This premier producer, conductor and arranger discusses his solo album 'The Best of the Alan Parsons Project'
Andrew Powell is one of the UK's foremost arrangers and producers. His list of credits is long and impressive, including as it does such names as Steve Harley, Kate Bush, Cliff Richard, The Alan Parsons Project, Al Stewart, Mari Wilson and Nick Heyward. Most recently, he has been devoting his attention to 'The Best Of The Alan Parsons Project', his album of orchestral arrangements of Project pieces. In this exclusive interview he gives an insight into what makes an arranger tick, beginning with his early days studying under Stockhausen and reading Music at Cambridge University.
"While I was still at school I became interested in the music of Stockhausen. I was playing piano and I met him for the first time at a concert of his. Then as soon as I left school I went on a course at his summer school in Germany. What I learnt from him is extremely difficult to describe. He used to discuss formal justifications for the music he was writing at the time, and a lot of it was extremely technical. I remember he'd just written a piece called 'Procession', which was a live electronic thing with a lot of plus and minus signs and the players all having to react to each other and that sort of thing. It was always fascinating to watch him rehearse with his own band, but I did find some of it confusing: he's a very, very high-powered man.
After that I went to Cambridge University to study Music, and in retrospect I think I got more out of simply being at Cambridge than I did out of the curriculum itself. What you often find at these places is that the best musicians are reading Physics, French or German or something, and I think the main reason for that is that the actual Music courses themselves really aren't all that interesting. At Oxford at the moment, for instance, the Fairlight is used for purely orchestral sounds and nothing else, which is completely wasting the instrument in my opinion. There's no way you can re-create the sound of a conventional instrument without, say, making 50 samples for the first four bars of a cello concerto, and you might as well just hire a cellist to do it. It's easier, cheaper, and sounds far far better.
While I was at Cambridge I joined an electronic ensemble called Intermodulation. The other members were Roger Smalley, Tim Souster and Robin Thompson. We were using very early, prototype VCS3 synths, and we formed specifically to play some of the Stockhausen stuff like 'Procession'. Then when we left Cambridge, Robin and I formed a rock band, using the same sort of instruments but playing a slightly different sort of music; something more in the Soft Machine vein, you might say. We were joined by Morris Pert on drums, and he played a demo-tape of ours to Stomu Yamashta.
Yamashta was quite impressed with it and before we knew where we were, we were playing a concert with him in Paris, using lots of strange instruments like the Baschet Brothers' sound sculptures, which sound amazing and look absolutely incredible, of course. We also made an album with Stomu called 'Floating Music', but after that and a few more (highly enjoyable) concerts, I decided to branch out into arranging, although I suppose that's not being totally accurate because the whole thing seemed to happen more by accident than design.
At the time I was doing quite a bit of session work on bass guitar - which was, and still is, very much a secondary instrument for me - and suddenly an old friend of mine from college offered me the work on the first Cockney Rebel album which he said he couldn't handle.
It was a very refreshing experience working with Steve Harley, because there's no doubt he had a very original approach to songwriting, and his material reflected that. On the arrangement side, he wanted the orchestra to play just as significant a part in shaping the sound, as the band did: that was especially true of the two big songs, 'Sebastian' and 'Death Trip', and it was tremendous fun working with so many people.
Steve was very pleased with the results on the first Rebel album, but for the followup he felt he wanted more say in the finished product, so EMI got Alan Parsons in to produce it and I did the arranging as before. That was the first time I actually met Alan although naturally I'd heard of him before from his work with Pink Floyd and so on.
When we'd done the second Cockney Rebel album, Alan and I formed a loose sort of partnership and went on to do quite a number of things together before the Project itself actually got off the ground. Among these were the three Al Stewart albums (including 'Year Of The Cat') plus some other, less well-known stuff. Then of course there was the John Miles album which included 'Music', which I did on my own without Alan.
'Music' was very similar to the Cockney Rebel material in some ways: the orchestra became almost as important as the song itself. That record gave me more public acceptance than ever before, and of course it's become something of a classic - it's still played all over the place. It's a shame in a way that John has drifted away from that sort of thing and veered more towards traditional rock, because he's an incredible musician - very fast and astute.
