Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: THE ALAN PARSONS PROJECT
Album: I ROBOT
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Alan Parsons made a name for himself from the late-‘60s through the early-‘70s as a producer & engineer at London’s Abbey Road Studios, famously working on The Beatles’ final two albums and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, before forming The Alan Parsons Project with Scottish songwriter/keyboardist/singer Eric Woolfson. The duo recruited members of Scottish band Pilot, best known for their mid-‘70s hit “Magic,” as well as all four musicians from progressive/pop band Ambrosia (one of my longtime favorites), for their 1976 debut album, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. Although not a big hit (it barely made its way into the Top 40 on the US Albums chart), the clever songwriting, impeccable musicianship and lyrical concept based around the writings of Edgar Allan Poe caught the ear of Clive Davis, who signed them to Arista Records. The following year, with Pilot members Ian Bairnson (guitars), David Paton (bass) and Stuart Tosh (drums) remaining from the previous album, Parsons and Woolfson wrote another concept album, this time loosely based on science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (minus the comma), which became their first US Platinum (and Top 10) album. The song cycle about the rise of robots/machines & decline of man includes four instrumental tracks, while the other six songs each feature a different lead vocalist. This would become standard practice for APP albums. The only notable absence for fans of their later work is the voice of Eric Woolfson, which would eventually define their sound, first appearing on 1980’s Top 20 single “Time” and later hits “Eye In The Sky” and “Don’t Answer Me.” Their melodic pop side wasn’t a major part of their repertoire yet in 1977, although I Robot was commercial enough to sell a million copies. They mainly appealed to musicians, audiophiles & progressive rock fans, most of whom valued technical proficiency and pristine album production.
The album opens with “I Robot,” a 6-minute instrumental that could be on a sci-fi movie soundtrack. The slightly funky synth & programmed percussion perfectly set the futuristic mood, leading into Top 40 single “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You.” Lenny Zakatek, who would go on to sing numerous APP songs, delivers a soulful, emotive vocal performance on top of a funky quasi-disco rhythm, which follows a Steely Dan-esque intro with smooth organ and a tight guitar figure. “The Voice,” featuring the captivating vocals of Steve Harley (singer with English glam-era hit-makers Cockney Rebel), is the longest non-instrumental at nearly 5-1/2 minutes. There’s a sparse arrangement through the first half, with a 3-note bass pattern, electric piano & squealing effects above a steady beat, before shifting to Isaac Hayes territory highlighted by strings, hand claps, guitar accents and a cool bass line. “Some Other Time” is a pretty ballad with piano, acoustic guitar & synth washes punctuated by bombastic orchestral flashes and a steady midtempo rock groove. The alternating male/female vocals make this a standout track, as Peter Straker’s breathy Colin Blunstone-worthy performance is balanced by Jaki Whitren’s husky tones, reminding me a bit of Christine McVie. The lush & pretty “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” has a slow, deliberate 3/4 rhythm which brings Pink Floyd to mind, and Jack Harris’ voice is soft, smooth & strong. Album closing instrumental “Genesis Ch.1 V.32” has a sparse synth-pop feel until it perks up into a taut symphonic arrangement through the outro. The sappy, dramatic MOR ballad “Don’t Let It Show,” with Dave Townsend on vocals, was a low-charting single. It’s not among my favorites even though it could be a Moody Blues song and I’m a big fan of that band. Allan Clarke, best known as a founding member of The Hollies, is the vocalist on “Breakdown,” a tight midtempo track with soft interludes and a symphonic coda featuring choral vocals. The Alan Parsons Project went on to release a string of wonderful albums, several of which I like even more than I Robot, but it’s still an essential part of their discography and among the musical highlights of 1977 for me.
Does anyone know if the robot on the album cover was based on the photo of Alan Parsons on the “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” single?