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(Credit: National Archives at College Park)

The Story Behind The Song: How Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb' would define the band

Initially released as part of Pink Floyd’s seminal album The Wall, the song ‘Comfortably Numb’ was released as a single once more the following year, captivating listeners as it went and evolving them into fans. Pink Floyd have one of the most distinctive canons in the music world, and their influences and inspirations are widespread and difficult to pin down.

Likewise, their songs also peak across a huge range of styles and themes meaning picking just one song as their magnum opus is no mean feat. However, on reflection, there is no song that typifies a band better than Pink Floyd’s classic, ‘Comfortably Numb’.

Within the context of the band’s seminal rock opera, the song acts as the final moment of Pink’s transformation into a Neo-Nazi as medics try to revive Pink out of his catatonic state. While on record, it ranks as one of the finest moments of The Wall; it was performing the song live that the vision of the track truly came to life. Again, Gilmour’s solo was front and centre. During the performance, Roger Waters arrives at the stage, bathed in the spotlight before the end of the opening verse as it fades out. Next thing you know, the chorus begins from David Gilmour placed around 30 feet up in the air with lights shining from behind him on to the audience; he begins his career-defining solo. As that ends and the audience erupts with praise, the lights go out, and we’re directed back to Waters.

“It was a fantastic moment,” recalled David Gilmour when reminiscing about being on the stage and left free to improvise his solo. “To be standing up on there, and Roger’s just finished singing his thing, and I’m standing there, waiting. I’m in pitch darkness and no one knows I’m there yet. And Roger’s down and he finishes his line, I start mine and the big back spots and everything go on and the audience, they’re all looking straight ahead and down, and suddenly there’s all this light up there and they all sort of—their heads all lift up and there’s this thing up there and the sound’s coming out and everything. Every night there’s this sort of “[gasp!]” from about 15,000 people. And that’s quite something, let me tell you”

Another similar interchange begins with the second verse as Gilmour again takes his place at the top of the wall. Another starring solo sees the crowd open-mouthed in admiration for the guitarist as he wails on his guitar. It’s a typification of how Floyd transferred their mammoth creativity into both the studio and the live show. Arguably the band’s most famous song, it’s hard to fight its position at the top of the pile. The image of Waters and Gilmour trading musical motifs is a unification of the band’s principal songwriters that belies the creative tensions they so neatly nestled at the heart of the band for so long.

“That was the longest two hours of my life,” Waters said, recalling a show in 1977 in Philadelphia, “trying to do a show when you can hardly lift your arm.” The bassist was unable to lift his extremities because he received a heavy dose of tranquilisers before the show as a way of combatting his severe stomach cramps. “That comes from a specific show at the Spectrum in Philadelphia (June 29, 1977),” he told Mojo. “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. 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.”

More moments came from childhood, as Waters told Mojo magazine in 2009: “I remember having the flu or something, an infection with a temperature of 105 and being delirious. It wasn’t like the hands looked like balloons, but they looked way too big, frightening. A lot of people think those lines are about masturbation. God knows why.” It was these moments that provided the nuggets of inspiration for the lyrics that would become ‘Comfortably Numb’ and placed over Gilmour’s wordless demo, something he had created for his solo project of 1978. That, however, is about where the harmony on this song ended.

Once they made their way into the recording studio, the creative powerhouses of the group began to find friction in every movement. 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.” In truth, they barely completed the song before descending into a tempestuous argument. Speaking with Absolute Radio back in 2011, Waters vividly recounted the fight that would provide us with their masterpiece: “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 by expressing the intricacies of writing music: “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 now, we wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.”

“Well, there were two recordings of that, which me and Roger argued about,” recalled Gilmour to Guitar World in 1993. “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. We’d done one track with Nick Mason on 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’s not exactly front-page news: creative partners share opposing views. But the reality was, this was more about the two personalities in the room than the song itself: “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.”

Thanks to the testimony of co-producer Bob Ezrin, who also spoke with Mark Blake in 2008, we know that while Waters’ version of the song was “the grander technicolour, orchestral version,” while Gilmour’s was “stripped-down and harder,” possibly owing to their two different viewpoints of the song — Waters naturally led by his own lyrics while Gilmour perhaps followed his music more keenly. “That turned into a real arm-wrestle,” Ezrin recalled. “But at least this time, there were only two sides to the argument. Dave on one side; Roger and I on the other.”

Eventually, the two warring factions of the recording studio would settle down and agree on a truce, allowing a beautiful orchestral arrangement as the body of the track while the outro was picked from Gilmour’s fiery version. It would become one of Pink Floyd’s ultimate anthems, sparked by an argument and completed with the variety of talent they had at their disposal.

Trying to define an entire band and their bounty of work with just one song is no mean feat. Except, of course, if the song is ‘Comfortably Numb’ and the band is Pink Floyd. Then, thanks to the arguments, the tensions, the vision, the vibrancy and wild talent of all those involved make it pretty simple.

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