Production legend Alan Parsons on 10 career-defining records
During his 40-year-plus career as producer, engineer and artist, Alan Parsons has sat on both sides of the studio glass on projects that have sold in the tens of millions. But when the production legend joined the staff of EMI Studios (soon to be renamed Abbey Road) in 1968 at the age of 19, his duties included little more than logging tapes and keeping artists' tea cups filled.
“Oh, yes, if you were a tape op, making tea was part of your job," Parsons says. "Abbey Road had a very effective training scheme, where people started at the bottom, carrying tapes from room to room and eventually becoming second engineer, engineer and so on. Some people went from the tape library to disc cutting, but I managed to skip that step."
As a tape operator, Parsons watched London's finest producers and engineers - namely George Martin and Geoff Emerick – shape music that transformed popular culture. For the most part, he kept his head down and kept quiet. Even so, he calls his early years at EMI an invaluable experience.
"You were on sessions, and you watched the engineers at work," he says. "It was a gradual process of understanding what good sound was. What microphone works on a piano? How do you record a band? How are songs molded, albums put together? You found that out. But learning how to listen was the biggest lesson I got overall. It all comes from the ears.”
In 1968, most teenagers in Great Britain would have given their eye teeth for the kind of daily, intimate contact Parsons had with the Fab Four. But the young tape op and world-class tea maker had to keep his wits about him in the studio or risk getting the boot. "One mistake and you were out of there," he says. "Press a wrong button, forget it, you're done. Sure, they’re The Beatles and you’re in awe, but you’re there to work. You had to stay in the right frame of mind.”
One of Parsons' first gigs as full-time engineer, Pink Floyd's landmark album The Dark Side Of The Moon, earned him a Grammy nomination. Easing into the producer's seat, he turned Al Stewart's six and a half minute jazz-influenced dreamscape – with a sax solo, no less – into a worldwide smash. And then Parsons did a funny thing – he became the artist. The Alan Parsons Project, a two-man group that also included singer, songwriter and composer Eric Woolfson, yielded Top 10 hits such as Time, Games People Play and Eye In The Sky.
"If I have any kind of modus operandi, it still has to do with listening," Parsons says. "Listening to the song and what the artist is trying to accomplish with it. I’m not the comic strip idea of a producer, the guy who walks into the room and says, ‘I want this, I want that.’ It’s all about communication and an exchange of ideas. Again, you have to listen and trust your ears – that’s how you extract the best performances.”
While Parsons continues to push boundaries – this year he's worked with artists as disparate as ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro ("absolutely brilliant") and progressive rock titan Steven Wilson ("astonishingly talented") – we managed to sit him down for a retrospective look at 10 of the most important and memorable recordings of his career.
The Beatles – Let It Be (1970)
“It was released last, but in truth, it was recorded before the Abbey Road album. I had just turned 20 when we did this. From a technical standpoint, it was fraught with trouble. The Beatles had this guy, Magic Alex, who was supposed to build all of this gear. I was sent in to sort out the mess.
“Two four-track consoles were sent down to Apple, and I was the operator who had to work the tape machines. This was after they had already been through a frustrating period of trying to get Magic Alex’s equipment to work. I walked into this basement studio, and there was John, Paul, George and Ringo, Linda Eastman, Yoko Ono, George Martin and Glyn Johns all looking at me with these strange expressions. You could tell that the band wasn’t feeling fulfilled by what was going on. It was a tense time.
“Nobody really knew what they wanted to do. Were they making a film or a live album? Paul definitely wanted it to be a live album. Some of the others didn’t agree with that notion, but as the Let It Be… Naked record shows, it really was a pretty good live album.
“I was just happy to be there. I was young and being paid to work with The Beatles – it doesn’t get much better than that. I didn’t make any judgements as to their attitudes at the time. Maybe they’re always down in the mouth – I didn’t really know.
“As for the Phil Spector mixes, I enjoyed some of them and didn’t like others. He has a style and a sound, and he extracted that out of Let It Be. I thought The Long And Winding Road was over-orchestrated, but on other things he did a great job. His version of the song Let It Be was a hell of a lot better than the original.”
The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)
“The notion that this would be The Beatles’ last album had not occurred to me at the time. On reflection, the fact is that they clearly did not want to be in each other’s company. They tended to come in and work on their own as individuals.
