1980 was an iconic year in a number of ways, for better and for worse. The Summer Olympics were held in Moscow. Kubrick’s The Shining was released. John Lennon was shot. MaCaulay Culkin was born (*ahem*). Perhaps less widely known on the public radar, the fifth studio album by The Alan Parsons Project was released in November of that year, a forty-minute concept album titled The Turn of a Friendly Card which revolves (loosely) around one fateful night of gambling in a casino, and is considered by some to be the band’s magnum opus.
The album enjoyed a decent amount of success, reaching position #13 on the Billboard chart in the US and eventually achieving Platinum status, propelled by the moderate radio hits “Games People Play” and “Time,” the latter of which marked Eric Woolfson’s first appearance performing lead vocals.
I will not attempt to hide my bias: this is my absolute favorite album by APP. If you’ll forgive me for getting very High Fidelity on you, this record will most likely hold a rock-solid place in my personal Top Five Albums of All Time for the remainder of my life. And, similarly to my initial reaction to Alan Parsons’ music in general, I could not stand this album upon first listen. But, as so often seems to be true (at least for me), the albums and songs that we love immediately tend to be the ones we most quickly become tired of, whereas the music that is off-putting and initially hard to digest has a way of culling us back to itself for another listen. Music that is challenging at first can tend to mature us as listeners and help expand our palate for new things, but perhaps that is a topic best left to be explored at another time.
So just what, pray tell, is so compelling about this album in particular? The first thing that comes to mind is the 16-minute musical suite that closes the album; one continuous piece of music broken up into five individual tracks (random tidbit: the West German pressing of the album featured this suite in its “proper” form as one 16-minute song that served as the “title track.”). This piece is the epitome of concept album storytelling. Its plot arc is simple and direct: the story of a man with a troubled life being seduced by the promise of wealth gained easily by way of gambling, and his ultimate undoing. While that may sound heavy-handed by today’s standards, the modern day parable is surprisingly affecting in its delivery.
The music lends itself to the tragedy, particularly with the opening song “May Be a Price to Pay,” as well as on “The Turn of a Friendly Card” parts 1 and 2, which are melancholy in tone and suggest deception and loss. Conversely, tracks like “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Snake Eyes” communicate the bright, brash, inviting quality of a casino and the prospect of easy money. The album blends these contrasting elements together into one harmonious theme, which makes for a pleasantly balanced listening experience. The ten tracks cover a lot of ground: there are moments lush with rock and funk vibes, sweet and reverential ballads, foreboding piano-driven laments, and APP’s obligatory ethereal instrumental tracks (“Ace of Swords” and “The Gold Bug.” The latter is another Edgar Allan Poe reference, by the way). The Turn of a Friendly Card is as musically diverse an album as can be, and yet it never seems to stray from its cohesiveness as a single piece.
While I highly encourage listening to the record straight through from front to back, “Games People Play” is a good place to start for cold ears. It’s one of the catchiest and most accessible hits of APP’s career, and an upbeat, enjoyable song. “I Don’t Want to Go Home” is another strong track with a funkier vibe. Listen for the lead guitar that comes in at 1:03, and turn up your stereo accordingly; this moment never fails to thrill me. Lastly, give “Nothing Left to Lose” a try. While it begins as a softer, sing-songy acoustic tune, give it until the transition at 2:36 and, again, play it loud.
All in all, this is just a damn fine record.
Tracks of note: all of it. Just… all of it.
This was widely reported to be APP’s most commercially successful album, having reached the Billboard top ten and even the number one spot in some countries. It was the last of three records to go platinum for the band (the first two being I Robot and The Turn of a Friendly Card). Its success was undoubtedly due to the smash hits “Old and Wise” and “Eye in the Sky.” The latter is arguably their “defining” song and the one for which they are most well known. Additionally, the instrumental opening track “Sirius” has enjoyed a lengthy career of its own, having been licensed in a variety of movies and becoming a staple for sporting events at both the college and professional levels.
This record seems to take a step away from any clearly definable concept or theme and plays more like a collection of standalone songs that explore a wide spectrum of musical styles and ideas. Curiously enough, it is probably APP’s most disjointed album. That is not a criticism because all of the tracks are good, they just don’t necessarily sound like they belong together. Songs such as “Step by Step,” “Psychobabble,” “You’re Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned,” and the title track are funky and upbeat, while “Gemini,” “Old and Wise,” and “Silence and I” are more contemplative, airy, and involve heavy orchestration.
