Progressive rock, at its best, meant bringing in techniques and influences not, up to that point, common in rock music. Part of this meant employing a kind of technical virtuosity more often heard in more established musical traditions, and another part meant drawing from a wider and deeper pool of musical and cultural influences than did other rock compositions. The Alan Parsons Project established their prog-rock credentials right out of the gate with their intricately crafted debut album Tales of Mystery and Imagination, not just based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe but including a reading from that work by none other than Orson Welles.
How to follow up a record like that? For an answer, Parsons and his collaborator in the Project Eric Woolfson turned from the past toward the future — or rather, toward Isaac Asimov’s vision of the future. I Robot appeared in 1977, having taken its inspiration in the studio from Asimov’s Robot series, a universe of stories and novels which posited the invention of machines with something resembling human consciousness.
Asimov very much liked the idea of the album, but couldn’t—a production company having bought the rights to his 1950 book I, Robot—grant permission for a legally straight adaptation. And so Parsons and Woolfson stayed out of trouble by removing the comma from their title, and working forward from Asimov’s concepts rather than referencing them directly. The result stands up to the test of time better than most science fiction, and certainly better than most prog rock. You can listen and judge for yourself on Spotify, where the album recently appeared free to listen. (Don’t have Spotify’s software yet? You can download it here.)
You can also watch the rough but still haunting early music video for its hit “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” at the top of the post. The album on the whole proved quite successful, due in large part, of course, to its musical craftsmanship and enduring story, described by the liner notes as that of “the rise of the machine and the decline of man, which paradoxically coincided with his discovery of the wheel.” But the timing couldn’t have hurt: I Robot came out just a few weeks after Star Wars, which stoked again humanity’s interest in far-flung realities, outer space journeys, near-mystical high technologies, and machines coming to life. In the words of Parsons himself, “there was a whole new generation of sci-fi lovers,” and his music had an important place in that generation’s soundtrack.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.