Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

"Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" is a song by the English rock band Pink Floyd, appearing on their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968). It was written by Roger Waters, taking lyrics from a Chinese poetry book, and features a drum part by Nick Mason played with timpani mallets. It is the only song recorded by Pink Floyd to feature material from all five band members, as there are several different guitar parts recorded by both David Gilmour and Syd Barrett.

"Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"
Song by Pink Floyd
from the album A Saucerful of Secrets
PublishedMagdalene Music
  • 29 June 1968 (UK)
  • 27 July 1968 (US)
Recorded8 August 1967, January – February 1968
StudioAbbey Road, London
LabelEMI Columbia (UK), Tower (US)
Songwriter(s)Roger Waters
Producer(s)Norman Smith
Official audio
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun on YouTube

The song was regularly performed between 1967 and 1973 and can be heard on the live disc of the 1969 album Ummagumma and seen in the 1972 movie Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. Waters has also played the song on several solo tours, as has drummer Nick Mason.


The song was written by Roger Waters, who came up with a riff over which he could sing a melody within his vocal range.[3] He borrowed the lyrics from a book of Chinese poetry from the Tang Dynasty (which was later identified as the book Poems of the late T'ang, translated by A.C. Graham).[4] The title was derived from a quotation from William S. Burroughs.[5] Among the borrowed lines from Chinese poetry (as translated by Graham) were those written by Li He, whose poem "Don't Go Out of the Door" contains the line "Witness the man who raved at the wall as he wrote his questions to Heaven" (公看呵壁書問天);[6] Li Shangyin, whose poetry contained the lines "watch little by little the night turns around" (暫見夜闌干), "countless the twigs which tremble in dawn" (撼曉幾多枝) and "one inch of love is one inch of ashes" (一寸相思一寸灰); and Du Mu, whose poetry contained the line "Lotuses lean on each other in yearning" (多少綠荷相倚恨).

The song's recording commenced on 8 August 1967 at Abbey Road Studios,[7] with overdubs continuing through to January and February 1968.[8] According to guitarist David Gilmour, the studio version of the song contained minor guitar work both from him and Syd Barrett, making "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" the only Pink Floyd song that features all five band members.[9][10] Keyboardist Richard Wright made prominent use of the Farfisa organ, and also played vibraphone and celesta on the track.[10] Drummer Nick Mason enjoyed recording the track as it allowed him to emulate Chico Hamilton's drumming on "Blue Sands", using mallets, as seen in the 1958 film Jazz on a Summer's Day.[3][11]


The track was planned for release as a single, with "Scream Thy Last Scream", on 8 September, before this was vetoed by the band's record company, EMI.[12] It is one of two songs from A Saucerful of Secrets which appear on the 2001 compilation album Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd (the other being "Jugband Blues").[5][13]


In a negative review of A Saucerful of Secrets, Jim Miller of Rolling Stone described "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun", along with "Let There Be More Light", as "boring melodically, harmonically, and lyrically."[14] Miller further described the production work as "not as glittery as the first album's, and the instrumental work is shoddy and routine.[14] Miller also described the track as too long.[14]

Live performancesEdit

Pink Floyd performed the song from 1967 to 1973. A performance on 9 September 1967 featured Barrett and Waters switching guitars.[15] The group's performance of the song on 27 April at Mother's, Birmingham and on 2 May at the Manchester College of Commerce was used for the live half of the double album Ummagumma.[16] On 27 February 1971, a live performance of "Set the Controls" was filmed for ORTF, while a performance in Studio Europanisor, Paris, was filmed for Live at Pompeii.[17] During these performances, the song was significantly extended with a range of dynamics, including a free-form middle section.[18][19] The last documented performance by the group was on 13 October 1973 at the Wiener Stadthalle, Vienna.[20]

Waters performing the track on his The Dark Side of the Moon Live tour

The song has been a staple of Waters' solo tours. It was the opening sing on 1984–1985 tours promoting The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking[21] in a radically rearranged form, with female backing vocals, saxophone solos and a guitar solo (and even a shakuhachi solo in 1985). A truncated version (just the three verses) of the song, featuring a simple acoustic guitar part, was performed at a handful of the Radio K.A.O.S shows in 1987. The song was included in the setlist for his 1999–2002 In the Flesh tour, with stills from the promotional videos of "Arnold Layne" and "The Scarecrow" projected on large screens. This version – featuring a psychedelic guitar solo by Snowy White, and a sax solo – appears on Waters' 2000 In the Flesh – Live DVD and live album. In June 2002, Waters' former Pink Floyd bandmate Nick Mason performed as guest drummer on the track for two nights at London's Wembley Arena, the first indication of a reconciliation following the acrimonious split of the mid-1980s. It was also performed at Waters' 2006–2008 tour.[22]

In 2016, Waters included the song in his concerts at the Zocalo Square and Foro Sol in Mexico, and the Desert Trip festival in the United States, but it was dropped from the setlist of his 2017 Us + Them Tour.

