by Peter Lindblad
Alan Parsons was only 18 years old when he went to work as a staff engineer at Abbey Road Studios.
He got his big break when he earned a credit for his involvement in the making of The Beatles’ "Abbey Road" LP. Doors opened wide for the talented studio wunderkind after that.
His sonic mastery would helps shape records by Paul McCartney and Wings, Al Stewart (Time Passages" and "Year Of The Cat," among others) and Pilot. But it was with Pink Floyd’s "Dark Side Of The Moon" that Parsons reached for the heavens.
As the studio architect behind the Alan Parsons Project, with partner Eric Woolfson handling the songwriting chores and a revolving collective of musicians lending their assistance, Parsons made a name for himself as a recording artist. From 1975 to 1984, the Project made hit album after hit album, scoring with smash singles like “Eye In The Sky,” “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You,” “Breakdown” and “Games People Play.”
A new Frontiers Records CD/DVD release, “Eye 2 Eye — Live In Madrid,” filmed and recorded at the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain, on May 14, 2004, is the first-ever concert video for the Alan Parsons Project. Parsons talked about his new projects and his career in this interview.
I wanted you to talk about the new CD/DVD live project.
Alan Parsons: Well, there’s never been a video release of the band. So this is a first, really. We have had live albums before. We did a live album in the mid-’90s, but this is the first in a long time, and it’s the first featuring the American band I worked with ’til the end of last year. But the material is perhaps a little bit to be expected. We went through the hits from the albums.
The atmosphere of the surroundings must be a little different from most places you play these days, being surrounded by such historic buildings.
Parsons: Yeah, I mean, you don’t get a lot of concerts in public squares in American cities (laughs). Yeah, it’s pretty unusual. We did one in Guadalajara. We did a city square that was quite similar. But this was a real find, a real gem of a place to play. And it was captured on video, which was the best part of it.
It was for a TV show, so I guess you knew it was going to be released at some point.
Parsons: Well, I just thought it was a live TV show, with a couple of follow-up broadcasts. You know, we work hard to improve it and re-edit it, and co-produce it, and it came out really well.
I wanted to also talk to you about “The Art And Science of Sound Recording” videos you’ve been doing. This is really an interesting thing for music fans, who probably still don’t know what exactly goes on in the studio. Was there something that made you want to demystify the process for people?
Parsons: Yeah, I think there’s a need to have people with the kind of experience that I’ve had, to get firsthand knowledge on video like this. And when you see the program, you’ll see that it’s not just me. It’s a bunch of engineers, producers, artists describing their experiences, and it’s just designed to be kind of a recording encyclopedia on video.
And we’ve gone into a lot of effort ... we’ve gone into high-definition. There’s no expense left in terms of the layout, the graphics and the content. It’s a professional job all the way around. And we’re hoping to get interest from the audio recording schools and from universities, and really anybody who has any kind of interest in recording at home, or is in a band. Everybody that plays in a band almost by definition must have some interest in this.
And you were able to get Billy Bob Thornton to narrate. Had you been friends with him?
Parsons: Yeah, that was a real coup. It’s probably mostly because of our music connection — we have a band and he has a band called The Boxmasters. He’s got his own studio at home. That’s where we recorded his voice. That was a great find, and he was so gracious and so nice about the whole thing, and he just sailed through it. It took an afternoon, the whole thing — seminars, narration in an afternoon. Not seminars and narration. Narration for seminars for the programming.
You worked at such a young age on "Abbey Road." What were your experiences like with studio work leading up to that?
Parsons: Well, I was a trainee. I was just a new boy really — just learning from the ground up, learning from all the engineers there. And I’d done a few other sessions, you know, [with] various other artists, various pop bands, various orchestral sessions, classical sessions ... "Abbey Road" was such a mecca for music of all kinds, you know.
One minute you’d be doing a progressive hair band, and the next you’d be doing stage musicals or something — really strange, really diverse mixture of musical projects. It was a great experience, but you know, The Beatles ... obviously, a big moment for me when I was sent down to Apple to work with them for the first time.
How intimidating was it?
Parsons: Oh, very. I mean, I just walk into this room and there’s George Martin and four Beatles, and Glyn Johns and I say, “Oh, excuse me, I’m Alan. I’ve come to help you.” Yeah, it was pretty intimidating, but a day I’ll never forget.
As it went on, did you become more comfortable with them, and did you have any interaction with them?
