Friday Song: "Roundabout" by Yes
Can a classic progressive rock song hide one man's Scottish jig at its heart?
Editor’s Note: This is a summertime feature on Fridays, to ease readers into the weekend with a song in their hearts and a bounce in their steps. If you enjoy this, you’re invited to try a project inspired by the success of this little feature at “Mad About Music.” Enjoy!
Most of us are familiar with roundabouts — a circulation of traffic around a hub, used in lieu of stop signs and cross intersections. They’re common in Europe, around Boston, and increasingly within the US as traffic engineers have learned how well they keep traffic moving while also reducing accident and fatality rates. As one engineer put it (and I paraphrase), roundabouts make everyone nervous, so everyone slows down.
In 1971, Yes hadn’t yet had a breakout hit and was mainly a touring band. In fact, the members weren’t looking for a hit — but their record company was. Driving around Scotland, they encountered plenty of roundabouts. Most saliently, when lead singer Jon Anderson came to a roundabout in Scotland, he knew that he was almost home.
Other references to Scotland dot the resulting song. The band was traveling from Aberdeen to Glasgow when the song was written, inspiring lyrics like “Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there,” as the mountains would disappear into the clouds. The lake mentioned in this song (“In and around the lake . . .”) is Loch Ness.
Clocking in at 8:29 in full form (the single, which charted at #13 in the US, was edited down to 3:27), “Roundabout” is written in E minor and played at a brisk 133 bpm. Anderson described it as a “Scottish jig.” If so, its strong progressive rock arrangement makes it one of the more sophisticated.
The song uses a technique called “deceptive cadence,” which leads a listener to expect a major chord to resolve to the tonic, and then surprises them with something else. “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles also uses this technique.
“Roundabout” is from the “Fragile” album, the first Yes album for Rick Wakeman, a now-legendary keyboard player, known as much for his formidable musical chops as for his flowing blond hair and envy-inducing keyboard layouts, which showcased enough equipment to make any keyboard player drool and want to run straight to the nearest music store, credit card in hand. Wakeman’s solo on “Roundabout” was singled out by actor/musician Jack Black as his favorite keyboard solo of all time in the DVD extras for the rock movie, “School of Rock.”
Nearly 50 years on, the production quality of “Roundabout” hits you right between the eyes — from the pop of the first guitar note, to the rolling, rumbling bass, to the textured drumming, to the stratospheric keyboards, the sound is pristine. I remember when I first put needle to LP and cranked my old Panasonic stereo (which had great speakers) — it was like the room came to life.
The odd sound at the beginning of this song is a piano chord, recorded and then played back backwards. Yes’ engineer spent a lot of time stringing up tape the wrong way and picking out just the right notes to make it work.
Enjoy, and have a good weekend!