other, and we’re all powerless because everything’s controlled by something Up There, or by technology, or by the demons we have inside ourselves. Why should the hope remain?
It doesn’t help that the conclusion Parsons, et al seem to come to is that any decision we make is basically doomed. The Turn of a Friendly Card, which is overtly about gambling, but almost as easy to read as being about a romantic relationship in decline, seems to sum up the Project’s worldview. From “Nothing Left to Lose”: “Nothing’s good, the news is bad… You fought so hard, you were a slave / After all you gave, there was nothing left to save.” Coming as it does near the end of the record, this resignation — even though it’s cloaked in acoustic guitar and Eagles-worthy harmonies — especially if you take it as seriously as the creators surely intended, isn’t likely to lift any spirits. The Project weren’t exactly a cheery bunch.
And yet it’s worthwhile to remember that a lot of people latched onto the Alan Parsons Project during their time. Perhaps something about the ’70s turning into the ’80s, the Reagan and Thatcher years, and the technological takeover of just about everything had people identifying with the lyrical themes and appreciating the craft that went into making the records. It couldn’t just be that the Project made catchy singles. Something else surely must’ve been going on to cause the music to have such resonance with so many people. But that popularity and enthusiasm has never seemed to extend to the critics.
We often find ourselves reading all kinds of biography into the lyrics of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and other critical darlings, often because they (the artists as well as the lyrics) truly are a cut above everyone else, and they transcend the medium in which they’re operating (pop music or whatever). Is this what’s stopped critics from probing the Project the same way? That they weren’t a cut above everyone else, and they didn’t transcend their medium? Being on the radio shouldn’t negate the value of intelligent music, especially music that doesn’t seem to have been created solely for the purpose of making money or achieving fame and popularity for its creators. And the more I think about it, the more I think the Alan Parsons Project made highly intelligent music. It didn’t always work. Much of Eve, regardless of its catchiness, is too bitter for its own good (“You Lie Down With Dogs”, for example), and Gaudi proves that the only thing that could make the Project more soulless was recording digitally. But there were always ideas behind the music, and hell, you don’t find that just anywhere.
Allow me to throw out a little hypothesis related to the Project’s lyrical concerns with technology and the breakdown of interpersonal communication. I’d like to suggest that perhaps Parsons himself determined that his own mastery of the recording studio had a downside — a sterility and cleanness that didn’t necessarily reflect the chaos of the world outside — and his and Woolfson’s songs and concepts were an effort to work through his inner conflict. I suggest this at least partly because I’d like to think of there being some actual emotional underpinning to the Project’s music, rather than just a sea of zeros and ones dancing to the beat of a metronome. One advantage of thinking about the Alan Parsons Project’s lyrical themes as a byproduct of some kind of autobiographical tension is that it might make them seem less pretentious and more sincere. In many ways, their over-seriousness may very well be what stands in the way of my truly enjoying the music. Just making the effort to believe that there’s genuine emotion and feeling struggling to break through is enough to give me a little hope.
Honestly, I never expected to be thinking this much about the Alan Parsons Project, and I wonder if I’m being too charitable in even trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. But hey, history shows there’s a market for this stuff, and someone thought the Project deserved a fancy reissue program, so I can’t be alone here in thinking there’s gotta be something going on.
(A word or a hundred about the extras, because now seems to be a convenient time: The bonus material is perfect for huge fans, and illustrative of the Project’s studio technique, as well as just how reliant they were on technology. It’s not particularly special, for the most part; the Eric Woolfson guide vocals are probably the most historically interesting of the bonus tracks. The liner notes, however, are not very useful for anything, and paradoxically quite repetitive from album to album. In other words, unlike the bonus tracks, they aren’t fan-oriented at all. Naturally, the sound of these new CDs is perfect. Headphones really do this stuff justice.)
If there’s one Alan Parsons Project album in this batch of six that just plain works, independent of any over-arching big idea, it’s Ammonia Avenue. According to Parsons, “I really don’t think it’s a concept album. The title track has a doomy, end of the world, ecological ring to it but I don’t think the other tracks relate that well to it.” It’s always sort of funny when the artist can’t see his own strengths, as I think is the case here. Because Ammonia Avenue is a much more unified album, even without an intentional, hammer-you-over-the-head concept, than just about anything else the Project ever recorded. True, it’s not about robots or pyramids. But it is about something considerably more enduring and universal: isolation. Isolation that comes from technology and the disconnect between people and their environment, and even from that pop-lyric warhorse, the romantic break-up.
The optimism of “Prime Time” (“It’s gonna be my turn tonight”) quickly evaporates in “Let Me Go Home” (“I’ve had a bad night / Leave me alone”). “One Good Reason” returns to the theme of powerlessness rampant throughout The Turn of a Friendly Card, the narrator imploring someone to make his choices for him. Really, there’s a case to be made that many of Parsons’ favorite themes reappear on Ammonia Avenue, and in more fully realized form than when he first explored them, because the group wasn’t burdened by the need to stick to an outline or a thesis. “Since the Last Goodbye”, for example, could be the male’s-eye view of what Lesley Duncan sang about on “If I Could Change Your Mind”, all the way back on Eve, with “Since the last goodbye / It’s all the wrong way round” echoing “Can’t pretend it’s not been lonely since you went away”. And “Dancing on a Highwire” (“There used to be a lifeline / There isn’t anymore”) might relate to the Friendly Card theme of taking risks and eventually resigning yourself to the fact that most things just don’t work out.
Best of all, in what must be a rare case indeed, the unintentional themes of Ammonia Avenue are best expressed in the record’s hit single, “Don’t Answer Me”. A great Phil Spector clone, complete with saxophone and echoey drums, “Don’t Answer Me” seems clearly to be sung to a lover with whom the narrator has had a conflict. “Stay on your island / Don’t let me in / Run away and hide from everyone / Can you change the things we’ve said and done?”, certainly brings isolation and unwillingness to work things out, as well as an utter lack of control, to the forefront of the song. Since these were ideas the Project explored throughout their career, not only does “Don’t Answer Me” anchor Ammonia Avenue, but it also synthesizes a myriad of themes from the group’s oeuvre into one dynamite pop song. It’s a glorious four minutes.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Project one of the great bands of their day. Their albums are decidedly hit or miss, they were barely prone to stylistic change, and there’s an antiseptic quality to much of their work that makes them seem a little too detached. But their best moments rank among the finest of the period. Certainly “Don’t Answer Me”, “Time” and “Games People Play”, from this helping of reissues, are absolute classics, but the lesser charms of “Stereotomy”, “Shadow of a Lonely Man”, “What Goes Up”, “Snake Eyes” and probably two dozen others are worth experiencing. And although the albums themselves range from minor masterpieces to crap, most of them also seem to have shape-shifting qualities to make you love them one minute and despise them the next.
Will any of it stick with you? And if it does, is it worth it? It’s hard to say. I’m still trying to think through the work of the Alan Parsons Project, which should theoretically be getting easier the more I do it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It would be a shame if it took me another 15 years to figure it out. I’ve never been able to shake the inclination to dismiss Parsons on account of his cleanliness, his seriousness, and his lack of sincere emotion. And yet, as I type what will hopefully be the final sentence of this longer-than-expected bit of thinking-things-through-in-writing, all I can hear is Lesley Duncan singing the words, “If I could change your mind,” over and over, with Ian Bairnson’s guitar filling the space between repetitions, and I can’t help but think that that voice is actually Alan Parsons himself, wanting me (and you, too) to just keep listening.