Album of the Week, October 25: The Turn of A Friendly Card by the Alan Parsons Project

APPTFCGoHome“When is a group not a group?” The late, great Casey Kasem was fond of introducing the hits of the Alan Parsons Project with this tantalizing question. Given the many singers and musicians who participated in the Project and its studio-only existence, it’s a reasonable inquiry.

Alan Parsons was a studio wizard who came to prominence working on albums like Abbey Road and The Dark Side of the Moon. He met composer Eric Woolfson at Abbey Road Studios, where the latter was working as a session pianist. Woolfson became Parsons’ manager, lining him up an impressive range of producing jobs. Both men grew frustrated with helping other artists achieve their artistic visions, and decided to collaborate. Woolfson pulled out a concept he had been working on — a musical tribute to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe — and pitched it as an “Alan Parsons project”. When the pair signed with Charisma, the accidental name stuck. Tales of Mystery and Imagination included a dizzying array of talented musicians, many of whom Parsons had produced in the preceding years. Orchestral arranger and conductor Andrew Powell also came on board, becoming a sort of third official Project member and working on all but one of the group’s future albums.

The three main Project men reunited for I, Robot, another concept album on their new, permanent home, Arista, that cemented the group’s distinctive progressive pop sound. With all due respect to Casey, it also featured two other Project members that would remain stalwarts, bassist David Paton and guitarist Ian Bairnson. Over the next two albums — Pyramania and Eve — also concept-based discs, the five regulars worked with an impressive group of session musicians and a great array of vocalists. Singer Lenny Zakatek was a regular contributor, featured on most of the Project’s early hits.

Title The Turn of A Friendly Card
Act The Alan Parsons Project
Label Arista Release Date November 1980
Producer Alan Parsons
U.S. Chart  #13 U.K. Chart  #38
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. May Be A Price to Pay
  2. Games People Play [#16]
  3. Time [#15]
  4. I Don’t Wanna Go Home
  5. The Gold Bug
  6. The Turn of A Friendly Card (part one)
  7. Snake Eyes [#67]
  8. The Ace of Swords
  9. Nothing Left to Lose
  10. The Turn of A Friendly Card (part two)

Things broke big for the Project with album number five. Starting with a conceptual suite of songs about the perils of gambling — of all sorts — Parsons and Woolfson wrote their most cohesive and compelling set. Merging their renowned studio wizardry with the solid musicianship of the Project contributors, they refined their prog-pop sound into something richly layered and immediately accessible.

Things open with a fitting warning, sung by Project veteran Elmer Gantry. With haunting echoes and menacing sound effects, Parsons and Woolfson set the tone for the Turn brilliantly. An eerie, repeating keyboard figure drives the next track, the stunning Games People Play. Featuring one of Zakatek’s best vocals and a nice rock guitar, it became their first Top 20 hit. It also provides a nice entrée into the album’s theme. Woolfson lands his first lead vocal — something he’d been lobbying for all along — on the quiet, wistful Time. It’s another standout and beat Games by one point on the Hot 100. Side one ends with I Don’t Wanna Go Home, a song of quiet desperation — and determination — featuring another smart Zakatek lead and some of Bairnson’s best guitar work. These four tracks adhere loosely to the overall theme, creating a strong opening and one of the best sides in the Project catalog.

Side two explores the gambling theme in detail. The Gold Bug is another Poe homage, a creepy instrumental based on his tale of cryptography, hidden treasure, and (of course) madness. Parsons contributes a great whistling element as the core of the track. Vocalist Chris Rainbow sings the title track, with part one warning us that “the game never ends.” Snake Eyes uses the background sound effects that Parsons is famous for to set us firmly in a gaming room, while Zakatek ponders his almost certainly losing fate. The Ace of Swords is another strong instrumental, majestically summoning that card’s symbolic determination. Woolfson and Rainbow give us Nothing Left to Lose, a bittersweet decision to walk away, perhaps barely in time. Part two of the title track wraps things up nicely, reminding us that even after walking away, the allure of risk remains.

The Turn of A Friendly Card was the Alan Parsons Project’s breakthrough, a commercial success and a strong musical statement. Building on four strong concept albums and a magical partnership, it set the stage for the group’s most successful phase. It’s their strongest set, a cohesive piece that doesn’t belabor its themes, and an inspired use of a stellar set of talents.

FURTHER LISTENING: Throughout the 80s, Parsons and Woolfson released a string of solid albums built on the Card model. The concepts became more indistinct (except for 1987’s Gaudi, a tribute to the titular architect), but the musical formula was firmly — and successfully — established. When Woolfson wanted to adapt 1990’s Freudiana into a musical, the two split, with Parsons producing Woolfson’s first “solo” project. Parsons continues to release smart, engaging albums under his own name, although none quite have the Project spark. Woolfson worked in theatre until his death in 2009.

All 10 Project albums are well-constructed and feature some fine music. The first two — Tales and Robot — are an impressive starting point and two of the group’s best. Pyramania was a bit of a stumble and Eve is musically solid but suffers from a lyrical conceit — the Fall of Man and the battle of the sexes — that edges uncomfortably close to misogyny. Card‘s follow-up was the smash Eye In the Sky, a solid album that comes in a close second. After that, each disc hs something to offer fans, but the hits tend to be the highlights. The aptly titled Essential Collection is a sold, two-disc set that will satisfy most casual fans.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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