In the autumn of 1967 Syd Barrett was falling apart. Too much LSD, a pre-existing mental illness, and the pressures of being in a chart-topping band had mashed up his psyche. He wrote unplayable songs, missed gigs, and stood there playing one chord all night when he did turn up. Even worse, from his band mates’ point of view, Syd didn’t seem to understand he was sick.
Pink Floyd were a big band. They had underground credibility from their druggy, voyaging live performances and mainstream popularity thanks to Barrett hit singles like Arnold Layne. Now all that was in danger of slipping away.
In December 1967 the band hired their guitarist friend Dave Gilmour for live performances. They had the idea that Barrett could stay home like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and compose.
The Sixties’ Nightmare
It didn’t work out. Syd was kicked out of his own band in January 1968. Gilmour permanently replaced him as guitarist. That makes the song Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun on the band’s second album something interesting. It’s the only track to feature both Barrett and Gilmour.
The song is one of the first written by Roger Waters, who would go on to become the band’s main songwriter. It’s a collision of many 1960s themes: the bass line nods to Indian music; the lyrics come from late Tang dynasty poets Li He and Li Shangyin; the title comes the 1965 Michael Moorcock science-fiction novel Fireclown. Hippies believed wisdom lay in the east and sci-fi was great to read when stoned.
The band turned it into a pocket epic with washes of synthesizer, crackling guitar work, and calm vocals. Barrett created his guitar part when the song was first recorded in August’67. Gilmour added overdubs in early ’68. The result was strange, mystical track about suicidal glory in space.
“An unknown person who, while piloting a mighty flying saucer,” said Waters, “is overcome with solar suicidal tendencies and sets the controls for the heart of the sun.” [floydlyrics.blogspot]
It all adds up to a more substantial track than the sloppy writing and fractured recording deserves. Syd went on to write two great but desperately unwell solo albums before quitting music and moving back to Cambridge to live with his mother. Pink Floyd turned into either pioneers of intelligent progressive rock or the smug embodiment of bloated pretension. Opinions differ.
For more warlike weirdness, you can buy my books in hardback, paperback, or ebook: