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"Dark Side" at 30: Alan Parsons

Engineer helped create rich sound, but didn't get rich

John HarrisPosted Mar 12, 2003 12:00 AM

In 1972, Alan Parsons, an in-house engineer at London's Abbey Road studios, was employed to work on Dark Side of the Moon for £35 (around $50) a week. In the wake of its success, he founded the successful prog-rock band the Alan Parsons Project.

What was your understanding of Dark Side of the Moon's underlying themes? Did the band explain them to you?

Absolutely not, no. In fact, I made a bit of a fool of myself. Toward the end of the recording, I was one of the people who was asked the questions on the cards. One of the questions was, "What do you think Dark Side of the Moon is all about?" I really had no idea at all. I didn't give a sufficiently interesting answer to have it used on the album. All that I sensed was that it was about the trials and tribulations of going through life. I didn't know it was necessarily focused on a rock & roll band. I had it explained to me more succinctly later. I think it's about how a rock & roll band survives or doesn't survive. In my view, it was a preamble to The Wall.

What was your view of the Waters/Gilmour partnership?

It was very calm. Very unenthusiastic; they would never jump up and down with joy when something was working. After an amazing take of a guitar solo, Roger would say, "Oh, I think we might be able to get away with that one, Dave." It was very low-key.

What hours did the band tend to work when they were recording the album?

When we worked depended on which day of the week it was. If it was football night, we would always finish early; if it was Monty Python night, we'd do the same. Roger was very into football. He was into playing it as well. There was a Pink Floyd team. Very often, they'd stop for Monty Python and leave me to do a rough mix. That was quite fulfilling for me. I got to put my own mark on it.

In the years since the album was released, the band has occasionally downplayed your role . . .

It's been variable. Dave has said in print that it made absolutely no difference who engineered the record, but a few months later he retracted that statement and said, "No, Alan made a valid contribution." Roger was always very supportive. I think they all felt that I managed to hang the rest of my career on Dark Side of the Moon, which has an element of truth to it. But I still wake up occasionally, frustrated about the fact that they made untold millions and a lot of the people involved in the record didn't.

How did you contribute over and above simply working as the engineer?

The Floyd are, by their very nature, audio experimentalists. The Floyd and the Beatles have a lot in common in that respect: They both worked in the greatest studios with the greatest engineers. And to be the engineer with a band like that was a dream come true. I recognize that if an engineer's going to shine on a record of that kind, he's going to feel pretty good about it. I just acted on instinct. I didn't thrust my ideas at them: I would occasionally make suggestions, or do things that felt right. We were a good team; we worked well together.

What do you remember about recording "The Great Gig in the Sky"? You found Clare Torry, the female vocalist on that track.

She had done a covers album; I can remember that she did a version of "Light My Fire." I just thought she had a great voice. When the situation came up, they started head-scratching, saying, "Who are we going to get to sing on this?" I said, "I've got an idea -- I know this girl." She came, and in a couple of hours it was all done. She had to be told not to sing any words: when she first started, she was doing "Oh yeah baby" and all that kind of stuff, so she had to be restrained on that. But there was no real direction -- she just had to feel it.

The other thing that happened on that track was we played a trick on Rick [Wright]. He was in Number One studio, playing one of the big grand pianos, and the band was in Number Two studio. Instead of the band actually playing, we played the previous take off a tape. There was no way he would have noticed the difference. So we ran the tape and sneaked into the doorway -- and when he looked up at the end of the take, everyone was standing there. He looked a little surprised. We were a bunch of kids really, playing pranks.

What's your opinion of the long-standing myth about Dark Side of the Moon being a secret soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz?

It was an American radio guy who pointed it out to me. It's such a non-starter, a complete load of eyewash. I tried it for the first time about two years ago. One of my fiancee's kids had a copy of the video, and I thought I'd see what it was all about. I was very disappointed. The only thing I noticed was that the line "balanced on the biggest wave" came up when Dorothy was kind of tightrope walking along a fence. One of the things any audio professional will tell you is that the scope for the drift between the video and the record is enormous; it could be anything up to twenty seconds by the time the record's finished. And anyway, if you play any record with the sound turned down on the TV, you'll find things that work.

[From Issue 922 — May 15, 2003]

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