The song was played by Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets in 2018, 2019 and 2022.[23][24] For the 18 April 2019 show in New York City, Waters performed lead vocals.[25] "I really like playing 'Set the Controls'…'" Mason noted, "which is an unusual drum part, played with mallets rather than sticks."[26]

Popular cultureEdit

The song gave Douglas Adams the idea for a rock band called Disaster Area who featured in his book The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe. The band planned to crash a space ship into a nearby star as a stunt during a concert.[27]

A rock climb at Twll Mawr, in Gwyndd, North Wales has been named after song.[28]

The LCD Soundsystem song All My Friends includes the lyric "We set controls for the heart of the sun, one of the ways we show our age"


Cover versionsEdit



  1. ^ "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun Review". Stewart Mason. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  2. ^ Gulla, Bob (2009). "David Gilmour". Guitar Gods: The 25 Players Who Made Rock History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-313-35806-7.
  3. ^ a b Mason 2004, p. 118.
  4. ^ Allusions to Classical Chinese poetry in Pink Floyd
  5. ^ a b Mabbett 2010, p. 60.
  6. ^ Palacios, Julian (2010). Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark globe. London: Plexus. p. 265. ISBN 978-0-85965-431-9. Waters borrows a succinct line from 9th-century poet Li He's 'Don't Go Out of the Door', which appeared in the original poem as: 'Witness the man who raved at the wall as he wrote his questions to Heaven.'
  7. ^ Povey 2007, p. 67.
  8. ^ Povey 2007, p. 90.
  9. ^ Blake 2011, p. 117.
  10. ^ a b Guesdon & Margotin 2017, p. 116.
  11. ^ "Blue Sands" (Jazz on a Summer's Day) on YouTube
  12. ^ Palacios, Julian (1998). "'Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears' (July 1967 – January 1968)". Lost in the Woods: Syd Barrett and the Pink Floyd. London: Boxtree. p. 180. ISBN 0-7522-2328-3.
  13. ^ "Echoes: the album credits". Pink Floyd. Archived from the original on 2 June 2010. Retrieved 20 June 2013.
  14. ^ a b c Miller, Jim (26 October 1968). "A Saucerful of Secrets". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  15. ^ Palacios, Julian (2010). "Summer Tempests". Syd Barrett & Pink Floyd: Dark Globe (Rev. ed.). London: Plexus. p. 271. ISBN 978-0-85965-431-9.
  16. ^ Povey 2007, p. 108.
  17. ^ Povey 2007, pp. 141, 151.
  18. ^ Manning, Toby (2006). "The Albums". The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd (1st ed.). London: Rough Guides. p. 160. ISBN 1-84353-575-0.
  19. ^ Mason, Stewart. "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun - Pink Floyd : Listen, Appearances, Song Review". AllMusic. Retrieved 30 October 2012.
  20. ^ Povey 2007, p. 179.
  21. ^ Povey 2007, p. 326.
  22. ^ Sweeting, Adam (20 May 2008). "Roger Waters: set the controls for the heart of the Floyd". Telegraph. Retrieved 9 December 2012.
  23. ^ "Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets Setlist at the Half Moon, London".
  24. ^ Bailie, Geoff (19 April 2022). "Concert Review: Nick Mason's Saucerful Of Secrets - Ulster Hall, Belfast - April 14th, 2022". The Prog Report. Retrieved 24 April 2022.
  25. ^ "Roger Waters reunites with Pink Floyd bandmate Nick Mason at New York City gig: Watch". 19 April 2019.
  26. ^ Yates, Henry (July 2018). "Set the controls for 60s Floyd". Classic Rock. No. 250. p. 14.
  27. ^ "Celebrate Towel Day with Disaster Area: The loudest band in the Galaxy". NME. 25 May 2017. Retrieved 10 March 2022.
  28. ^ "UKC Logbook - 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'". Retrieved 10 March 2022.
  29. ^ "Red Temple Spirits: If Tomorrow I Were Leavin' for Lhasa, I wouldn't Stay a Minute More > Overview". Allmusic. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  30. ^ "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Bass – Bassomatic | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  31. ^ "Nemesis (9) – Xcelsior". Discogs. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
  32. ^ "Nightstick – Blotter". Discogs. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  33. ^ "Psychic TV – Trip Reset". Discogs. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  34. ^ "OSI – Office Of Strategic Influence". Discogs. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  35. ^ "Ø – Oleva". Discogs. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  36. ^ "Revelations of the Black Flame – 1349 | Songs, Reviews, Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 23 July 2017.
  37. ^ "AyseDeniz Gokcin – Pink Floyd Classical Concept". Discogs. Retrieved 23 July 2017.


External linksEdit