“Interstellar Overdrive” by Pink Floyd, Released August 5th, 1967
There are songs that are legendary, but within this already-rarified category there are just a handful of Godhead offerings that are not just enjoyed and respected by many generations but actually alter the culture to spawn entire movements, cults, ways of life. To say that “Interstellar Overdrive” is one of these songs is both absolutely true and a complete understatement, since much of the many movements/cults/ways of life spawned from the track have no real understanding of the original song. Most of those gliding in the all-powerful “Interstellar” slipstream are coasting on a general concept/vibe that was instantly assigned to the track upon it’s initial touchdown in that Paisley Swinging London Summer of ’67, an influential assignation for sure, but one that Syd and The Boys never had in mind as they developed and coaxed the track over a number of years into the epochal, near-ten-minute version that appeared on the latter-side of Piper.
And they never did stop developing “Interstellar Overdrive”.
The “IO” wasn’t so much written as it was work shopped into glory, with the bulk of its obsessive free-jazz template coming together on a long, slow creep over the fertile year of thy Lord, 1966. But its mind-blowing seeds were planted as far back as the very first Floyd jam sessions, back when the future Psychedelic Princes were nothing more than The 137th Best Blooze Band in Chelsea Town. If there’s any proof of the level of horrific genius Syd Barrett was working with in his brief fertile songwriting window it’s that the fresh-faced abstractionist came up with the “Overdrive” concept after hearing Floyd manager Peter Jenner absentmindedly humming a nervous, tuneless melody while bored, like any hanger-on without an instrument would be, at a jam session. In this case a non-muso’s tone-deaf vocal tic brought about the concept of using chromaticism within a pop context, springing forth such all-consuming, reality-morphing Syd staples as “Astronomy Domine“, “Pow R. Toc H.“, and our subject track. Keep in mind that the term “jam band” had not yet even been uttered in 1966, meaning this type of open-ended songcraft, the type where the official recorded version serves as a mere template for live experimentation, a remote signpost on a much longer journey, was completely unheard of. This makes the song’s trajectory all the more remarkable to follow, and the straight-ahead single-minded dedication Syd and his pouty bandmates showed for what was at the time considered an exercise in futility is inspiring.
For your average Syd freak, the official Piper version of “Interstellar” is far from definitive. Most, including your faithful author, would consider this supremely spacy interpretation, laid down in Stockholm in 1967, to be the real kingmaker:
Of course there are those contrarians who choose the lonely hill known as “The Heavy Version” to die on. This take, recorded in October of 1966 and used over footage of The Floyd lording over the tripped out Games Of May masses in the documentary Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London, kicks the dissonant chaos floating just ‘neath the later versions’ surface right to the front lines in a startling, decidedly un-subtle manner that audibly freaked out the groovy DayGlo kidz in attendance (you can see them crying, gasping, and generally just freaking right the fuck out in the footage below). Indeed there is a reason Syd Barrett was one of the only classic rawk figures to be spared the punk cultural inquisition of 1977, and within “Interstellar’s” knotty dna can be found a knowing sneer that didn’t fully bloom until the No Future kids one generation onward.
Then there’s the carnival-esque, pro-distortion “Interstellar” known as the “Halloween Version” which was used in an obscure, art-damaged documentary on Swingin’ London in the Fall of 1966. The main distinction of this alternate take is that it was actually recorded in a studio, offering an intriguing glimpse into where “Interstellar” stood just months before it was officially tracked for Piper. And just where did it stand, exactly? Well let’s just say Syd and his mates were obviously bumping a whole lotta’ AMM around The Floyd headquarters as the winter set in. This is by far the headiest known version, complete with free-form flights of Rick Write organ fancy, an extended Barrett “solo” where he does nothing but scratch the strings in a rhythmic method scarily close to what the rap rock bros of the ’90s would take to heart, and an insistent bass line that puts Roger Waters closer to scuzz-psych Floyd rivals Hawkwind than he ever was or would be again. If the post-Syd Floyd was the Psych Mercedes, the 1966 version, as evidenced here, was a beat up Karmann Ghia painted bright yellow with a souped-up engine:
Yet another version that large factions of Early Floyd fanatics flock to is the alleged “definitive” (as if there could be such a concrete thing for such a slippery subject) 17-minute version which appears on the uniformly excellent Pink Floyd, London ’66-’67 compilation. If you’re in search of an “Interstellar” that gobbles up nearly all of the strange twists and bends the song took on in the Early Floyd years (and is still taking on today) then here you have it: The punky intro, the Enter Space Now freeform passages, a patented Syd record scratch pre-hip hop solo, slow builds and fake fade-outs galore…I’m not certain if anyone has referred to this as “The Kitchen Sink Version” but even if they have then I’m stealing it for myself:
Just when you think you you’ve got the “Interstellar” pathways mapped out, you find out about more obscure versions like this full-tilt psycho romp from Syd and Company which really must have freaked out the dancing Dutch teens of the 1967 “Hippy Happy Fair” in Rotterdam:
Even more epochal is this shorter, punchier version from prime early Floyd at the UFO Club (check out those swirling mini-skirts):
And it gets deeper still. Before “Interstellar” was retired by the newly mass successful Floyd in 1970, long after Syd had departed these solid shores for the Madcap high seas, it sidewinded through another series of sideways progressions.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Frank Zappa jumped on “Interstellar Overdrive” then you’ve got it from this festival footage from later in the post-Syd 60s. (PS it’s a mess):
So what do we make of the “official” Piper version of “Interstellar”, the one burned onto vinyl grooves over two months in the spring of 1967? Well, before getting into it, check them out recording it:
Our Sydney is looking a little obsessed here, is he not? A little burnt out on the creative process? Potentially a tiny bit fried from the long, painstaking building process for this signature track that was, at the time of recording it, not yet halfway through its journey? While yes, LSD was indeed one of the tools used to coax this thing into being, there is just something in Barrett’s ghostly pallor and drooping, unfortunate Sgt. Pepper’s mustache that goes beyond mere chemical strain and into the realm of artistic obsession. “Interstellar Overdrive” is not, as it is often defined, a product of the flower children, Swinging London, or the burgeoning psychedelic movement. It isn’t even a product of rock n roll. It’s a direct lineage back to Bacon, Bosch, Nerval, Plath, and any other artist who sacrificed their body/mind/well-being in an attempt to perfect their artistic vision.
