Tag Archives: See Emily Play

Syd Barrett – See Emily Play

26 May

Pink Floyd’s second single, See Emily Play, allegedly told a story of a young aristocrat, known as the psychedelic schoolgirl. Mystical, whimsical and childish, verses of ‘See Emily Play‘ contain a deeper meaning than you’d expect. By reading this post further, you’ll discover the influences that created this beautiful and strange psychedelic gem; from Shakespeare and Romantics to Pre-Raphaelites and Pagan festivals.

pink floyd early posters 1

Recorded on 23 May 1967, and released on 16 June, the song instantly became a hit and struck a chord with the public, preparing the youth for a vivid and mind expanding atmosphere of, what was later known as, the summer of love. It was Pink Floyd’s second single which paved their way to success. Interviews and performances at the Top of the Pops soon followed. At that point Syd had already started struggling with the concept of being a commercial rock musician rather than being an artist.

Still, the lyrics of the song represent the very best of Syd’s writing; witty, childish and whimsical, they are the testimony to the spirit of the 1960s, and yet some of the verses posses a certain mysticism. It is impossible to pinpoint precisely what inspired Syd to write this song for its verses are engulfed in mystery, as is the case in most of Syd’s songs. Syd himself had many versions, one of it was that he feel asleep in the woods after taking LSD and saw an unusual girl.

The main inspiration for the song was, in fact, a fifteen year old girl Emily Young, who skylarked across Holland Park to the London Free School with her friend Anjelica Huston. Emily was nicknamed ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ at the UFO club. Intellectual curiosity prompted Emily to visit the Free School and educate herself beyond school curriculum. Her private ‘evening classes’ consisted of reading William Blake, existentialists and Romantic poets, dressed at the same time in a noticeable long Victorian style gown ‘that touched the ground’.

Pete Brown said that ‘See Emily Play‘ was based on this schoolgirl.

This English cult of the schoolgirl in fetish uniform has always been around – the more dubious side of English culture, allied with British repression and fetishism. Emily was someone I went out and about with. I was friends with her because Anjelica Huston was at the same school, and hung out with Emily as well. I met them walking down to Portobello Road. I did poetry gigs in schools. I was young, in my twenties. These girls were seventeen or eighteen. I went out with them. English schoolgirls in the sixties were forward-looking, discovering their own sexuality.‘ (Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe by Julian Palacios)

1960s Emily Young - Syd's Muse                      Emily Young in the 1960s

Syd’s young muse blossomed into a notable sculptor whose aim is ‘to tell a truth about the origins of human life and consciousness.‘ In a way her sculptures remind me of Gauguin’s work, at least in approach. Like Gauguin, Emily believes that the truth about life lies in primitive and archaic, and that art is hidden in the forces of nature, not in Western world galleries. I’m delighted to see that despite her progression from a confused 1960s schoolgirl to a prolific artist, she hasn’t lost the open-minded attitude towards life. Her worldview is still psychedelic.

LYRICS:

Emily tries but misunderstands, ah ooh
She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow
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

Soon after dark Emily cries, ah ooh
Gazing through trees in sorrow hardly a sound till tomorrow
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

Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh
Float on a river forever and ever, Emily
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.

1852. Ophelia by John Everett MillaisMillais’ ‘Ophelia’

The story of Emily Young is, however, merely a segment of Syd’s fantastical song. The opening verses of the third stanza can instantly be connected to Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece – Ophelia. It is impossible to believe that the whole century separates these two maidens in long flowing gowns! ‘Put on a gown that touches the ground, ah ooh, Float on a river forever and ever, Emily…’ Emily’s graceful figure full of calmness in a flowing white gown that touched the ground, so brilliantly white against the darkness of the dance hall in All Saints, caught Syd’s eye while he wailed ‘I’m high, Don’t try to spoil the fun‘ into the microphone.

Beautiful and complex, strange as the mists of Avalon, this pop gem is at once intelligible and psychedelic all the way. It simultaneously unites all the elements that Syd’s fantasy world was made of; May Queens and Green Man, psychedelic drugs, tragic heroines, mysterious world of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, children’s stories, Romantic poems along with bright and innocent childish visions. See Emily Play is, at the same time, a hymn to the English woods, willow branches, rivers and pagan festivals, as well as the embodiment of dozens of archetypes of European literature – tragic and innocent maidens such as Ophelia. We know that Barrett was familiar with John William Waterhouse’s rendition of Ophelia who is painted in a long flowing gown, surrounded by the magnificent and mysterious woods and deep sinister water. Flowers, mystery, lost maidens, muses; all amalgamated in the mind of a psychedelic Mad Hatter of rock ‘n’ roll – Syd Barrett.

1894. John William Waterhouse's Ophelia1894. John William Waterhouse – Ophelia

Influence of a great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, can also be traced in Syd’s writing. Shelley’s poem ‘The Song of Asia‘ was printed in Syd’s copy of ‘The Cambridge Book of Poetry‘. Specific verses evoke both the spirit of the song, and the ones of the Pre-Raphaelites masterpieces.

