By Brian Ives
This week (January 4), Yes’s classic fourth album, 1972’s Fragile, celebrates the 45th anniversary of its U.S. release (it hit stores in England a few weeks earlier, on November 26, 1971). Fragile was the album where Yes truly found their identity; it featured their most celebrated lineup, one of their signature radio songs and even saw them begin to form the visual imagery that they’d use throughout their career. As this anniversary comes just a few weeks after the announcement that Yes will finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s a good time to look back at the album which, more than any other in their catalog, is responsible for their legend.
Fragile was the perfect record for its time: blues-based rock music had gone pretty far, but Yes was bringing something new, fresh and different. They were one of a handful of bands that created the much-maligned and often-misunderstood art form known as progressive rock. Perhaps a few years down the line, the epic-length songs and rock star excesses made Yes the poster children for what music critics and punk rockers absolutely hated. But really, what Yes and their peers (Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson) were doing was bringing new flavors to rock music: classical and jazz influences permeated the music in ways that rock and roll hadn’t seen before. Lyrically, Yes was finding different kinds of stories to tell; their words were more inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis than Willie Dixon and Jerry Lee Lewis. And they were certainly happy to stretch the lengths of rock songs: but not through jamming, like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. Instead, like classical composers, they created epics that contained multiple movements.
As long as the songs got, Yes never forgot the importance of the song. They also knew the importance of each individual member, all of whom were virtuosos. In fact, the nine track album really just has four “Yes” songs; the other five tracks are mostly solo pieces by individual members. And it was their newest member that brought Yes to their highest highs: keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
When Yes started—with singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Tony Kaye and guitarist Peter Banks—they were one of many British rock bands following in the wake of the Beatles. Back then, it seemed as if there was no limit to what rock bands could do on album: they just needed the songs and the vision. In their early days, Yes didn’t quite a surplus of either… yet. To be sure, on 1969’s Yes and 1970’s Time and a Word. there were a few great moments: “Time and a Word,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Then,” their cover of the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing.” Yes was a good band, but not yet a great one. After the second album, the band then fired Banks, replacing him with Steve Howe, formerly of Tomorrow (who had a minor hit with “My White Bicycle”) and Howe’s mastery of stringed instruments immediately opened up their sound. 1971’s The Yes Album was a quantum step forward. They ditched the cover songs, composing everything on their own, and began doing long multi-sectioned pieces: the three part “Starship Trooper” stretched to nearly nine and a half minutes. “I’ve Seen All Good People,” was more radio ready, at a svelte 6:56 (and just two chapters); it was their first top 40 hit (just barely: it peaked at #40). Yes also gave Howe is own solo acoustic guitar piece, “Clap,” a rare instrumental you could sing along to.
The band’s chemistry was unique: Bill Bruford’s drumming was free-jazz inspired and gave Yes a sense of adventure that few other “rock” groups had. Squire’s playing was informed by other British players, notably Jack Bruce and John Entwistle, who played bass as if it were a lead guitar. Jon Anderson was an immediately distinctive vocalist and reached highs that few other singers could. But keyboardist Tony Kaye, who was apparently unwilling to stretch his keyboard repertoire from piano and Hammond organ to mellotron and synthesizers, was no longer fitting in. After The Yes Album, he parted ways with the group.
Enter Rick Wakeman. An intensely creative musician who seemingly played any type of keyboard instrument, and had a list of credits that included playing mellotron on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” piano on Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” electric piano on T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong,” organ on Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” and was a member of the folk-rock group the Strawbs. He was the perfect guy for Yes.
His solo contribution to Fragile was a classical piece called “Cans and Brahms,” an interpretation of the third movement of Symphony No. 4 in E minor by Johannes Brahms. This was very different from what Kaye contributed. Pretentious? Sure. But “pretentious” sometimes just means “ambitious,” and Yes was an ambitious band.
Fragile‘s success, though, was in the songs that featured the whole band, starting with the opening track, “Roundabout.” An eight and a half minute song, co-written by Anderson and Howe, it helped to define rock radio in the ’70s, and is still a favorite today. Featuring Howe’s mind bending acoustic and electric playing, Squire’s aggressive bass and Anderson’s distinct vocals and lyrics (“Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there”; what did that mean?). The eerie intro to the song, ironically, required little of Wakeman’s skill: it’s a single note on the piano, recorded and played backwards. But “Roundabout” came out at the right time: radio was feeling adventurous , and was willing to play long songs, within reason. As unconventional as “Roundabout” was, it hit #12 on the Billboard charts.
“Long Distance Runaround,” written by Anderson, was shorter, clocking in at three and a half minutes, but it segued right into Squire’s classic bass showcase, “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)” bringing it to a little over six minutes. Pop radio didn’t take notice, but rock radio did.
The shape of things to come from Yes, though, was found in the last track, “Heart of the Sunrise,” a ten and a half minute song co-written by Anderson, Squire and Bruford. Filled with changing time signatures, Squire’s thick and—dare we say it—funky bass playing, Howe’s piercing leads, Wakeman’s deft juggling of organ, synthesizer and piano, and Anderson’s ethereal vocals and lyrics, it’s one of the band’s signature songs, even though it wasn’t a hit. It encapsulated everything the band did well, highlighting the talents of five incredible musicians without ever feeling show-off-y. It’s long but doesn’t outlast its welcome. It may be the finest ten-plus minutes of progressive rock. (It was also used to great effect in a very NSFW scene in Vincent Gallo’s 1998 indie film Buffalo ’66, putting the band’s music in a more erotic light than it is usually viewed in).
Later in 1972, Yes would release their next album, Close to the Edge, featuring just three songs filling up two sides of vinyl, and for a few years afterwards, Yes would concentrate almost exclusively on epic-length songs, leaving their tighter works like “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” in the past.
Fragile also marked the band’s first time working with visual artist Roger Dean; Dean created the album’s iconic cover. He would go on to perfect Yes’s logo and their visual look on Close to the Edge. Their collaborations continue to the present day (the band’s most recent release, 2015’s Like It Is: Yes at the Mesa Arts Center, featured a Dean cover, as do many side projects and solo efforts by band members).
The classic Anderson/Squire/Bruford/Howe/Wakeman lineup would last just one more album; shortly after Close to the Edge, Bruford left to join King Crimson. The five would play together again for one tour from 1991-1992, which also included Tony Kaye, drummer Alan White and guitarist/singer Trevor Rabin. And, sadly, that would be the time these five musicians would ever share the stage; Chris Squire, the keeper of the Yes flame, died in 2015.
Related: Chris Squire, Remembered
These days, Steve Howe is the only member of the Fragile-era lineup still playing in Yes. Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman have a new group with Trevor Rabin (of course, it’s called Anderson Rabin Wakeman). Bruford has retired from recording and performing, although he earned a PhD in music from the University of Surrey last year. But here’s hoping that the four of them (along with Kaye, White and Rabin) will get together to perform “Roundabout” one last time at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Heart of the Sunrise” would be cool, too.
Regardless of what happens at the Barclays Center on April 7, one thing is for sure: Fragile is an album that thoughtful music fans will be studying for decades to come, and without it, Yes may never have become arena headliners and radio mainstays. It’s too bad the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t recognize this Yes while Chris Squire still walked the earth.