By Lee Zimmerman
There are certain producers whose names are synonymous with the highest levels of achievement. George Martin, of course. Jimmy Miller. Buddy Miller. T Bone Burnett. And clearly, Alan Parsons. In fact, if Parsons in particular never chose to oversee another note of music, his enduring influence would still remain undiminished. A glance at his resumé affirms his role in making some of the most significant studio efforts of all time — The Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon,” Paul McCartney’s “Red Rose Speedway,” Al Stewart’s hit “Year of the Cat,” The Hollies’ post-Graham Nash singles “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and “The Air That I Breathe,” not to mention the albums he created on his own at the helm of The Alan Parsons Project. The latter not only assured his status as a singular musical genius, but also demonstrated his proficiency as an all-around instrumentalist, capable of contributing guitar, keyboards, flute, bass, synth, violin and vocals. It gained him residency on the charts in both the U.S. and U.K., and in the process, helped him become a household name.
Still, given his prodigious talents behind the boards, one might expect that Parsons wouldn’t necessarily have any desire to take center stage. However, that’s where one finds him these days, touting a retooled, road-ready version of the Alan Parsons Project and performing as the prime player in what’s now known as the Alan Parsons Live Project. It’s an enterprise that was forged 20 years ago and which still tours incessantly, some 40 years after The Alan Parsons Project’s initial incarnation.
Despite his ample accomplishments, Parsons is surprisingly amiable and good-natured, happily indulging in a chat about certain clichés that exist about supposed international foods (“English muffins don’t exist in England at all,” he informs us after chowing down on his morning meal. “They’re more like a raisin muffin over there”), before embarking on a discussion about his career and his current life as a performing musician.
GOLDMINE: What made you decide to move out of the studio and take your music to the masses?
Alan Parsons: It was done for business reasons originally. We had an album in ’93 called “Try Anything Once” that needed to be promoted as much as it possibly could. So a number of people who played on the album — including Ian Bairnson, the guitar player and Stuart Elliot, the drummer — got together and we all agreed that we would give the album as much of a chance as possible to be successful. If we had started touring in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I think we would have been as big as anybody. I think it was a mistake on our part not to have done it sooner.
GM: Was part of the problem that you had all those guest artists on the albums and not a single specific singer?
AP: That’s a good point. We make up for that by having several singers in the band, myself included. So we get the variety that’s on the records. Basically, everyone in the current band sings. We actually have four different lead singers.
GM: Your studio albums with the Alan Parsons Project were so intricately arranged and executed. Was it a challenge to reproduce the music live?
AP: The live concert arena is much more forgiving in terms of having to duplicate every last effect. We have the advantage of a lot of different singers, and when we’re not touring with an orchestra, the symphonic sounds are a great deal easier to reproduce with keyboards than they were back in the day. We can actually get a pretty good orchestral sound using the seven players we have in the touring band.
GM: Were you always keen to be a live performer? You had always created the impression you were more of a studio whiz.
AP: It was a completely new activity. Our first tour was in Germany, and literally, from the very first concert in Hamburg, I was hooked. When we got that initial applause, I thought, “Oh thank goodness,” and from that point on, I actually started relying on it. With the record business the way it is these days, live touring is a means of letting performing artists survive. I hate the travel, but I love doing the shows. And I love seeing the sights. It offers me the ability to try different restaurants, going to museums, all that stuff … especially in new places I haven’t been to before.
GM: Do you sometimes wish you could simply stay home and have your work revolve around the studio?
AP: Maybe if we were selling hundreds of thousands of records. But nobody is selling hundreds of thousands of records these days. To get a million-selling album these days, even from the biggest artists, is extremely rare. However, we did manage to sell a few million in the early days.
GM: Those early albums are still selling.
AP: Yes, they are. People manage to wear them out or lose them, and they have to be replaced. A friend of mine had her car broken into. This was back in the day of cassettes. The thieves took all her cassettes except one. It was “I Robot” by The Alan Parsons Project.
GM: We expected you to say that all the other tapes were left behind and yours was the only one stolen.
AP: Actually, that makes a better story. (laughs) Why don’t we leave it at that?
GM: Out of curiosity, was there ever any talk about the possibility of having several of the special guests, say like Colin Blunstone or John Miles, make special appearances?
AP: We’ve done the occasional special event, like an event in Belgium called The Proms, where Lenny Zakatek, who sang “Games People Play,” made a special appearance. But by and large, getting established artists to do an appearance outside their own careers is hard work. They have to be paid and wined and dined and flown from wherever they live. It’s much easier to have a band that’s always available.
GM: You set such a high bar with the albums. Do you find the audiences satisfied with the way they’ve been transposed?