Whilst all the winds with melody are ringing.
It seems to float ever, for ever,
Upon that many-winding river,
Between mountains, woods, abysses,
A paradise of wildernesses!
Till, like one in slumber bound,
Borne to the ocean, I float down, around,
Into a sea profound, of ever-spreading sound.

1910. Ophelia - John William Waterhouse1910. Ophelia – John William Waterhouse

Final stanza of ‘See Emily Play‘ offers the listener a feeling of isolation; floating forever on a river, in loneliness and sorrow. Tragic destiny awaits Emily, as it awaited other innocent heroines before her; Ophelia, Lady of Shallot, Lavinia… At the same time, these verses may suggest a more personal subject, the one that never stopped occupying Syd’s mind; the end of childhood, days of innocence and playfulness are gone forever. Still, the usage of the same subject, by artists centuries apart, from Shakespeare, Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites to Syd Barrett, shows us that themes in art are eternal, whether it’s a poem, a painting or a rock song.

And what did Emily had to say about the song? ‘Floating forever on a river is a perfect dream image of the soul moving through time and space, through eternity. Of the world at peace in its place in the cosmos. Individual and universe flowing in perfect order with nature at one.

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I decided to write about this song because it’s beautiful and lyrical, thematically rooted in nature, folklore and other artworks that I love, and most importantly – it is a song I can identify with. In fact, it is the only song I can identify with, especially with the verse ‘She’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams till tomorrow’. Then the ‘free games for May’ and I was born in May. For an unknown reason, I’ve felt like a ‘psychedelic schoolgirl’ for a long time. One cannot be sad when one is immersed in psychedelia.

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Gimme Shelter – The End of The 1960s

18 Jun

There’s no doubt that the 1960s are my favourite decade of the 20th century. It’s a decade that symbolizes the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and hippie movement. For me it’s a wonderful decade inspiring in both musical and fashion sense. However, nothing lasts forever and so this decade came to an end but what it created culturally, musically and artistically can’t be erased.

1964. Pattie Boyd with The Rolling Stones

The year 1965. was year zero for rock and roll. It was the year everything begun. In the early ’60s music for teenagers was sweet, safe and slightly soulless. Radio stations were filled with manufactured pop created by song writing teams in pop factories. Teenage girls’ idols were nice, proper white kids singing pop with a little beat such as Bobby Vee and Bobby Vinton who would went to American Bandstand and lip synched. That sound was manufactured by the American market for the British market. However, people were getting tired of it. The new generation of British teenagers craved for music with more raw, rebellious edge. They found what they were looking for in blues; music of the American black underclass, music emerged from suffering. British working class totally identified with the black America. Blues had that element of underground rage, something which British teens craved for.

Out with the old and in with the new. By 1965. a generation of rebellious teenagers who had grown up listening to black American blues had invented their own adrenaline charged sound: Rock. The Who brought attitude and volume. The Rolling Stones brought swagger and sex. The Kinks came on the music scene with their distorted guitar sound. Even Bob Dylan was inspired by the new sound and with his leather jacket and hairstyle he was almost like a Rolling Stone wanna-be.

1960s the rolling stones

It was playing blues that melted the emotional polar frost of the 1950s post-war English austerity. Because of its emphasis on improvisations it unlocked the creativity in young artists playing it. In 1962. a band was formed in suburb west London – The Rolling Stones when the singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards bonded over a shared love of the blues. When The Stones became more well known they stopped playing at venues such as The Crawdaddy Club. Instead, they gave up their place for the new band whose sound would be the first to denote the true Rock sound – band The Who.

The Who combined the rebellious spirit, Mod-scene image with the bold self-expression of the Pop Art. They were also very interesting because they made fashion statements with their clothes. Guitarist Pete Townshend wore particularly bold and memorable gear. He wore a jacket made out of a flag, for example and the drummer Keith Moon wore Pop Art T-shirts with targets and hearts. Pop Art was popular because it was not as confined as other art movements and consequently became an important part of 1960s culture, and an important part of Swinging London as well.  With The Who exploring more provocative imagery and ideas, it was clear that the new music movement was taking shape.

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Swinging London or the capital of cool, as it was sometimes called, was a place to be in the 1960s. After the initial blues-inspired Rock came something more avant-garde, Rock evolved and psychedelic-art rock emerged from the sound of Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett exploring what he could do with his guitar. In 1967. Pink Floyd released a single Arnold Layne, a song about a clothes-stealing transvestite, introducing a new concept in Rock music – psychedelia. This was rock meets the mad hatter’s tea party. Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper at The Gates of Dawn was released in August 1967; at the peak of London’s Summer of love. Pink Floyd had previously recorded a single See Emily Play on 23rd May 1967, and released it less than a month later. The song was about a psychedelic schoolgirl whom Syd Barrett had reportedly seen after taking acid and falling asleep in the woods. Characteristics of psychedelic rock in this song are use of echo and reverb, whimsical lyrics and the slide-guitar work done by Syd using a plastic ruler.

