To mark the release of the 40th Anniversary edition of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, here’s an extract from John Cavanagh’s book about the album, one of the first books to be published in the series, back in September 2003:
“I think our records will be very different from our stage shows…inevitably,” Peter Jenner told a Canadian radio reporter a few weeks before Pink Floyd signed to EMI. He went on: “Firstly there’s a three minute limitation, secondly you can’t sort of walk around the kitchen humming to the Pink Floyd. I mean, if you had the sort of sound they’re making in the clubs coming over the radio while you were doing the washing up, you’d probably scream! I suspect that our records are bound to have to be much more audio…they are written for a different situation. Listening to a gramophone record in your home or on the radio is very different from going into a club or into a theatre and watching a stage show. We think we can do both.” Thirty five years later, Peter said: “A lot of their live gigs would be considered self-indulgent waffle if you went to hear them now: the most appalling self-indulgent waffle, unless you’d taken plenty of drugs. You know, a bit like dance music now!”
By 1967, the sounds you might hear on the radio while washing up were reaching new realms. Thanks to the Beatles and the Byrds, the mind-expanding influences of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane permeated the mainstream within tight pop song structures. However, the album format was becoming the home for lengthening durations, moving towards a distinct new market. Love’s Da Capo had the side-long ‘Revelations’; there was ‘East-West’ by the Butterfield Blues Band; the Chambers Brothers scored a U.S. Top 20 hit with an edited version of their eleven minute invitation to psychedelicize your soul, ‘Time Has Come Today’; even the Rolling Stones broke their normally concise limits with eleven minutes of ‘Going Home’ on Between the Buttons.
The six tracks on side one of Piper brought fresh, exciting textures, but the biggest surprise awaited listeners who didn’t know Pink Floyd’s live work over on side two: an extended blues jam is one thing; an organic free improvisation number is another entirely and Norman Smith was ready to let one be heard. Peter Jenner: “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.”
More than any other track, ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ highlights the dichotomy of Pink Floyd. It was the anthem of the underground set at the UFO club; taken on the road, where crowds expected pop hits (and maybe knew only ‘See Emily Play’), this jagged musical landscape certainly opened the minds of some audiences to new ideas, but for many others it was a confusing, disturbing catalyst for a hail of missiles directed at the band.
Peter Jenner remembers how Syd Barrett hit upon the central riff: “I tell the eternal story (and my recollection is probably a complete lie by now) but my feeling is that I said to Syd, ‘Hey, there’s this great song by Love I’ve just heard – it went like this…’ I hummed it and because my singing was so spectacularly out of time, out of tune and all the rest of it, he said ‘Is it like this?’ and when he played it, it came out as a different song and that was ‘Interstellar Overdrive’.” The irony is that this skewed inspiration did not come from one of Arthur Lee’s own songs: Jenner hummed Love’s cover version of the Burt Bacharach / Hal David tune ‘My Little Red Book’, which first appeared in the movie soundtrack of What’s New Pussycat? “Love were quite influential, we all liked Love,” remembers Jenner. “Imagine singing that out of tune. It shifted pitch and got squashed!”
The downward progression that is ‘Interstellar’s opening theme has a beautiful simplicity to it. Even if (like myself) you’re not happy changing chords on a guitar, you can play this: start at b – seven frets up on the e string – and descend, fret by fret. Like the most direct ideas, of course, the truly inspired part is that nobody thought of it before! This riff subsides into a five note bass figure which acts as a springboard to freeform “intuitive groove”.
Several versions of ‘Interstellar’ are extant in addition to the finished album cut – far more than any other piece from Pink Floyd’s early days. There are alternate mixes and edits of the EMI recording, live tapes and two earlier studio recordings. They chart the development of an innate understanding between four individuals and the best of them, by far, provides an interesting link to a key event in underground culture…