Pink Floyd's epic 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun' was the only time all 4 original members of Pink Floyd: Syd Barrett; Richard Wright; Nick Mason and Roger Waters along with 'new boy' David Gilmour (the soon-to-be 'replacement' for Syd Barrett who was, by this point, rapidly spiralling into drug-induced madness that would linger for the rest of his lifetime - despite some glorious solo albums released shortly after his departure from Pink Floyd) played together on the same track.
The lyrics are written by Roger Waters and steal lines from ancient Chinese poetry. It's thought the song is about death of the body and eternal life of the soul, burning brightly forever inside the sun - a symbol of eternal life. Not surprisingly the track appears on Floyd's most spiritual, or indeed - most trippy moment; their second album - the uber-psychedelic mash-up, A Saucerful of Secrets which had the days of Barrett-inspired lunacy and beauty replaced in part here by the formidable creative writing force of Roger Waters and his obsessions with childhood, war and eternal isolation. These obsessions reached a pinnacle in the epic Pink Floyd album to come; The Wall and perhaps even more so in the very troubled (for the rest of the band anyway as they were as good as left out of the creative process) but still increasingly inspiring Waters-sculpted album -The Final Cut. The Final Cut was the last time Waters played with the other members of the band as Pink Floyd.
A Saucerful of Secrets can be seen today as Syd Barrett's fond - but poignant and prematurely heartbreaking - farewell (he appears on just three songs and sings, and writes, only one - Jugland Blues) and sees Waters stepping, reluctantly, into the seering songwriting spotlight, although it's actually keyboardist Richard Wright who sings on most tracks. Waters's hatred for 'performing' would soon become clear when later touring the Animals album in 1977 - he spat on a fan in the front row, and classic album The Wall later explored the relationship between band and audience as well as mother and son, army and individual, teacher and pupil - the wall being the only barrier; a mental safety catch that imprisons as much as saves.
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is the second album's standout track, along perhaps with Corporal Clegg, and tellingly both tracks are written by Waters. While Barrett appears on just those few selected tracks mentioned earlier, it's Pink Floyd's debut album- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, that remains the one to get to go back to in order to remember Syd's poetic, reflective, random, head-blistering, imagination-bursting legacy found like a guilty secret among tracks such as The Gnome, Scarecrow, and Bike or the singles See Emily Play or Arnold Layne, at its best.
Nobody wrote songs like Barrett - he tuned into the mindset of 60's psychedelic London with ease and played games with convention and loosened the collar of the most suited-up of certainties. After Barrett had left the band, at the reluctant insistence of the other members, Pink Floyd floundered, tried out new types of song and set pieces; floating pigs and Pompeii-posturing. Before they found their way; their legacy for life, with Dark Side of the Moon. Although of course, all their records have their own personality and favourites among the fans, nothing Pink Floyd ever did was worthless; was usually pushing some kind of boundary, if only of the musical kind. All the variations in style and songwriting and leadership along the way, only help to prolong the pleasure for many fans - all the way up to their final, emotional reunion after years of bickering and separation and outright hatred, at Live 8 in 2005, when for twenty minutes or so, the music flowed again, and something special filled the night sky around all those watching, whether in the audience, or at home.
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, was perhaps the first glimpse of later spiralling, beautifully melodic and melancholic tracks that we would discover on Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, or film soundtracks such as Obscured by Clouds. The track also appeared on the Floyd's famous live album and film; Live at Pompeii. Shot in 1972, this iconic performance saw the band - minus Barrett of course - perform in a Roman amphitheatre in blistering heat. Set the Controls is an obvious, extended and bewitching highlight. The film's press book featured words by Tim Lucas, the film critic, author and editor of Video Watchdog. Try and find that one if you can as Lucas himself has confessed to not even having a copy of this one in his possession!
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun remains a masterpiece of blissful harmonies and rampant psychadelica, featuring hushed, echoing vocals, and dark, otherworldly, sinister and spiritual lyrics that make you want to take a glimpse over your shoulder from time to time while walking slowly towards the light, mesmerised... In some ways, the song is a funeral march, a paen to Syd Barrett's time in the band, more real in some ways than Shine On You Crazy Diamond recorded in tribute much later; and represents the passing over of the band into a new phase of their life - whether they knew it or not at the time of recording is another matter altogether.
words: mark gordon palmer