“See Emily Play” was only Pink Floyd’s 2nd single, but it was a watershed moment in psychedelic rock history. Though Syd Barrett’s body of work was relatively small, he left behind a huge legacy that’s still influencing people today. This song is one of the highlights of his short and tragic career.
“See Emily Play” (Syd Barrett) Copyright 1967 Westminster Music Limited
It’s time to hop on your bike and pedal into interstellar overdrive, because on this edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, we are swinging by for a visit with Sid Barrett and Pink Floyd.
I’m your host, Brad Page, and you’re joining me here on the Pantheon Podcast Network, where each show, I pick a favorite song and we explore it together, listening to all the elements that make it a great song. If you’ve been listening to this show, or any of the podcasts on the Pantheon Network, then you know we’ve been on board with Nick Mason and his “Saucer Full of Secrets” tour this year. Nick is, of course, the drummer for Pink Floyd; he’s played on every Pink Floyd album. In fact, he’s the only member of Pink Floyd who’s played on every single Pink Floyd album. There’s a trivia question for you. With his “Saucer Full of Secrets” project, he performs all the early Pink Floyd material. These are the songs that the other guys just don’t play, in particular the Sid Barrett-era stuff. So these concerts, they’re really something special. I just got back from seeing two shows on this tour in Boston, MA, and Providence, Rhode Island, and it was great. It inspired me to dig into one of the songs he’s playing on this tour, one of the earliest Pink Floyd recordings and one of Sid Barrett’s classics– a song called “See Emily Play”.
Nick Mason was born on January 20, 1944 in Birmingham, England, though his family moved to London when he was pretty young. When he was twelve years old, he would spend all night listening to “Rockin’ to Dreamland” on the radio and fell in love with rock and roll. He picked up the drums, and while a student at Regent Street Polytechnic, he met two other budding musicians: Roger Waters and Richard Wright.
Richard Wright was born July 28, 1943. He learned piano and trumpet, and taught himself how to play guitar, and studied at the Eric Gilder School of Music in London. But then he switched to architecture, and that’s how he ended up at the Regent Street School.
George Roger Waters was born September 6, 1943. His father was killed in World War II when Roger was only five years old; his mother moved the family to Cambridge, where he became friends with a young lad named Sid Barrett.
Roger Keith Sid Barrett was born in Cambridge on January 6, 1946. His father, Dr. Barrett, worked at the university and was also a musician, and he encouraged all five of his children to play, but Dr. Barrett died from cancer when Sid was about 15. Around that time, Sid started playing guitar and formed his first band.
Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason began playing together and formed a band called Tea Set. They moved into a house owned by Mike Leonard, and they were joined by another resident of that house, a guitar player named Bob Close. Shortly after that, Sid Barrett would join the band.
So now the band known as Tea Set included Sid Barrett on guitars and vocals, Bob Close on guitar, Rick Wright on keyboards, Roger Waters on bass and Nick Mason on drums. Tea Set recorded a few demos, including a cover of the Slim Harpo song “I’m a King Bee”:
That’s Sid singing the lead vocals on both of those tracks. By the middle of 1965, Bob Close had left, and the remaining four– Barrett, Waters, Wright and Mason– renamed themselves the Pink Floyd Sound. Sid came up with the band name by combining the names of two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Counsel.
The Pink Floyd Sound began playing these events known as “Happenings” in 1966. It was at one of these Happenings that they caught the attention of Peter Jenner. Amongst many things, Jenner had set up a small record company called DNA Productions. One of their productions was a band called AMM, who were avant-garde pioneers. They released an album in 1966 called AMM Music, one of the earliest experimental rock albums.
You can imagine how those sounds would influence a band like Pink Floyd.
Peter Jenner was knocked out by what Pink Floyd was doing, and along with his friend, Andrew King, they signed on as Pink Floyd’s first managers. Jenner and King started getting them bigger and better gigs, including at the legendary UFO or UFO Club, which Pink Floyd played for the first time on December 23, 1966. This is where they began working with a psychedelic light show.
At the UFO Club, they met a producer named Joe Boyd who wanted to sign them to Electra Records. But Electra wasn’t interested. But Joe Boyd did end up producing Pink Floyd’s first single, Arnold Lane.
In February 1967, Pink Floyd finally signed a contract with EMI. “Arnold Lane” could have been a big hit, but it was banned by the BBC because of its lyrics about a cross-dressing underwear thief.
The next single, “See Emily Play”, would fare a little better. Recorded in May 1967 and released as a single in June, “See Emily Play” was written by Sid Barrett, and features Sid on guitar and lead vocals, Richard Wright on keyboards, Roger Waters on bass and Nick Mason on drums. It was produced by Norman Smith.
Norman was a house producer and engineer at EMI. With a pretty impressive resume including work with the Beatles, he was the perfect choice to capture Pink Floyd’s psychedelic visions on tape.
