“See Emily Play” by Pink Floyd, Released June 16th, 1967
Imagine for a moment that you are 19 years of age. The year is 1967 and the month is June. The first warm rays of the Summer Of Love are breaking through. You are a hip and dedicated follower of the emerging psychedelic underground. Your ears are firmly glued to the rumbling tracks. Your closet is growing full of paisley shirts. You’re tuned in to all the right pirate radio. Your antennas are raised to the cosmos.
What do you know of Syd Barrett and The Pink Floyd Sound at this point? Surely you would have heard “Arnold Layne” on the radio (Mr. Layne reached #20 on the UK chart and infiltrated the new US FM stations as well). Since you’re fully tuned in, you would have noticed that this pop hit dealt with darkly surreal subject matter, painting an outcast of society in a jaunty, technicolor manner that hinted, ever so lightly, at mind altering substance use, an expanded mind, a new way of seeing what had once been a drab and unforgiving black-and-white world. If you really liked the track, you would have picked up the single and would therefore be familiar with “Candy And A Currant Bun”, meaning you would know there was a different side to this band, this Syd, a warped R&B personae no less playful than the psych pop on the A Side.
If you weren’t one of the hundred-or-so swinging London in-crowd swirling around the UFO Club, this is all you would have known about The Floyd. Just another well-coiffed contender in a baroque pop moment. Sure, “Arnold” was a great song and all, but was there anything in their released output, just two tracks, that would have prepared you for “See Emily Play”?
No there was not.
It’s tough to backtrack and measure the immediate impact of a song that’s been out there for over four decades, but “Emily” is that rare track that’s so forward thinking, so prophetic, you can still glean some of the original sparks from its impact.
That nine second wash of dissonance that kicks off the proceedings in a gleefully disorienting manner, unlike any sounds you would have heard on the pop dial up until that point, with a rumbling, ominous Waters/Mason groove and Rick Write’s deft organ sweeps.
That two-note mellotron drop that sweeps its hand across the turbulent waters and makes them still, leaving room for Syd’s proclamation:
Emily tries, but misunderstands
Just four words, but one huge statement. There are many on this counterculture bandwagon, Syd is saying, but few of them know what’s really in the air, what’s really at stake.
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
They’re just vacationing, latching onto ideas and visions conjured by an original few. And yet there is no hint of judgement here, no “Hey, you, get offa’ my cloud” territorial aggression. If anything, Barrett’s vocals drip with a paternal brand of empathy as he distantly observes this blossoming flower child finding her way on the scene, trying on different ideologies for size, striving for a singular identity she hasn’t yet quite nailed down as of yet. Although much has been made of who the “Emily” in question may have been (and it was undoubtedly Emily Young, the wayward teen daughter of Wayland Young, who was slumming around at Ladbroke at the time), the real “Emily” is a stand in for all the flower children dipping their ringed toes into the counterculture that summer, sage words from a capital “H” Head who had already been through the wars: Your true ideology is already within you.
A worthy muse: The real Emily (Young)
And then there’s the chorus, a jaunty burst of pure Orange Sunshine that propelled this thing well into the Top Ten and on into Golden Oldie glory forevermore.
Let’s try it another way
Free games for May
See Emily play
How many books have been written lamenting and analyzing the “60s dream”? 700? 10,000? And did those 10,000 authors and self-proclaimed experts not realize that all those thousands of pages could have been broken down just five words from a Syd Barrett chorus that he most likely scribbled in just seconds: Let’s try it another way. That’s what it was all about right there. Doing things a bit different than they had been for decades. An alternate path utilizing newly developing methods. And although these ways and means branched off into all sorts of different directions and alternate universes, that root drive was always true to form. For the kids of the time there truly was no other day. The real deal was at hand. This was truly IT, man, and among all those who were held as the scribes and prophets of the cultural shift, only Syd Barrett could distill the whole shebang down to ten carefully chosen words.
There are also several hip dog whistles hidden in this chorus. “Free Games For May” was an acid-drenched gathering featuring The Floyd onstage and a seriously tripping audience member by the name of John Lennon, as witnessed in the absolutely essential 14 Hour Technicolor Dream documentary. And yes, Emily Young has been verified as being in attendance at said cultural event. But it’s really about a whole hell of a lot more than a flower child gal attending an underground show, isn’t it? It’s about people adapting roles within a scene instead of being themselves, something Syd certainly saw a lot of during his brief time atop the counterculture throne. It’s about adhering to a philosophy or muse so adamantly that your sanity itself may be at stake, another thing Syd was most definitely starting to come to terrifying grips with as 1967 wore on. It’s about living in a moment where there truly is no other day but the one you are inhabiting, an anarchic sentiment that would be echoed by Syd’s spiritual brother from across The Pond, Skip Spence, who commanded his minions to “live in a place, do anything.” It’s a throwaway pop chorus. It’s a prophesy. It’s a plaintive plea. Like only the best choruses, it’s whatever you want it to be.
A temporary prophet: Syd onstage at Free Games For May
Look at the size of those pupils! Lennon pulls up at Free Games For May
You can tell that dear Syd was taking “Emily” a bit more seriously than the other early Floyd singles since he put down three full verses as opposed to his customary two, with verses two and three introducing us to two important faces of Syd’s ever-morphing id. There’s the hyper-romantic oldschool sonneteer of verse two:
Soon after dark Emily cries
Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow
How’s that for an empathetic changeup from the borderline shade of the first verse? And check out those typical Barrett lyrical touches. It isn’t just after dark that Emily breaks down in tears, it’s soon after dark. Poor Emily was holding it in all day. “Hardly a sound till tomorrow”. All is still and blank when the scene is not in session. The scene is Emily’s entire identity, so she loses something of herself when removed from it. “Gazing through trees”. This is classic English Romanticism at play. Pastoral sorrow. Unobtainable damsels. Magic afoot. The Syd trifecta.
If there’s a complaint that could be lodged against this masterwork, it’s that the customary early Floyd singles middle freakout section, though heavy on atmosphere and gallant, otherwordly charm, is sadly devoid of the Barrett proto punk riffing that cut through the din on “Arnold Layne” and, most effectively, “Candy And A Currant Bun”. But then again, Syd was most likely saving his energy for this all-important third verse which introduces us to the most beloved and mystifying of his many songwriting faces, that of the all-seeing, all-knowing, third-eye-to-the-sky full-scale prophet:
Put on a gown that touches the ground
There’s something in Syd’s enunciation on this line, as if the man’s synapses were fused open, a gauzy disorientation bleeding through the melody…it is easy to see why your 19-year-old 1967 self would have looked up from your stereo, your big headphone cans vibrating on your ears, and realized, with this deft sweep of syllables, that the lead singer of The Floyd held the key to many untold truths you could never possibly comprehend. The juxtaposition of the elegant gown reaching all the way down to the sooty London cobblestones, the allusions to self morphing and transformations magical or otherwise, the suggestion that the time was right to let go of all the posturing and rhetoric, to don your merry finery and head on down to the Games Of May.
The argument could be made that with his third released track Syd Barrett had reached his zenith. He was certainly at his most commercially viable moment, with the zeitgeist meshing to his every whim. “Emily” not only was a massive hit, but it was tougher to dismiss as a novelty than “Layne”. This isn’t an eccentric suburban pantie snatcher we’re dealing with here. This is a message within a message within a message. This is a distanced and guarded love song.
And for many, still to this day, it is a full scale prophecy.
“Float on a river forever and ever, Emily”