Chapter II of 50 by Mark Connors series. Mark talks about the Prog Rock album “Fragile” by YES and the single “Vincent” by Don McLean
This is the second chapter of our 50 by Mark Connors series that takes us back to 1971 revisiting visiting progressive rock band YES and american singer-songwriter Don Mclean
1970 (Album) Fragile – YES
It took me a long time to appreciate Yes. First of all, barring their shift to a more radio friendly approach with their 1982 album 90125, their songs were too long. One album, which I still haven’t warmed to despite becoming a fan 36 years ago, is 1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans. It’s exhausting to listen to. The shortest song comes in at a staggering 18 minutes and 25 seconds. But it wasn’t just the length of the songs that bothered me. At 14, I was already a fan of both Rush and Marillion who had their own epics to delight and perplex simultaneously. But Yes songs were even more complex with trickier unexpected time signatures which collapsed for listeners to enter these almost cosmic clearings where Jon Anderson would sing his ultrasonic lyrics that could sometimes be arguably described as utter gibberish. A lot of the songs don’t appear to be about anything specific. We know where we are with Rush’s 2112 or Marillion’s Fugazi. They have discernible narratives. But if you asked me to explain what Close to the Edge was about or perhaps the most pretentiously titled song of all time, The Ritual (Nous Somme Du Soleil), I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. Even old Yes members admit to being foxed by Anderson’s lyrics. And at 14, Yes just didn’t do it for me. My best mate, Faz, loved them, however, and was pretty persistent. But I remember the horror of those early days where he’d play something which I found pretty much unlistenable, like the 21 minute colossus that is Gates of Delirium from Relayer, another album I simply can’t stomach even to this day. I’d go as far to say that, at 14, Yes traumatised me.
This was never more apparent than one Friday in 1984. Before I could get into pubs, Friday night was reserved for The Friday Rock Show, hosted by the brilliant Tommy Vance on Radio 1. I loved it. Each week I’d discover new bands and some bands I’d missed too. Anyway, this particular Friday, I was gutted to ascertain that week’s show would feature two hours of Yes live, a gig recorded during their proggy pomp a decade earlier. Faz, who listened to the radio show religiously too, rang me at 10.01 pm laughing hysterically down the phone. He would be taping the next two hours to mark the occasion. I would be going to bed early in protest. Faz would play me something by Yes now and then to try and break my resolve but I resisted, until I heard 90125 some time later that year. It’s still one of my favourite albums to date. Incidentally, its longest song is a mere 7:36. So, I finally became a Yes fan and took to most of their back catalogue with gusto and verve.
The next album Faz played me was the 1971’s Fragile, an album widely credited for taking Prog Rock to the masses.
And yet, I still have a major issue with this seminal record. Fragile is one of the most audacious albums ever made. One could argue it’s not even an album in the strictest sense of the word, more an LP consisting of 9 pieces which really don’t hang together in any pleasing way. Fragile is an apt title for an album where only four songs are actually played by the band as a whole. The rest of the recording consists of self indulgent solo pieces, which aren’t really interesting at all, apart from guitarist Steve Howe’s flamenco inspired Mood for a Day. As much as I love Chris Squire’s bass playing and Bill Brufford’s drumming, I would maintain their solo contributions to Fragile are of little interest to anyone but drummers and bass players. Jon Anderson chips in with a hook on a loop which would have made a half descent Yes song had it occurred to the band to turn it into one. As for virtuoso, Rick Wakeman, rather than show off his considerable skills as a pianist/keyboard player, he opts for a weird Brahms tribute instead which would have been better suited to a Monty Python segue between comedy sketches. And yet, paradoxically, the album reached Number 4 in the US and Number 7 on the UK chart. Why? Because the only actual songs on the album are so bloody good. The opener, Roundabout, is a jaunty, funky song with great vocal harmonies and textually magnificent guitar harmonics, a song that was edited to provide a radio friendly single to promote the album. Long Distance Runaround and South Side of the Sky, are another two songs which have become firm fan favourites. The album’s remarkable finale, Heart of the Sunirse, is one of the finest progressive rock songs ever written, a song that exemplifies all the positives of prog: excellent musicianship, intriguing lyrics and a song in movements that builds, breaks, ebbs and flows so satisfyingly that it’s still adored by prog fans almost 5o years after its release. Then again, if you don’t care for progressive rock, there’s little here for you to change your mind and I don’t feel any inclination to do so. Fragile is not an album I’d recommend to anyone who hates prog. It won’t convert you any more than any of their other albums would. Prog is not everyone’s cup of cocoa. But as prog goes, this album is pretty damn wonderful.
1971 (Single) Vincent – Don McLean
Vincent was released when I was one-year-old. I’m pretty sure it’s the first song I ever remember hearing as an infant, apart from the odd lullaby my mum used to sing to me. I say sing, my mum was tone deaf so Vincent was the first ever song to register anything like a melody with me. And what a melody it is. The lyrics are timeless and luxuriant, evoking an artist’s masterpieces so effortlessly that each time you play it, it brings as much pleasure as the last time you heard it. I’ve been listening to the song for as long as I can remember. As a singer, I also love singing it. It’s beautiful, happy and sad in equal measures, a perfect musical elegy to my favourite artist.
Of course, when I sang along as a child, I didn’t have a clue it was about Vincent Van Gogh, any more than I knew it was about his suicide. But as I’ve lost a handful of friends to suicide myself, friends who were lost to depression and other mental health conditions, friends who also burned a little too brightly for this world too, it’s a song that will no doubt continue to resonate with me for as long as I’m alive.