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'Fragile'—Agile Yes Music

by Steven Shinder 3 years ago in album reviews
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Yes Apart and Together!

Fragile cover art by Roger Dean.

After The Yes Album (which was certified silver in the UK and platinum in the US) advanced Yes music, the band toured successfully, even playing shows in America for the first time. Following that tour, keyboardist Tony Kaye was asked to leave the band, and Chris Squire called Rick Wakeman of The Strawbs late at night to ask if he wanted to join the band. After speaking to Yes manager Brian Lane, Wakeman decided to play with Jon Anderson (vocals), Bill Bruford (drums), Steve Howe (guitar), and Chris Squire (bass), and the rest was history.

In September 1971, this lineup, along with Eddy Offord continuing his role as producer, recorded Fragile. Comprised of solo songs by each member and four group songs, Fragile was first released in November 1971, and it would get certified platinum in the UK and double-platinum in the US. Complete with the first of many fantastical album covers by Roger Dean, Fragile would go on to captivate the minds of Yes listeners both casual and die-hard.

"Roundabout" (Early Rough Mix)

1. "Roundabout"

"Roundabout" is a great example of an Anderson/Howe-written endeavor. Howe's opening notes give off a very enigmatic vibe, as if the listener should be prepared for what's to come. What follows ends up being a tune that is catchy, but not too overtly upbeat. The more upbeat parts of the song come in with the words "In and around the lake / Mountains come out of the sky and the stand there," which itself is well-written imagery. As a new member, Wakeman makes his presence known, leaving a good impression for potentially new listeners. "Ten true summers we'll be there and laughing too" is a catchy song, and just last year, the phrase "Fifty True Summers" was attached to YesFanFest. As the song continues, it feels as though it swirls in circles, truly conveying the feeling of a roundabout. The scat singing at the end of the song adds a psychedelic layer to the song.

"Roundabout" is a staple when it comes to Yes concerts, and it is perhaps one of their three best known tracks along with "I've Seen All Good People" and "Owner of a Lonely Heart." It has even gained use in memes thanks to the anime JoJo's Bizarre Adventure using it during the end credits. The middle section that begins with "Along the drifting cloud" has been omitted from certain live versions over the years, particularly by the "Yes West" lineup and Yes Featuring Anderson Rabin Wakeman. The song loses something without this section, which itself feels like a journey with twists and turns. "Roundabout" might be overplayed, but when performed live, it's preferable for the whole song to be performed. An abridged version might be acceptable if it were to be reworked in a different style/genre. But an abridged version that uses arrangements of the original can feel half-hearted. With this song, the musicians have to commit to either being faithful or making it so different that they can be forgiven for shortening it.

For the band's 35th anniversary, Yes made an acoustic version with a blues feel to it, and it worked really well, despite the condensed middle section and the song ending before what would be considered its original natural end. Performances of this version were included on the US pressing of The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary Collection, the Yes Acoustic: Guaranteed No Hiss video, and the Songs from Tsongas video. Definitely a nice way to reimagine a song that Yes fans have heard time and time again.

2. "Cans and Brahms"

Wakeman performs "Cans and Brahms" with a whimsical charm as he provides his take on Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor. Even though it is not a Wakeman original, he demonstrates just what he is capable of doing. It was a smart idea to have this be the first solo track on the album and to have it follow the first group track. Listeners got to hear the band together and then get a taste of its new recruit.

3. "We Have Heaven"

Jon Anderson then gets the spotlight. Listeners get to hear a choir full of multiple Anderson voices singing. To the die-hard Anderson fans, this may be heaven indeed. This was an early sign of what was to come in Anderson's first solo album Olias of Sunhillow five years later. That concept album would even include an astral glider as an essential component to its story, similar to the glider that is visible on Roger Dean's art for Fragile. "We Have Heaven" ends with a door closing, and the sound of footsteps can be heard.

4. "South Side of the Sky"

This song opens with wind, and then thunder. In a Camden concert in 2002, Anderson explained, "This is a song about three guys who got stuck in the mountains, in the Himalayas. And they died and went to heaven, on the 'South Side Of The Sky'." "It seemed from all of eternity" highlights how isolated from civilization a mountain can feel. "Of warmth of the sky" switches the temperature, juxtaposing the sun and the apparent warmth of death with the cold of the mountain.

The song gets quieter for a chilling interlude dominated by Wakeman's keys. One cannot help but think of the uncertainty of such a dangerous journey while listening to this. "La la la la la la" gets repeated, filling the empty space, and Bruford's drums become more and more present as we journey out of this calmer section. Wakeman's keys continue, and once this section of the song ends, the sound comes crashing down, almost like an avalanche, and then Anderson sings again, "The moments seemed lost in all the noise." One cannot help but admire the words woven together: "The river can disregard the cost / And melt in the sky." The song fades out, as if a snowstorm is muting the sound of a journey.

