It is such a long time ago that my memory is blurred on the fact, but I am pretty sure that The Turn of a Friendly Card (ToaFC) was the first music I owned.
My sister had a number of Alan Parsons Project albums on vinyl and I heard them in the house when I was a teenager. The sound must have captured my fancy because I soon owned ToaFC on cassette which I would play on my Sony Walkman. It is interesting to note that such an early discovery would really stand the test of time, as The Alan Parsons Project remains my second favourite act/artist of all time, after Jean Michel Jarre. I own a copy of every readily available album, including follow-up works by Parsons after the Project was dissolved.
ToaFC is the band’s fifth album, released in 1980, and like all preceding and indeed all following Project works is a concept album. In this case the concept is the temptations of gambling. Parsons and Eric Woolfson, the partnership that underpinned the Project, both lived in Monte Carlo within walking distance of the big casinos. Personally, as someone who often just doesn’t hear lyrics, I can forget that the theme is there most of the time and I don’t think that takes away from the listening experience.
The opening track, May Be A Price To Pay, has the typical sound of a Project work, but the track is otherwise a relatively standard “vocals and instruments” performance. The Project’s sound has an electronic timbre but typically they had a full complement of traditional instruments. The electronic sound likely came from the electronic keyboard and electric guitars, but there are also acoustic guitars and pianos, clavinets and harpsichords at times.
An interesting feature of Project works is that there is no “lead vocalist” in the band. May Be a Price To Pay is sung by “Elmer Gantry” (Dave Terry of Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera), one of four lead vocalists on this album alone, with at least a dozen over their entire catalogue. The key protagonists, Parsons and Woolfson, preferred to choose the right vocalist for the track. While Woolfson did sing on many of their songs (including some of their most successful), Parsons only sang lead once, on their debut album Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and even that was through a vocoder. (After dissolution of the Project and with live touring, Parsons has taken on a much greater role with vocals.)
While May Be a Price To Pay is very much a “standard” song with a distinctive Project feel to it, Games People Play is overtly more of a Project sound. Sung by frequent lead Lenny Zakatek, the song may sound almost normal in places, but slips into very electronic breaks and in fact has a consistent 4-note keyboard phrase from start to finish, clearly marking it as a work of the Project. It was released as a single and made number 16 on the Billboard Top 40, making it their 4th most successful.
Next is one of two tracks on the album sung by Woolfson. Time was his first for the Project and also features Parsons on backing vocals. It was their second most successful single, making it to number 15 on the Billboard Top 40, and it only takes a few moments of listening to understand why. A very simple, slow ballad, it is sung with soft, almost dreamy vocals and yet at times they soar to neck-hair tingling heights. It is one of my favourite Parsons tracks of all. It has been said of Woolfson (and ratified by himself) that he was not the most technically adept singer, but this track must surely be one he was proud of.
Just when you were relaxed and chilled out by Time, along comes Lenny Zakatek again and, despite a soft start, I Don’t Wanna Go Home ramps up quickly to moderate pace with punchy vocals and equally punchy instrumentation, once again with that clear Project sound.
In the days of my cassette tape, this was the time to turn the tape over or, on more modern equipment, wait for the auto reverse to kick in.
This next track holds the honour of being the first one I absolutely fell in love with. For a time it was by far and away my favourite track, though it was not to last in that slot for long once I discovered Jarre’s works. (One day I will write about what Oxygene (Part II) does for me.)
The Gold Bug is an instrumental number that begins with Parsons whistling, rather well. He also contributes finger clicking to the percussion track. The basic makeup of this track is the unadulterated Project sound including electronic keyboards. It is lead for a time by an alto-saxophone that, like many great saxophone parts, soars to impressive heights. There are also a lot of backing vocals as instruments, to great effect. As I listen again while writing this, I can understand why this clicked with me so much in those early days. It is a stirring track.
The remainder of side 2 is taken up with the five parts of the title work, The Turn of a Friendly Card, wherein we hear the chorus line “the game never ends when your whole world depends on the turn of a friendly card,” with the title phrase spun out into far more than just a sung lyric.
The Turn of a Friendly Card, Part 1 opens with a flute which then leads to the beautiful vocals of Chris Rainbow. It’s a pretty laid back track opening with piano backing and closing with acoustic guitar. It is the shortest on the album, at a mere 2:43, but sets the tone, especially with the final line, “as he enters inside the cathedral,” punctuated by a loud gong. The cathedral, I assume, being a reference to the casino.
Rainbow then brings us the most overtly themed song of the album. After an instrumental opening to the basic melody, we get the opening line. “Snake eyes. Seven, Eleven. Don’t let me down boys.” Snake Eyes fits much the same musical model as I Don’t Wanna Go Home but briefly adds some background soundscape of a casino to support its message.
The Ace of Swords adds a harpsichord to the instrumentation before taking on a strong beat with another Project-identifiable instrumental. Once again, this track does not reinforce the album theme for me excepting, of course, the title, but is nevertheless an enjoyable listen and leads nicely into the lovely, balladic Nothing Left to Lose.
In this track, Woolfson reprises the same vocal style as Time making this another beautiful track, though this time backed with additional, layered vocals. I recently purchased my third copy of ToaFC – another CD – in order to get the Digital Remaster version of the album. This version contains bonus tracks including a raw version of the over-dubbed vocals for this track by Chris Rainbow. It really is magical to listen to without the strong presence of instruments.
The sadder tone of the song neatly fits the theme and begins to close the story with “nothing left to lose” and including the final line that just leaves off one word. “‘Cause you’ve got nothing left.”
Finally, Chris Rainbow returns for The Turn of a Friendly Card, Part 2 which is very much a continuation to Part 1 but with far more emotion pumped into it and ending on a long instrumental. The level of “the game is over” I get from this track is typical of final tracks on Project albums. I’m no audio engineer, but I’m sure there’s something that goes into this work that marks it as a final track. Disappointingly, the song completes with a fade out.
I couldn’t tell you which is my favourite Project album of all, but ToaFC would surely be a contender. It holds a special place in my collection, having been one of my first. There is no track out of place, no track which I feel lets the album down, and I never tire of listening from end to end, while also enjoying the singles in their own right.
I think my favourite Project tracks are from the earlier Pyramid and the later Eye in the Sky, but neither of those albums achieve the overall coherence of ToaFC.