In August of 1967, my friend Billy came back from London with two albums, which he gave to me, and almost fifty years later, I am still impacted by those albums.
It seems that during my junior high and high school years, among my friends’ parents I was thought of as something of a bad influence. Yes, I earned some of that… but some of it wasn’t my fault! Then, continuing the tradition after high school, which for me was 1964, my room became something of a hippie redoubt where the nascent neighborhood stoners convened. My parents were away for weeks at a time, which would be when all that convening occurred. I had the cool pad with the stereo set up… just so, and thanks to the absence of parents, we played it loud. I’d moved into a large, finished attic, painted the walls electric blue, used two piled-up mattresses for my bed on one side of the room, and two more for a couch on the other side, both covered similarly. Then I went to one of the “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS!” places in Times Square and got a 9 X 12 oriental rug for $79.99 and used British flags for curtains. Let’s call it proto-hippie décor.
Now, I’m not saying that I was the coolest guy around, because I wasn’t, but I had the coolest hang in the nabe, and, as they would, friends came to hang. Hanging out also meant that this was where the stoner set came to hang out. Remember, back then there ‘tweren’t no internet, so no Spotify, no iTunes, no YouTube, no downloading of anything; what we had back then was television, AM radio, the recently discovered FM radio, and records. Except for extremely rare exceptions, television didn’t show the acts the FM crowd wanted to see. Yeah, the Doors played “American Bandstand” and English acts played there when their hits came out, but only a song or two, and you had to live through the commercials and the vapid singles aimed at the core demographic of teen TV viewing. Does anyone remember, “It has a good beat and you can dance to it. I give it an 85?” If you wanted the deeper stuff, the edgier music craved by the freaks like us, they had to be seen and heard in clubs, halls or anywhere up to a stadium after the Beatles filled Shea, or you could listen to “progressive radio” on FM, or you could play your records. Yes there were records, and that’s why we’re here.
When Billy came back from London he brought over the first Jimi Hendrix album, Are You Experienced? and the first Pink Floyd album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. We’d never heard of either of them, and we knew no radio stations had them, either. So we put them on and they blew our fucking minds! I mean, they just… blew our fucking minds! No other words would do. That’s what they did. They were both so out there, so daring, so psychedelic, so… perfect for us. No one else in America had this music, and no one else knew about it but us. They were not in the stores or on the radio. Well, one listen and we knew why it wasn’t on the TV or on AM radio. But… not on FM?
[Editor's note 1: The track See Emily Play was left off the original UK release of the The Piper at the Gates of Dawn album, instead it was released as Pink Floyd's second single in June 1967, before the August 1967 release of the 'Piper' album. 'Emily' was however placed on the US release of the 'Piper' album. Thus, it's presumed that Billy brought back both the UK version of the 'Piper' album and the UK 'Emily' single when he returned from his trip to the UK. ]
I’m writing this for the same reason that I wrote about “Strange Fruit.” When I asked friends what they knew about the song that was so important that Time magazine called it “the most significant song of the 20th Century,” and most of my friends—and I hang with a pretty music-centric crowd—had either heard if it but knew nothing about it, or had never heard of it. Just like Syd Barrett. Just like “See Emily Play.” No one knew them. Everyone knows about Jimi and what he did and what he meant and everyone knows a healthy portion of his work, so I’m not going to focus on him. He was a genius, his innovations were spectacular, his loss is tragic and we can all wonder what he’d have done if he’d lived longer. Not all my friends are music freaks, but enough are for what we’re going to call a sampling, and that sampling surprised me when I told them which song I was going to write about, and they said, “What?” So I told them about the album it came from, and they said, “What?” Let’s fix that.
There are myriad iterations of the phrase, “there are two types of people in the world…” My favorite is that the two types of people are those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t, but we’re not concerned with humor here, we are concerned with music, and among my friends there are two types: those who like Pink Floyd and those who love them. No surprise there, because Pink Floyd is great and no right-thinking person disputes that they deserve all the accolades and album sales they’ve gotten, but what amazed me was when I tell people about their first album is how so few people had heard of it. Didn’t know it existed. Everyone knows and justifiably admires David Gilmore, but they didn’t know that he wasn’t in the band yet. It was another guy, who left the band after the first album, and Pink Floyd were… different…after he left. Well, yeah, they were always different…
I was surprised even more to learn how little of the early Pink Floyd canon anyone knew. The start date for most people seemed to be The Dark Side of the Moon, and I understand that; that album catapulted the band into the mainstream with near-constant airplay, and surprisingly often the stations would play either an entire side or the entire album. I was around, I was there, I heard it, too, and Pink Floyd was now an important part of the culture. But Dark Side came out in 1973, and we’re going back to the summer of 1967.
Well, you all know Dark Side, and you all know The Wall, and you might know that they became the two best-selling albums in history. But we’re going back; back before Dark Side (1973), which came after Obscured by Clouds (1972), which came after Meddle (1971), which came after Atom Heart Mother (1970), which came after Ummagumma (1969), which came after the soundtrack they did for the film More (1969), which came after A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), and finally we get back to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was where my friends said, ‘What?”
Yeah, those earlier albums didn’t get a lot of popular notice, and I know why. Generally, at first listen, the music is discordant, difficult listening, challenging, creating something between acid rock, jazz and symphonic chamber pieces. It was indefinable and followed no recognizable rules. I remember great confusion about Pink Floyd when they released their first records. Pop music was charting then, as now, and the experimental stuff had to find its following, and these were not pop. They did not create easy listening music, and frankly, I think it was generally understood that you needed to be pretty stoned to follow their flow. With the exception of Syd Barrett, the band did not do drugs, but back then, many listeners did, and were rewarded fully. I remember that confusion abounded among critics and the public as to how to appreciate this band, and it was Eric Clapton who said they we should ‘pay attention to these guys, they were making serious music,’ or something very close to that. But that came later, and what came first was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And what a trip that was, and when we played it at my house, it just… well, it blew our minds and it scared us a little.
