Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Alan Parsons Project: Prog Goes Yuppie

The '80s might have been rough on a number of genres, but progressive rock really took it in the groin. I guess the double whammy of punk and MTV really didn't do middle-aged instrumental virtuosos playing side-long thematic suites about medieval goblins any favors. Sure, I suppose a lucky few, such as Styx and Yes, managed to shift with the spandex tide and remain successful, if not exactly relevant (sub-question: were Styx and Yes ever exactly relevant?). But some progressive rock acts not only managed to make it out of 1979 alive, but also managed to thrive. Say hello to the Alan Parsons Project.

Of course, nothing screams out "edgy rock and roll" like calling your band a "project." I mean, what, were they hoping to win first place in the local science fair? We'd already had the Jeff Beck Group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, even the Bob Seger System, but in 1976, no one had ever seen the likes of the Alan Parsons Project.

However, it turns out that the Alan Parsons Project was an entirely appropriate name for the Alan Parsons Project. Just who was this "Alan Parsons," anyway? Well, once upon a time, there was an EMI Studios employee. This EMI employee broke into the industry by co-engineering a little album called Abbey Road. Then, a few years later, he achieved true fame among audiophiles by essentially co-producing another little album called Dark Side of the Moon. You know those pristine clock and airplane sounds? Alan Parsons. The random mumblings of Pink Floyd's roadie ("I dunno, I was really drunk at the time")? Alan Parsons. For most recording technicians, this would have been enough. Perhaps he could have remained satisfied as an in-demand studio engineer, but no, Alan Parsons wanted more.

Just what did Alan Parsons want? Well, he didn't sing, and he didn't really care much for performing. Apparently he just wanted to fart around in the studio and make little pet projects - sort of like Jeff Lynne, but without the orchestra. And yet, the thing was, he still wanted to capitalize on his name, so that people would know it wasn't just some random bozo's albums they were going to be buying. Even though he was teaming up with a songwriting partner-in-crime (the delightfully named Eric Woolfson), he still wasn't really putting together a proper "band." Hence: The Alan Parsons Project.

You know how Dungeons & Dragons and Sci-Fi geeks might sit around late at night in their friends' mom's basement and think up half-intriguing, half-silly ideas for concept albums that'll never get made? Well, the Alan Parsons Project actually went out and made those albums. "Hey, I got it, wouldn't it be cool if somebody did a concept album entirely out of ... Edgar Allan Poe short stories?" Behold: Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. "Dude, dude, someone should make an album based on Asimov's I, Robot!" Done and done. At a time when rock songwriting had finally earned the freedom to be uncompromisingly personal, Parsons and Woolfson's ultimate goal was to be about as impersonal as you could possibly get. They were openly writing songs out of other people's ideas!

Ah, but just when you thought they didn't have it in them, by their third album the Project started coming up with their own vague concepts that didn't happen to be based on any specific work (or works) of literature. For instance, Pyramid was based on ... Egyptian mythology? The $25,000 Pyramid? Your guess is as good as mine. Eve was even stranger: a concept album about misogyny. I think? See, when listening to Alan Parsons Project albums, it's probably best not to take their concepts too seriously. I'm not sure that Parsons and Woolfson did. Here's the album's closing track, sung by Lesley Duncan, who not only wrote "Love Song" (which Elton John covered on Tumbleweed Connection), but also sang backing vocals on that earlier Parsons project - you know, the one with the prism on the cover:

Oh, there's also the fact that the Project didn't have a lead singer. Instead, Parsons simply picked vocalists he liked and assigned different singers to different songs. There's nothing like random, generic stadium rock frontmen to breathe life into your cold, sterile studio productions. I think some of the singers brought something unique to the material, such as the Zombies' Colin Blunstone and the Hollies' Allan Clarke, but a lot of the time, such as on "Games People Play" from 1980's Turn of a Friendly Card (which, peaking at #16, became their biggest US hit single yet), I wonder if they just ended up turning the songs into Styx-lite.

The irony here is that, on Turn of a Friendly Card's second single, "Time," the Alan Parsons Project finally found its perfect lead singer: co-writer Eric Woolfson.

Eric Woolfson has the Calmest Voice Of All Time. His voice is like honey laced with Nyquil laced with Love Potion #9. As he quietly croons "Time/Keeps flowing like a river/To the sea," you'd have to poke me with a cattle prod to keep me from drifting off into a blissful dreamland. What the song has to do with gambling, however, I have absolutely no idea. Part of me wonders, with its closing lyric of "forevermore," if it might have simply been a leftover from Tales Of Mystery And Imagination.

Here's a question: why did the Alan Parsons Project spend four albums throwing their music into the hands of faceless British AOR also-rans, when the singer who perfectly complimented their style was sitting right there in front of them the whole time? Suddenly Woolfson steps in, sounding like the second coming of Pink Floyd's Rick Wright, and instead of experiencing any sort of complaint or backlash, the Project becomes bigger than ever before (with "Time" peaking at #15)! But a "project" couldn't have a real lead singer, could it? Could it?

1 comment:

Herr Zrbo said...

To my untrained ear this all sounds like it belongs on an 'A.M. Mellow Gold' compilation. I'm being put to sleep here, zzzzz...