Syd Barrett enrolled in Camberwell College of Arts in London in summer of 1964. to study painting. Camberwell proved to be a hothouse of ideas. Actually, art schools developed what we today know as the 1960s Swinging London for they were the place where the creativity came from. Education authorities put those who did not fit in elsewhere into art collages. Entrance qualifications were vague, with academic scores waived when portfolios showed promise. Art schools produced gifted painters, promising fashion designers, artists and musicians. Even in art schools, the ground for psychedelia was set with drab post-war colours discarded in favour of violent pinks, aquas and reds. Art college students liked their music likewise amplified; sharp, short and shocking. Syd felt that art was made of the moment and the springboard to the next work and next moment. Other notable musicians that were attending art schools were Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Ray Davies.

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So at around 1967. psychedelic culture prevailed over the Mod culture that dominated during the first half of the decade. The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in June 1967, just before the peak of summer of love, marks the transition between pop to the more psychedelic sound. Psychedelia might have opened minds to new ideas, sounds and images but it also propelled rock music into world of hedonism and excess. The Who came to America in summer of 1967. They shocked the hippies with their destructive and aggressive performance but Monterey soon established the festival as an arena for rock ‘n’ roll music, but it also represented the climax of summer of love for the optimism of the ’60s gave way to more volatile and uncertain times.

Utopia of the ’67 could not possibly last for it was not universally accepted. Psychedelic youth and hippies were only one segment of society, and only one fragment of it. You could just feel the change in the air; the atmosphere changed and it all became much more politicized. The Woodstock ’69 festival would see the sun set on the sixties hippie dream. By that time the business started to be more in control of the music; the freedom of the sixties was lost forever. It was a beginning of something; a beginning of the end.

the rolling stones 2

the rolling stones 3

The Rolling Stones quickly dragged inspiration from the changing mood and uncertainty of those times. They were one of the few bands that found creative zeal in the darkness. There was a new world going on but The Stones weren’t afraid to embrace it. They channeled all that darkness with morbid relish in one song; Sympathy for the devil. It was the theme that fascinated them since they dipped into blues. However, The Stones would be plunged into the darkness of their own in a year marked by controversy and tragedy, from the mysterious death of the guitarist Brian Jones to the murderous chaos of the Altamont festival in California in December 1969. when they recruited Hell’s Angles to provide the security. Hell’s Angels soon caused turmoil and the man was murdered as the cameras rolled. The innocence of the ’60s was lost forever.

In the song Gimme shelter it seems as if The Stones were asking for a shelter, some place safe from the turmoil, darkness and uncertainty that overshadowed the Sun like the dark clouds. (The floods is threat’ning/ My very life today/ Gimme, gimme shelter/ Or I’m gonna fade away) Another song from the same album Let it Bleed released in ’69 called You can’t always get what you want also reflects the atmosphere of the time. Each verse discusses a topic relevant to the ’60s: love, politics and drugs. The song captures the essence of the initial optimism and the eventual disillusion, followed by the resigned pragmatism of the chorus. (I saw her today at the reception / In her glass was a bleeding man / She was practiced at the art of deception/ Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands.) Rock provided a soundtrack for the changing times. It had become an incredible political and artistic force. It had given music volume and attitude.

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Still, the dark atmosphere at the dusk of the sixties had impact on other artists, such as Syd Barrett. Compared to Pink Floyd’s first album The piper at the gates of dawn that mirrors the optimism and decadence of the Swinging London, Syd’s main contribution to the second album was the song Jugband blues whose lyrics show that inside his mind he was still acutely self-aware despite the madness and darkness that had begun to engulf him. The dusk of the sixties proved to be a fruitful period not just for The Rolling Stones but for Barrett as well for its product was his solo album The Madcap laughs.

The Madcap laughs, released in January 1970. but recorded between 28. May 1968. and 5. August ’69, was Barrett’s debut solo album. It was warmly received and the madness of king Syd seemed to have touched a nerve with a generation who had seen the end of the decade take a darker turn with Altamont, the bombing of Vietnam and apparent failure of hippie culture. Its lyrics are introspective and range from lovely, almost child-like songs about love and friendship (Terrapin: I really love you/ And I mean you/ The star above you/ Crystal blue) to deeper and darker subject that mirrored what he was feeling at the time; I’ll take Dark Globe as an example; its a cliche to say that the opening lines are memorable, no, they are much more than that, they are haunting and loveable and strange, dark and crooked at the same time. (Oh where are you now/ Pussy willow that smiled on this leaf/ When I was alone/ You promised to stone from your heart.) In other songs he expresses his sadness and loneliness (You feel me/ Away far/ Too empty/ Oh so alone, I want to come home), something which young people at the time could relate to for they felt slightly betrayed and lost at looking at the ’60s the golden years of their youth gone by.

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1960s faded away, but they left us with achievements that cannot be denied. They produced numerous good bands, ventured into unknown areas of music, brought new and daring fashions and shaped attitudes and ideals that had not been forgotten despite the time gone by.