by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
Alan Parsons became a part of rock history before he ever made his first album, having served as the assistant engineer on The Beatles’ Abbey Road and the head engineer behind Pink Floyd’s masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon. Parsons would shortly after try his hand at producing, going on to helm several big-selling albums for singer-songwriter Al Stewart (including Modern Times, Year of the Cat, and Time Passages) and early discs from Ambrosia (who would go on to soft-rock superstardom with “How Much I Feel” and “Biggest Part of Me”) and John Miles, as well as the enduring Top Five single “Magic” by ‘70s one-hit-wonders Pilot. (“Oh, oh, it’s magic, you know / Never believe it’s not so!”)
By the mid-‘70s, Parsons – who, similar to fellow producer Quincy Jones, seldom ever actually sang lead vocals on any of his own self-billed records, usually confining himself musically to the role of arranger and keyboard wizard – was sufficiently confident in his abilities as a writer and performer to turn the spotlight on himself and consequently formed the Alan Parsons Project with Eric Woolfson. Naturally, with Parsons’ background as one of the most renowned engineers in the business, the pair’s albums were consistently textbook-worthy examples of sound and production at its finest, and it’s not surprising that the band’s catalog has been a magnet for audiophiles of all kinds, 1977’s I Robot (based on the Isaac Asimov book of the same name) becoming one of the most wildly-popular titles in Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s ongoing series of original-master-recording reissues.
The band’s very model was rather revolutionary for its time, in fact: neither of the band’s two fixed and principal members opted to be the group’s full-time vocalist, in spite of Woolfson being a fine vocalist with a warm baritone. Instead, the band creatively decided to employ a deliberately-ever-rotating cast of lead vocalists. [Naturally, such a construct would make touring a bit of a challenge, but the Alan Parsons Project was always intended to be little more than a studio experiment, and, true to its nature, the band didn’t make its concert debut until the dawn of the Nineties, surprisingly enough!] Over the years, the Project would employ such notable names as the Hollies’ Allan Clarke, Steve Harley, Pilot’s Dave Paton, the Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, and Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker as lead singers. But the voice behind most of the band’s hit singles was typically either that of Woolfson himself (at Arista’s insistence, Woolfson would gradually take on more of the vocal duties over the years to help give the band a recognizable trademark at radio) or that of frequent Parsons collaborator Lenny Zakatek, who sings lead on their hits “Games People Play,” “Damned If I Do,” and “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You.”
The conceptual album that would serve as their debut, 1976’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, their lone release on 20th Century Records before signing to Arista, nearly matched the band’s unique lineup in sheer adventurousness and ambition. The album – the most heavily prog-influenced album the pair would ever make together – is a thematic affair comprised exclusively of musical adaptations of poems and short stories from Edgar Allen Poe. It’s certainly an unusual concept for any act to make their debut with, never mind one that doesn’t even tour, so you have to suspect that 20th Century fretted over how they might be able to sell the disc, but Parsons’ reputation went a long way towards stoking listeners’ curiosity.
The disc has a moderately confusing release history, not in the least since the cover art was changed when the disc was reissued in 1977. The original cover was restored when the album finally came out on CD in 1987, but the album itself had been modified significantly, as Parsons had gone back to update and modernize the production, add additional instrumentation, and even add narration from the legendary Orson Welles! Some purists understandably howled, but the changes arguably made the album even more captivating. (Fans of the original were later placated when Mobile Fidelity released an audiophile CD reissue of the original 1976 masters in 1994. In 2007, Universal would issue a double-disc deluxe version of the album that contained both the 1976 and 1987 versions for side-by-side comparison along with eight rarities.)
The album’s complicated history aside, its actual musical content is stunning. Parsons and Woolfson cleverly and wisely enlist Parsons’ production clients as backing musicians, so all the members of both Pilot and Ambrosia are utilized here. [Strangely enough, neither Pilot’s lead singer (David Paton) nor Ambrosia’s (David Pack) are employed as lead vocalists here and are instead featured almost exclusively as guitarists.] There are two featured instrumentals here, the album-opening “A Dream Within a Dream” and the sixteen-minute tour de force “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the latter of which sports acoustic guitar work from future Wings member Laurence Juber, lush orchestrations conducted and arranged by Andrew Powell (the producer of Kate Bush’s debut disc The Kick Inside), and, on the 1987 remix, dramatic narration from Welles.
But it’s the vocal tracks that arguably make the biggest impression here, not in the least due to the great cast of talent the pair has recruited to their cause. The Hollies’ Terry Sylvester takes the mike on the closing cut, “To One in Paradise,” and also shares lead on “The Cask of Amontillado.” The enigmatic and wildly influential Arthur Brown – the eccentric former leader of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, who came just one spot shy of topping the U.S. singles charts in 1968 with their lone hit, “Fire” – unexpectedly resurfaces to fittingly provide lead vocals on the chilling “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which is every bit as terrifying here in musical form as the Poe poem itself is in literary form. Parsons himself takes a rare lead vocal – albeit through a vocoder – alongside famed actor Leonard Whiting (the 1968 film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet) on “The Raven.”
Most memorable of all, though, is the straightforward-yet-punchy art-rock of “(The System of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” one of the more lyrically unlikely Top 40 hits of the ‘70s. (It just snuck onto the survey, peaking at #37.) The track is so well-performed that it’s hard to pinpoint what the most dynamic element of the recording is. Woolfson’s keyboard work defines the word “bouncy,” while the members of Pilot (particularly drummer Stuart Tosh and guitarist Ian Bairnson) do a remarkable job of keeping along and punch up the track a great deal with their assertive playing. Jack Harris, meanwhile, contributes some attention-grabbingly low-pitched backing vocals to great atmospheric effect and guest vocalist John Miles injects just the right amount of soul into his delivery. [Miles would soon have a hit of his very own, his 1977 Rupert Holmes-produced disc Stranger in the City spawning a U.S. Top 40 single in “Slow Down.”]
For a band that never actually appeared in concert, the Project would ultimately rack up an almost staggering number of hits – they’d have eight Top 40 hits in all, four of them Top Twenty hits. Their biggest hit is the Woolfson-sung 1982 Number Three hit “Eye in the Sky” from the album of the same name, but as sizable a hit though that title cut was, it’s not even the most ubiquitous track from that disc these days – the album-opening instrumental, “Sirius,” has become a common fixture at sports events worldwide, even being regularly utilized by the Chicago Bulls during the ‘90s as background music for the introduction of its starting lineup.