Alan Parsons implemented a new method in the production of this album by recording it on analogue equipment, then mixing it directly to the digital master tape. Parsons was an early adopter, as digital tape was a fairly new technology at the time, having become commercially available in the mid-70s (though it existed and was in development for nearly forty years prior to that). Notably, Peter Gabriel recorded his record Security digitally, as did Donald Fagen on his album The Nightfly, both released in the same year. APP would go on to record their next two albums using the same method before transitioning to direct-to-digital recording for their final two LPs.
I don’t have a great deal more to say on this one. It’s a decent record with some very solid tracks, and was in many ways the pinnacle of APP’s career, launching them to the height of their success and ensuring some level of notoriety to this day. Though I do not consider it to be structured in a way that is very consistent, it serves as a sort of amalgam of APP’s signature sounds and is a safe enough place to start as an introductory record.
Tracks of note: “Sirius/Eye in the Sky,” “Silence and I,” “Psychobabble.”
What the hell is up with that title? Believe it or not, it’s based on a real place.
According to the liner notes from the 2008 CD reissue, the title was inspired by Eric Woolfson’s visit to Imperial Chemical Industries in Billingham, England where he saw an entire city block consumed by a metal structure involving miles of piping used to produce ammonia (this structure can be seen in part on the album artwork). On the block were no trees or wildlife, no people, and a street sign that read “Ammonia Avenue.” The chemical plant must have seemed a fitting symbol for industry, a keystone both intriguing and dismal. Seemingly an odd source for inspiration, but it was enough to spark an idea for Woolfson that would set the tone for their seventh album.
Though even Parsons himself said that this is not necessarily a concept album, and that only the opening track had much to do with the ammonia plant. “Prime Time,” Parsons said, “has a doomy, end of the world, ecological ring to it,” but the other tracks on the album do not relate to that theme.
Ammonia Avenue is easily the most radio-friendly APP album, as was confirmed by its numerous hits. “Don’t Answer Me” was a Phil Spector-inspired smash hit and the lead single from the record, ranking high in both the Adult Contemporary and Rock charts and selling over a million copies. It would also be the last major hit for the band. “Don’t Answer Me” had Eric Woolfson on lead vocals, and his smooth voice and easy delivery solidified him as a fan favorite, despite the fact that over the course of APP’s career he only sang on a handful of tracks. “You Don’t Believe” and “Since the Last Goodbye” were also moderate hits, and “Prime Time” performed well on the airwaves, making it into the Top 40. The latter has a similar vibe to “Eye in the Sky,” and intentionally so according to Parsons. After the success of their previous album, they were trying to craft another hit song that had the driving beat and chugging guitar of “Eye in the Sky.”
The creative direction of Ammonia Avenue was perfectly timed. Still riding the success of their previous record, they chose to craft an album that was light, straightforward, and easily digestible. The production is steeped in the reverb-heavy influences of the 1980’s, but in a way that works to its advantage. The album has a timeless quality that holds up thirty years later in a way that many records from the same era do not.
Tracks of note: “Prime Time,” “Pipeline,” “Ammonia Avenue,” “Don’t Answer Me.”
Two records in one year?!? Few other artists have been known to have that kind of turnaround time (Creedence Clearwater’s three releases in ‘69 and two in ‘70 come to mind), so how did they pull it off?
The answer is that the groundwork for Vulture Culture had already been laid in early ‘84, as it was originally going to be the second half of a double album released in a single package alongside Ammonia Avenue. Even after substantial online digging I could not ascertain the precise reason as to why these two were separated and released individually—perhaps something related to contractual obligations (it was well documented that APP’s relationship with Arista had become strained towards the end). Had the two been released together, they would have made for a curious pairing, as Vulture Culture is up there with Pyramid in its strangeness as an album (coincidentally, those two are also APP’s shortest albums, each having a runtime of just over 37 minutes).
