See Emily Play

See Emily Play (Pink Floyd, 1967).
See Emily Play (Bowie).

Syd Barrett’s masterpiece “See Emily Play” was one of the last songs he wrote for Pink Floyd. As with other psychedelic songs of the era, “See Emily Play” equated the images received by a mind under the influence of LSD with a child’s developing perception of the world, so its lyric centers on a lost girl (it’s never said she’s a child, though she’s very much a modern Alice in Wonderland) who could be having a bad trip; its chorus is a nursery rhyme, and the track is stuffed with a nursery’s worth of clatter, from music-box chimes to sped-up pianos to guitars that mimic clocks ticking.

Acid use had worsened Barrett’s fragile mental state, and he was reaching the point of no return by the time of “See Emily Play” (David Gilmour, his soon-to-be replacement, visited Abbey Road during its recording and was shocked by Barrett’s deteriorated condition). So the song’s pastoral is undermined by various ominous warnings—the image of Emily lost and crying in the woods at night, or the bluntly-stated “you’ll lose your mind and play.”

Bowie, when he covered “See Emily Play” for Pin Ups, followed this darker path, making the song a schizophrenic nightmare occasionally broken by moments of clarity and restraint. While Bowie sings the verses plainly, even languidly, the chorus is overwhelmed by a choir of ghouls (see our old friend “The Laughing Gnome” or “The Bewlay Brothers”): Bowie overdubs that were altered, via varispeed, to lurk an octave beneath his lead vocal.

Bowie’s cover is also a sonic tribute to Barrett, the one artist covered on Pin Ups who had been a direct influence on Bowie, from Barrett’s singing voice with its unaltered English accent to his fevered, shambling stage appearances (Bowie said Barrett was the first man he saw wearing make-up on stage). Mick Ronson’s guitar echoes Barrett’s own playing on early Pink Floyd tracks (take the descending, twisting lead riff of “Lucifer Sam,” which is close to surf music, or the harsh chording of “Astronomy Domine”). Mike Garson, on piano and synths, provides the color, while Trevor Bolder and Aynsley Dunbar’s backing is more solid and fluid than the original track’s.

The track ends with the taste of a sprightly arrangement for strings, suggesting either that the madness has abated for now, or that it’s become all-consuming, blotting out reality forever and leaving the singer stranded in a permanent dream (the psychotic varispeed voices bleeding into the final verse, eating away at Bowie’s lead vocal, suggest the latter). Despite its bizarre, garish trappings, “See Emily Play” is the only Bowie cover on Pin Ups bold enough to be nuanced.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: Children, under stress since 1973.

8 Responses to See Emily Play

  1. philT says:

    great overview of the best track on the album

  2. Bill Luther says:

    I will admit that this was the first version I ever heard of this song!

  3. giospurs says:

    It’s probably one of the better songs on Pin Ups.
    In a way though, it makes obvious what was already implicit in Barrett’s version. The original was always slightly disturbing but also beautiful. I can’t help feeling Bowie destroyed it’s purity with his version. It’s too easy to add a load of clanking sound effects and a ghoulish vocal dub to make something ‘nightmarish’.

    This blog has made me discover Pin Ups, which I didn’t bother with before. It’s been interesting but I can’t say I’m impressed at all with the record. I think, better than any of the songs on the original tracklist, is the cover of Brel’s Amsterdam that was included on some reissues.

  4. Drizzler says:

    The author has written his reviews here with an impressive depth of knowledge for the music and history of the album, the original songs, Bowie’s life at the time, his colleagues (namely Mick Ronson)and comparable work released during that era. I’m really grateful he took the time to do this as it has filled in so much for me and stirred up my thinking about the album. I disagree with much of what he says but I’ve heard few of the originals and less of the other music mentioned. Like another commenter, I’ve come round to thinking this track is the best on the album and is well worth a listen – twice.

  5. diamonddog says:

    A fantastic cover in my opinion and dare I say better than the original one of bowies best ever covers and I must confess I heard the bowie onr first. Along with sorrow bowie owns this piece from the start.

  6. Sport Murphy says:

    For me as well, this and Sorrow redeem the album. And it reminds me how influential Bowie-as-fan was to his own fans, like a cool older cousin with a killer record collection. This one brought me to Syd, and I remain deeply grateful. The Velvets, Biff Rose, Scott Walker, Iggy, etc… these would have come to my attention eventually, I guess, but not as early in my listening life. Bowie’s always had the magpie tendencies of any creative artist, but few have been as generous and enthusiastic in calling attention to the work of other artists, to the extent of helping to salvage at least a few careers.

  7. Another fan of Bowie’s version. I heard it first and was actually quite disappointed when I heard the original.

  8. While I appreciate Bowie’s nod to Barrett, he could never capture the spirit of this song. He’s too self-aware and calculating. I love both artists dearly (perhaps my two favourite musical minds) but Syd had a mysterious intuitive quality that Bowie (and really not many artists at all) could begin to conjure. Just the same, Syd could never be the amalgamating neuritic that lead Bowie to unparalleled greatness either. David’s cover is garish in comparison. It has none of the beauty and innocence and abandon of the original. But then again how could it? The brief period that Syd epitomised had long since curdled, never to be recaptured. So maybe the way that Bowie and the Spiders went about it was justified albeit unnecessary.

%d bloggers like this: