“See Emily Play” remains one of the late Syd Barrett’s defining songs from his short-lived role at the helm of Pink Floyd.
So far this week, the songs we’ve covered have been split into two halves. The first half, we focused on contemporary releases. We looked at The Growlers’ “Try Hard Fool” on Monday, and Devendra Banhart’s “Taking A Page” on Tuesday. Yesterday, we switched things up by looking back at Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”. Today, we go back a little further.
Our song of the day comes from the year 1967. With the release of albums like the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” and the Velvet Underground’s debut, it was a big year for breakthroughs in popular music. While albums like these garnered a lot of attention for popular music, 1967 was also a defining year for psychedelic rock.
Pink Floyd’s 1967 album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is a standing relic of British psychedelia, as is one of its singles, “See Emily Play”. On this day in 1967, Pink Floyd played the first of three nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco. It was their first live performance in the States, albeit during a tumultuous time for the members themselves.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
It’s impossible to talk about our song of the day, or the album it appeared on, without bringing up Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s original lead singer and songwriter. While his time with the band was short-lived, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” is stamped with his identity. Of the eleven songs on the album, Barrett wrote eight and co-wrote two others.
In fact, one could easily argue that Barrett’s influence on the musical direction of Pink Floyd stretched far past “Piper”. Due to Barrett’s increasing instability, he may have physically left the band, but his ghost clung to the remaining members of Pink Floyd like a tune you can’t shake from your head. Evidence of his influence can be seen scattered throughout Pink Floyd’s discography on albums like “Wish You Were Here”, “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall”.
By looking back at the songs that Syd Barrett contributed, we can see his unique, experimental approach to music, one fused with both British melancholy and childlike whimsy. They’re songs that contain long improvisational, far-out escapades like “Interstellar Overdrive”, the use of innovative musical techniques like dissonance, distortion, feedback, and echo effects, and of course loads of nonsense lyrics found in songs like “Bike”, Gnome”, and “Arnold Layne”.
See Emily Play
Listening to “See Emily Play” today, it might be surprising to some that the song reached No. 6 on the charts. But if you can get over its initial weirdness, you may begin to appreciate Barrett’s accomplishments.
In 1967, even the Beatles weren’t doing some of the things that you can hear in “See Emily Play”. The harpsichord break after the first chorus; the squealing, echoing guitar solo after the second, are just two examples of incredible musical innovation.
The lyrics to “See Emily Play” simultaneously offer almost nursery rhyme-like storytelling, as well as some puzzling lines that seem to defy meaning. The main depiction in the song is that of a girl named Emily, who is either depressed, has gone mad, or both.
“Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow”
The second line is mirrored in the second verse, with the line, “Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow”. The juxtaposition between the upbeat, peppy music and the somewhat depressing lyrics is one of the things that makes this song work.
“There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind and play
Free games for May
See Emily play”
The chorus here almost defies interpretation. Specifically, the lines, “You’ll lose your mind and play”, and “Free games for May” are puzzling. But despite their lackadaisical, or haphazard placement, they have almost a gravitational pull about them. One that sucks you in without warning.
“See Emily Play” has always been my favorite of Syd Barrett’s early work with Pink Floyd (mostly because I fell in love with the harpsichord break). But there’s also a whimsical kind of sadness to I can connect with. That may sound silly (and it is), but it’s the truth. And I imagine that some of you who listen to it may experience the same thing.
That about does it for our discussion for today. I hope you enjoyed learning about and listening to Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play”. We’ll be back tomorrow with another song to finish up the week.