It was June 1977, and the US was being invaded by robots. Leading the charge were R2-D2, C-3PO and the glass-domed dynamo that stared from the cover of the Alan Parsons Project’s album I Robot.
“It was impeccable timing by George Lucas,” Parsons recalls with a chuckle, “to be so considerate to bring out Star Wars at the same time as our album.”
The previous year, Parsons, the audio engineer behind Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, had turned auteur, mining the works of Edgar Allan Poe on his debut album Tales Of Mystery And Imagination (“It didn’t set the world alight,” Parsons says).
Now, Parsons and his creative partner Eric Woolfson had found literary inspiration in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. The sci-fi writer’s morality-based story collection was built around his Three Laws of Robotics – robots must obey, protect and never harm humans.
Woolfson had a “pleasant conversation” with Asimov, who loved the idea of musicalising his book. Unfortunately the author had already sold the rights to a film/TV company. Undeterred, the duo dropped the titular comma, then wrote their own version.
“We took the opposite view of Asimov’s philosophy: ultimately, machines would dominate man,” Parsons says. Though Parsons now calls the concept “slightly cringeworthy”, in a year of innovations like Apple computers, MRI scanners and Concorde, I Robot had its titanium finger on the pulse of the future.
Inspired, the duo wrote songs that refined their patented mix of Beatle-esque melody, classical flourishes and soul grooves. From the disco-funk of I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You to the hushed grandeur of Some Other Time, the songs danced around the man vs machine theme, posing questions that still resonate today: What does it mean to be human? Will artificial intelligence overtake our own?
Woolfson cited his “love of surrealism” as clouding the lyrics “so that you’re never absolutely sure exactly what the message is”.
In Abbey Road Studios, the duo “disassembled and reassembled” their tunes with the help of a band made up of ex-members of Pilot plus an arsenal of singers, from Steve Harley to Allan Clarke of The Hollies.
“There was a family feel to the sessions, with three-hour lunch breaks,” recalls Dave Townsend, who sang Don’t Let It Show. “But the singers were kept on quite short reins. Some stunning vocals never saw the light of day. Alan and Eric knew exactly what they wanted, and that was exactly what was needed – a fantastic combination of effect and economy.”
After a launch party at which 50 journalists experienced I Robot’s audio majesty through personal headsets, the record went platinum in the US. Reviews were positive, with Rolling Stone calling it “a blood banquet for automatons”.
To Parsons’s surprise, the music was tagged by critics as prog. “Having done Dark Side, I had a passport into the progressive world,” he reckons. “But I always felt we were much more pop.”
While the fascination with Asimov’s book continued with the 2004 Will Smith film, it’s Parsons’s overlooked miniclassic that conjured up the most compelling visions of our i-future.
“The record felt conceptual,” says Parsons/ “That was all the rage back in ’77 – to have a piece of music you where you turn the lights off, listen from start to finish and be carried away."