It’s true that much of the direct effect of “Interstellar Overdrive” has been blunted over the years through over-generous cultural bombardment. So many bands. So many songs. So many niche concerns morphed into commoner knowledge. The real way to appreciate “Interstellar”, for those new to the game, is to hear it through 1967 ears, a time when a pop song devoid of vocals was enough to make your average listener toss their transistor radio out the window, a time when the concept of the “album” was still fresh and only appreciated by heads-in-the-know, a time when a four-minute song was nearly unheard of, let alone one that stretched nearly ten. It may sound tame now, but through 1967 eardrums “Interstellar” is beyond unusual. It’s downright revolutionary.
If there’s any better or more recognizable opening riff in the psychedelic canon than Sydney’s wickedly descending spiral staircase of doom on “Interstellar” then I’d love some examples. The Floyd may have had their heads firmly in the clouds at this stage of their run, but they were always showmen, as evidenced by the fact that they just KNEW this free-form dirge HAD TO BE the opener for their sets. This is less a mere riff than an announcement, a proclamation, a line in the sand. If ye descend this staircase ye shall be dangerously enlightened forevermore. A thrilling minute of gutter psych punk is kicked into gear with Nick Mason’s agit-drums, fast and gooey like a short circuiting lava lamp propelled by some of Syd’s most direct and forceful riffing. This is The Early Floyd at their most stridently deconstructive, music for both head trippers and headbangers in equal measure. And yet just after this bold “boxer making his way to the ring” alpha psych move, The Floyd goes for the anti-climax, morphing into a tuneless free-form breakdown that stretches nearly seven minutes. Mason carries much of the weight here, providing some rhythm for music that could be considered rhythmically impossible for any less of a drummer, rolling cymbals and caveman toms pounded at seemingly random intervals as the modal improv madness unolds. As always, Write’s Farfisa adds a hint of the odd carnival to the whole shebang, accomplishing the impossible by making an already overly-abstract piece even more deranged big top strange than it had any right to be in the first place, fluctuating from speaker to speaker like the misbehaving brat an exhausted mother just can’t catch.
And then 8:00 happens. There are maybe three sparking points that would eventually build into the modern day brushfire that is the psychedelic cottage industry; the mid-song 12-string wig-out on The Byrd’s “Eight Miles High”, the slowly melting sugarcube that is The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” intro, and the 8:00 mark on “Interstellar Overdrive”. For it is here, nearly ten-minutes into an ambient slice of weirdness, that The Riff, that same backwards walking head trip from the intro, comes creeping back in. You can hear it coming for several minutes, first as a mere suggestion in tone, a mist on the periphery, then in a timid whisper of a trebly guitar line from Syd. Although buried deep in the mix at first, The Riff quickly becomes the only thing you can focus on, creeping like a chill up the back of your neck, the same way you can sense a spider on your wall before you actually see it. Instinctively, as The Riff solidifies in the mix, the rest of the instruments which had been meandering in jazz land for the past five-or-so-minutes snap back into focus, following this re-emerged piper’s subversive lead. Something has to happen. And then it does; the beat drops, a pregnant pause worthy of modern day EDM DJ pressure buildup tactics, followed by a menacing bit of one-string riffing over top a bluesy run (really the only echo of what was at the time popular music to be found on the entire song), leading into a savage drum crescendo from Mr. Mason. Then we’re off and running, the intro roaring back into focus, falling down that same flight of stairs once again. It’s a breathtaking moment through the right pair of ears, a cycle you didn’t realize was forming suddenly revving to life. The song may be almost over, but it’s all sparks and fizzes from here, short circuiting control boards and blown-out PA systems. It’s an aggressive final minute, but inwardly so. An expanse within. And all brought into focus by that persistent, pulsating riff reborn. While many journeyers were advocating the expansion of the mind and the reaching for the stars, “Interstellar Overdrive” was a slow, deliberate sink into something much more potent than the wishy-washy Marmalade skies their contemporaries were advocating for.
Really it’s a wonder that “Interstellar Overdrive” even exists. 1967 may have been the flashpoint for the cultural expansion that birthed the ’60s myth, but record companies of the time were as stiflingly conservative as they were in the ’50s. With Piper we’re talking about EMI, as trad as they come, so it’s mind boggling that a ten minute space jam would have found it’s way onto a major release. As Jenner explained:
“It was definitely the deal that—hey, here you can do ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, you can do what you like, you can do your weird shit. So ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ was the weird shit . . . “
Weird shit indeed, and not in the “oh so creative and free thinking, mannn” manner of the tea & LSD groovy Chelsea set of the time. This was genuine fringes freakout art aimed right for the lumpens living on disused construction sites, the loners in their mums’ and pops’ bedrooms, those flapping in the wind with their circuits blown wide open. And at the helm was their own princely Dark Lord with the dead-focused eyes and the knowing grin, cranking out aural “Interstellar” madness on the national telly, his waving arms forming shadows on the backdrop like an air traffic controller guiding flights to far off realms.
This song changed the world you live in.