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Alan Parsons, Writer of Chicago Bulls’ Theme Song and Former Beatles Engineer, Talks ‘Sirius’ and ‘Let It Be’

The Last Dance ESPN Michael Jordan
NBA Entertainment

It’s hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, there was no such thing as the elaborate, lights-and-lasers pre-game spectacles and music-heavy player introductions popularized by the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls of the 1980s and 1990s. Players would simply jog off the bench and into a formation with their teammates as their names were announced, and if they were lucky, the crowd would muster a modicum of enthusiasm while a precocious young singer or C-list local saxophonist performed the National Anthem. It wasn’t exactly a recipe for firing up the audience, much less intimidating the visiting team.

All that changed in 1984, when, as legend has it, Bulls announcer Tommy Davis heard the Alan Parsons Project instrumental “Sirius” while sitting in a theater waiting for a movie to start. Struck in the moment by the 114-second track’s signature echo-drenched synthesizer riff and roof-raising guitar solo, the former WLS-FM DJ bought the group’s 1982 album “Eye in the Sky” the next day and began practicing player introductions on top of it.

Before long, “Sirius” was reverberating through Chicago Stadium like an electric shock, becoming inextricably linked to the sight of Jordan and company storming the court en route to six NBA championships and forever transforming the nascent world of in-game sports entertainment. The song is now utilized by countless franchises in the world of basketball and beyond, to say nothing of its evergreen status as a bar mitzvah, wedding and air guitar anthem par excellence.

Parsons, a highly regarded British engineer and producer who worked on iconic albums with The Beatles and Pink Floyd before creating Alan Parsons Project in 1974, certainly never set out to write an American sports anthem. Indeed, the music he made with a rotating band of players was steeped in the studio precision and instrumental virtuosity of prog-rock titans such as Genesis, Yes and Floyd itself — hardly the fare one would expect to win over generations of American sports fans. What’s more, it was never intended to be played live — Parsons didn’t even begin touring regularly until 1993 after he split with longtime APP vocalist and songwriter Eric Woolfson, who died in 2009.

But as Jordan retrospectives go, so goes “Sirius,” and both are firmly back in the spotlight thanks to ESPN’s new 10-part documentary “The Last Dance.” The Jason Herir-directed series premiered April 19 to rave reviews and a network record-setting 6.1 million viewers. Ahead of episodes three and four this Sunday, Variety spoke to the Santa Barbara-based Parsons, 71, about the improbable, enduring legacy of “Sirius,” the frustrations of sync licenses and the one and only time he crossed paths with Jordan himself.

“Sirius” is the first song on “Eye in the Sky” and segues directly into the title track, which was itself a sizable U.S. hit upon its release. But was it always intended as a companion to that song?
It actually started fairly late on in the proceedings of the making of the album. I wanted to open the album with “Eye in the Sky” but felt it needed an intro — we had become kind of used to or famous for having instrumental openers. Eric wrote pretty much every lyric on every album, but the instrumentals were largely my work. I was just tinkering around at home with my new computer musical instrument, the Fairlight synthesizer, back in 1982. I came up with this little riff (hums the intro), literally thinking of it as a cool instrumental introduction to “Eye in the Sky” — certainly not the Bulls’ theme song!

The riff you hear is a combination of a sample of a clavinet, which Stevie Wonder used to great effect on “Superstition,” and a set of notes, to which I added a delay. Part of the sound of the Fairlight sample used in “Sirius” is a delay upon itself. It’s the artificial echo that goes with it that gives it its character.

Did you initially write “Sirius” in the same key as “Eye in the Sky” ?
That’s a very good question, and the answer is no — we had to actually re-record it in a key that worked better. On the [2017] deluxe edition of the album, you can hear a rough demo of the piece in its original key. When we got it into the studio, we re-recorded it because we discovered that it segued really well into the intro of “Eye in the Sky.”

Is it true that a Fairlight cost $30,000 back then?
Oh, I think it was twice that. I was one of the first to have one. Peter Gabriel had one, and I’m pretty sure Stevie Wonder did too. We were at the peak of our success, so an expensive writing tool seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d definitely think twice about it in this day and age.

