February 6, 2020

The Alan Parsons Project can be seen in some ways as one of the more unlikely successes of the late-‘70s and early ‘80s. Indeed, just as punk was, supposedly, sweeping the prog dinosaurs away (and undoubtedly making that genre much harder to succeed in for quite some time), along came this collective, named after a recording engineer with Pink Floyd in his pedigree, who didn’t play live, had no defined frontman, a fluid line-up of musicians and, to put the lid on it, released a string of concept albums. They should by all the laws of the business have sunk without trace to be rediscovered later as a fascinating curio – in reality, they sold millions and became a household name. Sometimes, you just can’t predict things.

Original publicity photo

Of course, the APP, as we shall refer to them, had one big thing going for them: strong songs. Not for them the noodling epic propped up by three-minute guitar solos, as even on such conceptual behemoths as their debut Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, based on the writings of Edgar Alan Poe, or I Robot, doing the same for Isaac Asimov, the song was king (give or take the odd left field move such as the lengthy orchestral Fall Of The House Of Usher, for instance). You didn’t have to be a Yes or ELP fan to get into these concepts. You just had to appreciate strong compositions flawlessly played. And people did. A lot of people.

In reality, the APP was essentially a duo: Parsons himself and his partner, lyricist and vocalist Eric Woolfson. After a few albums the line up of musicians stabilised itself to a great extent, but was never officially ‘a band’. Their photos didn’t appear on the album covers, and for years a great many fans probably never even knew what their ‘heroes’ even looked like. In fact, they were bearded, but that’s beside the point. In the last two or three decades the Project, now minus the sadly departed Woolfson, have embarked on live performance, and have effectively entered into the complete reverse of their earlier career: they now rarely record but regularly perform!

In 1984, the APP released what has often been seen by fans as one of their strongest work, the Ammonia Avenue album, and happily this superb work has now been given its ‘ultimate’ treatment by Esoteric Records, with a box stuffed with DCs, a DVD, vinyl and more books and ephemera than you could shake a robot at. I spoke to Alan to get his memories f the album, and his thoughts on the new reissue, and I was also able to get the thoughts of Sally Woolfson, daughter of Eric and curator of his massive home demo library, much of which features on the CDs, to expand on this with her own fascinating insights.

While the original album still sounds good, one of the criticisms which has been levelled against it is the slightly dated sound coming from the electronic ‘Summons drums’ used on the album, an element which Alan himself sought to improve with the new mix included in the reissue. Indeed, this is the first thing he brings up when asked about the new edition. “Ah, I’m glad you picked up on that in the new mix – that was the main point of it, really. I very much wanted to get rid of that sound as much as I could. It’s still there to an extent, but I think it sounds a lot more natural in sound now, and definitely a more contemporary drum sound. Those Simmons drums were everywhere back then, and they really do date things”.

The new deluxe box set contents

The first thing I seek to address is the original inspiration, and concept, behind the album title (and that of the title song by extension, of course). It has been reported that Eric Woolfson was visiting an ICI plant in the UK when he saw a street called Ammonia Avenue lined with pipes, and the image stuck with him. “Yes, that’s quite true”, agrees Alan. “I remember Eric doing that. He’d been invited to tour this plant, which was in Billingham, and when he saw that street, he had this idea for the title song then and there – it fired his imagination straight away. I say the title song, because unlike some of our earlier albums this one wasn’t really a concept album in the sense of a meaning shot through the whole thing. There was the nature of the packaging, but the songs were really independent from one another. It was getting much less fashionable to do concept albums by that time anyway!”

Sally Woolfson helpfully adds some detail to this story, from the horse’s mouth as it were, as she says “I can give you Eric’s words in answer to this question. He said: ‘John Harvey-Jones, the then chairman of ICI, was in the SDP, of which I was a founder member. I found myself sitting next to him on a Concorde flight once, and he had this idea that his industrial plant in Billingham (in the north of England) might actually provide musical inspiration for somebody. He flew me up there, we went in and the first thing that struck me was there was this avenue, but with no trees or people, just pipes where they made ammonia. I thought it was inspirational, particularly in relation to our lack of understanding of science and technology and the scientists’ lack of understanding of the world outside of science, particularly the arts.’ Eric had the great pleasure of presenting John Harvey-Jones with a gold disc for Ammonia Avenue and he subsequently returned the compliment by choosing the title track as one of his Desert Island Discs.”

