Between 1976 and 1979, the Alan Parsons Project were a staple of FM radio here in the States. With the release of The Turn of A Friendly Card in 1980, the band became a hit-making juggernaut. An interesting proposition for a band that did not tour, leaned in a prog-pop direction, had numerous lead vocalists, and could sound like anything from a horror movie soundtrack to a dance club sensation.
Famed engineer Alan Parsons (Dark Side of the Moon, Abbey Road) and his manager, Eric Woolfson, teamed up in 1975 and formed the Project as both songwriters and performers. Initially, tearing a page from the Steely Dan playbook, the band was whoever was needed to provide the right sound for any given song. By the time of The Turn of A Friendly Card, the band had solidified into Woolfson (keyboards & vocals), Parsons (keyboards, guitars, vocals), two members of the Parsons-produced band Pilot – Ian Bairnson (guitar) and David Paton (bass) – and Cockney Rebel drummer Stuart Elliott.
In this three CD and Blu-Ray compilation, the band offers not only a remastered version of the original album, but an additional forty-two bonus tracks. The new tracks span an eclectic mix of single edits, session out-takes, and an entire disc of Woolfson’s songwriting diaries. The album proper was inspired by the casinos of Parsons’ and Woolfson’s temporary home of Monte Carlo and recorded in a swift six weeks in Paris (the Project regularly spent months in the studio up to that point). What this box set shows is just how incredible a songwriter Woolfson could be; even his rough demos reveal his mastery of melodic ideas and his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Rather than take this disc by disc, let’s explore the album song by song, beginning with the final album versions.
The album opens with a majestic fanfare that leads into May Be A Price to Pay. Anyone believing, like myself, that the sound on any version of the Project’s recordings would be hard to improve upon is in for a surprise. The brass fanfare that starts the record is so well articulated that it feels they could be playing live in your room. The bass, which was always prominently featured on the Project’s records, has even more presence this time around. Even the piano playing under the orchestral interlude is easily distinguished, subtle though it may be. The very first bonus track on disc one is the opening fanfare played on synth; all the ideas are in place, but this sketch shows how brilliantly Andy Powell was able to orchestrate and flesh out the initial idea. The disc of Woolfson’s songwriting diaries may be for obsessives only, but I just might be one of those people. Full of unused ideas for both the music and lyrics (“Something’s wrong with our love”), by the time of the version that begins disc three, so much more has come together. Woolfson’s guide vocal lacks the dynamism of the final Elmer Gantry track, and Ian Bairnson’s extended solo sounds like nothing more than a placeholder. Yet this just shows how much thought went into developing the arrangement and the importance of each band member’s contribution in doing so.
The first single from the album was Games People Play. The drums are punchier and the backing vocals clearer. The atmospheric interlude featuring Lenny Zakatek’s vocal effects is not as nuanced this time around. However, at the insistence of label head Clive Davis (in a letter reprinted in the generous booklet), most of the interlude is excised in search of a hit, and that edit is included. Another interesting rough mix of the song is not radically different from the final version except that it prominently features a cowbell, which by now almost seems parodic (thank you, Christopher Walken and Will Farrell).
Time benefits from the crisp and natural sound of the acoustic guitars and a warmer string sound. This was Eric’s first lead vocal, and it is perfection, drenched in both technical prowess and emotion. Powell’s string arrangement and Chris Rainbow’s background vocals lift the song to stratospheric heights, a fact bolstered by the version on disc three which features both the orchestra and Rainbow’s vocals in isolation. A far cry from the Diaries version, which has yet to find its footing melodically, yet still it reflects the song’s slow growth in a series of quick snippets.
Ian Bairnson’s electric guitar is the standout of I Don’t Wanna Go Home, seemingly everywhere at once with a plethora of textures. The sketch for this song is a fine example of Woolfson’s talent for pulling incredible melodies and rhythms out of the ether.
The Gold Bug is a brilliant, understated instrumental. The tremolando acoustic guitars of Bairnson and Paton, matched with Alan Parsons’ whistling, set up a Western showdown before Paton’s bass and Parsons’ clavinet highjack the song with a dose of funk. An unidentified sax player does his best Dick Parry imitation before Rainbow’s harmonised wall of wordless vocals takes the song out. Early versions have synthesisers presaging the orchestra, Rainbow’s isolated vocals, and an extended version in which the melody has yet to be worked out.
Speaking of Chris Rainbow, his first lead vocal of the record finally arrives with The Turn of A Friendly Card, Part One, and what an understated beauty it is. The diary and bonus track versions exemplify that the journey from idea to execution was relatively short, the arrangement rather than the concept going through the changes.
Rainbow again steals the show on Snake Eyes, but Paton and Bairnson give him a run for the money on this track. The early version with Woolfson’s guide vocal is evidence that the initial arrangement was not vastly different from the final take.
The proggiest song on the album is The Ace of Swords with its ever-shifting time signatures. The harpsichord and clavinet which define this song are courtesy of Mr. Parsons himself. The two alternate versions on disc three present different approaches to this tune. One has synth in lieu of the orchestra. The other is a much more conventional sounding piano version of the tune (again played by Parsons).
One of the songs that had the most interesting journey is Nothing Left to Lose. The album version is a sumptuous bed of acoustic guitar tracks which provide a foundation for Woolfson’s second vocal of the album. An unremembered Parisian session player provides a gorgeous button accordion solo. Bairnson’s guitar onslaught finishes the song in a mirror image, revealing the harsh menace the first part of the song attempts to hide. The diary version shows how the song develops both lyrically and musically. Originally, this was a piano-led song with nary a guitar in sight.
