THIRD TIME IS TRULY A CHARM FOR ALAN PARSONS I ROBOT

The revised cover for the newest version of The Alan Parsons Project, released earlier this year.  Bonus tracks, in-depth booklet and sanitized sound make this version the definitive for those yet to be initiated into the Parsons pack!

The revised cover for the newest version of The Alan Parsons Project, released earlier this year. Bonus tracks, in-depth booklet and sanitized sound make this version the definitive for those yet to be initiated into the Parsons pack!

My story begins many years ago, 1977 to be exact.  One of my early relaxation techniques was to enjoy some classical music, played at low volume, audible enough to induce calm, not loud enough to encumber sleep, at bedtime.

One night during my second year living in Scranton, my usual FM refuge, the local classical station made the industry standard decision of changing format to MOR Rock.  MOR standing for Middle Of the Road as in, they’ll play your average hit, something by Led Zepplin, ELO (who I love), Bruce Springsteen, but at the same time, play an entire album from time-to-time, some prog stuff, the average, Yes, Rush, Pink Floyd (often) and if they went deep with acts like Genesis or King Crimson, it would be “Lamb Lies Down” or “Follow You, Follow Me” from the former (one for the Gabriel era, one for the Collins era), or ONLY selections from In The Court Of The Crimson King from the latter.

I happened to tune in for my nightly fix of musical sedation on one particular night and I heard a 70’s Macho-Manned-Deep-Voiced DJ bring a song from break and announcing that the new 107 was fast-approaching a new feature for their new format, their weekly album show featuring an entire album with only commercial breaks at the flip of side one to two (yes kids, we used to have to get up after a set number of songs and turn this big wax/vinyl disc over and reset it for the last batch of tunes).  I wasn’t sure of what to make of it, where is my usual monotone, refined, and in his own way, sedate radio personality who announces my FM version of Valium?

Testosterone Tom, my new night-time DJ at bedtime was saying the upcoming album was by Alan Parsons who engineered Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, was being featured with his second album (the first with enough mainstream success to garner being considered a weekly album feature) I Robot and yes, it is of the same concept as Asimov’s epic, classic novel I, Robot.  Notice the only change between the two titles is the removal of the comma after the “I” in the title.  This came about to the thinking of the late Eric Woolfson who, after a phone conversation with Asimov himself, came to the mindset that to circumvent the legal issue, the comma would be sufficient change enough to warrant an individual copyright.

They start to play the album while I am still trying to figure out where my symphonies went.

“Holy shit this music is amazing”, I thought to myself.  Sequencing synths cascading between individual headphones (closed ear, of course) ushering in dissonant organ tones, giving way to elegant soprano female solo vocal ad-lib.  I was hooked.  I sat through the entire album transfixed.

This memorization led to the purchase of one of Arista’s first acts signed to the fledgling label.  On one of those plastic discs.

The sound of the vinyl on my Krebstar (thanks Pete & Pete) HiFi was about the same as the FM broadcast, sans a few pops and clicks…  So I was elated to get my copy of the primary issue of I Robot on CD.  Then thirty years later an anniversary edition came out in 2007 with five bonus tracks, an unreleased track experiment that turned out to be the intro to the ‘rock’ structure of “I Robot”, three demos and a mash-up of examples or demos of each song into one, continuous song.

Well earlier this year, they came out with a thirty-fifth year anniversary version that has fourteen bonus tracks contained on a second CD, and an expanded booklet with new liner notes written by Parsons.  The above factoids about the album came from those liner notes.  These are worth the price of the disc alone.

Granted, some of the bonus tracks on the thirtieth anniversary edition are the same as on the thirty-fifth anniversary edition.  Those aforementioned five tracks, then some goodies we will discuss later on in the review.

Let me just say, if you need a reason to justify purchasing this new re-issue beyond new liner notes, (that is, for those of you who are not rabid Parsons fans) and nine new bonus features, in side-by-side comparisons in my usual review setting, the mastering on the new release was out of this world!!!  Then when you listen to the album tracks, astonishingly enough, they are cleaner than the thirtieth anniversary version!!!

The saying goes, ‘So clean you could eat off it’ but in this case, it is ‘So clean you can perform surgery on these tracks’.

Prepare the patient…

Now, with regard to disc one, the main album, I won’t be dwelling much on which part comes next and arrangements and such.  Rather, I will be taking a different approach to this review.  I will be putting the tracks in conjunction with the liner notes in the new and expanded booklet to explore Parsons point of view verses the album’s history and heritage.

There is a very good chance that you have heard at least three of these tracks, maybe more depending on where you live, what you watch/listen to, and other factors.  If you have NEVER heard any of these tracks, I also don’t want to spoil it for you because in my mind (a place you don’t want to visit) you need to get out, and get this version of this disc because the concept was good when I first heard it on FM and LP.  It became even more intense during that first listen on CD, the intensity was further dialed up listening to the re-mastered CD, finally becoming out of this world with the scrubbed and bolstered deluxe reissue.