Originally, Syd Barrett was The Guy. He put the band together and he wrote the songs, and was their principal lyricist, lead singer and lead guitar. So he was The Guy, but he started out strange and then he took a lot of LSD, and he got stranger. Then he took more LSD and then some more, and he got so far out he never came back. Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd after their first release and went into an isolated retirement from which he never re-emerged, and he died in 2006, a virtual recluse. But that first album was a Syd Barrett production. And they scared us.
By roughly 1966, the British Invasion had pretty much won. Then came the drugs and all the hip English and U.S. bands, and a full-on hippie revolution was upon us, bringing with it new waves of music, hairstyles, lifestyles, clothing options, philosophies et al. New modes of thought, exposure to new philosophies, religions and possibilities; the ideas came in waves and I was surfing many of them. But we’re here to discuss the music, and prominent among that wave was Jimi Hendrix, who, as everyone knows, blew everyone’s mind when his first album was released in England in May, 1967 and in the U.S. on August 23. No one had ever played guitar like that. No one had ever made music like that. It was indefinable. He stretched and pulled musical conventions to startling, unexplored realms. I called it psychedelic blues and you can call it what you want, but it was new, unprecedented, exciting as hell and perfect for stoners. Like those people that kept showing up at my house—people like Billy.
We toked and we listened and we rapped as we listened to the music, and then Billy came back from London and we had three weeks with Pink Floyd before anyone else heard them. Everyone knows about Jimi’s first album and the impact that it had, and no one disputes its importance. But as startling as what Jimi did, he did within a musical convention that we all understood. But what was going on in the other album? Who were these guys and what were they trying to do?
Just how “out there” was this band in the summer of 1967? Remember that this was the height of the British Invasion, and television and AM radio were full of peppy, dance-able songs by the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks, the Hullaballoos, Herman’s Hermits, the Kinks, the Merseybeats, Gerry and the Pacemakers and Freddy and the Dreamers, and if know how to do The Freddy you’re either as old as me or just peculiar. It was all peppy, poppy, bouncy music; uptempo happy stuff. Think about this: for a band’s first single to be successful, for the song to become popular and sell records, you want to put out something the kids can relate to, something they like to listen to, maybe something they can hum or sing along with in their cars or at school, something they want to hear again. You want to sell records? You put out something the kids can dance to. But the band’s first single, “Arnold Layne,” was about a transvestite who stole women’s underwear, and the BBC wouldn’t play it. So Pink Floyd’s next, the first single to get airplay was “See Emily Play.” The kids wanted to dance, but who the hell was Emily, and what was her deal? And this was the single? In the summer? What? Why? The sound was weird, the lyrics were obscure and there was no discernable beat to dance to. It was just so out there. What was that, Keanu? Oh, yeah: Whoa!
I don’t know how you’re going to forget all you’ve heard since 1967, but try, if you can, to imagine what it must have sounded like to the unsophisticated guys in my room in 1967, before anyone had ever heard of Pink Floyd, or had ever heard anything like this before. I know the saying, “you can’t un-ring a bell,” but if you could put yourself into a listening mode where distractions are not an issue, please put on the track and See Emily Play. And remember: this was the single and they wanted to sell it to the kids. Listen, and then ask yourself… what was that all about? Who sare these guys? It’s Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd.
My advice: harken back to the days of yore, get comfortably numb and blast this motherfucker.
[Editor's note 2: A 24 bit / 96 kHz high resolution version of See Emily Play can be purchased on the newly released Pink Floyd album The Early Years, 196701972, Cre-Ation (link).]
Watch it here:
As a bonus cut, here is David Bowie doing the song from 1973:
I don’t know why someone did this, but… why not Teletubbies?
For more early, randomly selected Syd Barrett Pink Floyd fun, play with these. Try ‘em all. They’re free!
For a true Pink Floyd freakout, here’s Interstellar Overdrive:
- "See Emily Play" is included in “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
- In 1999 Rolling Stone magazine gave “The Piper At The Gates of Dawn” 4.5 stars out of 5, calling it "the golden achievement of Syd Barrett."
- Q magazine described the album as "indispensable" and included it in their list of the best psychedelic albums ever.
- In 2000 Q magazine placed “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” at number 55 in its list of the 100 greatest British albums ever.
- It was also ranked 40th in Mojo magazine's "The 50 Most Out There Albums of All Time" list.
- In 2012, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was voted 347th on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums ever.
- In July 1969, precipitated by their space-related music and lyrics, they took part in the live BBC television coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, performing an instrumental piece which they called "Moonhead."
- In 2004, MSNBC ranked Pink Floyd number 8 on their list of "The 10 Best Rock Bands Ever."
- Rolling Stone ranked them number 51 on their list of "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time."
- Q named Pink Floyd as the biggest band of all time.
- VH1 ranked them number 18 in the list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."
- Colin Larkin ranked Pink Floyd number 3 in his list of the 'Top 50 Artists of All Time', a ranking based on the cumulative votes for each artist's albums included in his All Time Top 1000 Albums.
- They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2010.
- Pink Floyd were also admirers of the Monty Python comedy group, and helped finance their 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
- Pink Floyd was recording Piper at Abbey Road Studios, as the Beatles were next door recording Sgt. Pepper.
- “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is widely understood to be about Syd Barrett.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.