Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs: “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” — Pink Floyd (1968)

Little by little the night turns around.
Counting the leaves which tremble at dawn
Lotuses lean on each other in yearning
Under the eaves the swallow is resting

Set the controls for the heart of the sun…

For the several gazillion people out there who fail to recognize the wealth of material that makes up Pink Floyd’s pre-Dark Side of the Moon catalog, you’re in luck! Because today, as part of our ongoing Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs playlist, we’re going all the way back to 1968, during which the iconic psychedelic/space/progressive-rock band released their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets. Moving past their earlier, more avant-garde inspired style, Floyd got a musical shot in the arm from new guitarist David Gilmour, who was brought in to replace the increasingly unreliable Syd Barrett.

Barrett’s mental illness inspired some of the band’s more eclectic and experimental pieces, but Gilmour brought more both a bluesier and more polished sound to the band. Yet on Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, you get the best of all possible worlds; it’s the only Pink Floyd song ever released that features all five members of the band on the same track. Nifty!

But what’s it doing here on our Halloween playlist, you might ask? You’ve got a lot of nerve… I like that. This is a deeply atmospheric track, an ephemeral drone that draws the listener into a dark, uncomfortable space. Bassist, songwriter, and vocalist Roger Waters crafted the lyrics around ancient Chinese poetry, in which imagery and scenarios are painted in high relief but without resolution, like a 7th chord left hanging for far too long, fading in maddening tease. It’s almost like Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind obliterated by inexorable chaos and decay.

But for the most part, you’ll remember Richard Wright’s unforgettable organ and vibraphone, anchoring the song in an exotic, almost menacing melody, or Nick Mason’s drumming with timpani mallets, like the thunder of a palpitating heart unsure, uncomfortable, and in perpetual unease. Gilmour’s and Barrett’s guitars echo in angry feedback, weaving in and out of the song’s fleeting consciousness. And amid all that lies Waters soft but haunting vocals, promising nothing but the unreality of universal order.

Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun is a masterpiece of despair, or perhaps a gleeful abandonment of structure.

Witness the man who raves at the wall
Making the shape of his questions to Heaven
Whether the sun will fall in the evening
Will he remember the lesson of giving?

Set the controls for the heart of the sun…