AP: I think the only thing that might disappoint some people is that they think we have Pink Floyd’s budget. They think we’re going to have flying pigs and theatrics and dancing girls and all kinds of things. We don’t, but it’s still a great rock ‘n’ roll show. It’s very dramatic and dynamic. I don’t think anybody’s been disappointed with the repertoire. We always play all the hits they want to hear.
GM: Many of your albums did have a certain theatrical element to them.
AP: Yes, I think somehow if there was a way to dramatize some of the early albums, it would be appropriate. I’m thinking with “I Robot” in particular. Actually, there was a movie called “I, Robot” based on the original story, but the album very seriously deviated from it. We just used the title. I think it was a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t involved with that film. It wasn’t considered a particular masterpiece. My only movie moment is in “The Spy Who Shagged Me.”
GM: Oh, we didn’t realize you did a cameo in that film.
AP: I’m mentioned. Dr. Evil says, “The death laser was invented by the noted Cambridge physicist, Doctor Parsons. Therefore, we shall call it ‘The Alan Parsons Project!’“
GM: Do you get royalties on that?
AP: No. I’m not sure you can copyright your name. If I had a hotshot lawyer at the time, I might have tried. But it still did me some good actually. It did give me a laugh.
GM: You recently put out a live album from your shows …
AP: Yes, we recorded a double CD in Germany, and we have a full symphonic version coming out on CD and DVD. That’s the first time we’ve had a full symphonic recording.
GM: What about your studio projects? What new music can we expect to hear from you?
AP: We’re finishing through the symphonic DVD now. I’m going through the audio and the pitches and getting that ready. I also have one or two other things going on. I’m producing an Israeli artist named Aviv Geffen. He’s huge in Israel and we’ve been working on that for two or three years now, but nothing has been released yet. I’ve also did an album with the ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro.
GM: One would think that given your reputation, you must have people approach you all the time.
AP: I get a lot of requests, yes. I’m starting to deal with production companies and real labels. Most of the requests come from individuals, but that rarely works. If I get a request from a label or business manager or production company, then, yes, I’ll go for it. But generally speaking, I just have to turn those down.
GM: Do you reach out to individuals you may be interested in working with? It seemed you specifically wanted to work with Jake Shimabukuro in particular.
AP: Yes, I was. It could be argued that I found him rather than him finding me. But otherwise I haven’t that much. It’s nice to know though that the people I’ve worked with in the past are available to call upon. I really have been concentrating more on live performances lately rather than recording. Recording just isn’t a positive activity these days.
GM: Looking back on your career and all the great recordings you’ve been a part of, are you ever in awe of all you’ve accomplished? Do you ever step back and say to yourself that you’re really amazed with all you’ve done?
AP: I just think I’m very lucky. I’ve managed to stay in the business I love for over 40 years now, and while I wouldn’t say I’m in awe of myself, I’m just glad to still be around and still doing it.
GM: Rock ‘n’ roll history is such an integral part of your resumé. “The Dark Side of the Moon” alone is a milestone most people would die for. It’s one of the biggest selling albums of all time and you were there behind the boards. You worked with The Beatles in their final days. Have you ever considered writing a book?
AP: I’ve written a book that accompanied a TV series I did called “The Art and Science of Sound Recording.” There are a few anecdotal bits in there about my career, but one day I will do an autobiography and document everything that happened in the early days. I’m just waiting for the time to do that. I’m not getting any younger, so maybe it will be a retirement occupation. I’m determined to do it myself. I can write. I’ve never written anyone’s biography before, but I have written technical articles and written speeches for conventions and such.
GM: Do you still have vivid memories of all that transpired?
AP: I think if I sat down and specifically wrote about it, a lot of it would come back. It goes without saying that in every interview I do, they say, tell us about The Beatles, tell us about Pink Floyd. If I actually had several pages to write about those times, I think I’d come up with plenty of things to say.
GM: Do you ever connect these days with say, Paul McCartney or the members of Floyd?
AP: The only contact I’ve had with anything to do with Pink Floyd was a year ago when we did a show in Tel Aviv and Roger Waters tried to stop me from doing it. He’s essentially anti-Israel and pro-Palestine. Having said that, the Floyd very kindly allowed me to use the original tapes from “The Dark Side of the Moon” for a talk I did at Abbey Road about the sessions I did there. It was a lengthy two-hour event that I did where I spoke, played music and talked about some of the work I had done. It was held in the famous Number Two Studio where The Beatles did all their stuff.
GM: Do you ever run into McCartney these days?
AP: I haven’t seen him in about 10 years. The last time I saw him was at a concert he did at Anaheim Stadium. He was with Heather at that time. I haven’t seen him since then. We’re separated by this body of water called the Atlantic Ocean.