"Interstellar Overdrive" is an instrumental composition written and performed by Pink Floyd. The song was written in 1966, and is listed on their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, released in 1967, clocking in at almost ten minutes in length.
The song originated when guitarist Syd Barrett heard the band's manager Peter Jenner humming a song, which Barrett tried to interpret by playing it on his guitar. Musically sharing the same theme with "Astronomy Domine", the piece was recorded in several takes between March and April 1967. An earlier, longer recording of the song can be heard on the soundtrack to the film Tonite Lets All Make Love in London, which was recorded at Sound Technique Studios in early 1967, and was released in the same year. Other versions of the track appear on various bootleg recordings. The piece has been covered by acts such as T. Rex, Pearl Jam, Hawkwind, the Melvins, and Simon House.
Composition and music
"Interstellar Overdrive" was one of the very first psychedelic instrumental improvisations recorded by a rock band. It was seen as Pink Floyd's first foray into space rock (along with "Astronomy Domine"), although band members would later disparage this term. "Interstellar Overdrive" originated when early Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner was trying to hum a song he could not remember the name of (most commonly identified as Love's cover of "My Little Red Book"). Guitarist and vocalist Syd Barrett followed Jenner's humming with his guitar and used it as the basis for the principal melody of "Interstellar Overdrive". Bassist Roger Waters once told Barrett that the song's riff reminded him of the theme tune from Steptoe and Son (by Ron Grainer). Around the time the song was written, Barrett was also inspired by AMM and their guitarist Keith Rowe, who had a pattern of moving pieces of metal along his guitar's fretboard. The free-form section (and also, "Pow R. Toc H.") was inspired by Frank Zappa's free-form freak-outs and The Byrds' "Eight Miles High".
"Interstellar Overdrive" shares an emphasis on chromaticism with "Astronomy Domine". The main theme descends chromatically from B to G, before resolving to E, all chords major. The opening hook of the piece is a distorted, descending guitar riff, played by Barrett, its composer, with Waters on bass and Richard Wright on organ. Nick Mason's drums then kick in, and after the riff repeats itself a bit, the track turns into improvisation, including modal improvisations, flourishes on the Farfisa organ, and quiet interludes. The song gradually becomes almost structureless and in free-form tempo, punctuated only by strange guitar noises. Eventually, however, the entire band restates the main theme, which is repeated with decreasing tempo and more deliberate intensity. Waters once called the song "an abstract piece". A bass riff in the song later evolved into another Pink Floyd song, "Let There Be More Light", which was written by Waters.
The stereo version of the song has an organ moving from speaker to speaker; the effect is lost on the mono version of the song, where it simply gains an extra organ and guitar sound. However, the organ is very prominent during the first 50 seconds of the mono version—along with some special effects—but inaudible in the stereo mix until the improvised section. Five takes of the song were originally recorded on 27 February 1967, with a sixth later recorded on 16 March 1967, in an attempt to create a shorter version, with overdubs in June of that year, the Piper version also appears on the official compilation albums Relics and A Nice Pair. Despite Smith trying to bring the rest of the album's tracks from a jam-long length to something more manageable, Smith relented for "Interstellar Overdrive", as Jenner recalled: "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 . . . and again, hats off to Norman for letting them do that." A delay effect was created by producer Norman Smith by superimposing a second version of the song over a previous version. Smith played the drum roll on the song. After the drum roll, the opening riff is played with severe stereo panning.
Alternative versions and live performances
The studio recording on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the one that most listeners are familiar with, yet several other versions survive from both the recording studio and the stage. It was first recorded as a demo on 31 October 1966, recorded live-in-studio at Thompson Private Recording Company. This version was used as the audio sound to the film San Francisco, which was made by a friend of Barrett's, Anthony Stern. While filmmaker Peter Whitehead and his secondhand Stern were having a discussion, the topic about Pink Floyd was brought about by Stern, to which Whitehead told him, "yeah, terrible music". Stern said that "they're successful now", and suggest the pair go watch Pink Floyd, at their gig at the Royal College of Art. Whitehead recalled that they "went to UFO and I liked them. Not connected to pop music, a long improvisatory quality, ideal for what I wanted." Whitehead convinced Pink Floyd to record "Interstellar Overdrive" for a film he was working on. Before turning up at the recording studio, the band held a rehearsal, and the next day, 11 January 1967, went to Sound Techniques studios. The studio, which was originally a dairy factory, was run by engineers Geoff Frost and John Wood.
