The name of track 4 on Fragile, British progressive rock band Yes’s fourth album , which was released in late 1971 in England and in 1972 elsewhere. South Side of the Sky is 8:04 in length, making it closer than most of Yes's early songs to being the sort of epic which would make Yes (among others) famous in progressive rock circles. However, Yes rarely retreaded the ground seen on this song, which is an accomplishment considering the claims of excessive nostalgia aimed at later albums like Keys to Ascension.
South Side of the Sky was written by Jon Anderson, Yes’s lead vocalist, and Chris Squire, its bassist. Anderson is credited with writing or co-writing perhaps half of Yes’s songs, but is not considered to have much musical ability compared to the other virtuosos in Yes; I suspect that Squire was responsible for much of this particular song’s unique sound, and that Jon wrote the lyrics and some music. IIRC I have seen it said on the Internet somewhere that Squire adapted part of this song from something one of his pre-Yes bands performed (just as Steve Howe supposedly did with part of “Starship Trooper”). Perhaps the melody to one of many riffs came from a non-Yes band, but the lyrics are true Anderson cosmic-hippie babble if they mean anything at all. Rick Wakeman may have contributed to this track‘s composition, but at the time he had a contract with a separate label, and none of his contributions to the band’s original compositions at this point were credited.
The song is “connected” musically onto the end of the third track on Fragile, “We Have Heaven,” by the sound effects between them: the sound of a door closing, a series of footsteps, followed by a few seconds of wind, after which Bill Bruford’s drumming begins the song in earnest.
Each verse is divided into three sections by distinct bass and keyboard parts. Each section adds progressively to the vaguely ominous and dark air of this part of the song. Howe’s increasingly strange lead guitar riffs add a quirky sense of alienation. The lyrics seem to talk of an impending disaster, specifically of death by hypothermia. Meanwhile, the third section, with tight harmonic interplay between separate riffs on guitars, bass, and keyboards, rocks hard. All of this is fairly foreign to Yes music.
Then there is the middle section of the song, which is also unusual in Yes music, as well as completely unrelated to the rest of the song. A piano interlude from Wakeman, which, according to an interview conducted with Notes From The Edge this year, was a practice take recorded without his knowledge, builds up, climaxes, and provides a new riff in about 30 seconds. Bass accompaniment soon enters, and then an airy section with bass, piano, understated drums, and wordless vocals in some strange time signature (seemingly incorporating measures with 7 beats and with 9 beats) begins. This section alternates between two interesting sections, marked by god knows how many overdubbed voices (probably more than just the three of Anderson, Squire, and Howe -- I suspect some of them recorded multiple parts) and Squire’s always startling ability to play bass and sing at the same time. This part of the song almost suggests floating in a dark sky, but before it drifts into ambience, the vocals, drums and bass fall away, and the piano takes us back to the cold reality of the loose narrative of the rest of the song.
There are two more verses, followed by a raucous guitar solo from Howe, in one of his more aggressive moments on a Yes record, and a fade out. (70s Yes albums frequently have a side that ends with a fade out over a Howe guitar solo, for some reason...)
Because of the miniature A B C structure in the verse, the over-arching A B A structure, and by virtue of having traditional verses in the first place, this song is very unusual among Yes’s compositions (certainly it is unusual among its 1970s repertoire). So don’t think Yes were a pre-punk progressive Police or Oingo Boingo or something. Although I like those bands as well as Yes, I prefer to think of this song as an enjoyable oddity.
South Side of the Sky was on the set list of Yes's 2002 tour. This announcement was a pleasant surprise to many fans, as South Side of the Sky has rarely been played live - it was only ever played before on the Fragile tour. The current lineup of Yes, which became what it is just before the tour when Wakeman joined Yes (for the fifth time), has rarely toured together (most notably on the Close to the Edge and 1978-9 tours). Also, Yes will visit Australia for the first time in more than 30 years -- since the Fragile tour, incidentally. Perhaps they will play this strange wonderful, oft-neglected song, although this year's Full Circle Tour is apparently considered separate enough to warrant a new Roger Dean graphic on Yes's official website.