As to the oddities of Vulture Culture, Side A consists of fairly standard four-minute pop songs while Side B is all over the place stylistically and comprised of songs that give definition to the term “b-side.” The cover art sets the tone for the listener with a rather dark and mysterious image: a golden Ouroboros with the head of a vulture instead of a snake set against a deep red velvet background. The flipside of the jacket is even stranger, being the same image but with only a charred impression of the Ouroboros remaining and the golden symbol itself having vanished. It is the sort of image that is both simple and yet unsettling for reasons that are hard to identify, like a subtle shadow cast over the album. If there is any sort of concept to the album it would probably be corporate greed, or perhaps self-absorption, although apart from the title track and “Let’s Talk About Me” none of the other songs seem related to those themes.
This was the last of APP’s albums to be certified Gold, and while it performed well in Germany and continental Europe, it was poorly-reviewed in Rolling Stone and was not a great success in the States. Notably, it is the only of the band’s ten records not to feature symphonic orchestration by Andrew Powell, giving it a more standard rocky sound. “Separate Lives” and “Sooner or Later” are both great tracks, the latter being described by Parsons himself as, "the third attempt to try and get another hit with the ‘Eye in the Sky’-esque chugging guitar line—‘Prime Time’ from Ammonia Avenue was the second, which I thought was a little more successful in that respect." “Hawkeye” is probably the quirkiest instrumental track of their career and it takes a certain ear to appreciate it. The title track is funky and reminiscent of the sounds first explored on the Eve record, while “Days Are Numbers” and “The Same Old Sun” are peaceful ballads fit for the Adult Contemporary Easy Listening crowd. Overall, Vulture Culture is a solid enough album, if not a groundbreaking one.
Tracks of note: “Sooner or Later,” “Separate Lives,” “Vulture Culture.”
So we come to the penultimate album by The Alan Parsons Project, and as any music-fiend knows all too well, no band enjoys this long of a career without suffering at least one dud. Stereotomy is theirs.
The title is yet another reference to Edgar Allan Poe, specifically his story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The term “stereotomy” refers to the cutting of existing solid shapes into different forms, (apparently) used as a metaphor throughout the course of the album for the way that celebrities can tend to be reshaped by the demands of fame and popularity. The album art on the original pressing lent itself to this theme of “reshaping;” the LP came packaged in a transparent vinyl two-tone sleeve—one side a deep red, the other an almost black hue of green—that altered the appearance of the cover art depending on which side it was viewed through (I own one of these original pressings. The color-changing effect is almost cooler than anything on the album).
This was the first of APP’s albums to be recorded digitally, a method they also employed on Gaudi. The production is flawlessly clean and it is a fun record to listen through on high fidelity headphones because of its many nuances and crisp sonic detail. It features the lengthiest instrumental track of the band’s career, “Where’s the Walrus,” which was nominated for a Grammy (Best Rock Instrumental Performance, 1987).
All that doesn’t sound too bad, right? Then just what is so rough about this record?
Well, if every other APP record prior to this one can be called timeless, Stereotomy is very much a product of its time, and has not aged nearly as well as its earlier counterparts. Listeners will be jolted from the very first song as the title track kicks in—a bombastic and industrial-sounding rock tune with punchier synths than a Kanye beat—because it is so immediately evident that this is not the same Alan Parsons Project we all knew and loved. I am not saying that progression or a substantial change of sound is a bad thing for a band, quite often it is necessary and crucial to their growth and evolution. But that doesn’t mean change is always done well or in a way that is enjoyable for the fans.
I hate to sound like I’m bashing this album because personally I’ve grown to like it quite a lot, although for different reasons than I do the rest of their discography. I can’t help but feel that to the “modern” listener’s ears, Stereotomy might sound like a joke, or like a good example of everything that was corny and overdone about 80’s music. From the soaring hair-metal vocals of the title track to the cloying reverb-drenched ballad “Limelight” to the so-peppy-it’s-silly “Beaujolais,” it is a bit mystifying to try and imagine a period of time when someone could write and record these songs and say, “Yes! This is cool!”
While Stereotomy has its elements that may sound a bit dated to our 2015 ears, I stuck with it and found myself coming to appreciate and have fun with its unabashed passion and forwardness. “Where’s the Walrus” is a monstrous, head-enveloping instrumental track that could have been right at home on the original TRON soundtrack or as gameplay music on the T2: Judgment Day arcade. “Light of the World” is haunting and beautiful, and yes, even though “Limelight” is a little gushy and overly emotional, it’s a compelling song with a powerhouse lead vocal by Gary Brooker. The snare drum on “Beaujolais” is mixed so hot it threatens to punch holes in your speaker cones, but the song itself is amusing and playful.
