The Story Behind The Song: Syd Barett invents psychedelic masterclass for Pink Floyd hit ‘See Emily Play’
On June 16th, 1967, Pink Floyd would release ‘See Emily Play’ which signalled the high water point of founding frontman Syd Barrett’s reign in the band, with the song capturing him at the peak of his creativity before his sad demise which would see him be thrown out of Floyd just one year later.
His reliance upon psychedelic drugs would famously become his eventual downfall but at this point, in 1967, it would be the spark that helped him create the masterpiece that is ‘See Emily Play’. Barrett ingeniously used a Zippo lighter as a guitar slide on which is proof of him being a true innovator.
The song was reportedly written about a girl named Emily who Barrett claimed to have visited him whilst he was sleeping in the woods after taking a psychedelic drug. The girl mentioned in the song, according to Nicholas Schaffner’s book A Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey, states that Emily is the Honourable Emily Young, daughter of Wayland Young, 2nd Baron Kennet who was allegedly nicknamed “the psychedelic schoolgirl” at the UFO Club where Barrett would regularly frequent.
This theory was later brought to Young, who spoke to Mojo about how she possibly came to be Barrett’s muse: “On Friday night at the Saints Hall, the regular band was the Pink Floyd Sound,” she said. “I was more into R&B so their dreamy hippie thing wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it was interesting. And the light show was wonderful, and I liked to get stoned and dance. After playing, we’d sit around on grey sofas and pass around joints. I was quite pretty and word got out that I was a lord’s daughter, and apparently the guys in the band called me the ‘psychedelic schoolgirl.'”
She disputes that the song was about her, however, and was shocked upon first hearing it was allegedly written with her in mind: “I thought, gosh, that’s nice, a song with my name, but I didn’t think it was about me. And I don’t think it was now because Syd and me didn’t have a love affair and he didn’t really know me. It could have been some other girl who played a part in his dream. It could have been Jenny, but Emily scanned better.”
The track instantly struck a chord with their listenership, capturing the rising wave of a rebellious youth culture that was sweeping across Britain in the late ’60s, one that experimented with what music should be in the same way that Floyd began reshaping what young people were expected to be. More significantly, they shied away from the conformities that previous generations blindly accepted.
The success of the track would force the band into appearing on ‘Top Of The Pops’ to perform it which allegedly angered Barrett who, at the time, didn’t want to become a commercial rock star and would have preferred to operate from the shadows. Floyd also agreed to appear on Belgian TV to perform ‘See Emily Play’ as it opened up doors for the group internationally as well as domestically.
Barrett would sadly never replicate this number which would remain as his magnum opus for the rest of his days. After his departure from the band in 1968, he became estranged from his former bandmates and hadn’t seen the band in years but bizarrely came to the studio on the day they were recording ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond‘, which was a tribute to him. At the very end of the track. which closed 1975’s Wish You Were Here, part of Syd’s vocal melody from ‘See Emily Play’ was played on a Minimoog by Rick Wright in a fitting ode to their former leader.
Watch Floyd’s performance of the track on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in July 1967, below.