Following his blog piece capturing The Genius of Paul McCartney, Abbey Road's Cameron Colbeck delves into the prolific career of famed musician, producer and ex-Abbey Road engineer, Alan Parsons. Alan Parsons’ work spans decades and disciplines, from starting work for EMI at 16, to vast success on several significant albums, including The Beatles' Abbey Road and Let It Be, the eponymous debut album by Ambrosia, and Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon.
Many artists, engineers, producers and managers have worked at Abbey Road Studios over the years, but I can think of only one who has worked as all four. Alan Parsons is as much an integral part of Abbey Road’s history as Abbey Road is a part of his.
I first met Alan at the age of about six because my Dad and he had worked together back in the glory days. A few years later they embarked on a journey to re-hash a project about home recording. I have been lucky enough to have been involved in ASSR’s (The Art and Science of Sound Recording) decade-long-and-counting story ever since. This has taken me everywhere from Alan’s house, his concerts, his wedding, to many studios across the world. I can also claim to have taken him to see a show by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, whom he later went on to make an album with (see the liner notes for my credit). Over the years Alan Parsons has not only proven that he’s got a golden pair of ears, but also that he’s mastered the art of the recording session through years of technical experience coupled with his imposing yet calming demeanour. As David Hepworth said in his introduction of Abbey Road’s Sleeve Notes lectures, “There’s nobody better placed to tell you about the techniques, the practicalities, the creativity, the absurdity, and the politics involved in record making.”
Alan left public school at the age of 16 after hearing that EMI was offering apprentice schemes at their facilities in Hayes. He applied and began work for EMI shortly after in the research building, working to create a better TV camera tube. He enjoyed the research, but driven by his love of music, found himself better suited to the tape records department where tape masters were sent to be duplicated. One of records that came through during that period was the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band master. I believe hearing Sgt. Pepper’s was a defining moment for Alan, just as for so many others shortly thereafter. He went to his superiors at EMI and asked about getting a job at Abbey Road Studios. This was greeted by a fair bit of resistance because the studio’s exclusivity and reputation had already been established by that point. Not to be deterred, 18-year-old Alan wrote a letter to the boss at the time and miraculously, was summoned for an interview a few days later. He began work at Abbey Road and the rest is history.
Back then the Studios were much more formal, technical engineers wore white lab coats and all others had to wear a suit and tie. Like most of the newbies at the time, Alan started in the tape libraries and began to shadow recording sessions. He was quite quickly promoted to the role of tape operator, and his first assignment as a tape op for EMI you ask? Of course, it was the Let it Be sessions taking place over at Apple Records. He walked into a room occupied by John, Paul, George, Ringo, George Martin, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman. Also amongst the legends was Glyn Johns and the infamous “Magic Alex” who, with Alan’s help, ran the cables up to the roof for the rooftop concert - The Beatles' final live performance.
Next up was the Abbey Road album. Alan had moved up to the assistant engineer position, and sadly by this point it was becoming clear it could be The Beatles’ last record. On the very last day of recording at Abbey Road Studios, Alan remembers watching from the steps as they walked out on to the crossing and captured the iconic photo for the album cover. “That same day we actually assembled the album. While listening to the final mix of She’s So Heavy, John Lennon wearing that same white suit, came up and said ‘let’s not fade out, let’s just cut the tape. Do it there.’ And with a pair of scissors, snip!”
After his experiences working with the Beatles, Alan took that knowledge and continued as an engineer at Abbey Road. Starting out with unlikely sessions like bagpipe recordings and the formidable Pinky and Perky, a singing piglet duo made possible by recording vocals to a half-speed backing track and then playing everything together at full speed. Though thoroughly fulfilled, Alan soon refocused on rock music, engineering for The Hollies, Roy Harper, Wings and Pink Floyd. For the latter most notably, a little album called The Dark Side of the Moon.
Considering the amount of samples and layers that made up Dark Side, incredibly it was recorded by only Alan and the members of Pink Floyd. You can just imagine the five of them messing around with cash registers and coins to get the sounds for Money. Sent off to capture another sample, Alan visited a clock repair shop in St John’s Wood and helped record the chiming and ticking later to be heard on Time. Many of the other sounds were ready and waiting in the famous ‘Abbey Road effects cupboard’ including the airport announcement heard on On the Run. Could it be that tape, likely still sitting upstairs in Abbey Road, was the same one sampled for the airplane noise on Back in the USSR? After the success of The Dark Side of the Moon, Alan’s creativity was further enlisted by Pink Floyd as they embarked on a tour of America (Alan handling live sound) and the epic unreleased Household Objects album: an album consisting of brooms and rubber bands completely without instruments. Alan continued to work on the technical side of recording, but these experiences sparked a move away from engineering and into more creative work as a producer. Establishing himself at Abbey Road by producing hits by Pilot, Cockney Rebel, John Miles and Al Stewart. January was a number one for Pilot in 1975, quickly replaced by Cockney Rebel and Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me).
Finally his career came to a head with what became known around the studios as ‘The Alan Parsons Project’. Alan’s partner on the project, Eric Woolfson, was originally his manager and contributed to many of his early successes as a producer. Alan remembers, “Eric said I think you should make a concept album. He also said by the way, I’ve got some songs! Eric discovered while at accounting school that no film based on an Edgar Allen Poe story had ever lost money. He thought, maybe that could be applied to music”. Together they created the seminal album Tales and Mystery of Imagination, followed by nine more LPs spanning 10 years. One of their best known tracks is Sirius - the intro to Eye in the Sky. An arpeggiating DX7/clavinet sound now recognised as the quintessential walkout song for sporting events around the world. Alan has said, “We never compromised on the amount of layering we could do on a recording just because it was not performable live.” Though it may have been the case at the time, today’s technology now makes it possible to do so. As a result, I was able to see many Alan Parsons Live Project shows in the naughties and I will always cherish those memories and how cool it felt to be backstage hanging with the band. As if Alan hadn’t covered enough ground in the recording industry, he also became Vice-President of EMI Studios Group in 1998, thereby becoming manager of Abbey Road Studios. This didn’t last long however, as he quickly returned to his passions; engineering, producing, and the music itself!
Alan Parsons’ work spans decades and disciplines, and through it all he regards Abbey Road Studios as the place which always felt like home. Their histories will be intertwined forever. Alan has meant so much to me personally and I’ve learned a lot from him. He deserves partial credit for my love of the Beatles. Also for bringing me into Abbey Road for the very first time for the Sleeve Notes lecture and Art and Science of Sound Recording masterclass in 2015. His important work with ASSR aims to pass down recording philosophy and techniques which could easily be lost otherwise. In this digital age with overwhelming amounts of effects and plugins at our disposal, I continue to live by Alan’s creed that, “If it sounds good, it is good” and “The best way to get a good drum sound is to get a good drummer”. Whether as an engineer, artist, producer, manager or role model, Alan Parsons continues to inspire and dedicate his wealth of knowledge to the art of record making.