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‘Fragile’: How Yes Broke The Mould With Their Fourth Album
In Depth

‘Fragile’: How Yes Broke The Mould With Their Fourth Album

Marking the start of Yes’ golden era, their 1971 album, ‘Fragile’, was a seminal prog-rock classic shimmering with spiritual longing.

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Marking them out as one of the UK’s leading purveyors of progressive rock, Yes’ scintillating fusion of delirium-inducing hard rock and classical music was already a tried-and-true recipe for success by early 1971. Having scored big with their UK No.4 release The Yes Album, released that February, the group immediately began concocting new song ideas to bring to their producer Eddy Offord at Advision Studios, where they would record their game-changing fourth album, Fragile.

Listen to ‘Fragile’ here.

The backstory: “Rick coming into the group made us work faster and harder than we’d ever done before”

Before that, however, there was an important line-up change to be addressed. Keyboardist Tony Kaye had been dismissed from the group earlier in the year, but, luckily, session wizard and former Strawbs’ member Rick Wakeman hungrily stepped up to the plate. A seasoned pianist who would soon make a landmark appearance on David Bowie’s Life On Mars?, Wakeman completed what would come to be regarded as Yes’ “classic” line-up.

Teaming up with singer Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Bill Bruford, Wakeman brought his aptitude for everything from Hammond organ to Minimoog synths, helping Yes to craft their most ambitious undertaking to date. Dialling into Anderson’s ever-growing spiritual leanings and Howe’s luminescent guitar prowess, Fragile would prove to be the band’s make-or-break moment.

The recording: “It was an inspired time, totally inspired by the music”

Within weeks of Wakeman joining the group, the Yes musicians wasted no time in completing fresh material. “Rick coming into the group made us work faster and harder than we’d ever done before,” Jon Anderson reflected. As would soon become apparent from the album’s thunderous opening song, Roundabout – inspired by a post-tour motorway journey – Chris Squire’s stretch-band bass workout and Wakeman’s wild organ soloing showed how perfectly the new-look group had meshed. Upon its release as a single in January 1972, Roundabout would peak at No.13 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and became a staple on drive-time radio.

Having been released two months earlier, on 26 November 1971, Fragile moved from its jackhammering opener to Wakeman playing an organ-led extract from Brahms’ 4th Symphony In E minor (Cans And Brahms), proving that classical music could sit neatly as a seamless prelude to the merry-go-round groove of the yo-yoing folk shanty We Have Heaven. Closing the first side of vinyl with the jagged and syncopated riffage of South Side Of The Sky, there was little doubt that Yes’ unique musical vision had coalesced into a rock-solid enterprise.

Given how perfectly Fragile is sequenced, it’s remarkable how democratic the songwriting process was. On Side B, each musician offers a song on which they could truly shine, from drumming dynamo Bill Bruford’s percussion-led powerhouse Five Per Cent For Nothing to Chris Squire’s craggy bass strut The Fish and Steve Howe’s woozy and baroque acoustic-folk instrumental Mood For A Day. “It was an inspired time, totally inspired by the music,” Jon Anderson later said. “The music we were working on was so new and so fresh to us that it was pretty easy to get out.”

The standout song: “When anybody asks me what prog rock is about, I’d play Heart Of The Sunrise”

Lyrically staying true to Anderson’s hippie ideals, it’s possible to see Fragile as part of the singer’s journey to spiritual enlightenment – and nowhere is this better exemplified than on Heart Of The Sunrise, a sprawling, 11-minute prog masterclass full of Howe’s fiery finger work and Wakeman’s irradiating solos, and which Anderson has said “rings true to my chakra energy, my consciousness”. With Anderson singing in his alt-tenor voice of being “lost in the city” and seeking sunlight to replenish his soul, it’s easily one of the best Yes songs, and a track that received incendiary airings on the group’s 1972 tour in support of the Close To The Edge album, as documented on the band’s gargantuan 21LP box set, Progeny: Seven Shows From Seventy-Two.

Unsurprisingly, Heart Of The Sunrise is the song that Rick Wakeman cites as one of Yes’ defining achievements. “When anybody asks me what prog rock is about or whatever you’d like to call it – symphonic rock, prog rock, or whatever,” he has said, “I’d play Heart Of The Sunrise.” Imbued as it is with the esotericism of classical music arrangements and the pummelling power of brute-force rock’n’roll, it’s a masterful song on which Yes’ legacy comfortably rests.

The release: “It was just all wonderfully new and exciting”
By the end of 1971, despite a key change in their line-up, Yes had proven they were only just getting started. They had birthed Fragile a mere nine months after The Yes Album, and the new record emerged as a perfectly formed new arrival. Bristling with Wakeman’s slaloming organ flourishes, Howe and Squire’s watertight synchronicity, and Bruford’s grooves – pushing and pulling as if on shifting sands – Fragile took all the symphonic elements of Yes’ sound and wove them into the group’s prog-rock palette with aplomb.

Visually, too, Fragile elevated Yes to another level, its spectacular album cover immediately becoming the stuff of prog-rock legend. Depicting not only the soon-to-be iconic Yes logo, but also a globe with foliage sprouting from the earth, it was the first artwork commission the band had given to illustrator Roger Dean, who would quickly become the band’s go-to designer.

“It was just all wonderfully new and exciting,” Wakeman reflected, “and the record company left us alone because we were selling bucket loads of records. They didn’t understand a word of it!” True enough, Fragile went on to sell over two million copies worldwide and has since been certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association Of America. Not only did the album help popularise prog-rock on a global level, but Yes’ fearless sonic voyage would go on to influence everyone from Queen to Rush. The word “classic” is often thrown around lightly but, in this case, there’s no question that it sticks. As masterpieces go, Fragile is untouchable.

Buy Yes vinyl and signed prints at the Dig! store.

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