“Paul would come in and sing Oh! Darling until his voice was suitably hoarse to get the right take. John, too, would work on his vocals by himself. George, of course, was very involved with his own songs, doing things without help from the others. Abbey Road was largely the work of individuals and not that of a band.
“Geoff Emerick was the engineer – I was still an assistant, very much in training. My relationship with Geoff was very good. He was a great teacher, always ready to answer my technical questions, provided that I waited for the right moment to ask. He’s a great ‘ideas’ guy, always looking for a new way to record something. That was a lot of fun to watch.
“The album was the second one that was done on eight-track – Let It Be was the first, although there might have been one or two songs on The White Album that were done on eight-track. The machine was under Abbey Road’s extravagant scrutiny – they wouldn’t buy anything that they didn’t think they would totally use.
“George Martin was always the middle ground between everybody, and they all, without exception, had a great deal of respect for him. He was, in many ways, the guiding light of this period. He was the glue that cemented everything together.”
Wings – Wild Life (1971)
“I had worked with Paul as an assistant on some previous things, but this was the time where we got to know each other better. I was still in the tape-op seat, but I did get a chance to run off some rough mixes so everybody could see what had been done. There’s a song called I Am Your Singer, and I ran off a mix of that. Paul said, ‘Well, there’s nothing more we need to do with that, and I really like your mix, Alan.’ So that was my first foray into engineering for Paul McCartney.
“He was as happy as could be, enjoyed the concept of having his own band that he was in charge of. Of course, there was no leader in The Beatles. Paul could be tough. I wouldn’t say he knew what he wanted, but he knew how to get results. He could push people – ‘This doesn’t sound great yet. Make it sound great.’ So I’d be scratching my head, trying to figure out how I could make something sound great... until it did. Eventually, Paul would say, ‘Ahh, yes! There it is.’”
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
“I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to work with the band on Dark Side Of The Moon. I had worked with them briefly as mix engineer, but now I was engineer. I had worked my way up and proven myself as what Abbey Road called a ‘balance engineer’ as opposed to a ‘button pusher.’
“I put in a lot of hours. Sometimes I’d work into the night because I’d run off rough mixes after the band had gone home. Sometimes I came in early in the morning to do orchestral sessions with somebody else, but I always made sure to be available for Floyd so I didn’t have to share the engineering credit with somebody else.
“The whole thing was written out pretty much. There were a few things that were developed in the studio, but on the whole, Roger Waters had written everything by the time we started. In fact, they performed it even – during the recording, they went out and played it live and learned from that experience.
“As for the Wizard Of Oz... I have to keep correcting people: The band were actually watching Mary Poppins the whole time they were making the album. [Laughs] Or we can tell it differently and say they were watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!”
The Hollies – Hollies (1974)
“This album was monumental. The Air That I Breathe was the first big hit single that I’d ever had, other than Money by Pink Floyd. The Hollies were a joy to work with. They were always on time, always kind and good-natured, full of humour. They respected their producer, Ron Richards, and their engineer, which was me, of course.
“It was basic stuff to create a track with bass, drums, guitars, keyboards and so on, and then we’d send a mix off to an arranger to work with. In this case, it was a very celebrated arranger named Chris Gunning. Through a conversation with Ron Richards, he went off and did the arrangement, and we recorded it all in one afternoon in the Number 3 studio at Abbey Road. I think we mixed it the same day.
“I heard the Phil Everly version of The Air That I Breathe, and I remember Ron telling the band, ‘This will be the biggest hit you’ve ever had.’ Of course, he was dead right. He could pick a song out of a hundred and say, ‘This will be a hit.’ Very few people can do that. You have to have the right set of ears.”
Al Stewart – Year Of The Cat (1976)
“This was the second one I’d done with Al, the first being Modern Times . For reasons best known to myself, I think Modern Times is a superior record – it’s got better songs, in my opinion – but Year Of The Cat was a bit hit, and it’s the one that most people know. Actually, it has great songs, too.
“Year Of The Cat, the track, is quite lovely. I probably surprised Al greatly when I suggested putting a saxophone solo on it. He always enjoyed lengthy, soaring guitar solos, but I think if we had lengthy, soaring guitar solos on Year Of The Cat it would’ve been quite monotonous. So we decided, by careful choice and structuring, to do an acoustic guitar solo, an electric guitar solo and a sax solo. I brought in a chum of mine, Phil Kensey, to see what he could achieve on the track, and of course it was magic. It formed the whole of the song quite brilliantly.