The song opens with Rick Wright’s Farfisa organ, Roger Waters playing alternating notes an octave apart on his bass, and some trippy sound effects, most likely created by Sid messing around with his Binson Echorec on his guitar sound. Back in the day, the way you created an echo sound on stage or in the studio was to use a mechanical device like a tape loop, or in the case of the Binson Echorec, a magnetic drum. Binson was an Italian company that pioneered the magnetic drum recorder for producing echoes. The Echorec had a record head and four playback heads arranged around a rotating drum. Every echo device– the EchoPlex, the Fender Dimension Four, the Watkins Copycat, Roland Space Echo and the Binson Echorec– Each has a unique sound. The Binson Echorec became an essential element in the Pink Floyd sound. Sid Barrett, Rick Wright and Roger Waters would all use it, as would David Gilmour when he joined the band later that year.
Let’s go back and listen to just Sid’s guitar sound with that Binson Echorec. Rick plays a short organ solo while Roger plays a prominent bass riff pretty forward in the mix.
The intro has been hanging around an A chord, but once the verse begins, it’s going to shift down to a G, which changes the mood a little bit.
So, who is Emily? The character in the song could have been inspired by Emily Young, daughter of Lord Kennet, who was a frequent guest at the UFO club, and she would become a famous sculptor. It could be Anna Murray, a friend of Sid’s, or probably most likely just a product of Sid’s imagination.
Let’s listen to the vocals which are doubled with some backing vocals, probably overdubbed by Sid and Rick.
That brings us to the chorus. It’s a pretty short verse. Notice the little piano fills in the chorus. They have a quick echo effect on them. Once again, that’s the Binson Echorec.
The last line of that chorus is “free games for May, see Emily play”. Earlier that same month, May 1967, Pink Floyd played a special concert in London called “Games for May”. It was billed as “Space Age Relaxation for the climax of spring”. Sid wrote a song especially for the occasion, which he called “Games for May”. That song would quickly evolve into “See Emily Play”. Let’s listen to the vocals for this chorus.
At the end of the chorus, there’s a sound like a rocket or an engine taking off that was created by Sid using a metal slide, or maybe his Zippo lighter, and sliding it up the guitar strings. With plenty of that echo, of course.
Then there’s a short section where the track speeds up for a few bars. So for that part, Rick Wright’s piano, along with a little bit of guitar and drums, were recorded at half speed, so that when the tape was played back at normal speed, the part was twice as fast. So let’s slow that down to get an idea of what that might have sounded like originally:
And here’s how it sounds again after it was speeded up and edited back into the song:
The more subtle but interesting thing is the way Nick Mason’s drum beat shifts between regular time and double time throughout the whole song. Let’s hear his drums during that verse.
And that verse leads us to the second chorus. So let’s let that play through.
Let’s go back and listen to the backing tracks for this chorus. Listen specifically for the sharp, staccato chords that Sid is playing on his guitar, and to that piano with the echo effect. That chorus ends with a blast of fuzz-tone guitar. And then we’re into the solo section. Rick Wright takes the lead on keyboards, but Sid is doing some fun stuff in the background on his guitar.
Let’s see if we can hear more of Sid’s guitar at the end there. Again, he’s using some kind of a metal slide, probably his Zippo lighter, high up the strings with that Binson echo to create those chirping sounds.
That brings us to the final verse. Sounds to me like there might be some timpani drums overdubbed at the beginning of the verse. Let’s listen to that verse.
I’d like to hear those vocals at the end again. Here’s the last chorus.
And let’s go back and listen to those harmony vocals.
And rather than a big finale at the end, the song fades out on a two-note phrase played on the bass by Roger Waters, leaving the song somewhat unresolved at the end.
“See Emily Play” by Pink Floyd.
The song was released as a single on June 16, 1967 in the UK; I don’t think it was released in the US. Pink Floyd’s first album, “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, was released two months later. This song is not on the UK version of the album, but the record company did stick it on the American version for the US market. The song has also been included on numerous compilation albums, and it’s on the deluxe 3-CD reissue of “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, which I highly recommend. And that’s the version that I used here, which is in mono, by the way. With all those psychedelic effects, you don’t even notice that it’s not in stereo.
I got to thank Nick Mason for working with Pantheon on the tour. I know all of the podcasts that participated were really grateful for the opportunity to go and see the shows, and to talk to Nick and the guys in the band.
We’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode of the “I’m In Love With That Song podcast. I’m especially looking forward to the next episode, as it’s a fun one and a great follow-on from this episode.
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Thanks for listening to this episode on Pink Floyd and “See Emily Play”.
Before you move on, I just wanted to make a couple of recommendations: If you enjoyed this episode, you should check out a few of our other shows. We’ve done multiple episodes on the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and The Who. We’ve discussed songs by Todd Rungren, Yes, Aerosmith, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin and Queen. We’ve done deep dives into songs by Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Stevie Wonder. And of course, we’ve discussed John Lennon, George Harrison and a few McCartney songs. So there’s plenty of other shows for you– I hope you give them a listen. Thank you for being a part of the “I’m in Love With That Song” podcast.