YES – ” Roundabout ” From the Album Fragile Recorded September 1971

Posted: March 18, 2017 in MUSIC
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Yes performing in London in 1972. Left to right: guitarist Steve Howe, singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, drummer Alan White and keyboard player Rick Wakeman.

With classical and psychedelic influences, progressive rock boomed in the early 1970s with the rise of FM radio and affordable stereo systems. One of the era’s most popular prog rock bands was Yes, thanks largely to the album “Fragile,” It was the group’s fourth studio album, released in 1971.

“Roundabout,” the album’s sole released single, co-writer and Yes guitarist Steve Howe along with co-writer and lead singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman recalled the hit’s evolution. Today, Howe continues to record and tour with Yes, while Anderson and Wakemen, who recently released “Piano Portraits” (Universal), are members of the band Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman.

Jon Anderson said, I began writing the lyrics to “Roundabout” while traveling with the band in a van through Scotland in late March 1971. The song written by Anderson and Howe that has become one of Yes’s best-known songs. Howe recalled the track was originally “a guitar instrumental suite … I sort of write a song without a song. All the ingredients are there—all that’s missing is the song. ‘Roundabout’ was a bit like that; there was a structure, a melody and a few lines.”Yes was on tour then, and we had just performed in Aviemore the night before. In the van, we were heading south to Glasgow, about a 3½-hour drive. There were mountains and lakes everywhere.

I had smoked a joint, so everything was vivid and mystical. As we drove along, we encountered a fair number of “roundabouts,” what you in the States call traffic circles. At one point, the road dropped into a deep valley and ran next to a large lake. Low clouds covered the mountain peaks.

I took out my little notepad and started writing. I wrote the lyrics in a free form and didn’t edit the lines much. I just loved how words sounded when I put them together:

“I’ll be the roundabout / the words will make you out ‘n’ out” expressed how I felt as the song’s words came to me fast, the way cars navigate roundabouts. I expected to be in the van for several hours, so I was spending “the day your way, call it morning driving through the sound of in ‘n’ out the valley.”

“In and around the lake” was the road winding through the region. Down in the valley, the mountains seemed to “come out of the sky and stand there.” I was married then, and I knew I’d see my wife in a day: “Twenty four before my love you’ll see / I’ll be there with you.”

Jon Anderson performs during Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman concert in Los Angeles last October.
Steve Howe follows: In Glasgow, we checked into our hotel, and Jon and I got together in my room with a cassette recorder. Eventually we had this minor feel for the verse that resolved in a major key for the chorus. But the song’s biggest advance came that August in a London rehearsal studio, when keyboardist Rick Wakeman who had replaced Tony Kaye in the band. Rick was more interested in the technology direction we wanted to take.

Jon Anderson: said Rick revolutionized our sound. He added multiple keyboards, which gave us more textured possibilities. At the rehearsal studio, I sat on a chair in the middle of the band and listened to what they were developing. If what they were working on wasn’t happening, I’d make suggestions.

“Roundabout” wasn’t difficult to sing. But as the band’s vocalist, I needed to know where the song was going. They often looked to me to figure out what should come next so the vocal and instrumental worked together.

In September, when we went into Advision Studios in London to record “Roundabout,” we used their 16-track tape machine, which let us layer the instruments. The song became pure magic. Anderson goes on: The rhythm track was recorded first, in segments. The band would rehearse one segment at a time and then record it. Then they’d move on to the next segment, always mindful of the song’s progression and structure.

Steve planned to open the song by playing something of a Scottish jig on his acoustic guitar. He had played it for me earlier at our hotel. Steve Howe continues: My opening acoustic guitar part was played on my 1953 Martin 00-18. But we felt the song needed something more dramatic to start. We found it with a backward piano note. When you strike a single piano note and hold it down, the sound starts loud and then fades away. We wanted this to happen in reverse.

We recorded Rick holding down a piano note, and then we turned the tape reel over and started the song where the note was faintest. What you hear on the record is a note going from faint to loud, as if it’s rushing toward you.

Rick Wakeman: For the piano-note intro, I simultaneously played the lowest E on the studio’s grand piano and the E an octave higher. The octave gave the note a fatter feel. Chris Squire wanted a funky sound on the bass, sort of a Sly and the Family Stone feel. I played organ arpeggios over the top with my right hand as my left hand played Chris’s bass notes to add weight. Howe: When we finished the rhythm track, Chris overdubbed his bass track using my Gibson ES-150 electric guitar, which had a Charlie Christian pickup. It wasn’t terribly loud, but it was effective, giving him an eight-string bass sound. On the organ, Rick was adventuresome, allowing the rest of us to see a wider sonic path and plenty of room for experimentation.

Except for my acoustic Martin at the start, during the ballad passage in the middle and at the close, I used a 1961 blonde electric Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster throughout. Rick Wakeman: On most of “Roundabout,” I played a Hammond C3 organ. Later, I overdubbed a Minimoog when the song slows to a ballad about five minutes in and Steve plays acoustic guitar. I also added a Mellotron for flute sounds when Jon slowly sings, “In and around the lake.” The Mellotron gave the passage a “Strawberry Fields” mood.

Anderson: Once the instrumental track was done, I went into the studio early one day with just the engineer and recorded my lead vocal while listening to the music through headphones. When the other guys came in, we recorded the harmonies. Finally, we reached a point where the song had to end. I thought, let’s do something totally different and sing harmony, like the Byrds or the Beach Boys.

I started singing “Dah dah-dah-dah, dah, dah, dahhh.” Then we all started singing that in harmony. We added it onto the end of the song.

If you listen carefully, you can hear Rick singing three notes against the grain of what we were doing. They’re the notes to “Three Blind Mice,” and it sounded intriguing. Steve Howe: To close the song, I decided to mimic what I had done on my Martin guitar at the beginning. But I ended on an A-flat chord, which the ear doesn’t really expect.

Anderson concludes: A couple of days after we finished “Roundabout,” the band went into the studio to listen to it on the big speakers. When the song finished, I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s so good.”

I looked around at everyone. It was an interesting feeling. My conscious self was glowing. I thought, “I can’t believe this is happening in my life at this moment in time.”

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