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The Alan Parsons Paradox

By Dw Dunphy

What you know, and what you think you know, about the career of Alan Parsons are two very different things.

His most famous entry in the music world, as part of The Alan Parsons Project, was named such because studio documents and tapes involved with the first album Tales of Mystery and Imagination has those words written on them almost anecdotally. The band wasn't The Alan Parsons Project. The project was being organized by Alan Parsons, as well as another primary collaborator, writer/performer/vocalist Eric Woolfson. The moniker stuck.

There are many more perceptions and misperceptions. Parsons, affable and generous, gave New Jersey Stage answers to all these mysteries and more.

A Live Concern - You will recognize Woofson's voice on such hits as "Eye in the Sky," "Time," and "Don't Answer Me," yet the microphone position for the group was quite fluid. It was also regularly filled by some of the best vocalists in rock. That distinction continued on through Parsons' solo efforts. Vocalists like Allan Clarke and Terry Sylvester (The Hollies), Colin Blunstone (The Zombies), Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), David Pack (Ambrosia), Eric Stewart (10cc), and Tony Hadley (Spandau Ballet), among others, have sung on Parsons albums.

Yet the core of the group was quite solid, and in fact had an international hit of their own prior to being integrated into The Project proper. They were known as Pilot, and Parsons produced their biggest hit, 1974's "Magic." The lineup of core players has necessarily changed over the years due to time and career restraints, the goings-on of individual lives, and to facilitate the rigors of a live show. While The Alan Parsons Project was a studio-based entity, Alan Parsons has been actively playing out for nearly two decades now, since the dissolution of his working relationship with Woolfson in the early-1990s. Alan Parsons Live takes the stage in Newton, New Jersey on January 31 at the Newton Theater.

"That's actually a regret, that we didn't play live (during the Project years)," Parsons said. "If we had been a live performance band as well as a recording band, I think we could have been a stadium act. We could have been huge."

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Because of his ability to surround himself with talented, seasoned performers, Parsons current touring band is as tight and uncompromising as one would expect. P.J. Olsson, vocals, has been with Parsons' unit since his work on Parsons' last solo album, A Valid Path (2004). Alastair Greene handles lead guitar and vocal duties; Dan Tracey provides guitar and backing vocals; Tom Brooks plays keyboards; and Todd Cooper appears on the saxophone. Making up the rhythm section, Danny Thompson covers drums and percussion, and Guy Erez plays bass.

While most of the backing band shares microphone responsibilities, Parsons himself has moved to center stage as vocalist. "Interestingly, I think I've ended up singing, myself, most of the songs Eric sang: 'Eye in the Sky,' 'Don't Answer Me'..."I don't sing 'Time,' which was another song Eric sung, but P.J. (Olsson) sings that." Woolfson, who passed away in 2009, had been such an integral part of The Project that one had to wonder if there was any material Parsons shied away from because the association was too great. Parsons was pragmatic about this, saying that the setlist was comprised primarily of Project tunes, with the sole exception being his recent digital single, "Fragile." Bringing in Woolfson's songs is equal parts tribute and necessity. "We really can't get off the stage without doing 'Eye in the Sky,' 'Don't Answer Me,' or 'Games People Play' (which was originally sung by Lenny Zakatek). And there is a song I've always considered to be autobiographical on Eric's part called 'Limelight,' from the Stereotomy record."

"When we recorded the entire lifespan of The Project -- 1976-1987 -- we never really had our sights on playing live. When we eventually did assemble a band in 1995, it was an interesting exercise to figure out which songs we thought would work on the live platform, as opposed to a recorded platform." The biggest challenges came with heavily orchestrated songs, a staple of the Project records, via another collaborator Andrew Powell. "However, when we've had shows that involve an orchestra, and have had the luxury of having an orchestra present, it's been a joy. Eye in the Sky's 'Silence and I' is an example of that."

Producer and Coordinator - Having many vocalists on hand in the live group is a necessity because of the breadth of vocal talent that has worked in the Parsons and Project capacities. While being a part of the Abbey Road Recording Studios roster in his early years didn't hurt, Parsons credited basic networking as a major factor for attracting talent. "One of the present company knew the artists, or their manager had a contact. It was always through social contacts. I don't think we ever managed to reach out to an instrumentalist or performer without some kind of contact. Of course, most of the Project albums were made before the Internet, so it would be easier now! If we wanted to get a hold of Elton John, I dare say we could through the Internet."

How Pilot's members -- David Paton, Ian Bairnson, Stuart Tosh, and briefly Billy Lyall -- came to be the cornerstone of the Project was, according to Parsons, a matter of convenience. "At the beginning, when I just had Pilot in the studio for their first album, it seemed like a good choice to get players who played together all the time, and that I knew. I knew the guys well, knew their strengths and limitations, and so on." It did not last long. Lyall died after Tales of Mystery and Imagination was released. Tosh, Bairnson, and Paton stayed on as Woolfson took on the majority of keyboard duties.

To illustrate how integral these players became to the Project sound, Paton not only played bass for the recordings but sang on several tracks, including Vulture Culture's opening "Let's Talk About Me." Bairnson would carry over into Parsons' solo efforts not only as guitarist but as a songwriter.

Parsons is renowned as a producer, and yet many attribute his production skills to albums he wasn't actually a producer of. The shortfall of this is two-fold. It neglects his producer's contributions to equally famous recordings like Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages," some of Ambrosia's biggest hits, and more. It also gives short shrift to the important role that the engineer plays.

