Immortalised by Homer Simpson as ‘some sort of hovercraft’, The Alan Parsons Project created classic prog albums even as the Project defied the conventions of what constituted a band in the first place. As an in-house engineer at Abbey Road Studios, Alan Parsons’ place in prog history was assured when he worked on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon. With credits that included The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Parsons was right at the forefront of what could be accomplished in the recording studio and his expertise was much in demand in the 70s when he worked with Paul McCartney, The Hollies and Cockney Rebel, to name just three.
Not content with just being an engineer and producer, Parsons teamed up with songwriter Eric Woolfson to form The Alan Parsons Project to provide a platform for their musical ideas. Joined by a host of guest musicians, the duo released their debut album, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, in 1976, inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. The album impressed Clive Davis sufficiently to sign the Project to Arista Records for their follow up, I Robot, which took its name and concept from the science fiction writings of Isaac Asimov.
“I wasn’t familiar with his work – it was really Eric that instigated the thing,” says Alan today about the inspiration behind the album. “I certainly was a science fiction fan, I used to read short stories quite a bit, although having said that, I wasn’t really much of a reader; never was, probably never will be. I read it cover to cover once the idea came up and I thought it was great. I think it is fairly well documented that we don’t follow his philosophy at all, or the story. We had opposing ideas about the relationships that man and machine would have. But it was a good link to have because a lot of people knew of Asimov’s work long before our album came out.”
Parsons’ name may have fronted the group but at the time his role was very much focused on the technical side of the music. “Clive Davis signed us on the strength of the first album, not really knowing anything about the way we worked or who contributed what,” says Alan. “That was always my role, to put my engineering hat on and try to make best use of what the studio could contribute to a recording or to
a composition. There is no question that some of the time the production itself would shape the composition and that’s why I felt justified in sharing the composing credits with Eric because we very much worked together towards the end result. Sometimes he would literally come up with a complete song but I would change it in certain ways and make it slightly different and therefore I had my stamp on it.”
The core of the group that played on I Robot came from the Scottish rock band Pilot, with whom Alan had produced the hit single Magic, with Stuart Tosh on drums, David Paton on bass and guitarist Ian Bairnson. Joining them was a stream of a different lead singers – eight in total – that included Allan Clarke from The Hollies and Steve Harley from Cockney Rebel, for whom Alan had produced Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me). “I think Cockney Rebel were actually quite progressive. Because of their appearance they were possibly considered to be rather glam rock and glam pop but I think their music was really quite prog,” says Alan.
For an album that is hailed as a prog classic, I Robot features remarkably few musicians with previous experience in the genre, particularly on the vocal front. For example, Lenny Zakatek came from the pop group Gonzalez, who scored
a disco hit with I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet, as far from prog as can be. “I think people liked to do guest appearances,” says Alan. “I don’t think Allan Clarke had ever been asked to guest on anybody’s album before, nor had Steve Harley as I recall.
I think the choices we made were a little on the unexpected side. Allan Clarke from The Hollies, wow, that’s a strange choice. We felt that there was a strength there. Dave Townsend, who sang Don’t Let It Show, he was not known as a singer but was very well known as a writer because he wrote Miss You Nights, a hugely respected ballad that Cliff Richard had a hit with.
“The other thing was purely practical. I’d worked with Allan for years with The Hollies. All I had to do was pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, can you come and listen to a song and see if you’d like to sing it?’ Nearly everybody we worked with right through to the last album tended to be people we knew or people whose managers we knew. Rather than desperately trying to find somebody that we thought would fit the bill we tried to think of people that we knew or that we’d worked with before in some capacity.”
One unique challenge from this way of working was that the songs were invariably written before Alan and Eric knew who would end up singing them. In the case of the song Some Other Time, when they couldn’t find one singer who fit the tune, they ended up with two – Peter Straker, who was best known for being the star of the musical Hair, and Jaki Whitren, who took the first crack at the track. “I got her in to sing the song and I thought she totally nailed the choruses but I didn’t get the right effect on the verses,” says Alan. “Then Peter Straker came in and had a go at it. What was interesting was that the voices were actually very similar. Most people have not realised that song is sung by two people, one voice on the verses, one voice on
For an album as densely arranged and meticulously produced as I Robot, one of Alan’s constant battles was against the limits of the studio technology of the time, when state-of-the-art was 24-track analogue tape. “It was always a challenge to make tracks available,” he says. “You would either mix seven or eight things down to a pair of tracks so you had six more tracks available or you would copy from one 24-track tape to another, condensing all the tracks down to a lesser number so we could add stuff. We quite often added stuff just wild on the mix, particularly effects, and stuff like that would be done at the mixing stage. It was a challenge.
“It was even worse, of course, on 16-track, and remember that Dark Side Of The Moon was 16-track. You were always fighting to find a way to squeeze things on. You would sometimes have to mix a backing vocal track with a sax track just to squeeze it on there. That’s the producer/engineer’s job, to know where everything is and how it fits and how to make the mixing process as simple as possible. We didn’t do stuff just to make it deliberately complicated – it was hopefully well laid out so had I got run over by a bus then somebody else could have picked it up and made reasonable sense of it.”
Fortunately, no buses interfered with the finishing of the album, which was released in the summer of 1977. This proved serendipitous as science fiction was just about to take over the world in the form of Star Wars. “When the album came out and it coincided exactly with Star Wars, that was just a dream come true, it really was,” says Alan about the beneficent timing. “We were literally out promoting I Robot and the buzz was starting at exactly the same time, people queuing up all night to go and see this mysterious movie. We all went to see it in Chicago while we were on a promotional trip. I loved it. To this day it’s in my top three movies.”
Alan describes the reaction to the album as “fantastic. I remember one of the principal A&R guys at Arista saying, ‘This isn’t just a record, this is an event.’ Fantastic initial reaction. I mean really good reviews generally speaking. It was the age when the concept album was fashionable and hip. If I decided to put out a concept album now they’d go, ‘Oh no, Alan Parsons, another concept album, oh dear.’ But that’s the way it was. It was good timing and everybody liked the basic conceptual idea.”
Well, almost everyone. “We barely got a single play on Radio 1,” says Alan. “If anything we would get on Bob Harris late at night or Alan Freeman. Alan was very good to us but he was well known for being out of the ordinary and supporting real rock music as opposed to Top 10 pop.”
The lack of support from Radio 1 didn’t stop the album reaching Number 30 in the UK chart, while it broke into the Top 10 on The Billboard 200. The music industry was a very different place in 1977, when the money was in album sales and big bands put on spectacular tours that bled cash but more than recuperated their losses in record sales. However, the Project weren’t about to venture outside of the comfort of their studio home. “We made it very clear in interviews at the time, ‘Oh no, we couldn’t possibly do this live, we’re a studio band,’ that was the feeling,” says Alan. “‘This music is simply too complex, particularly because of the orchestration, to ever play live.’ Nobody was more surprised than I was when eventually we started doing it and today it’s my main activity.
“The other thing at the time was, I was not a performer on the albums except for the occasional backing vocal part or rhythm guitar part. We would muse over what I would do in any live band anyway. What would I do? Get on the stage and warm up the audience?”
Looking back from a distance of 36 years, I Robot still holds a special place in Alan’s affections.
“I remember when Allan Clarke went into the studio and sang for the first time, I went, ‘Oh my god, he’s nailing it,’” he says. “And on Genesis Ch.1 V. 32 I was very touched when Clive Davis said to me, ‘This is a great piece of music, congratulations.’”