The Turn of A Friendly Card, Part Two finishes the original album. Not simply a reprise of Part One, solo guitar and orchestra carry the song along to its conclusion, the brass and cello adding a deeper dimension this time around. It’s the version on disc three that shows how Chris Rainbow was able to take a guide vocal and turn it into something totally different while never straying far from the initial idea. His feel for putting across a melody is simply astounding. Bairnson’s extended guitar solo is the entire second half of the song but was reduced in favor of the orchestra. One wonders what it would have sounded like with the two in tandem.
There are five song ideas on the Diaries disc that are interesting for what they might have been. On Next Year you can hear how Woolfson’s show tunes instincts combine with his pop sensibilities. Taking It All Away is a cheery song with the promise of hit potential while To Those of You Out There emphasises the Broadway/West End influences with its delightful melody.
The Blu-ray fourth disc was not made available for review, and elsewhere, as previously mentioned, some of this might be for obsessives and completists only. Admittedly, much of disc two will not stand up to repeated listening. Many of the other bonus tracks are interesting historically and provide an example of a master class in songwriting. The early versions are proof of how involving the aid of a talented band can take a song from a great assemblage of notes to an unforgettable piece of music. But then, isn’t that the purpose of these sorts of box sets? Combined with the incredibly generous booklet, including lyrics, tons of photos and artwork, and comments from all the principals, there is no denying that The Turn of A Friendly Card provides a trove of treasures to dig into. If you take a gamble on this one, you just might feel like a winner.
Disc One: The Turn of A Friendly Card (Remastered)
01. May Be A Price to Pay (4:59)
02. Games People Play (4:25)
03. Time (5:14)
04. I Don’t Wanna Go Home (4:52)
05. The Gold Bug (4:34)
06. The Turn of A Friendly Card (Part One) (2:44)
07. Snake Eyes (3:15)
08. The Ace of Swords (2:57)
09. Nothing Left to Lose (4:07)
10. The Turn of A Friendly Card (Part Two) (3:32)
~ Bonus Tracks:
11. May Be A Price to Pay (Intro Demo) (1:32)
12. Nothing Left to Lose (Basic Backing Track) (4:36)
13. Nothing Left to Lose (Chris Rainbow Overdub Vocal Compilation) (2:02)
14. Time (Early Studio Attempt) (4:42)
15. Games People Play (Rough Mix) (4:32)
16. The Gold Bug (Demo) (2:49)
Time – 63:03
Disc Two: Eric Woolfson’s Songwriting Diaries
01. May Be A Price to Pay (3:25)
02. Games People Play (3:06)
03. Time (4:05)
04. I Don’t Wanna Go Home (2:12)
05. The Turn of A Friendly Card (3:18)
06. Snake Eyes (3:14)
07. Nothing Left to Lose (2:46)
08. TOFC/Snake Eyes/I Don’t Wanna Go Home (4:32)
09. La La La Lah (1:17)
10. Next Year (3:20)
11. Someone Else (2:31)
12. Taking It All Away (2:00)
13. To Those of You Out There (3:13)
Time – 38:59
Disc Three – Recording Sessions Bonus Tracks
01. May Be A Price to Pay (Early Version – Eric Guide Vocal & unused Guitar Solo) (5:04)
02. Games People Play (Early Version – Eric Guide Vocal) (4:32)
03. Time (Orchestra & Chris Rainbow Backing Vocals) (4:19)
04. The Gold Bug (Early Reference Version) (5:07)
05. The Gold Bug (Chris Rainbow Backing Vocals) (1:28)
06. The Gold Bug (Clavinet With No Delay) (1:05)
07. The Turn of A Friendly Card – Part One (Early Backing Track) (2:19)
08. Snake Eyes (Early Version – Eric Guide Vocal) (3:20)
09. Ace of Swords (Early Version with Synth Orchestration) (3:03)
10. Ace of Swords (Early Version with Piano on Melody) (2:40)
11. The Turn of A Friendly Card – Part Two (Eric Guide Vocal & Extended Guitar Solo) (3:31)
~ Single Edits:
12. Games People Play (Single Edit) (3:34)
13. The Turn of A Friendly Card (Single Edit) (3:44)
14. Snake Eyes (Single Edit) (2:26)
Time – 46:12
Disc Four – Blu-Ray
5.1 Surround Sound Mix (2019) & High-Resolution Original Stereo Mix By Alan Parsons
01. May Be A Price to Pay
02. Games People Play
04. I Don’t Wanna Go Home
05. The Gold Bug
06. The Turn of A Friendly Card (Part one)
07. Snake Eyes
08. The Ace of Swords
09. Nothing Left to Lose
10. The Turn of A Friendly Card (Part Two)
~ Visual Content:
11. The Turn of A Friendly Card (Album Ad)
12. Games People Play (Promotional Video)
13. The Gold Bug (Promotional Video)
14. The Turn of A Friendly Card (Promotional Video)
Eric Woolfson – Organ, Piano, Harpsichord, Lead Vocals (Time & Nothing Left to Lose)
Alan Parsons – Projectron, Vocals, Human Whistle, Harpsichord, Clavinet, Autoharp, Finger Clicks
Ian Bairnson – Electric & Acoustic Guitars
David Paton – Bass, Acoustic Guitar
Stuart Elliott – Drums & Percussion
Lenny Zakatek – Lead Vocals (Games People Play & I Don’t Wanna Go Home)
Chris Rainbow – Lead Vocals (The Turn of A Friendly Card (Parts One & Two), Snake Eyes), Backing Vocals
Elmer Gantry – Lead Vocals (May Be A Price to Pay}
Orchestra Arranged & Conducted by Andrew Powell
Record Label: Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 24th February 2023