Fifty years ago this month, one of the greatest albums ever recorded was released. Pink Floyd changed the music landscape with the pioneering The Dark Side of The Moon.
Many words will continue to be written about the album’s groundbreaking music, its resilience on the charts (736 nonconsecutive weeks from March of 1973 to July of 1988), and its shattering sales worldwide (1 in every 14 people in the US under the age of 50 is estimated to own, or to have owned, a copy). Ironically, this music collection spoke to time, greed, conflict, death, and insanity while bringing the members of Floyd to stratospheric levels of success. They all justifiably deserved it. But one man who may not have received his just deserts for the album’s success was Engineer Alan Parsons.
By 1973, Parsons had been a staple employee of EMI Studios (now known as Abbey Road Studios). He’d been there since he was 18 years old. Leaving public school upon applying and being accepted into an apprenticeship position with EMI’s research technical department in Hayes, UK, within a year, he dared to ask his superiors to transfer him to the prestigious Abbey Road studios. Parsons’ drive to learn the details of sound engineering outstripped his patience, and when management smirked at his requests, he took action and wrote the bosses at the studio directly. Beating the odds, he miraculously received an interview invite and subsequently the job (things like that seemed to happen in the 60s music business).
His first assignment was in the tape library and within a year he was promoted to Tape Operator where he would be in the studio proper while recording sessions were being run. His very first session would not be for an unknown band. His baptism by fire found him with the Beatles facing a project that would be called Get Back (yes, a young Alan Parsons can be seen in the Peter Jackson film). Alan must have done well because he was asked to stay for their final album session, Abbey Road. As the Assistant Engineer, he was the man John Lennon turned to when deciding not to just fade out “I Want You (She So Heavy). “John said, ‘There! Cut the Tape There!’ Alan recalled years later, “and that’s how we got the sudden ending for that song.”
His reputation grew within EMI and his succeeding years would bring Parsons assignments that included The Hollies, Roy Harper, and in the fall of 1973, work with Paul McCartney & Wings on Red Rose Speedway. It was around this period that he was assigned to Pink Floyd and the budding sessions for The Dark Side of The Moon. History has certified that Dark Side is a groundbreaking album, employing experimentation in multi-track recording, tape loop technology, and synthesizers (all relatively new techniques at that point). The effort crystallized the emerging category of the “concept album” and opened a new market of popular music without the “pop.” The members of the band have given great credit to Alan for opening the door to various innovations.
Early in the process, drummer Nick Mason and bassist Roger Waters began home experiments of recording sound effects on a tape loop, so they could be synced up with the music’s beat (such as the coin sounds and cash register jolts for the popular track “Money”). Doing this from home was one thing, but when they brought the concept to the studio, only an advanced engineer like Parsons could implement such pre-digital techniques with the mechanics and abilities of Abbey Road. Mason explained in his 2004 biography, Inside Out, “After the recording (of the sounds on tape loop), where one piece fades out and another fades up, were still a fairy serious maneuver. Giant tape machines would be trundled in from all parts of the building and hooked up into the mixer.” Even with Alan’s engineering expertise, he didn’t possess enough hands to manage all the necessary tasks. So, starting points would be carefully marked (by Alan) and band members positioned with fingers poised on various buttons.” A single mistake by anyone in the control room would mean starting the process from scratch. Parsons is credited for conceiving, implementing, and leading the manual sequence that made the soundtrack unique and thoughtful.
At a 2015 lecture at Abbey Road studios, I personally got the chance to ask Parsons how he captured the coin sound in the vastly sized studio #2. He laughed and said that those sounds were not recorded in the studio proper, rather, they were recorded one night in the control room when he simply dropped the coins onto the TG 12345 mixing desk. He then went over to the original desk (in which the studio staff had already rolled in for the lecture…see picture) and tossed a few coins and let them fall. “Not a lot of planning but trying something new!” Parsons said with a smile.
His Dark Side contributions continued with the band, painting a sonic landscape that brought out the themes of the album. It was Parsons who knew and recruited British singer Clare Torry to perform the wordless bone-chilling vocals on “The Great Gig In The Sky.” Among his other standout contribution was the weaving of punctuated voices, that serve as “witnesses” to themes of conflict and insanity. Mason explains, “Roger (Waters) drafted a series of questions about madness and violence, and I wrote them on a set of cards. They were placed, face down, on a music stand. We then invited into the studio whoever we could find around the Abbey Road complex, our crew, the engineers, and other musicians.” Two of those recruits were Paul and Linda McCartney who were working in an adjacent studio. As he had already had a working relationship with Paul, Parsons was dispatched to recruit the ex-Beatle plus wife, and he came back with them adding along Wings’ guitarist Henry McCullough. With Parsons adding spooky echo dimensions to all of the spoken words, the two McCartneys’ contributions were deemed not authentic enough, but McCullough’s efforts proved to be a good fit with the fabric of the theme picture (“I don’t know, I was really drunk at the time”).
Once The Dark Side of The Moon was concluded, and the tremendous reaction from the buying public washed over Pink Floyd, they were dead sure to reach out to Parsons for their follow-up album Wish You Were Here. “Sadly, we lost the benefit of Alan’s skills when we invited him to engineer the next album,” Nick Mason recalls. It is unknown if Parsons was miffed due to not receiving a percentage of one of the most gigantic albums in history (or for other reasons), but it was clear that Alan Parsons was moving on. “(We) offered him a small amount of money (for work on the next album) pointing out how privileged he was.” Mason concludes, “To our astonishment, he turned us down. Pityingly we shook our heads and then watched as he had an enormous hit record with Tales of Mystery and Imagination as the Alan Parsons Project.”
Alan went on to years of solid success in his own career as a performer. Whatever his motivations, the music world has been able to witness over the past 50 years how Alan Parsons was not going to let himself get marooned on the dark side of the moon.
Image: “Dark Side of The Moon” album cover (Fair Use)
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…