YES, FRAGILE, 1972
Music nerd alert.
I was gonna skip this one, but when "South Side" came up, I figured I might as well write about an uncool tune early in the blog and establish that some of the 20,000 songs are going to elicit ridicule. Can't supply much more ammunition than to recommend an eight minute Yes song so obscure that it's not on any greatest hits or live albums (and this band has not a few of those). It's on a box set, but everything is on some box set somewhere.
So... where to start? I'm a bass player, and anyone who plays bass will have a soft spot for Yes. Chris Squire, the bass player for Yes, has one of the most recognizable tones and styles in rock. His playing is loose and right on the edge of being out of control through the whole tune. He would be fired from any band he auditioned for except this one. His leads and riffs are busy as hell and sometimes come in the weirdest places. That said, he's a genius-- his parts are melodic and fast and really smart. He responds to the rest of the band in ways that I rip off all the time. So that's one thing Yes has going for it. Listen to this song and pay attention to just the bass the first time through-- Squire kills it! And his tone is more lead distortion guitar than bass, especially in the choruses (if that's what you call them).
Second-- drums. This song features Bill Bruford, one of the most talented players of the 70s. Even though the opening drum fill on this song sounds wildly out of tempo, it's clear twenty seconds in that Bruford is driving the bus. I love his playing. I also like how dry the kit sounds on the tune-- all the reverb is on the vocal (more on that later).
Third-- Steve Howe might be the most unfortunate looking guitar player in rock music,
(TELL me he's not the inspiration for Nigel Tufnel!)
and he seems like a huge putz in interviews, but he can really play. The guitar runs in this song are some of my favorite things he's ever done, especially in the verses.
Fourth-- ambition. Say what you want, but this song is a driving, progressive rock song for 2:30, and then becomes an extended keyboard instrumental for 3:30, only to come back and burn down the intro for two more minutes. There's so much going on in terms of composition that you can't help but admire it, especially because the band doesn't go overboard with overdubs. In the rock passages, it's a five piece rock band and not much else.
Now, having said all that, listening to Yes requires two things. First, that you can put up with the vocals of Jon Anderson, and more importantly, that you can completely ignore the lyrics. The lyrics of Jon Anderson are deliciously stupid. Apparently, the song is about a mountain expedition gone wrong: "A river, a mountain to be crossed / The sunshine in mountains sometimes lost / Around the south side, so cold that we cried / Were we ever colder on that day / A million miles away / It seemed from all of eternity." Ah, yes. I much prefer him when he's singing "Ahhhhhhhh" in the instrumental passage. I've never been moved by a Yes song. It is the worst kind of quasi-mysticism a lot of the time. Plus-- all the sound effects! The wind! The thunder! The dancing hobbits (OK, that one I'm imagining, but they're in there somewhere). So this song is all about the performance-- it's a good band, playing extremely well.
But FINALLY-- the reason this song in particular stays with me, more than Roundabout or other, better known Yes songs: when I was thirteen, I read Helter Skelter, the book about the Manson murders, for the first time. It absolutely scared the hell out of me, and I've pretty much been obsessed with the dark side of the 1960s ever since (Peace, love and narcissism!). For whatever reason, I read the book while listening to Yes' Fragile and Close to the Edge nonstop on one of those 2 for 1 cassettes that they sold in the 80s as a budget line purchase. It was just a cassette in a cardboard sleeve that had 2 for 1 in pink lightning letters (thank you 80s) and tiny pictures of the two album covers. It was a great deal-- two full albums for like five bucks. So I'd put it on, read until it stopped, flip it over, and keep reading. That's how I read Helter Skelter-- with Yes talking about mystic mountains and playing baroque rock. Now, for whatever reason, when I'd come to a moment that absolutely chilled me in the book, almost EVERY time, it was "South Side Of The Sky" that was playing. I've come to love Close To The Edge, but I've never been able to separate Fragile from the grisly images of that text, and so as I'm typing here listening to those silly sound effects of footsteps that start the song, I'm also thinking about 10500 Cielo Drive and the acid-induced madness of August '69. I think "South Side Of The Sky" is creepy and ritualistic; I don't listen to it at night-- but you'll probably think it's dumb, and you're probably right. But it makes the list, dammit-- you know you have songs like this one, too.