There’s a certain fragility to isolating the tracks of a classic song. For players of a particular instrument, isolating the guitar, bass, drums or vocals of a song can provide the listener with a key piece of insight. However, for the lamens among us, outside of a neat curiosity, the isolated tracks can sometimes leave us feeling a bit cold. That’s not the case for this one, though, as we listen back to the luscious orchestral arrangements of Pink Floyd classic ‘Comfortably Numb’.
Taken from the band’s classic album The Wall, the song is often championed as one of Pink Floyd’s greatest. With lyrics written by Roger Waters, in line with his masterful concept album, and a guitar solo that David Gilmour has often cited as his favourite moment on stage, the record is most resolutely enjoyed as a whole piece. Despite the song’s creation being centred around a fierce argument between Waters and Gilmour, the piece shines brightly and soars to the heavens, in no small part, thanks to orchestral arranger Michael Kamen.
Despite the gorgeous instrumentation at hand, the song was actually inspired by something a little more gruesome; the moment Waters realised he had contracted hepatitis moments before going on stage. The Wall was wholly inspired by Waters’ life as a rock star, and it seems he chose a pertinent moment for the nugget of inspiration for this song. Talking about the line “That’ll keep you going through the show,” Waters reflected for Mojo: “That comes from a specific show at the Spectrum in Philadelphia (June 29, 1977). I had stomach cramps so bad that I thought I wasn’t able to go on. A doctor backstage gave me a shot of something that I swear to God would have killed a f—ing elephant.
“I did the whole show hardly able to raise my hand above my knee,” Waters continued. “He said it was a muscular relaxant. But it rendered me almost insensible. It was so bad that at the end of the show, the audience was baying for more. I couldn’t do it. They did the encore without me.”
That’s the lyrics taken care of, and, in true Pink Floyd fashion, the music was handled by Gilmour. Gilmour has often suggested that the song can be split into two themes: light and dark. The light begins with “When I was a child…” which follows the dark which erupts during Roger Waters’ lyrics “Hello, is there anybody in there…” It’s perhaps the greatest signifier not only of the song but of the band in general. After all, the song is a part of the band’s folklore thanks to the confrontation between Gilmour and Waters during the recording.
Speaking in 1993 to Guitar World, Gilmour remembered: “Well, there were two recordings of that, which me and Roger argued about. I’d written it when I was doing my first solo album. We changed the key of the song’s opening the E to B, I think. The verse stayed exactly the same. Then we had to add a little bit, because Roger wanted to do the line, ‘I have become comfortably numb.’ Other than that, it was very, very simple to write.
“But the arguments on it were about how it should be mixed and which track we should use,” continued Gilmour. “We’d done one track with Nick Mason an drums that I thought was too rough and sloppy. We had another go at it and I thought that the second take was better. Roger disagreed. It was more an ego thing than anything else. We really went head to head with each other over such a minor thing. I probably couldn’t tell the difference if you put both versions on a record today. But, anyway, it wound up with us taking a fill out of one version and putting it into another version.”
We’re glad they finally settled on mixing the two because it is this duality that sells the song. Equally, while Waters and Gilmour acted out their artistic petulance towards one another, Michael Kamen perhaps steals the show with his gorgeous arrangement. While by this time, the use of orchestras in rock music had become commonplace, there’s a soft tenderness to Kamen’s sounds that bring the ethereal light the band were shooting for.
It’s hard to turn one’s back on the sheer emotion classical instruments when played in harmony, can evoke in a listener. As part of the overall sound, Kamen delivered a stellar moment, but when we listen to the isolated track of the orchestra playing for Pink Floyd, it is truly awe-inspiring.
It’s a wondrous moment in the song and also in Pink Floyd’s career. The Wall and ‘Comfortably Numb’ will be forever remembered as one of the band’s greatest moments, and none of that would have been possible without Kamen and his expert ear. If there was one band for which an orchestra sounded like simply an extension of their sound, it has to be Pink Floyd.