"The old-fashioned notion of what a producer was, in terms of the public perception, was probably a guy with a big, fat cigar standing at the back of the room, saying to his artists, 'I'm gonna make you lots of money! I'm gonna make you a star!' It is actually, essentially, a directorial role, and is analogous to a film director," Parsons said. "As producers, we select material, choose artists, and we try to get the best performances from the artists like a director tries to get the best performances from actors."

He is, however, quick to remind that the engineer is equally important in capturing the best qualities of a recording, and the work the engineer does can often be quite physical. "The engineer is to the cameraman what the producer is to the director. He sets up the microphones to get the right sound; he tweaks the sound on the recording consoles, balances everything out, and gets it onto tape or disk. A lot of engineers, like myself, perform a dual role as producer and engineer," Parsons said.

"The reality, especially nowadays, is much more involved with the technical side of things." Parsons said that, in the brave new world of recording, the producers should be more adept with technology than they once were, and that it is rare to see producers today who aren't. "It's certainly possible for the producer to handle all engineering duties, but I always work with a computer operator who deals with ProTools, plug-in software programs, editing, and so on. What I'm really focusing on is dealing with the artist, talking about the structure of the songs, the instrumentation, and the performance itself."

At times, the producer has to be a restraining force, especially when tendencies want to overplay a part, crowding out the musical breathing room. This is evident on the final official Project album, Gaudi, a concept album involving the life of famed architect Antonio Gaudi. On the song "Closer to Heaven," in the instrumental bridge, a saxophone part gives way to guitar and pipe organ. Where there might be an impulse to solo atop the rhythm and to break the mood, chords are held, creating a mood akin to church music. This is entirely appropriate to the material, as Gaudi's most famous building, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is a cathedral. Yet the temptation to fill every inch of the sound-field is often one musician’s struggle to overcome.

"Simplicity can be the key to making it sound right," Parsons said. "I take the attitude that was present with 'Every Breath You Take,' by The Police (which they recorded with Hugh Padgham.) There's the instrumental bridge where the piano is playing very sparsely over Stewart Copeland's kick drum. There Most would say there should totally be a solo over top of that, but instead there is nothing, and that sort of vamps through the chord." The implication of this is that the song's subject matter, of love and obsession, is illustrated musically by that heartbeat kickdrum. Ornate piano phrasing would only mute the effect. "The mark of a producer is knowing when to stop, and knowing when you've ventured into overproduction, as opposed to being just right. One of the properties a good producer must have is to know when enough's enough."

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Not one to be a dictatorial producer, Parsons expects the artists to respect his contributions, but at the same time respects theirs, feeling that this mutual approach is the best way to achieve the best end result. "I like to think I'm a member of the team. Just like George Martin was considered the fifth Beatle, I like to consider myself a member of the band I'm working with."

The Project That Wasn't - The Project ended on an ambiguous note. Eric Woolfson's vision for his work was moving toward musical theater with stage productions developed from the albums Turn Of A Friendly Card and Gaudi. He had set his eye toward another, based upon a Project album to be entitled Freudiana (1990). It was based on the life of famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, much as the prior album focused on architect Antonio Gaudi. Don't look for Freudiana at the record store under Alan Parsons Project. Aside from expensive European imports, the disc has barely existed in the U.S. market, and while the band members are present, the final album exists in a gray area.

There is an odd symmetry to this nearly being the last Project effort. Vocalist John Miles was on their first album with the track "(The System of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether." Miles closes Freudiana with the show-stopping "There but for the Grace of God." Maybe "show-stopping" is the wrong phrase.

"A producer, Brian Brolly, had worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on some of his musicals; he got involved. It had been a single album tracklist, but then we doubled up the music, and took it to the stage in Vienna where it ran quite successfully for a year as a staged, Broadway-styled musical. Although I thought the album was good, (the play) wasn't my cup of tea. It wasn't something I was very proud of. I'm not really one for Broadway vocal styles."

Things started coming undone when the Viennese director of the production, who incidentally did not like the more rock-pop vocal styling, insisted the material conform to his vision. The partnership between Woolfson and Brolly frayed. "They ended up in a grisly court battle which cost them a lot of money, and Eric lost. That was really the end of Freudiana. It's very sad because it's a good record. I think it should have done every bit as well as the APP albums that came before it," Parsons regrets. "I still actually enjoy listening to it on occasion."

Project Passed, Present Projects? - Even though the live show is built on the legacy of so many Project favorites, Parsons continues to move into the future, bringing his skill set to new productions. This was evident when the founder of the progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, tapped Parsons to work on his third solo studio effort, The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories). "I was engineer and associate producer. I couldn't take the production credit away from Steven; he's a very capable producer and engineer in his own right. He brought me in because he wanted to make an album in 'the old school way.' Because of his age, that wasn't an approach he previously had an opportunity to do."

Will there be more solo albums? Parsons suspects not, citing that modern media consumption habits no longer peacefully coexist with something as complicated as concept albums. "We live in a single-download world, and less and less people are purchasing or downloading full albums. I'm not really motivated to make an album right now, but I do have a couple of tunes 'in the can' and we're trying to make their releases a special occasion." This occurred with Parsons' most-recent effort, the song "Fragile." It is a release model that he is interested in expanding upon, with limited edition vinyl singles of the tracks eventually arriving to satisfy the burgeoning vinyl media marketplace.

For now, Parsons is focusing on touring Alan Parsons Live, and sharing a remarkable body of work with appreciative audiences throughout North America and Europe to the end of March 2015.

originally published: 01/18/2015



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