Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Prime Time" For The Alan Parsons Project To Take MTV By Storm

Michael Jackson? Pfft. Duran Duran? Pshaw. What MTV really needed ... was the Alan Parsons Project.

Think about it. If there's a band that might have been tailor-made for MTV, in some ways that band was the Alan Parsons Project. They didn't tour, they didn't care to lip-sync on Solid Gold, and they demonstrated a pronounced fondness for pseudo-literary storytelling. What better playground to give life to their geeky comic book and sci-fi fixations than the music video format? And yet, for whatever reason, the Project didn't bother to make any videos until the release of 1984's Ammonia Avenue. But when they did ... boy, they brought the heat.

By this time, of course, everyone and their mother thought the Alan Parsons Project had found its natural lead singer ... everyone, that is, except for Alan Parsons. Arista tried to persuade Parsons to use Woolfson as often as possible, presumably as a way to give the band an identifiable, marketable "sound," but Parsons still retained some private notion of using "real" singers, whatever that may have meant. I can just see the record company meeting now: "At the very least, can't he sing lead on the singles? Come on Alan, we're trying to sell some fucking records here."

The first and biggest single off Ammonia Avenue was "Don't Answer Me," which peaked at #15 and sounds to me like the Alan Parsons Project covering ELO covering the Ronettes, with a bit of "Making Love (Out Of Nothing At All)" thrown in for good measure, but at least it sported an inventive, deliberately cheap, Saturday morning cartoon-style animated video.



No, the real gem off Ammonia Avenue was its opening track, "Prime Time." Don't be fooled by its peak position of #34 on the Billboard Hot 100, as it climbed to #10 on the Adult Contemporary chart and rocketed all the way to #3 on the Mainstream Rock chart! Well, to be honest, I might have never known the song myself if it hadn't closed out Side 1 of my cherished '80s Tape.

Less than generous listeners might accuse "Prime Time" of being a re-write of "Eye in the Sky," with the similar "chugging" guitars and a somewhat identical verse melody. But those people aren't even fit to clean Alan Parsons' jock strap, because by the time you come around to the chorus, it's clear that "Prime Time" is a whole different animal. If the chorus of "Eye in the Sky" suggested hidden rage buried beneath the surface, on "Prime Time," that rage comes exploding to the forefront. "It's gonna be my turn tonight," Woolfson croons. Turn to what? Fuck you up?
Well even the longest night won't last forever
But too many hopes and dreams won't see the light
And all of the plans I make won't come together

Something in the air
Maybe for the only time in my life
Something in the air
Turning me around and guiding me right

And it's a prime time, maybe the stars were right
I had a premonition, it's gonna be my turn tonight
Gonna be my turn tonight
Usually Alan Parsons Project albums began with the requisite placid instrumental (for instance, "Eye in the Sky" was preceded by "Sirius"), but on Ammonia Avenue, Parsons just decided to slip the opening instrumental into the song proper, although the single edit (and thus the edit that I'd become familiar with on my tape) simply cut to the chase right around 0:35. Anyway, this is some pretty calm shit until the pre-chorus, which begins with the ominous lines, "There's something in the air," followed by even more ominous back-up singers repeating the already ominous line, plus some ominous chord changes to boot (the key word here is "ominous"). Finally, at 1:45, she arrives: The Ultimate Alan Parsons Project Chorus. It's prime time all right - prime time for Eric Woolfson to rock you in the balls. They layer on just the right amount of vocal overdubs to milk those raunchy, growling guitar chords for all they're worth. Because that random session guitarist, whoever he happens to be, is merely hiding in the wings, waiting for his moment to shine.

At 3:10, that moment arrives. He becomes the nice beneficiary of what sounds like Automatic Double Tracking, as his solo dances with itself across the separate stereo channels. When the pre-chorus arrives, he ascends with majestic upward leaps, until he descends and descends and his solo bites the bluesy dust at 3:48, just in time for Woolfson to re-appear. It's like the sound of something simultaneously sublime and terrible slowly, slowly sucking you under. I'll tell you whose turn it is tonight: it's the Alan Parsons Project's secret guitarists' turn. And after that final chorus, he continues to make the most of the fade-out.

If you'd think it wouldn't be easy to capture the vibe of something simultaneously sublime and terrible slowly, slowly sucking you under in a video, then you haven't seen the clip for "Prime Time." Here Parsons and Woolfson take the opportunity to get off on their sick little Twilight Zone fetish and tell what is sort of a short, dialogue-free horror film, rather than concern themselves with the literal lyrics of the song. In fact, when I first searched for "Prime Time" on YouTube and I found this video, I assumed it was something like a fan-made clip. When I realized it was actually the official video, I thought, "Fuck yeah Alan Parsons." It's amazing when you listen to a song for thirty years, and then one day you see the video, and it perfectly complements, if not exactly matches, any previous mental images you'd already associated with the song in your mind.

According to Wikipedia, the video is based on John Collier's short story "Evening Primrose," and not on either the movie Mannequin or the '80s children's show Today's Special, as I had assumed. In this strange nocturnal netherworld, two young lovers have apparently been trapped as mannequins, and can only come back to life when tacky, flashing lights appear. But rather than pull me out of the video world, I think the low-budget effects, when coupled with the extremely high-budget production values of the song itself, somehow combine make the clip even more disturbing. Creepiest/most awesome parts:
  1. When the woman finds herself trapped in an alleyway and all the lifeless mannequins slowly begin to take her "back" (3:24)
  2. When the man walks by the department store window, realizes his lover has once again become one of "them," and he pounds his fists on the glass in campy agony (3:50)
  3. She comes back alive (although when she "crashes" through the window it looks like they just shot a Barbie doll flying through Saran Wrap), but the man turns back and sees a mannequin's head slowly, slowly turning (4:31). You're not out of the clear yet, you two!

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