After the John Miles thing I found myself doing the orchestration on Cliff Richard's 'Miss You Nights' which is what a lot of people remember me best for, I suppose. I'd never worked with Cliff before, but two years previously I'd done an album with a guy called Dave Townshend (which was never, in fact, released) and among the songs we recorded was 'Miss You Nights'. Someone at EMI liked it and we decided to record it pretty much the same way as before except with Cliff, instead of Dave, on vocals.
It was about this time that I was introduced to Kate Bush. I remember Dave Gilmour (of Pink Floyd) playing me a demo of 'The Man With A Child In His Eyes', and my only reaction was 'when do we start?' As it turned out, we recorded that song and 'Berlin' soon afterwards, when Kate was still only about 16. The same recordings were used on 'The Kick Inside', although the rest of the album was recorded some time later when Kate had finally signed to EMI.
Kate used the time between making those first recordings and signing up to very good effect. I think a lot of artists would have begun to despair or maybe thrown in the towel altogether, but she remained calm and during that time her writing matured a good deal: she wrote some brilliant songs.
'The Kick Inside' represented my first venture into production, and oddly enough I didn't feel the need to do orchestral arrangements for every song. Some of the tracks on side two are more or less just piano and vocals, which is the way Kate writes them, of course. I kept them sparse because it was something of a change for me, and I think they worked very well on the whole.
From the beginning, Kate was very interested in the mixing and production side of things, and by the time we came to do 'Lionheart', she was assisting me to quite a large degree. I'm very proud of some of the things on that album, especially the arrangements on 'Wow' - a lot of people reckon that to be one of the best things I've done.
I always thought Kate was one of those people who wanted to do everything herself, and it came as no surprise to me to see that she'd done the last album entirely on her own. She's very much a perfectionist, and a very talented one at that; working with her was a real pleasure, and I learnt a lot from it.
It was around the same time as the first Kate Bush recordings that the idea of the Alan Parsons Project was first mooted. I remember being very excited by it, because it was a completely novel concept: a group of musicians that was neither a rock band nor a classical ensemble in the conventional sense. It was a fusion of the two, and that was the most interesting aspect of it from my point of view.
There were problems, on the other hand. The Project was a very nebulous concept that the record company had a lot of trouble promoting. Unlike an ordinary rock band, it was practically impossible for us to take our act on tour because it was so complicated. Of course, we had a lot of offers - especially from places like Germany where our album sales are very high - but in the end the sheer complexity of the thing made it impossible. The problem wasn't just one of scale - although obviously carting an orchestra and a choir around on tour with you is never going to be easy - there were also problems with our own instruments.
For instance, we had an 88-note Fender keyboard connected up to trigger a 24-track tape-machine, the idea was to create a sort of 'mega-Mellotron', the difference being that because we were using two-inch tape, the sound quality was far, far better. However, the machinery was simply impossible to transport and it was problems of that nature that prevented us ever from going on tour, though there's an outside chance we might play live at some stage in the future.
EMI weren't very happy with all this, of course, and tried out some bizarre ideas to try and promote the Project. I remember that for 'Pyramid', they filled cinemas with strange, pyramid-shaped objects while the audience watched a film of the band and listened to the music for the album.
Looking back, though, you could say that it didn't matter how they marketed us, because our records have sold millions worldwide and that speaks for itself, really.
Recording was something of a problem with the Project, too. It would have been nice to record orchestra and rhythm section together but the practical problems are just insurmountable, particularly at Studio 1 at Abbey Road (where a lot of our stuff was recorded) where the desk has only got about 16 inputs. In the end we recorded the rhythm section first and laid the orchestra down afterwards, because on many of our faster, rockier pieces it's the band that carry most of the weight whereas the orchestra is just there to add colour, really.
My own album is something that I've wanted to do for a long time. I chose the Project material for several reasons. First of all, I'm very close to it and, having written it myself, I felt that if anyone should muck around with my arrangements it should be me. Second of all, I think the structures of the pieces themselves are very well suited to orchestration. For example, a lot of Eric's songs have things like parallel triads in the intros, and that sort of thing works extremely well with, say, 3-part strings, brass or whatever.