Live versions end with a sonic duel between guitar and keyboard, and it is quite a treat to see. According to the site Forgotten Yesterdays, "South Side of the Sky" was only performed seven times in the 1970s. On the tours for Fragile and Relayer, the band cut out the quiet section in the middle. Again, it's preferable for the whole song to be performed in full. In 2002, Yes performed it for the first time in nearly 30 years, complete with "We Have Heaven" preceding it, and continued performing it for the next two years, up to the end of their 35th anniversary tour. Within that duration, they made an acoustic version, which, like the acoustic rendition of "Roundabout," was a fresh and successful take. Since the end of the Yes hiatus of the 2000s, "South Side of the Sky" has popped up on various tours. It is no longer as much of a surprise for it to appear in the set, but it's no less of a strong choice of a song to perform.

"South Side of the Sky"

5. "Five Per Cent For Nothing"

Lasting for only 35 seconds, Bruford's composition "Five Per Cent For Nothing" is the oddest track on the album. It was originally going to be titled "Suddenly It's Wednesday," which perhaps would have been fitting given how quickly Wednesday can sneak up on people. But the title was changed for the sake of making a joke about former Yes manager Roy Flynn receiving 5 percent of the band's future royalties. It may be short, but it is difficult to imagine how it could have been extended. So perhaps the length is appropriate.

6. "Long Distance Runaround"

Credited to Anderson, "Long Distance Runaround" begins with an upbeat feel. The lyrics are not too complicated. The most eccentric line is perhaps, "Hot colour melting the anger to stone," a reminder that people should rid themselves of anger. Squire does some good work on this song, and it can be difficult enjoying the song as much without it segueing into "The Fish" as it does on this album. However, on the Relayer Tour a few years later, Yes performed an acoustic version of the song, bringing a more somber feel to such lines as, "I still remember the time you said goodbye." One could argue that this version transcends the Fragile version since it could have stood on its own. But of course, it was followed by Patrick Moraz's keyboard solo on that tour. When Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe later performed "Long Distance Runaround" live, they compensated for the lack of Squire by having the song culminate in a drum solo by Bruford. For those concerts, it made a good substitute for "The Fish."

7. "The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)"

Squire is masterful on this track, showcasing his capabilities. The vocals come in, repeating, "Schindleria praematurus." This was a good taste of what was to come in live performances, where Squire would sometimes extend the piece and really shred the bass. Starting in 1984 and continuing on various tours onward (pun not intended), he and Yes' next drummer Alan White performed "Whitefish," which includes excerpts from other Squire-centric Yes songs, with the duo showcasing their musical partnership.

8. "Mood for a Day"

"Mood for a Day," performed by Howe on flamenco guitar, feels like it goes through different moods, as one might expect. Howe's playing takes the listener through emotions one may endure throughout a day. It is apparent that some emotions can make a reprise within the same day. Howe performed a bit of this during the sessions for The Yes Album, apparently as part of "Clap." In some live shows, he has had these two pieces accompany each other. They are certainly different enough from each other to stand out as their own pieces.

9. "Heart of the Sunrise"

Credited to Anderson, Squire, and Bruford, "Heart of the Sunrise" is a piece that lasts for over 10 minutes. It was the best choice for an album closer. Right away, the music assaults the listener. Bruford especially performs at an impressively rapid pace. After a little bit, they slow down, the bass conveying a seductive vibe. Perhaps this is why the song would be chosen to appear in a strip club scene in Buffalo '66, which culminates in an intense moment that fits with the sinister-sounding culmination the music.

Nearly four minutes into the song, the intensity dies down, and Anderson comes in, singing about the feeling of being lost in the city. Notable verses include, "Lost in your their as you hurry by / Counting the broken ties they decided." Like the person hurrying by, this is a fleeting moment of words conveying how strangers decide not to reach out to each other as they are each going through their own thing. Wakeman's swirling keys make great contributions to the interplay between instruments dueling it out. The last line, "I feel lost in the city," almost feels like a plea for help from someone who truly does feel lost. But then the music goes its own way, just as people and cars in a city might.

After a bit of silence, a door opens, and there is a reprise of "We Have Heaven." When Yes performed all of Fragile live on the Heaven & Earth Tour in 2014, this was the only thing omitted from an otherwise fairly faithful performance of the album. One cannot help but wonder what the reason for this was. "Heart of the Sunrise" feels complete without it, but Fragile does not.

Back artwork for Fragile depicting the planet breaking apart, which would continue on the artwork for the Yessongs live album.

Conclusion

The solo pieces on Fragile may make the album feel somewhat disjointed. But then again, that adds to the charm of this album having its title. The songs are great regardless, and the album is generally perceived as one of the best and most successful Yes albums. Even though the physical formats on which Fragile has been released are capable of being broken, the music itself holds up no matter what.

Sounding Out documentary filmed in October 1971, featuring excerpts of songs from The Yes Album and Fragile.

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About the author

Steven Shinder

Author of fantasy horror comedy novel Lemons Loom Like Rain, which is available on Amazon. You can also read excerpts at stevenshinder.com and check out facebook.com/StevenShinderStorytelling.

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