“Something’s wrong in this House today
While the Master was riding the Servants decided to play
Something’s wrong in this House today
Something’s been going on there may be a price to pay.”
The opening lines from the first track, ‘May Be a Price to Pay’ sung by Elmer Gantry of Velvet Opera, details the mysterious and gruesome murder that has occurred in this fanfare-like situation with a symphonic midsection, paying homage to the Moonmadness-era from Camel. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 43 years since The Alan Parsons Project had released their fifth studio album, The Turn of a Friendly Card.
Not only this was their breakthrough release, and following-up to their 1979 album Eve, but it was the first time that the album was not in a gatefold sleeve, prior to their first four albums. There was a direct change to what Eric Woolfson’s songwriting had achieved from his next step in the new decade at the beginning of the 1980s as they were shifting to a new direction.
Now, housed in a 3-CD/1 Blu-Ray limited edition box set from the good people at Esoteric Recordings, who had done Ammonia Avenue three years ago, they brought out more unreleased material of additional tracks from Eric’s songwriting diaries, session outtakes, and a 5.1 surround sound mix done by Alan Parsons. So let’s take a trip back on how this started.
According to the 2008 liner notes from Prog Magazine editor Jerry Ewing, who also has revisited the album again for the box set for a brand new set of liner notes, Parsons and Woolfson were residing in Monte Carlo during that time frame. “We were both living with our families within walking distance of the casinos in Monte Carlo, I snuck in there with my little cassette machine to record background sounds. If you were to record the inside of a casino today, you’d get a very different set of sounds.”
That’s what the themes of The Turn of a Friendly Card dealt with, dealing with the gambling lifestyle. But before that experience, Eric went to Las Vegas and looked at different hotels that The Carpenters, Elvis, and Sinatra went to. He was fascinated by how the theatrics and musicality were given to these bands and artists at the heart of those Casinos.
However, there’s a darker side once you go in. You can see people gambling all of their money, trying to win big bucks from slot machines, crap tables, poker, and the roulette wheels, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Most of the people view the Casinos like a cathedral when they enter the buildings. Whether it’s in Vegas, Louisiana, or Monte Carlo, it is very much a place to relieve the stress. And they stupidly use their own money to win or lose instead of paying the bills and taxes on their own apartment or house.
Woolfson got down to business and started writing the songs for The Turn of a Friendly Card. Most of them didn’t appear on the original album until the 2008 expanded edition, the 2015 deluxe edition, and this one that Esoteric has unleashed.
When you listen to the songwriting diaries that Eric’s daughters Sally and Lorna went through in the autumn of 2014, they discovered 100 audio cassettes, old Walkmans, and tape machines. Eric always wanted to go through them and convert them to MP3. You can tell that Eric wasn’t just an amazing songwriter, but keeping some ideas fresh and return back to them.
You can tell that both of Eric’s daughters worked very hard to go through the tapes and picked which ones to fit for the set. That’s ten hours’ worth of material that they picked for the set. Whether it’s the upbeat drum work and counting to the rhythm on ‘Games People Play’, intensive poundings for ‘I Don’t Wanna Go Home’, the gentle musical approaches of ‘Someone Else’, ‘Taking It All Away’, or ‘Next Year’, you can almost feel his spirit in your own house and play the songs for what is to come.
The sound quality is rare from his portable cassette recorder, but it gives you some idea on how much he was so far ahead of his time. And alongside Gantry whose real name is Dave Terry, to have Camel’s Chris Rainbow and Lenny Zakatek who had first appeared on the I Robot album, this was Terry’s first time working with the Alan Parsons project until 1982’s Eye in the Sky.
It was also Eric’s first time using his vocals on the album which is evidential on two tracks; the acoustic walk home balladry on ‘Nothing Left to Lose’, and ‘Time’ which would later be used in the Academy Award winning 2017 Chilean film A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica), directed by Sebastián Lelio.
The effects of the Casinos used in the darker themes on the song ‘Snake Eyes’, you can just close your eyes and being in those cathedrals of greed and corruption as Rainbow details the big bets people on going through that door, knowing that it’s going to be okay. And the clash in the midsection becomes insane as Bairnson’s guitar playing resembles Journey’s Neal Schon from the Escape sessions on ‘Who’s Crying Now’.
There’s the funk and reggae influences thrown in, followed by a film-noir approach for ‘The Gold Bug’ set in a futuristic echoed clavinet that Parsons played while a reverbing sax comes over the horizon and cries out in the middle of the night before the mourning harpsichord comes into the orchestral funeral on ‘The Ace of Swords’ before heading out to the battlefield in a Jeff Wayne approach.
The 68-page book contains photos of the original master tapes, promos of the band’s album, Eric’s tape cassettes, and memories about the making of a Friendly Card, from Eric, Hazel (Eric’s wife), bassist David Paton, Ian, drummer and percussionist Stuart Elliott, and Lenny. Followed by lyrics, posters, singles, Japanese promo, articles, and a letter from Clive Davis who had found difficulty of releasing ‘Games People Play’ as a single.
One of the things that I found that caught my eye was the origins of the album cover done by Kevin Godley and Lol Crème of 10cc fame. There was an earlier design, followed by an original rough mock-up of the final sleeve before it became of what it was to come.
The Turn of a Friendly Card was released on November 7, 1980. And it was their biggest selling album by achieving gold status here and in Europe. While this album stood the test of time, and the loss of Woolfson in 2009, this is dedicated not for his legacy, but his memory will live throughout the stars and inspire the next generation to follow not just in his footsteps, but Alan’s as well.
The romantic, the beauty, the dark side of gambling, and the escapism that you crave, the concept still works wonderfully well as you put this album on from start to finish. Because it’ll never go away. It stays with you, for the rest of time.
“There are unsmiling faces and bright plastic chains
And a wheel in perpetual motion
And they follow the races and pay out the gains
With no show of an outward emotion
And they think it will make their lives easier
For God knows up till now it’s been hard
But the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card.”