Alan Parsons

by Greg Prato

On the inspirations behind some of his biggest songs, and what it was like working with The Beatles at Abbey Road

Alan Parsons has enjoyed equal success behind the scenes and in the spotlight. Case in point, getting his start in the music biz as a studio rat, working as an engineer on such all-time classics as the Beatles' Abbey Road and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

And then as the leader of the Alan Parsons Project, the British singer/musician/songwriter enjoyed great chart success in North America with the hit singles "Eye in the Sky," "Games People Play," "Time," and "Don't Answer Me."

In 2019, Parsons returned with his first solo release in 15 years, The Secret. Shortly before the album's release, he spoke with Songfacts about why there was such a long layoff between albums, as well as songwriting, lyrical meanings, and working with the Beatles.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): The Secret is your first solo release in 15 years. Why so long between albums?

Alan Parsons: It was a combination of things. My last studio album [2004's A Valid Path] didn't really set the world alight, and it was kind of an experimental album in the world of electronica - there were many instrumentals. Following the album, I moved house and we pretty much started from scratch in the house where we now live.

I did a live record, I did a few EPs, a couple of single-release songs, I produced an album with Steven Wilson [2013's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories)], I produced an album with Jake Shimabukuro, the virtuoso ukulele player [2012's Grand Ukulele]. And I've done a few bits and pieces of production along the way.

Then, I finally got an offer by this Italian label, Frontiers, who seem to specialize in classic rock. That was the main motivation: I just didn't have a budget to make an album. My albums cost money to make, with all the orchestration and guest artists. But Frontiers were able to come up with a budget that I could live with, and here we are.

Songfacts: You mentioned budgets, and nowadays, there are a lot of breakthroughs with home recording. What are your thoughts on home recording versus recording in a traditional recording studio?

Parsons: It all depends on your level of ability. I mean, I was able to make my last studio album in a bedroom! But my new studio is much more spacious with much better equipment.

I think good records can be made in home studios, but I'm pretty old-school in the way I work. As far as recording original backing tracks, I like to have three or four people playing together.

I'm not one for starting with a drum loop and adding one instrument at a time. I really like to get a feel for the way the song is structured and what the intro is, and when the chorus comes, how many times you repeat the chorus, and so on. But my studio is wonderful - I almost feel like I'm right back at Abbey Road with a full-size console. I'm really enjoying it.

Songfacts: You also mentioned that The Secret has some special guests, including Jason Mraz and Lou Gramm.

Parsons: I met Jason a couple of years ago through a mutual friend who is a farmer who grows coffee. Jason had expressed interest in growing coffee himself, and the friend introduced me to Jason, and we got on really well. We spent some time hanging out, and it turned out that he had previously recorded a version of "Eye In The Sky," probably for his own amusement. He said he used to listen to it in the back of his mum's Fiat motorcar, back when he was a kid.

But he loved what I sent to him and he graciously agreed to do it. We never actually met face-to-face to do that vocal. He was in Dallas on tour and he took an afternoon to sing it over the internet from Dallas. I was listening in at my studio in Santa Barbara. It's totally realistic to do stuff at a distance these days.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the track that Jason sings on, "Miracle"?

Parsons: I didn't have a big say in the lyrics on that one. It was more Guy [Erez] our bass player, and another co-writer. But the album is based on magic, and lyrically, it has a strong connection to it - the magic theme.

Songfacts: Concerning songwriting, how do you find you write your best songs?

Parsons: By collaboration with others. I have been known to sit down at the piano and write a song, but I normally enjoy working with other people, making demos and then going into the studio to do it for real. It's just a series of improvisational exercises.

The production itself is a question of decision making, a lot of the way. Even changing one word can make a huge difference. It's all decision making.

Songfacts: Who were some of your favorite collaborators over the years?

Parsons: Well, Eric Woolfson of course was my principal collaborator with the Alan Parsons Project. We were a two-man team. Eric was the principal songwriter and lyric writer, and I would occasionally pop in with a line or two. I was much more involved in the instrumental contributions to our Project albums. I've become reasonably good at lyric writing in recent years, but back in the day, Eric was the main lyric writer.

Scottish songwriter, lyricist, vocalist and pianist Eric Woolfson first crossed paths with Parsons in 1974, while both were working at Abbey Road Studios - which led to the formation of the Alan Parsons Project. Although it was only Parsons included in the band's name, Woolfson was a co-creator of the band and a collaborator, singing and co-writing some of the band's biggest hits. Woolfson died from cancer in 2009 at the age of 64.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind "Don't Answer Me"?

Parsons: It's just words. That was an expression Paul McCartney used to use: "It's just words." No particular inspiration or thought behind it. Interestingly, that has the word "magic" in it, as well:

If you believe in the power of magic
I can change your mind

I'm not sure what he meant by "Don't Answer Me." Is he saying, "I don't want to hear from you about this"? I'm going to say it's just words. Remember, "Yesterday" started out as "Scrambled Eggs."

Songfacts: What do you recall about that song's video, which was popular on MTV?

Parsons: I think it won an animated video award. [It was nominated for Most Experimental Video at the VMAs, but lost to Herbie Hancock's fabulous "Rockit" video, directed by Godley & Creme]. It was in the style of Dick Tracy, and Eric and I are briefly in one of the frames - in the bar scene.

I'm proud of it. It got a lot of MTV play at the time. It's one of our strongest hits - we always play it in the show, and I always sing it. I tend to sing the songs that Eric sang on the records ever since I've been playing live since '95.

Songfacts: What about "Games People Play"?

Parsons: I think it would be fair to say that that was inspired by the fact that we were living in Monte Carlo. It's very linked to the content of the album, The Turn Of A Friendly Card, which was all about gambling, gamblers, the problems of gamblers, and games people play. It's just a gambling theme. We literally lived 10 paces from the Monte Carlo Casino - we were right there.

