Syd Barrett’s rock ‘n’ roll career was sadly lived in miniature. Pink Floyd, who only formed in 1965, were changing the face of music by 1967 and, by 1968, Barrett could no longer function in the band. Two solo records followed and thereafter he disappeared from the music industry forever.
The two records where Barrett fronted Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, are among their most celebrated. His profound creative originality came from a very particular place, which helped to establish the bands very singular psychedelic ways.
As Jenny Fabian, who crossed paths with Barrett many times both in his famed period and the later fallout, puts it in her novel Groupie: “He was able to access a time we all wanted to go back to the magic garden and innocence. You felt there was somebody there who understood innocence but couldn’t be innocent in the world, because you can’t,” she says. “He told us that’s where we wanted to be.”
Rather befittingly, Syd Barrett’s favourite Pink Floyd song was spawned by this notion of a garden of innocence. When he withdrew from the industry in a shroud of mystery, music took a backseat for Barrett. He no longer listened to Pink Floyd. When his sister bought him a new stereo in 2002, all he listened to was The Rolling Stones, Booker-T and classic composers.
He would, however, revisit the material of the band he helped to form as he watched the BBC Omnibus documentary on the band around the time of the Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd release at his sister’s house. She reported that he didn’t make much of it, describing it as “a bit noisy” but he did enjoy seeing his old landlord Mike Leonard who he called his “teacher” and he also enjoyed hearing his old favourite Floyd song ‘See Emily Play’.
The song was reportedly written about a girl named Emily, who Barrett claimed to have visited him like an apparition whilst he was sleeping in the woods high on psychedelic drugs. 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 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.”
Like everything with Barrett nothing is clear, as he later said that “Emily” was a woman he had met following a particularly tough LSD trip, leading many people to question whether it was, in fact, a hallucination or the real thing. No matter the conception, the song would establish Pink Floyd as one of the most progressive bands around and seemingly seized the zeitgeist, and despite the tough toil that would take on Barrett, it remained the only song he would happily revisit.