It's been very interesting working solely with an orchestra. I've tried to keep the number of electronic instruments down to a minimum, and in fact there's only about 40 bars worth of synthesizer on there; mainly Synergy, Emulator and my trusty old Prophet 5. What is interesting from my point of view is that some of these transcriptions are taken from Project pieces that were originally written on a Fairlight, for example, so in a sense I've reversed the current trend of synthesizing orchestral pieces. It's something that I feel could be done more often, because there's no doubt some people are writing the orchestra off already, which is a big mistake in my opinion.
On the other hand, some of the recent orchestrations of popular material have proved absolutely disastrous, because to my mind, something like Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' really needs the sound of electronic instruments to carry it off. The orchestral version just sounds flat.
What it all comes back to is the fact that you simply can't imitate orchestra sounds with electronic instruments. If you sample a viola and one note has a bow noise on it, when you play the keyboard all the notes have the same bow noise, which is obviously ridiculous. There are still so many synthesizer sounds that haven't been discovered or explored properly, it seems a waste to just spend your time trying to copy conventional sounds.
Similarly, even though the orchestra is a very powerful and versatile 'instrument' in its own right, it's folly to assume you can replace electronic instruments with traditional ones simply because you've got more people playing, because it just doesn't work that way.
I do think though that orchestras should be given more of a chance to work on rock records, because there's no doubt the Philharmonia enjoyed working with us immensely, and they were great fun to work with from my point of view, too. I think classically-trained musicians enjoy the opportunity to 'let their hair down' a bit, and of course they're very easy to record with because you simply present them with the manuscript and they play it - just like that.
Mixing the album presented me with something of a dilemma because I find that it's very important to get the balance between orchestra and rhythm section just right. If you sink the rhythm section too low in the mix they tend to start sounding like a cabaret outfit: you lose all the power and dynamics. Similarly, if you bring the band too far up, you lose all the power of the orchestra and it just becomes a sort of background texture, a bit like wallpaper, if you like.
One difference between this album and the original Project stuff is that it should be possible to take it out on the road. We've already got the agreement of the Philharmonia and the English Chorale (who appear on a couple of pieces) to tour England in the near future, and when we go abroad we'll either use the Philharmonia or, if they're not available, local orchestras. Performing live represents a very exciting prospect for me because it's something that I've done only rarely in the past, and I'm hoping it all comes together this time.
When I'm in the studio I like to keep things as simple as possible. That may sound like a contradiction in terms for someone who's earned his living as an orchestral arranger but it's true. I like to record everything as 'live' as possible. That's why I don't make a big thing of demos. I've just got a Fostex A-8 and matching mixer, a Great British Spring reverb and a pair of Auratones. Now and again I've been tempted to enlarge on it but I don't think I really want to.
Personally, I don't see any point in setting up a 24-track studio in my home and trying to compete with Air Studios and the like. For one thing, if you do install such a set-up you can be sure it'll probably break down at 3am with nobody available to come and fix it, and in any case, if I had that sort of facility at home I think I'd get swamped in all the recording technology and forget about the music, and that really is fatal in my opinion.
So I stick to professional studios for serious recording and use my home set-up purely for demos. I've got an old ARP Odyssey, the Prophet, a Fender Rhodes and a grand piano at home, plus a Fender Stratocaster bass I use now and again. I never use synths to take the place of an orchestra in demos of arrangements, and a lot of the time all I put on tape is piano and vocals. I use a Linn drum computer for more uptempo songs, but from my own point of view I find the sound it makes rather fatiguing, and I'd never use it on a record. I think it was a novel sound at one stage, but nowadays I find myself just waiting for it to make a mistake - a real mistake, not just a 3 per cent variation in hi-hat level.
The most important thing when making a demo - or any other recording, for that matter - is to get the simple things right first. It's much more important to get, say, a convincing vocal delivery down on tape than to spend ages messing around trying to get a digital delay line to do what you want it to do. Unless you know exactly what you're doing, complex electronic devices can be an awful lot more trouble than they're worth.
As for the future, I'd like to do another album similar to the last one, only this time using my own compositions as the basis instead of other people's. Writing is something I've neglected for some time - mainly because of having too many arrangement and production commitments - and apart from one or two Alan Parsons Project tracks, very little of my work has actually appeared on record. I've also got some TV sound track work in Germany coming up, plus on the production side, a new LP with Al Stewart and the soon-to-be-released Nick Heyward album."
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