Well before the band was a not-entirely-hilarious throwaway joke in one of the Austin Powers movies, The Alan Parsons Project — essentially Abbey Road studio boffin Parsons, vocalist Eric Woolfson and a revolving door of session musicians, some of them former members of Pilot — had a solid string of radio hits between the mid-70s to the late 80s. And they were one of my favorite bands of my youth.
I’d discovered them in late 1980 when their album The Turn of a Friendly Card was released, along with the one-two punch of two fantastic singles, “Games People Play” and “Time”. The first centered around a synth loop that got stuck in your head in a good way and had that driving beat and melody kind of similar to Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” from earlier that year.
The latter was a gorgeous ballad that must have been played at numerous school dances and senior proms at the time, and was a favorite of mine for years:
I owned an ‘oldies reissue’ single containing both songs and was most likely one of the first non-Beatles-related records I ever owned as a kid. But it wasn’t until 1982 when my older sibling gave me a dubbed copy of their then-new album Eye in the Sky, which received a lot of airplay on many rock stations. It’s a light and poppy record that fits in well with the commercial charts of the time, even with its occasional foray into weird prog nerdiness.
I got caught up for the most part with their next release, which was a greatest hits compilation in 1983. It’s a wonderful collection of singles and album tracks that run the gamut from schmaltzy ballad to amazing pop-prog instrumental to goofy pop inspired by the 1978 King Tutankhamun craze, but it also features a new song that would show up on their next record, signaling a new and more serious direction, “You Don’t Believe”.
The next few albums may not have had the same chart success as their previous records, considering the tendency for their sound to remain firmly in the Adult Contemporary genre, but they still contained some fantastic singles both light and serious. The ELO-like “Don’t Answer Me” from Ammonia Avenue was a chart hit with a humorous animated video that gave a nod to old comic books and pulp novels:
Parsons and band alum Andrew Powell also recorded a fascinating soundtrack for the Matthew Broderick/Michelle Pfeiffer/Rutger Hauer film Ladyhawke in 1985, and you can definitely hear the APP influence.
I actually liked 1985’s Stereotomy as it had a really interesting and spacious mix and was far more prog-rock than their previous records. It didn’t do too well on the charts, but the title song was catchy as hell and had a surprisingly creative video directed by visual artist Zbigniew Rybczyński.
Their last record as the Project, Gaudi, was an odd album centered around the architect, and went over the heads of a lot of people, but it did give them one last great single, “Standing on Higher Ground”.
Parsons and Woolfson went their separate ways soon after. Parsons occasionally released solo records while also returning to production work, including at Abbey Road. Woolfson released two solo records and then work solely in musical theater, and passed away in 2009. Parsons and many of the APP alums still pop up live occasionally!
The Alan Parsons Project may have been a corny joke in a Mike Myers film, but they wrote wonderfully creative pop records, and still have a strong fanbase. Their music still pops up in the most interesting of places — for instance, “Eye in the Sky” has been sampled by electronic group The Avalanches with their new song “Interstellar Love” with Leon Bridges, which dropped just this morning, thus the inspiration for this entry!