Considering his position behind the drumkit of one of the most influential bands of all time in Pink Floyd, Nick Mason isn’t one of the most well-known drummers around. Not intent on providing the kind of thunderous rhythm that say Keith Moon or John Bonham could, Mason’s style was more about the notes he didn’t play. It’s the kind of strategy that you hear jazz players talk about and it’s incredibly effective.
It’s the reason that when Mason was recently asked by NME to provide the song he can’t get out of his head, he simply couldn’t avoid picking out a Pink Floyd classic, largely because of the concentration he needed to record it back in 1979. It’s one of the band’s most famous tunes and is likely being milled around many people’s minds as we speak.
As part of a conversation, Pink Floyd drummer revealed a lot of other tracks which helped shape him too. That included the first song he fell in love with, Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, the song “that takes him back to his teenage years” in Duane Eddy’s ‘Peter Gunn’ and the song he rediscovered during the 2020 lockdown, Family’s ‘Burlesque’. That said, the most revealing selection was ‘the one song he couldn’t get out of his head’.
That track was ‘Comfortably Numb’, a song which has gone on to typify Pink Floyd’s title as prog-rock kings. The song, found on their seminal album The Wall, has long been heralded as one of the band’s best and it’s clear Mason holds some affection for it too. However, the real reason he can’t get it out of his head is that he is still reliving recording it.
“If you’re recording in a studio, by the time you’ve finished the track, for the rest of that night you’re going to have it rowing through your brain endlessly,” recalled the drummer, hinting that it still hasn’t dislodged itself from his brain. “It doesn’t really matter whether it’s something you really like or something you’re just trying to find a drum part for.” It appears as though ‘Comfortably Numb’ was one of those songs.
“The opening verse of ‘Comfortably Numb’ has a very, very sparse drum part so you’re always trying to… not replay it exactly, but replay it with the same weight,” recalled Mason, with the unflinching words of an expert. “There are lots of beats missing from it, that’s one of the great things about it, it doesn’t immediately start up a pattern that continues throughout the whole piece.”
The song was famously constructed from an argument between Roger Waters and David Gilmour. In Mark Blake’s 2008 book Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story Of Pink Floyd, Gilmour confessed that the track arrived as “the last embers of mine and Roger’s ability to work collaboratively together.”
Speaking with Absolute Radio back in 2011, Waters vividly recounted the fight that would provide us with a masterpiece of the highest calibre: “Dave and I, when we were in the South of France where we did most of the recording for The Wall, we had quite a serious disagreement about the recording of ‘Comfortably Numb’.”
He went on to add: “It’s probably one story where his memory and my memory are almost exactly the same. It was that we had made a rhythm track and I loved it and he thought it wasn’t precise enough rhythmically so re-cut the drum track and said ‘that’s better‘ so I went ‘no it’s not, I hate that‘.” Waters then continued: “It’s a very strange thing when you’re a musician and you work in these things, there are things to a Lehman which may seem like nothing that is really glaring and jarring. Though I did read that David said somewhere or other that if we listened to them both know we wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”
We know one man who might be able to tell the difference, Nick Mason. The song has been rolling around in his head for over forty years.