Parsons: Well, you know, my time with The Beatles as a band was really ... I was feeling very green, very junior. I’d be more likely to be making tea or coffee than doing anything else more creative than that. But the nice thing is that I established at least a kind of relationship [with them], because I went on to work with Paul on his own solo stuff later.
As far as a learning experience, what did you take from that work that you carried on to future projects?
Parsons: Well, you know, every artist you work with is an experience in itself. You learn from the producer. You learn from the artist the techniques that are used and you borrow from them. Every moment is an influence.
What was Al Stewart like to work with?
Parsons: Well, I still believe to this day that he’s one of the greatest living songwriters. He’s an incredible lyricist and incredible historian, and a lovely guy, a very talented artist.
He fits into a certain market, and "Year Of The Cat," obviously, was a big success. We hit the right time, the right song, the right market, and the right saxophone player (laughs, referring to Phil Kenzie). So yeah, it was a good experience. I think possibly Al wanted me to continue to work with him, but I felt that after three albums with him, he and I really had achieved everything that I wanted to achieve with him. I decided to concentrate on other things at that point.
And working with Pink Floyd on Dark Side of The Moon, you’re experimenting ...
Parsons: Now, you’re going back in history ... (laughs)
Yeah, I guess I’m jumping around a bit (laughs)
Parsons: Yeah, ’72.
Right. Working with them, that must have been a liberating experience I guess for all of you to really try different things and push the boundaries. Did they go in and talk with you before everything started and say this is an album where we’re going to try everything?
Parsons: No, not in the least. I mean, they were ... I had done some work with them on "Meddle" and on "Atom Heart Mother," as well. I think it just dictated its own parameters and paces. We just worked together to get the best result, and I’m often asked, did I know what a great piece of work we were making? And the answer is, I had no idea. No, even [Pink Floyd’s] Roger [Waters] said that [he] knew it was going to be a big album, but I don’t think anybody could have really predicted that it would still be on the charts 30 years later.
Is there something about that album that you worked on specifically that you’re the most proud of?
Parsons: Well, I came up with a couple of ideas. I mean, one of the ideas was to take on Clare Torry to sing “Great Gig In The Sky.” She was a session singer that I’d worked with, and Floyd wouldn’t have taken her on if it hadn’t been for my suggestion. And the clocks on “Time.” That was the result of some work I’d done in a little antique shop and [I] said, hey, how about some ticking clocks at this point? And they said, yeah, of course. So I did it, and they loved the idea. All these things made me feel good.
Conversely, was there any idea you had that you thought would have been really great for the album that didn’t make it?
Parsons: I felt pretty happy with it. I mean, there was some narration that I tried at the end of “Great Gig In The Sky” that was, I think, an American astronaut — Neil Armstrong or somebody — just talking down to the Earth from the moon or something, and it was very quiet, so you could barely hear it. But that was an idea of mine that got, you know, forgotten about — quietly forgotten about. But I have no regrets about that album at all.
Yeah, I guess it would be hard to have any regrets about that one (laughs). Working with Eric on the Alan Parsons Project, how did you come to know him, and what made you two a really good team? What made that chemistry work?
Parsons: Well, he was a very talented songwriter, and I used, hopefully, my talent as a producer to work with those songs, and that’s what it was. He was the songwriter, and I was the producer. I was in charge of the recording, and he was in charge of the songwriting, and that made a good team.
You didn’t tour or play live very often. Was it just because you were using so many studio musicians, and it was hard to settle on a group that could play live?
Parsons: Yeah, well, we didn’t tour at all. I mean, Eric and I were never on a stage together. I think we were just dedicated to the notion that the Alan Parsons Project was not a touring band. It was just a studio band. And yes, you’re right. The lush orchestrations and stuff would have made playing live very difficult, until the technology came along to make it realistic.
You embraced the notion of music videos, too. What drew you to that medium?
Parsons: Well, just the ... in the MTV heyday, there was enormous pressure on everybody to make videos, although we obviously didn’t do performance videos. But I think directors liked us because they were let loose on something they could pretty much put their stamp on anything without having to deal with an artist (laughs).
It was kind of interesting. I mean, I remember on “Prime Time,” I submitted my ideas, and the story board was essentially my creation on that video, but most of the time, we just left it to the director to come up with something. “Don’t Answer Me,” I think, was brilliant. “Don’t Answer Me” was the animated Dick Tracy-style cartoon video, and I think it won some kind of award, “Best Video of the Year” award, or something on MTV.