For the session, which was booked for two hours, Wood and Joe Boyd operated the mixing desk, while Whitehead and Stern were filming. This recording of the song lasted nearly 16-minutes in length, recorded onto a 4-track recorder in one take, as the band didn't want to have to play through the song again. The band then played another original instrumental, titled "Nick's Boogie". While 5 seconds of the band playing was included in Whitehead's Tonite Lets All Make Love in London film, edits of the recording was included on the film's respective soundtrack. The soundtrack (released in 1968) includes an edited version of the song and two reprises of it. The full version is available on the album London '66–'67. While attempting to get the band a record deal, Boyd returned with the group to Sound Techniques studios. There, Boyd and the band recorded a demo tape which was to be given to various record labels, one of the songs that features on the tape was "Interstellar Overdrive". An early, unoverdubbed, shortened mix of the album's "Interstellar Overdrive" was used for a French EP released in July 1967. The 40th anniversary edition of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn contains two different, five-minute-long versions of the song, one of them being take 6 from 16 March.
Despite its encapsulation of their concert repertoire under the leadership of guitarist and composer Barrett, the long, improvisational, freeform structure of the piece is not particularly representative of the group's recorded output. As drummer Mason states in his book Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, live versions of the song featured many sections that did not appear on the album, and would often last more than 20 minutes. During the band's days playing in residence at London underground clubs such as the UFO (Underground Freak Out), the song usually opened their show. It occupied other positions, including the encore, until it was retired from the band's setlist in 1970. The song had first appeared in live performances in the autumn of 1966. During one performance of the song, at a gig organized by Hoppy Hopkins, Pink Floyd managed to blow out the power of a venue. Hopkins called it "Very cold, very dirty but very nice." After recording session for Piper were over, Pink Floyd played a 30-minute version of "Interstellar Overdrive". Pink Floyd were filmed performing the song for Granada Television's Scene Special documentary, in January 1967 at the UFO Club. A late-Barrett era rendition was recorded live in Rotterdam in November 1967, at the Hippy-Happy Fair. The song was later replaced by "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" as the main part of the band's set lists, after Barrett left the band. A version of "Interstellar Overdrive" was cut from the Ummagumma live album.
Covers and legacy
- The Mars Volta incorporated a cover of the song into their live shows as a tribute to Syd Barrett.
- The cover version by the Melvins appears on their album Electroretard.
- Pearl Jam have played snippets, which have appeared on their live albums, 8-18-00 - Indianapolis, Indiana, 10-27-00 - Fresno, California, and 11-15-13 - Dallas, Texas.
- moe. covered the song in its entirety on their live album Dr. Stan's Prescription, Volume 1.
- Hawkwind covered the song and the recording appears on their box set, Hawkwind Family Box.
- Camper Van Beethoven covered the song on their studio album Camper Van Beethoven.
- A disco version by Rosebud on their tribute album, Discoballs: A Tribute to Pink Floyd.
- Spiral Realms covered it on a tribute album, Saucerful of Pink: A Tribute to Pink Floyd and on their studio album Solar Wind.
- Death Grips sampled the main riff on their track "I Want it I need it (Death Heated)", from their Exmilitary mixtape.
The album version was ranked number 36 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 greatest guitar songs of all time. While the song did feature on their compilation Relics, it was under consideration for—but ultimately left off–their career-spanning "best of" retrospective, Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd.
Personnel per The Piper at the Gates of Dawn liner notes.
- Norman Smith – drum roll