CD 1

The disc still starts off with “I Robot”.  Yes, yes, still the same woodwind-sound sequencer flittering around your speakers.  The same phased drone note supports Hilary Western’s astonishing soprano vocal intro into the iconic seven-note sequence that is the foundation for the title, opening track.

Like I said, most of us have heard it before.

What we have not heard (above and beyond the super-clear sonics) are the inside scoops of these songs.  Again, I strive to maintain my “Harvey Levin of odd-ball music” status (had to drop the prog in that statement, I cover all kinds of music, really) and report the dish of the album.

When the seven-note sequencer starts, it is left to wander in and about the track to serve as a reminder of the robot’s electric blood propelling his functions.  Parsons notes that the seven-note sequencer would drop in and out of the four/four time signature.  The only vocals are Western’s and a choir.  When lead instruments are introduced, you’ll know it.

The whole sci-fi concept was timely as well for 1977, what, with Star Wars hitting it big in theaters nationwide.  This was added gold for Woolfson-Parsons.

The next track, “I Wouldn’t Want To Be LIke You” was a break through and rocketed the project into mainstream attention.  One of the voices of the project, Lenny Zakatek, did the vocals and brought home the bacon, especially on this track.

Also, we will look at alternate versions of these tracks later on in the review.  But if you heard this, you haven’t heard it until you hear this version.

The most surprising track on this disc is “Some Other Time”.  What makes it surprising is the fact that the vocal track is done by two separate vocalists.  Initially, Jaki Whitren was brought in to lay the track down.  But Parsons found little satisfaction with her take on the verses.  So he brought in a vocalist who was a contributor to the London production of Hair, Peter Straker.  Each and every one of the hundreds of times I put this album on, from the first FM broadcast to this version, I never knew there were two separate vocalists on this track!  The timbre of both vocalists was so close, you can’t tell (credit to Parsons’ ear and Woolfson’s connections).  In Parsons mind, it was a nice dichotomy to feature the concept, the battle between man and machine.

More facts you didn’t know…  Another breakthrough hit for the project was “Breakdown” which featured the vocals of The Hollies Allan Clarke.  Parsons had engineered The Hollies at Abbey Road Studios during the recording of their pop smash, “The Air That I Breathe”.

Also, in addition to stellar sonics, the lyrics are included in the booklet to clarify and follow.

Good listening.

Parsons admits to a hissy fit in demanding a real pipe organ for the intro to the Dave Townsend sung “Don’t Let It Show”.  Arista being a new label, the budget only allowed for a portable pipe organ, which was positioned in the ‘Classical’ room at Abbey Road and the sound was sufficient enough to satisfy Parsons.

This track also showcases Andrew Powell as string arranger.  Powell’s assistance with the end dynamic build and key ascend is simply brilliant for this new, clean version.

We get a little edgier, a little more prog on “The Voice” with the bass riff admittedly influenced from The Temptations “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” but the similarities end there.  The vocals are done by another Parsons contemporary, Cockney Rebel’s Steve Harley.

Parsons also references the vocoder as a vital instrument (as it was for their previous album, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination).

More bombastic orchestrations from Powell.

To escape the ominous voice, “Nucleus” is up next.  Fot the gear-heads, this track highlights a fascinating instrument called the Projectron.  The Projectron (can you tell where it got its name?) is played on many of the tracks, but on “Nucleus” it is prominent.  It was co-developed by American engineer Keith Johnson who was called in to build an instrument that was a glorified Mellotron.  Only, the rotating head of the Mellotron is replaced by a 16 track tape machine, and the keyboard replaced with the mute and solo buttons on the mixing console.  Mute for rests, solo for the note.

Along with “I Robot”, “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” was dependent in its genesis on the EMS Synthi-A sequencer.  Another track built on a series of sequenced notes.  As Parsons notes, the breathy vocals are done by a different contemporary,  Jack Harris.

But don’t get to relaxed with the breathy vocals because here comes “Total Eclipse”, which is mostly an Andrew Powell composition, meant to match some of the scene music from 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

Parsons admits it doesn’t make good radio programming, but it does segue into “Genesis Ch. 1, v32”.

The best feature about the remix, especially evident on “Genesis Ch. 1, v32”, is that the complex arrangements of upwards of (sometimes) two hundred and fifty musicians is that thanks to Parsons lovingly cleansing each and every track, subtle nuances are heard, possibly for the first time.

This complex arrangement fades away into the twilight of man and our spanking new 1977 release ends.

But our review is far from over.

I knew I would have to court economy for this review, given we have twenty-four tracks to review.  I have not been as in-depth as I usually am because as far as I am concerned, the previous tracks are motherfucking classics.  If you don’t know them, shame on you.  There are fourteen more tracks to go, and while they aren’t epic (outside “Naked Robot”) they warrant no less focus.