So, “Eye in the Sky” comes out in 1982, in an era before standardized sync licensing. Did “Sirius” or the title track ever get used as a sync around that time?
I have no recollection of seeing them used anywhere. Eventually, the fact that the Bulls were using it just kind of trickled through to me as it became more popular, like, hey, did you know your tune is getting played at basketball games? I would think possibly 75% of the people who heard it had no idea who wrote and recorded that piece of music.

And the Bulls didn’t need a license from you to use “Sirius” in this way?
It would have been appreciated had they called me and asked for my blessing. But the fact of the matter is, venues have a blanket agreement with [performing-rights organizations] like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. They can actually play whatever they want and just pay this blanket fee, which I am a small part of — like 1/100,000,000th of it. It would have been nice to have been contacted, but whenever it has been used in advertising or movies, I always get a nice little check for it. What’s interesting is that other basketball teams started adopting it as well. I guess they felt like the Bulls didn’t have any kind of ownership rights.

They certainly made it clear that they were going to make substantial use of “Sirius” [in the documentary], so for once, I am getting paid for this (laughs). You may be surprised to know that I don’t actually follow sports. In fact, I don’t think we even subscribe to ESPN, which is ridiculous (laughs). As a result of that, I’ve been finding it very difficult to find episode 1, which I still haven’t seen yet. Can you tell me how to access it? I can’t find it.

But in an arena setting, “Sirius” gets paid at the same rate as any other song?
Yes. The same as any of the thousands of songs playing at any venue across America. It’s quite a ridiculous thing. I’m not aware of any major use in the U.K. either, because I don’t think basketball exists very much over there.

Nevertheless, “Sirius” birthed an entire new paradigm for American sporting events and player introductions.
It’s incredible. I’m so proud that this is the case, especially since a sports theme was the very last thing on my mind when I wrote it. Although they may not know the identity of the artist, it is without a doubt the most-played piece of music that I’ve ever recorded.

I don’t suppose you ever actually crossed paths with Michael Jordan?
There was another documentary about Michael in 2000 called “Michael Jordan to the Max,” and they used an electronic version of “Sirius” by another artist as the theme. There was a launch party for that movie in Chicago, and I was there. Michael was surrounded by millions of people looking to shake hands with him and say hi. Our eyes did meet, and I shook his hand and said, “Michael, you probably don’t know who I am, but I wrote your walk-on music.” And he said, “Oh, nice to meet you, man” —almost like it hadn’t sunk in.

Did you ever go to an NBA game in person?
I saw the Lakers but I don’t remember who they were playing. It must have been about 1981 or 1982. I went with a record company guy named Michael Lippman, who used to manage George Michael and now manages Rob Thomas. It was fun.

Have you had other sync or sample requests for “Sirius” of late?
It seems not a month goes by without some kind of request for “Sirius,” which is great — it has been anything from a background use on Ellen DeGeneres to a Perdue chicken commercial. We had a whole series of those (laughs).

April 10 was the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ breakup. You worked with them on “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be,” so I was curious if you were at the rooftop concert?
Yes, I was. If you look for photos from the roof taken from Paul’s left, you’ll see a guy wearing an orange shirt and a black tie. That’s me. I was working that day. I helped with assembling the equipment and getting all the cables from the studio in the basement up to the roof. It was quite a feat. No studio ever would expect to be running hundreds of feet of cable like that, but fortunately Abbey Road had a large mobile operation, so we made it work. I can’t take any credit for the sound, but it was certainly fun to work on. It was an unforgettable day. I think it was my third or fourth day working with the Beatles.

Have you been following the progress of Peter Jackson’s movie reconstituting footage from the original “Let It Be” film?
I have been, and I met Peter just the other day. He was lovely. He’s found a couple of shots that were definitely not in “Let It Be” that show my mug, so I’m looking forward to seeing the final version very much. I have absolutely no doubt that there will be all kinds of surprises. He’s gone to an enormous amount of effort to get every soundbite that exists from the period. I think it will be a happy movie, unlike the original “Let It Be,” which was somewhat sad. There’s some really great stuff that nobody has ever seen or heard.

Lastly, how have you been keeping busy during quarantine?
I would be lying to you if I was to say I’d been incredibly creative and was writing lots of songs. I’ve barely set foot in the studio. I’ve been trying to get loan money out of the government, like so many people who run small businesses. An extra fee for the usage of “Sirius” would be hugely appreciated, as would a check from Michael Jordan (laughs). Just kidding.