One of the things I have always thought very clever in relation to that song is that the contraction of the words Ammonia Avenue, NH3 AVE – as seen in the album artwork and the publicity material of the time – is an anagram of HEAVEN, taking the 3 as a capital E. This fits the lyric to perfection, and is something I have always felt gave even more gravitas to the song. Alan’s answer to my mention of this, however, takes me totally unawares… “Oh, really? You know, I’ve never ever heard that! Wait… N-H-3-A-V-E … wow, that’s never ever occurred to me before, really! I know these things can be coincidence, because I remember we worked with a very famous radio programmer over here in the States called Lee Abrams, and Eric only discovered his name is an anagram of Laser Beam when he was playing about with it. That’s really amazing though, it’s definitely worth asking Sally about that in case Eric ever mentioned it. I’ll be absolutely honest with you, the reason I used that shortform originally was simply because I did chemistry at school and I knew the abbreviation for ammonia, and it was easier to write! I’ll have to tell people about that now – you’re the first person in 35 years to ever point that out to me. Brilliant!” Sally does indeed add her take when asked about this: “Very well spotted! Eric absolutely loved crossword puzzles and cryptic clues so I am very sure he was aware of this. There are also many references to cathedrals in his work (think GAUDI, Turn of a Friendly Card) and it was a particularly special moment for me to discover in his songwriting diary tapes for Ammonia Avenue an idea of cathedral type bells ringing as part of the arrangement (which wasn’t eventually used) to go with the ‘remained behind to pray’ lyric. This track is featured on the ‘Eric Woolfsongs Songwriting Diary’ Bonus Disc 2, track 14, by the way.”

Ah, more awards! Alan looks intense, as Eric wonders where to hang it…

Another song from the album that I have always been very struck by is Dancing On A Highwire which, apart from being an excellent song from a musical standpoint, also has some quite powerful lyrics. The chorus line ‘There used to be a lifeline. There isn’t any more’ always seemed very stark and powerful to me, and even focused the mind at times of feeling out of one’s ‘comfort zone’ as you might say. Pipeline as well, though this time not lyrically at all since it is an instrumental, is another very strong piece. “Ah really, that’s interesting you say that about Dancing On A Highwire”, replies Alan. “Eric was always very adept at coming up with a great turn of phrase and that one is one I’ve always liked for sure. I’m glad you like that one. That’s Colin Blunstone on vocals there of course – bringing him back into the fold again! Actually, the line you mention wasn’t in the original lyric as I recall, so we must have changed it later. We sometimes did that, and I’m sure it’s an improvement on what we had originally. It might be on one of Eric’s cassette recordings of the songs in development I think, though I can’t remember just now. They are interesting, but best worked through a few at a time I think. They show how the songs developed. As for Pipeline, well, it always seemed to be my job to come up with an instrumental for each album, but I must admit that one did come out quite well, I was pleased with that. And the sax part as well [by Mel Collins] worked very well, great job. “

A wonderful shot of Eric Woolfson, content with his piano

Sally unsurprisingly has some interesting information about the lyrical perspective, in response to the mention of Dancing On A Highwire. “I’m delighted to hear that Dad’s lyrics have made an impact on you. We get a lot of people writing in to tell us this – it’s very moving that his lyrics resonate with people on so many levels. There is actually a page of his lyric notes for this song included in the Box Set book, and interestingly that line isn’t included, so Alan might well be right that Dad changed or added it at a later stage. I believe he was often writing and changing lyrics right up to the studio recording sessions which was perhaps the case here. None of the songwriting diary tracks include the specific lyric line ‘There used to be a lifeline’ but there are plenty of ‘There isn’t any more’ references so it sounds like this came first! Check out Track 10 of the ‘Songwriting Diary’ Disc 2 – I think you’ll find it particularly interesting. I wonder if the song was even going to be called ‘There isn’t Any More’ at one point!”

By the time of this album the Project had coalesced into more of a stable ‘band’ in many ways, with a core line-up of David Paton and Ian Bairnson from Pilot, and drummer Stuart Elliot from Cockney Rebel. “Yes it had,” confirms Alan. “In fact, that was from about Pyramid onward that David, Ian and Stuart were all involved, and they were a great unit. David and Ian had been with us from the beginning of course. Add to that Mel Collins with his tremendous sax contribution and Andrew Powell’s orchestral arrangements – he really excelled himself on this album – and it’s a very strong line-up”.