I just want you to, if you could, state your thoughts about some of the Alan Parsons Project albums, starting with "Tales Of Mystery And Imagination" (1975).
Parsons: Well, first album, first of its kind, first album with my name on it — just felt really good, and it still, to this day, remains my firm favorite.
Why is that?
Parsons: Just that it was the first, and I was able to ... you know, it was something that established the identity of the Project. It was the beginning, and it paved the way for everything that came after that.
Parsons: Well, it was the follow-up record. It was the first for Arista, Clive Davis. And I think it worked all as a conceptual piece. We had a good, strong radio single with “Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You,” and “Breakdown,” as well. “Breakdown” got airplay. I think it works as both an album, and we had good FM-radio singles.
Parsons: I felt good about "Pyramid." I think that it was conceptually one of the strongest of the first three. It was very focused on the "Pyramid" theme.
Parsons: It wasn’t my favorite of the albums, to be honest with you. Although we had an instrumental track from the album called “Lucifer” that was No. 1 in Germany, and the album itself was No. 1 in Germany, so it was arguably one of our biggest successes in Europe. But it wasn’t my favorite of all the albums — probably the least favorite of them.
I’ll just finish up with two more: "Turn Of A Friendly Card" and "Eye In The Sky."
Parsons: Uh, "Turn of A Friendly Card" we recorded in Paris very quickly. It was done in a short period of time, probably because we were staying in hotels (laughs) and probably didn’t want to spend too much money. But really, I think that was a great album, and I think the title track, you know, we divided into several songs, and it became a classic amongst the fans. We were pressured ... well, not pressured, but we were asked by the fans to include the entire piece on the recent compilation album, the "Essential ...," which we did. And we’ve actually been playing it live as a piece on the recent tour of Europe and Russia.
And "Eye in The Sky."
Parsons: Well, "Eye in The Sky," that was arguably our biggest success in America. We had a big hit single and the intro to "Eye In The Sky," which is called “Sirius,” is arguably the best-known piece of Project music ever, because it became a basketball anthem. So I’m very proud of that.
Were you surprised that “Sirius” was adopted by so many sports teams to use as their introduction?
Parsons: Oh, very surprised and delighted in particular, this year, just a couple of months ago, when the New Orleans Saints used it as their walk-on music to the Super Bowl, and then they won the game. That was great. That was great fun.
What do you think, as far as advancements in recording technology, what’s been the most significant or important change in recording technology that you’ve seen in your lifetime?
Parsons: Well, I really think it’s the transfer from tape to hard disc. Everything changed at that point when you were able to access any point in a recording without rewinding tape and finding a place and loading up tape. Everything suddenly became instant access, and that really changed the whole face of recording.
Do you still get the same thrill out of working in the studio that you always have?
Parsons: I still enjoy recording, yes. I mean, it’s a different world now. Studios are smaller. My own studio is not a big thing. But that’s because, you know, the technology is contained in smaller spaces now. All you need is a computer and a console. I mean, you can ... there are still commercial studios with giant consoles out there, but, you know, they’re fighting to survive. But yeah, I still feel good about making records. I still enjoy the process.
I guess with the whole proposed sale of "Abbey Road" that came up earlier this year, do you miss those days of recording in that studio?
Parsons: Oh, very much. It was my home for 20 years. Yes, I do miss it. If EMI ever sells it to property developers, they should be ashamed of themselves.
And The Beatles breakup?
Parsons: I think I saw it coming. I saw it coming with the "Abbey Road" album. They were essentially a broken-up band already. They weren’t working together. They were working as individuals. It really didn’t surprise me. It saddened me. But it really didn’t surprise me.
What else are you working on these days?
Parsons: Well, I’m still working on the “Science” as we speak. I’m just putting the finishing touches to the final versions of everything, really. That’s the nice thing about having it online. It’s not final, until it’s final. And then when we eventually commit to DVD, then it will be finalized. But we’re not quite finished yet. We’ve still got a few sections to polish up and finish off. So, that’s what we’re doing, and I’m hoping ... Oh, and let me tell you another thing, there was a song recorded especially for the program called “All Our Yesterdays.” And that’s coming out in a couple of weeks on iTunes, and it’s available online from the Web site. So in the program, you see that develop from scratch, almost from the initial writing of it right to the final mix. That’s going to be interesting. And it will eventually become part of an album I might or might not get into later this year. I have plans to record, but I may not get to it ’til next year.