If the above has not communicated this clearly enough: I have a complicated relationship with Stereotomy. Were I pressed to rank APP’s albums from one to ten, this record would be at the bottom of the list, but that doesn’t mean it’s crap. I would recommend this album only to the Alan Parsons purist, or perhaps to the music enthusiast with a particular fondness for the sounds of the 80’s. It’s a weird one, but it has its moments.
Tracks of note: “Light of the World,” “Beaujolais,” “Where’s the Walrus.”
Finally we come to what would be the tenth and final “official” Alan Parsons Project record.
The album is named after the architect Antoni Gaudi, an artist native to Catalonia, Spain. Gaudi is known for his contribution to a number of buildings but perhaps most famously the Sagrada Familia, the minor basilica in Barcelona with plans so complex that its construction will ultimately take more than 100 years to complete, far exceeding the designer’s own lifetime (construction is still going on to this day).
Despite having such an eloquent figure at its center, the album does not seem to dive much further conceptually into the character or work of Gaudi apart from the opening track, named for the building mentioned above. “La Sagrada Familia,” clocking in at nearly nine minutes, is in my opinion one of the finest and most definitive songs of APP’s entire catalogue. While it may be initially off-putting or strange to listen to, it eventually unfolds with great strength and integrates all the epic elements of the band’s past, blending hard-hitting brass instruments with soaring lead guitar in a well-crafted melody. Here is APP at their biggest and boldest, in some ways calling back to the monumental sounds of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
While the album seems like a logical progression forward from the musical territory of Stereotomy, I feel it is stronger overall than its precursor. There is some lack of consistency to the songs in that they tend to stand best on their own as opposed to upholding a uniform sound, but the record is still an enjoyable listen from start to finish even if it is meandering in style. There is an odd sort of melancholy hanging over this album, perhaps due to the minimalist artwork (if you’re anything like me, an album cover hugely informs the lens through which the music is interpreted). Or maybe this feeling comes from knowing that this was the band’s swan song, and therefore it holds that inevitable, indescribable feeling of finality and being “done” with something.
With only seven tracks, this is an easy one to break down song by song: first track is great, as mentioned above. “Too Late” is a grooving synth-heavy song with a melody that invokes a feeling of tragedy and loss, but features a great lead vocal by APP veteran Lenny Zakatek and is one of my favorite songs on the record. “Closer to Heaven” is a classic Woolfson ballad; lovely, doesn’t mind taking things slow, and shamelessly gushy—in a good way. “Standing on Higher Ground” and “Money Talks” are rockier, more upbeat tracks with radio appeal. Both bare a resemblance to the sounds of Stereotomy, but executed more successfully. “Inside Looking Out” is another Woolfson-led beauty that ties the Gaudi theme loosely back around to the opening track with a (somewhat out of place) voiceover detailing the life and death of the architect. “Paseo de Gracia” is the instrumental track that closes the album, echoing the melody of “La Sagrada Familia,” then transitioning into a fitting Spanish-infused section with a lead on classical acoustic guitar.
Gaudi is perhaps a curious note for the band to end on, but then, what final album has ever been perceived as precisely “right?” Still, this is a very worthy installation to the APP discography and served as an appropriate springboard for Parsons’ and Woolfson’s solo careers.
Tracks of note: “La Sagrada Familia,” “Too Late,” “Money Talks.”
My hope is that hardcore APP fans have been nodding their heads in victorious agreement while reading this, and that the interest of those previously unfamiliar with the band has been piqued. While I could go on to describe in detail the musical lives of Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson post-Project, it would probably be overly cumbersome to read and self-indulgent on my part, not to mention straying from the point. If I’m honest, the point of this entire gargantuan two-part article was not only to profess my love of The Alan Parsons Project, but also to introduce people of my age or younger to a band that I consider to be one of the definitive rocks groups of the twentieth century.
Sure, a Millennial or Post-Millennial will almost surely catch wind of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and a handful of other iconic groups just by living in the current culture; those bands are unlikely to fade from general public knowledge in our lifetimes. But The Alan Parsons Project? Arguably, they’re a tad more obscure and less likely to find their way to a younger audience unless those young people have genius parents with fantastic taste.
All this to say: The Alan Parsons Project is a treasure that needs to keep delighting new listeners and whose legacy needs to live on. So let’s make it happen.