“Al was somewhat doubtful whether a sax solo would work; he’d considered himself as coming from a folk-rock background, so it felt out of place to him. Funnily enough, after the success of the song, he took on Phil to join his band, so it was clearly the right decision on my part. [Laughs]
“As for whether I knew it would be a hit, my first reaction to the song was something like, ‘It’s very long, and it’ll never get on the radio.’ But sometimes longer is better.”
The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot (1977)
“The name of the band stemmed from the record company. On our first album, before we had a name, they would ask, ‘How’s the Alan Parsons project coming?’ And we’d say, ‘Oh, great. Sounds good. We’ll be delivering the Alan Parsons project in February.’ After a while, the record company president said, ‘I like that – the Alan Parsons Project. That’s what we’ll call it.’
“This was our second album; we’d had some success with the first one, the Edgar Alan Poe album [Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, 1976]. Being signed by record company giant executive Clive Davis was great, a very humbling experience.
“It was funny, however – there we were, this progressive rock outfit sitting alongside the other Arista artists, people like Barry Manilow. I think we’re the only prog-rock band Clive Davis has in his history.
“The title track to the album owed a heavy debt to an early sequencer on a suitcase synthesizer. It was in this small case – you’d open the lid and there were all of these buttons and things. That’s what formed the basis of this instrumental track, the opening song on the album.”
The Alan Parsons Project – The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980)
“We’d had two other albums under our belts. By Eve , it became clear to us that we were not prepared to pay 93 percent income tax to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK. So we decided to go to Monaco, a tax-free zone, and we continued to be residents of Monaco for The Turn Of A Friendly Card.
“Finances aside, we recorded the album in Paris in a lovely studio in the Saint-Germain area. It was wonderful: We’d get up, have a big breakfast, then we’d walk to the studio and start recording at about noon. Then we’d stop at eight or so and go out for a fantastic French bistro dinner. Depending on how much wine we’d had, we’d either give it up for the night or go back to the studio for a feeble attempt at doing something.
“The title song is quite long, a 16-minute opus, but it’s broken up into segments. Interestingly, we’ve been playing it live in its entirety, and it’s been going down an absolute storm. The applause has been astronomical.
“The hits, Games People Play and Time, are not part of the Turn Of A Friendly Card suite. To this day, I don’t know what Time has to do with the concept of gambling. Certainly Games People Play relates. But there's two big hits on one album, arguably two of our biggest. That set things up very well for the next record.”
The Alan Parsons Project – Eye In The Sky (1982)
“If you look at the Billboard charts, Eye In The Sky could be our biggest hit. Certainly in terms of exposure through the intro, which is called Sirius, it’s become a sports anthem, particularly with the Chicago Bulls and the New Orleans Saints.
“I wrote the bulk of Sirius, and Eric [Woolfson] wrote the bulk of Eye In The Sky. He’s no longer here to tell us of his lyrical points, but I think the song is a vague reference to an Orwellian 1984 situation – hidden cameras, surveillance. The idea is that no one is alone; somebody’s always watching you.
“I think this was the first album on which I used the Fairlight. It was a revolutionary instrument, the forerunner of all technologies that became known as ‘sampling.’ You could actually record a sound onto a computer and then play that sound on a keyboard. It really was revolutionary at the time, but people would laugh at it now. It had a learning curve. You couldn’t just plug it in and play – you had to read the manual. But I’m an engineer, so I like stuff like that.”
Alan Parsons – A Valid Path (2004)
“After moving to America in 1999, I got a new manager who secured a record deal for me, and we formed a band to play live. This record was an attempt to be a little different, to go with a more electronic sound. It’s a strange sort of irony that I’m associated with being electronic, because I’m actually not. I’ve used synths as much as somebody else, but not as much as other people. The Alan Parsons Project was more guitar based than keyboard based.
“I wanted to see if I could capture the modern electronic market and even the dance market. It was successful in that I was able to meet some great people like The Crystal Method and Shpongle. My own son, Jeremy, who’s very much into electronic music, he’s on it. We got David Gilmour to play a solo on one of the tracks. It had all of the ingredients to be successful, but it didn’t set the world alight unfortunately. A lot of the purists who listened to my previous music said, ‘Mmm… forget the electronic stuff.’
“I haven’t made an album since. You don’t want to rush these things, do you?”