One of the most fascinating bonus tracks on the new box set is an instrumental version of the album track Don’t Answer Me which is listed as a ‘Shadows Tribute’ – understandably since Ian Bairnson’s guitar is an uncanny recreation of the Hank Marvin sound, making the track almost like Ghost Riders In The Sky! Alan laughs when asked about this: “Ha, yes, that was a lot of fun certainly. Ian really nailed that Hank Marvin sound. It’s interesting you mention Ghost Riders In The Sky, because that was actually the nickname we gave the track! I remember Eric actually seriously had the idea that it could go on the album itself, but I was ‘No, no, Eric, we can’t do that!’ It’s great as a bit of a fun throwaway like this as a bonus track, but good Lord, no, it couldn’t go on the album proper!” Speaking of Ian Bairnson, it’s interesting to note that his pedigree includes being the man playing the iconic guitar solo on Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, which alone cements his abilities. Also worthy of note is that Alan was the producer on Pilot’s self-titled album, which explains them continuing to work together.

One thing I want to address is the conversion of the APP into a live band in more recent times, having been a definitively studio operation for such a long time. “Yes, we’ve actually been playing live longer than you might think, because it’s 25 years now! We started doing live work in 1995 for the Try Anything Once album, the first one just to come out under my name and not as the Project. We actually did more shows in 2019 than any other year since we started, and there will be a lot more this year. Prime Time is one track from Ammonia Avenue which has been a live favourite, we do that in an extended version with a long guitar solo, and it goes down very well. This Summer we should be kicking off a tour for the anniversary of Turn Of A Friendly Card, which as you have said is something of a favourite among prog fans for the long title track. We’ve done that track before so hat will certainly be getting played again! I don’t know of any UK dates as yet, but that would be nice if we could manage it for sure”. And how about the current vogue for bands to play older albums in their entirety ­– I wonder whether the Project have ever done that? “Well yes we have”, confirms Alan. “We did I Robot all the way through for a period, which went over extremely well. It was challenging in parts, with tracks like Nucleus and Total Eclipse, but it always seemed to go over very successfully, and it was a lot of fun to do. We used to open the regular shows very often with the I Robot title track itself, but when we did the whole album we would do the ‘hits’ set first then finish up with the album at the end”.

On the subject of I Robot, that was of course the second APP album, and still a very popular one to this day, but I have to confess a love for the debut Tales Of Mystery And Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe, which I am old enough to have bought when it came out! Everything from the lavish packaging through to the very left-field Fall Of The House Of Usher track taking up most of the second side still resonates with that one. I ask Alan about his memories of those early classics: “Yes, I Robot did very well, it got a lot of attention when it came out. Of course, it was perfectly timed with the first Star Wars movie coming out, that didn’t do any harm at all! I’m glad that you mentioned the Mystery And Imagination album though, I’m still very proud of that one. We did take a risk with that whole orchestral thing on the House Of Usher track, but I have to admit that if you were to ask me my favourite of the albums we’ve done, I would still say that one. There was something very special about it I think”.

One of the most memorable images in the album packaging is, to my mind, the oddly unsettling photo of the scientists with their heads plunged into the soil in front of them. That was one I am keen to ask both Alan and Sally about. As Alan recalls it “Oh certainly, that was an eye-catching image for sure. It was all Storm Thorgerson [Hipgnosis] as I remember, where he got some of his ideas from I have no idea. Very imaginative, to say the least”. Sally has this to say on the subject: “In Eric’s words – ‘The album focused on the possible misunderstanding of industrial scientific developments from a public perspective and a lack of understanding of the public from a scientific perspective’. I personally always felt that image was a visual display of the phrase ‘Heads in the Sand’. But as with Eric’s lyrics he always liked to keep a degree of ambiguity which was open to different interpretations”. Heads in the sand does indeed seem to be a possibility – and indeed one that I feel annoyed with myself for never having connected to it, while looking for something deeper and more obscure!

