Like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's slightly earlier song "East-West," "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. Despite its encapsulation of their concert repertoire under the leadership of guitarist and composer Syd Barrett, the long, improvisational, freeform structure of the piece is not particularly representative of the group's recorded output. As drummer Nick 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.
This riff originated when early Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner was trying to hum a song he couldn't remember the name of (most commonly identified as Love's cover of "My Little Red Book"). Barrett followed Jenner's humming with his guitar and used it as the basis for the principal melody of "Interstellar Overdrive." Roger Waters once told Barrett that the song's riff reminded him of the theme tune from Steptoe and Son.
The song was a staple of Pink Floyd's live shows throughout the late-1960s; the last ever performance took place on the 21 November 1970 in Montreux, Switzerland. The 40th anniversary edition of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn contains two different, five-minute-long versions of the song.
The plethora of bootleg live recordings, with and without Barrett in the band, show that the band often improvised upon and changed the arrangement with each passing performance. One post-Barrett BBC radio broadcast, for example, is arguably superior to the studio version, introducing a wholly new middle section in which the keyboard melody dramatically rises and the guitars are pick-scraped for an almost "demonic" effect. The finale in performances from 1969 and 1970 features David Gilmour playing a metal bar slide across his guitar at the end of the piece, in a slower tempo than Barrett's frenetic slide work.
An especially powerful version of "Interstellar Overdrive" was rumoured to have been cut from the Ummagumma live album. Tapes of this performance may still exist. "Interstellar Overdrive" has been covered by many artists, including Particle, Hawkwind, Camper Van Beethoven, The Melvins, moe., Spiral Realms, Pearl Jam and The Mars Volta.
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