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Arnold Layne and See Emily Play: Pink Floyd and the Emergence of the Band's Lonely Haunting Themes

Updated on September 22, 2013

Pink Floyd and Barrett: tPop Musics Fuses with Trippy Psychedelic Sounds in a Strange Mix

The Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd has finally achieved the acclaim it deserves. While it is true, the greatest artistic achievements of the band occurred post Barrett, to dismiss the work of the band when Barrett was the primary songwriter is unfortunate. The lyrical songs are commonly criticized as being trite psychedelic music is only half correct. The music obviously is out of the psychedelic movement. Trite, however, it is not. The songs have greater depth than the average listener might think at first listening.

Arnold Layne and See Emily Play: Pink Floyd Tries to Chart

Two of the most well known songs to come out of the Syd Barrett era were Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. Both songs were released at a time when Pink Floyd's music was schizophrenic in style. A mix of bubblegum pop, psychedelic guitars and depressive themes make the music hard to categorize.

The albums featuring the music were somewhat equally hard to sell. The pop nature of the songs might have held them back although two songs did chart in the UK. See Emily Play reached #6 in 1967. This followed Arnold Layne which reached #20 on the charts. Pink Floyd would not have another single show up on the UK charts until 1979 with Another Brick in the Wall Part II. The version of Pink Floyd that released The Wall in 1979 was remarkably different than the one producing Arnold Layne and See Emily Play. However, there were some similarities. Both 1967 songs do present themes of alienation and loneliness. The way these themes are presented are simply disjointed from the sound the songs embodied. Perhaps the band suffered from an inability to coherently fuse themes and tone with the music they were producing. Again, what exists thematically in both songs does reflect darker themes than the tempo would suggest.

Arnold Layne: A Strange Hobby and an Equally Strange Pink Floyd Song

Arnold Layne had a strange hobby....indeed. The lyrics of this particular song seem to chronicle the tale of a strange young man who is of the habit of stealing ladies clothes off a clothesline and is eventually caught and sentenced to a ''chain gang'' for his deeds. The quirky nature of the song leads some to look too closely at the literalism of the lyrics instead of examining the subtext revealing the strange life of one Arnold Layne.

While the song is upbeat (Again, the goal of this and other early Pink Floyd songs was to reach the pop charts) and lively, there is a subtext of alienation and sadness in the material. This would be a hallmark in most Pink Floyd songs, especially when Roger Waters would join the band and drive the artistic direction. This is not to suggest the band was solely interested in producing bubblegum during this era. The lines ''On the wall hung a tall mirror, Distorted view, see through baby blue'' might reflect the notion of living in two worlds and suffering from an inability to find a single acceptable place in one world. A sense of desolation emerged from the lyrics possibly reflecting resigning oneself to predetermined a lot in life. This eventually becomes Arnold's reality when he is arrested and convicted. His new life on the chain gang truly does lead him to a definitive place in life where roles are defined, Unfortunately for Arnold, he no longer has a say in the matter as his freedom is gone.

This song might not be about Arnold Layne at all, but about Barrett. Or more accurately, it would reflect Barrett projecting himself or his feelings onto the foil of Arnold Layne. Sadly, Barrett would eventually withdraw from the world within two years of his firing from Pink Floyd. His legendary reported personal problems would contribute immensely to this.

See Emily Play: The Emergence of Psychological Isolation in Pink Floyd Songs

The upbeat music in See Emily Play clearly shows the goal with the song was to make the pop charts. Listening closely to the lyrics once again reveals there is a depressed underbelly present in the song. Loneliness is a major theme throughout and we see this from the outset with the lyrics ''She often inclined to borrow somebody's dreams till tomorrow.'' Such lines create images of a lonely person seeing life pass her by. This reflects a wallowing sense of loneliness which may seem quite strange when examined from the context it is played to the backdrop of the haunting but relatively upbeat song. It could be argued the upbeat nature of the music creates a sense of hope for the situation. While Emily might not be in the best position in life, she can at least escape from the misery she finds herself. In the line '' Float on a river forever and ever, Emily'' there is a notion that even though she is locked inside of her own head, she still has the freedom to dream. The reference to a gown could reflect the notion she is institutionalized in some way.

Loneliness and alienation are not themes foreign to Pink Floyd and See Emily Play might possibly be the first song to take a definitive direction in displaying a disaffected person's struggles with loneliness. While the upbeat nature of the song keeps it from reaching Hey You levels of depression, but even a cursory listening to the lyrics reveals Emily's attempts a playing really are about minor brief euphoria and a general sense of escapism from her current world. The refrain ''You'll lose your mind and play'' does reflect the ability to get one's mind off a current situation and allow it to drift to a more happier imagined reality. Day dreaming seems to be all that Emily has left and it opens the door for her escaping what might be a brutal reality. ''Float on a river forever and ever, Emily'' could infer a loss of reality into the dream world and a refusal to cope with or accept reality in any way. To repeat, there are interpretations of the lyrics which suggest Emily is institutionalized. Since she is locked in a ward, she locks herself up in her own mind where she can finally be afforded the freedom otherwise denied to her.

The Sounds of Desperation

In the post Barrett era, Pink Floyd would wallow in themes of alienation and desperation. The band's music would mature more at this point allowing for the themes and the sounds to coherently play off one another. The true roots of this direction might not have started with Animals. Rather, they do have their roots in the very early works of Barrett as the initial two single releases reveal.

In time, with Roger Waters becoming the new guiding light of the group, the band would drift into strangely cynical territory.


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    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      5 years ago from Singapore

      Pink Floyd was always edgy...and that edginess sure sends messages! Thanks for sharing on the community page, Tony!


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