Recently, a friend, a musician, posted on facebook that he was listening to Yes’s Fragile for the first time—he had asked me and another friend, also a musician, which album of theirs to listen to. We both suggested it at once as the album that would give him a glimpse of the various qualities of the band—the classic band with Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman, and Bill Bruford. One of the songs he liked best, apparently, is today’s song, which was the B-side of the radio hit “Roundabout,” the second song I heard by them, the first being “Your Move.” Yes was definitely an acquired taste which I acquired in 1972 when Fragile was released in the States followed later that year by Close to the Edge. I remember making a spontaneous painting inspired by “And You And I.”
When my friend Brian made the post about listening to Fragile, he received immediate comments from those who still admire the band and those who never did. One remark suggested that women never really like prog rock. While that may be truer than not, it’s the case that those who are over 50 can possibly remember when they did like it, whether or not they still do. In other words, the heyday of Yes and others of that ilk was the early 70s and if you were in high school then you very well may have a place in your heart for a song like “Long Distance Runaround.” Today is the birthday of my friend Gail who, like me, was in high school then and remembers her fondness for today’s song.
So that’s two reasons to turn to Yes today, even though I’m not quite the listener I was, lo those many years ago. However, I did pick up the Mobile Fidelity pressing of Fragile earlier this year. Just couldn’t resist having a spanking new pristine copy of it. The thing is, the song structures of Yes are very busy and tend toward interlinked passages rather than the usual verse/chorus format, and the playing is top-notch and exploratory in a way that I still admire. Fragile was the album that introduced Rick Wakeman to the band, and he brought with him Moog synthesizer and mellotron capabilities, instruments which, in their way, are definitive of prog-rock, which tended to intricate keyboard work.
But the big draw of Yes, for me, was the interplay between guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire—as here with the initial figure that Howe introduces, echoed by Wakeman on keyboard, that gets supported by Squire on his characteristic fat bass. That combination is the sound most associated with Yes. Then there’s Anderson’s vocals—an alto tenor who naturally sings higher than most rock vocalists, Anderson’s voice is one of the most distinctive factors of the classic Yes sound, and what I most associate with him is odd emphases and lyrics that are cryptic when not outright mystical in their implications.
“Hot colour melting the anger to stone,” as a phrase might allow one to infer its sense, well enough, but how does something melt into stone and how does color—hot is an odd choice of adjective—melt anything? Anderson’s lyrics tend to be more associative than narrative and often seem very impersonal in disposition. “Runaround” departs from that, somewhat, as there’s a definite first-person speaker who seems to be dwelling on a long distance love affair—“I still remember the dream there / I still remember the time you said goodbye”—referencing as well “did we really tell lies / letting in the sunshine.”
While all that seems to give us a reflection on a floundering relationship, the song doesn’t feel like a song of love or jealousy or the like, even if we suspect it refers to getting the “runaround” on a long distant call with one’s love. It’s a matter of how the song—which I admit I associate with “Roundabout”—creates a mood that feels like a summer of awakening, of waiting to—even learning to—“feel the sound.” The dream and the goodbye seem to partake of the normal movement of the seasons as they change. But then that might be because of the famous line “Seasons will pass you by / I get up, I get down” on a segment of “Close to the Edge.” In other words, the songs of Yes, who often had side-long suites that were treated as symphonic pieces, tend to support one another in my imagination, not commenting on anything as banal as a boy-girl situation, but rather articulating a kind of lyrical new agey cosmic sense of being. A godliness without any particular god, so to speak.
Did we ever count to one hundred?