Eric Woolfson pictured in 2009, the year he passed away

At this point Alan has to leave for another appointment, but I have one final question which I am very interested to hear Sally’s take on. With the APP always being a partnership between Alan and Eric, I wonder was there ever any talk of naming it the Parsons-Woolfson Project or something more ‘democratic’ like that, or was it always accepted as the best name? Her answer is very enlightening, and something of an insight into her father’s personality. “Dad always used to say it was both the best and worst decision of his life to call it ‘The Alan Parsons Project’. The best because he enjoyed great success with complete anonymity and no fame. The worst because even today people don’t necessarily know who he is or what his massive role in the Project was. At the time, it was a measured decision, given he was the manager, to focus on Alan’s talents as an engineer/ producer. Alan had just come off the back of Dark Side of the Moon and had worked with the Beatles, so these were great marketing hooks when trying to pitch to record companies. As Eric handled all the business side of things it was much easier to plug how brilliant Alan was and stay out of the limelight in terms of his own creative input into the work. He made Alan the focus in the same way it had been done with directors of film such as Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick – the writers and artists were secondary in terms of the marketing. With the initial Tales of Mystery album they referred to themselves as ‘The Project’ or ‘The Project for Alan Parsons’ but at some stage it evolved into ‘The Alan Parsons Project’ and that’s how it stuck”.

It’s a great thing to my mind, to have these classic works being made available in such beautifully ‘tactile’ and aesthetically pleasing editions, with the whole package, words, music and imagery, being presented in its best possible light. After all, those great albums of the ’60s, ‘70s and a little later  are effectively becoming works of art in their own way, and lovers of such things rightly treasure them being ‘curated’ in the best way they can. The artwork in particular was lovingly created and thought extremely important in the golden era of vinyl, and it is good to see it being retained.

ALAN PARSONS PROJECT TRIVIA LIST – Courtesy Of Sally Woolfson

•Many APP songs have been used in the backing tracks of well known TV series and films including Family Guy, Britain’s Got Talent, The Late Show with David Letterman, America’s Got Talent, The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show and the films Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Donnie Brasco and Flubber.

•APP music is used regularly in adverts and film trailers including the Anchorman 2 trailer and major Dr Pepper drinks and Nissan and Toyota car campaigns . It was also featured in the best selling Grand Theft Auto V computer game

•The Alan Parsons Project was mentioned humorously in the Austin Powers film The Spy Who Shagged Me and the Simpsons episode ‘Homerploooza’

•NASA plays Eye in the Sky regularly as a wake up call to astronauts out in space!

•The Chicago Bulls introductory music is the opening ‘Sirius’ to Eye in the Sky. This has been used extensively and become one of the most popular sports intro themes.

•We’ve had to write to Donald Trump’s lawyers to insist that he does not use the APP ‘Sirius’ track in his political rallies, which he did without our permission for a short time.

•Marlon Brando bought 1,000 copies of Tales Of Mystery And Imagination when it was released to give to his friends

•Clive Davis included 3 pages dedicated to The Alan Parsons Project in his latest autobiography: “They composed haunting, highly atmospheric, literate song that addressed ambitious, conceptual subjects… The Alan Parsons Project seemed to capture something about the mid-Seventies that made me believe it could reach a large audience. This was also the era of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Star Trek, in which young people’s vision of space was romantic and psychologically compelling. It seemed possible that The Alan Parsons project could help create a soundtrack for that time. Which is exactly what it did” – Clive Davis, 2013

•In 2017, the APP song Time was featured in the Oscar winning film A Fantastic Woman both in the most pivotal scene in the film and throughout the end credits. The director had specifically looked for a film to feature the song in for 20 years.

•Disney World plays a section of APP music every 15 minutes in their Epcot Park

•For a period of time in the early 80s, there was an American imposter who would go round pretending to be Eric Woolfson, booking concerts etc. The police eventually caught up with him!

•Woolfson has appeared twice on the Howard Stern radio show and believes he’s the only person who Stern did not abuse! (although he was made to play a miniature toy piano and accompany Roger Daltrey singing live on air and unrehearsed)

•Bonnie Tyler did a cover version of Limelight (from the APP album Stereotomy) which was used as the official German Olympic theme song in 1996

•At one point in the early ’80s, there were 5 Project albums in the German top 30 album chart

•Record sales in New Zealand were so high that you could calculate that each member of the population had to own at least 3 albums!

•APP Songs have been broadcast more than 2 million times on American Radio alone (equivalent to 6 years if played in succession on one station!)

•Woolfson’s song Old and Wise is regularly voted number 8 in the best 2,000 songs ever in The Netherlands

• The ‘Don’t Answer Me’ video was made by Mike Kaluta, an American comics artist and writer. It took 23 days to make and cost around $50,000. It was nominated for the award as Best Experiemental Video at the first ever MTV Video Music Awards in 1984.

• Eric sang more lead vocals on Ammonia Avenue than any other APP album

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