Recently an older musician acquaintance told me he never “got into ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and all that,” referring to the "first major space jam" of Pink Floyd's career and the subsequent explosion of space rock bands. I found myself a little taken aback. Though I was born too late to be there, I’ve come to see “’Interstellar Overdrive’ and all that” as one of the most interesting things about the end of the sixties---the coming of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, of The Soft Machine, of Hawkwind and other psychedelic warriors.
Too oft overlooked in the popular Woodstock/Altamont binary shorthand for fin-de-sixties rock and roll, these bands’ brand of prog/jazz/blues/psych-rock experimentalism got its due in Amougies, Belgium, in a 1969 festival meant as Europe’s answer to the three-day “Aquarian exposition” staged in upstate New York that same year.
Sponsored by Paris magazine Actuel, “The Actuel Rock Festival” featured all of the bands mentioned above (except Hawkwind), along with Yes, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, and many more. MC’ing the event, and serving as Beefheart’s manager, was none other than impresario of weird himself, Frank Zappa, who sat in with Floyd on “Interstellar Overdrive,” bringing his considerable lead guitar prowess to their dark, descending instrumental.
Just above, hear that Zappa/Floyd performance of the song. The live audio recording is fuzzy and a bit hollow, but the playing comes through perfectly clear. Zappa, in fact, jammed with nearly all the artists on the roster, though only a few recordings have surfaced, like this one from an audience member. Of their collaboration, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason said in 1973, “Frank Zappa is really one of those rare musicians that can play with us. The little he did in Amougies was terribly correct.” I think you’ll agree.
Dangerous Minds records many of Zappa’s recollections of the event, including a characteristically sardonic account he gave in an interview with The Simpsons’ Matt Groening in which he complains of feeling “like Linda McCartney” and about the scourge of “slumbering euro-hippies.” Zappa apparently did not remember jamming with Floyd but “the photos don’t lie and neither does the recording.” He does recall playing with Captain Beefheart, who says he himself “enjoyed it.” You can hear Beefheart's set with Zappa above.
According to a biography of founding Pink Floyd singer and guitarist Syd Barrett—gone by the time of the festival—footage of the Zappa/Floyd jam exists, part of an unreleased documentary of the event by Gerome Laperrousaz. That film has yet to surface, it seems, but we do have the film above---slipping between black-and-white and color---of Pink Floyd playing “Green is the Colour,” “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” and “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun.” It’s a must watch if only for Roger Waters’ bone-chilling screams in the second song.
The festival is notable not only for these early performances of the newly Gilmour-fronted Pink Floyd, but also for the appearance of Aynsley Dunbar, future Zappa drummer and journeyman musician extraordinaire. Allegedly Zappa met Dunbar at the festival and was quite impressed with the latter’s jazz chops (though Dunbar first joined Zappa’s band on guitar before moving to drums). You can hear Zappa jam with his eventual star drummer’s band, Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, above.