CD 2

Some of these tracks have obvious names.  Like the first one, titled “U.S. Radio Commercial For I Robot”.  As its name would reveal, it is a radio spot designed to run on FM radio to promote the album.  It has snippets of every song and the obligatory boisterous voice over reading untruths about Parsons’ history and pushing the Project’s product.  Still cool to hear and have.  Good for you prog podcasters to use to push the disc on your show if you play classic rock or prog.

The next track is called “Boules” (really, it’s spelled that way, plural of my last name, and let’s hope there aren’t more than one of me) and it is an early demo idea for “I Robot”.  Apart from some early technical issues, the overall idea of the experiement is to record the sound of two boules (billiard balls made of metal) clanging together with a repeated delay on them.  If you are old enough to remember the toy ‘Clackers’, if not, they were two Lucite balls that were centrally connected to a string and you had to manipulate the string to make the hard, colored plastic balls bounce together at the top and bottom of the three hundred and sixty degree circumference allowed by the string in between.

Boules sound like these.

But it’s tough to discern because of the effects on the boules.

The next track is called “I Robot” but it is, in reality, the solo track of Hilary Western rehearsing and learning the opening soprano vocal during “I Robot”.  You get to hear her talk back to the booth and try to interpret what Parsons wants.  She sounds like a fun lady!  Loves me a British bird…

As part of a promotional campaign, a vinyl box set was created and called the “Alan Parsons Project Audio Guide” and features tracks from Parsons past with other bands, tracks from the Project’s albums (Tales and Robot all the way up to Pyramid) as well as interviews with Parsons and Woolfson.

The first one, deals with the early years as detailed by Woolfson.  How the label pushed them into defining the ‘band’s’ name and more.  It turns out to be a participant’s perspective of what took place during the management establishment, promotion and production phases of the project.

The next one is most remarkable in the confession by Woolfson that he and Parsons did not see eye-to-eye about which perspective certain concepts were representing focusing on “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You”.  Woolfon’s perspective being it is a conversation between machine and man with the machine in the position of non-envy and Parsons thinking the exact opposite.

Next we have a unique version of that track (“I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You”) with no vocal or guitar solo.  First, it was the version given to Ian Bairnson to write his solo.  But a secondary incarnation is that Parsons is willing to let this track (not the original album cut) be LICENSED out (yes, you have to apply for permission to perform it) so that you can use the Parsons Project’s take on this track as a live backing track!!  For solo performers like me, this is more gold!!!  Basically, you get to make your own version of the song!!!

You gotta love it!

Earlier we talked about “Some Other Time” being sung by two different vocalists.  Well here is the version sung entirely by Jaki Whitren.  Parsons was right, I could listen to this version over and over and Whitren would never deliver the correct interpretation of the verses.  While she holds notes and ad-libs in some really appropriate spots, it just doesn’t feel right.  Maybe if this were the version that was initially released, you would be used to it and it would fit right in.  For me, it just doesn’t work.

Not much to say about this demo version of “Breakdown”, other than I am glad this was scrapped because it sounds like something out of a spaghetti western.  ‘I’m ridin’ on the prairie, and I breakdown just a little and lose my horse…”.

Another slice from the audio guide, only this time it is Parsons himself describing the advantage of different vocalists and how the Project paved the way for future revolving door bands like Queens Of The Stone Age with members coming and going as well as only being part-time members while involved in other groups.  Only his concept is not so much a band as recording musicians called upon to give their unique slant on performances.

The next track serves to bring a spotlight to the end choir of “Breakdown”.  The rhythm track is there, barely, but the choir is right up front to let you hear them sing the words, inflections, harmonies and arrangement.

Up now is a demo version of “Don’t Let It Show” with a very early mix and structure, as well as undeveloped lyrics.  Vocals were done by the late Eric Woolfson.  This version, like the demo version of “Breakdown” is in its embryonic state.  The lyrics aren’t even done, Woolfson often ‘la-las’ his way through the melody line with no words.  Lovely but lacking.

While this claims to be a rough mix, this version of “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” sounds close to the finished product.  For all intents and purposes, this could be another track to be licensed and performed live by a young, eager soloist.

Similar to the choir spotlight on “Breakdown” from disc two, this is a spotlight on the choir from “Genesis Ch. 1, v32” and before the choir starts, you hear choirmaster Bob Howes tell the choir to smile as they sing as an effort to stay on key.

Technique technique technique…

“The Naked Robot” is what is referred to today as a mashup of each and every song on the disc into one congruous take.  This isn’t easy as all elements of the song have to be manipulated to match key, tempo, and most difficult of all, flow.  No sweat, between today’s digital processing technology and Parsons being a studio braintrust, it was completed so well, they included it in the thirtieth and the thirty-fifth editions.

I know, I have totally eschewed protocol and form.  I didn’t say ‘this guitar sounds like this’ and ‘that keyboard sounds like that’.  I focused more on how Alan reflected back on this album and compared the tracks to the liner notes.  So I took a different route, tried to take a departure from usual format.  If you don’t evolve and grow, you die.

And a robot takes your place.

Special thanks to Aqualung1989 for the YouTube clips of the songs.

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