Songfacts: "Time"?

Parsons: It's kind of a sad song. I think it's been an inspiration for many people who are growing old or have become ill. It gets played at funerals. It's a slightly melancholy song.

It's actually a very difficult song to sing, because it goes through an enormous vocal range. Eric did a great job on the original.

Songfacts: "Breakdown"?

Parsons: We tried to make it vague whether we were talking from a robot perspective, or a human talking to a robot. I think we could argue that robots could break down just like humans do.

The sporting equivalent to Elvis taking the stage to "Also Sprach Zarathustra" is the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls being introduced over "Sirius," an instrumental track that opens the Eye In The Sky album. The Bulls still use the song in their player introductions, but it will always be associated with Jordan, who won six championships with the team and helped make the song a bona fide jock jam.
Songfacts: Why did you name the song "Sirius"?

Parsons: It relates to the star in the sky, which I felt was spacey and planetary, so we just chose it. I think Sirius is the second-largest star in the sky.

But that tune has arguably become our most famous piece, ever, because of the Chicago Bulls using it, and other sports teams. The New Orleans Saints used it to walk on the year they won the Super Bowl, which was great.

Songfacts: How did you get involved in working with The Beatles, and becoming an assistant engineer at Abbey Road Studios?

Parsons: It all happened through the fact that I was working at a related department of EMI Records in West London. I was working in the tape duplication factory, maintaining tape machines and making copies of EMI's products for foreign factories to manufacture vinyl discs. I heard Sgt. Pepper in '67, and I just said, "I want to find out how The Beatles do this stuff." I just chose the right date and time to do it. I got an interview, and then got the job a couple of weeks later.

Alan's Abbey Road ID badge, from "back in the days when I cut my own hair"
Songfacts: So it was just a matter of you calling up Abbey Road Studios, and the person you spoke to said they were looking to hire?

Parsons: I did it by letter. It was the age of letter writing. [Laughs] The way you hand-wrote a letter said a lot about you back then. Nobody would dream of doing that now.

Songfacts: How long after that did you get to actually meet and work with the Beatles?

Parsons: It was probably about three or four months into my initial employment. I started in the tape library at Abbey Road and then progressed to the fly-on-the-wall/eavesdropper on sessions. And then progressing to being the tape operator, which was actually a very demanding and very responsible job because back then, there was no "undo" button. If you pressed the record button at the wrong moment, you erased what was on the tape, and it was done.

But I think I started in October of '68, and it was in January or February of '69 that I got sent down by Apple to do the Let It Be sessions. It was pretty intimidating. I walk into a control room, and there's all four Beatles, George Martin, Glyn Johns, and Yoko Ono. I walk in and say, "Hello! I've come to help!" They were all a bit long-faced, but thank goodness, it all improved a bit when the "rooftop day" came and we recorded them on the roof. It made an enormous difference to the enthusiasm that they had for the songs.

Songfacts: What are some memories of working with The Beatles in the studio?

Parsons: The Let It Be period was pretty short-lived - just a few days. But I did spend probably a month on the Abbey Road album, which was great. I got to see more individual Beatles working on their individual songs rather than watching the band work together. It had actually come to that.

George would come in and work on something on his own, and then Paul would come and do "Oh! Darling." He would come in every day at 2 p.m. and sing "Oh! Darling" a couple of times, and say, "No, that's not it," and then come in the next day and do it again. You wouldn't see more than one Beatle at a time that day.

Songfacts: What are memories of witnessing the famous rooftop performance?

Parsons: It was brilliant. It was a great day, but there was an undertone of disappointment because I thought it would probably be the last time they'd play together as a band, in front of an audience. But it was a great day. A very cold day.

Songfacts: How was it working with John Lennon?

Parsons: He was always good-humored. I didn't feel like I got to know him that well. I had a much better rapport with Paul and George. But he was always good-humored. He always had a funny line. He was fun to work with.

Songfacts: Did you have any idea there was tension in the band, or that they were on the verge of breaking up at that point?

Parsons: Oh, for sure. I think that was really obvious. By the time Abbey Road came along, they just didn't want to work together. It had just become individual work.

Songfacts: How would you compare working with Pink Floyd on Dark Side Of The Moon to working with The Beatles?

Parsons: Pretty different. The only similarity is that they both liked to use the studio to its fullest, and they were always looking for new effects and new sounds. But that was the beauty of working with those guys: There were always new horizons to discover in sound.

Songfacts: In the mid-to-late '70s, you worked with two artists, Al Stewart and Ambrosia, who are now considered part of a genre called "yacht rock." Have you ever heard this phrase before?

Parsons: I have! I think we have a "yacht rock channel" in our car that we play quite a lot. Christopher Cross fits into it, Steely Dan fits into it.

Songfacts: What did you think about the mention of the Alan Parsons Project in the film Austin Powers 2?

Parsons: It was arguably the best publicity I ever had. I knew nothing of it until the movie came out. It's a good-natured, good-humored gag. I'm rather proud of it. I like it.

April 5, 2019

For more Alan, visit his Facebook page.

Further reading:

Fact or Fiction: Early MTV
John Wetton
Geoff Downes
Steve Hogarth
Steven Wilson

Photos: Parsons (2) Jonas Mohr (3)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Jeff Hanson from Minneapolis, MnLet's Talk About Me is song I have always liked; the background talking at the start and more starting at 2:16 about baseball and Wrigley Field is kind of cool.
  • Joe Hornberger from Staunton Va Turn of a Friendly Card is my favorite album. My Dad had it on cassette, and when I got my first job I ordered it on CD.
see more comments

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