Few groups have the transcendent appeal of Pink Floyd. They weren’t just a great rock band, but a band that managed to speak to a mass, international audience. High concept, yet highly accessible, they were a unique breed.
To hear that, you’ve only got to listen to “Comfortably Numb.” Arguably the band’s definitive anthem (though there are plenty of other contenders for that title), it’s one of the enduring compositions of the 20th century.
The original version of “Comfortably Numb” – the one first heard on Floyd’s 1979 opus, “The Wall” – is so iconic that it’s hard to imagine the song any other way. But, it could have been a very different story. Floyd lead men Roger Waters and David Gilmour had completely opposite visions for the track, resulting in much friction between the already strained writing duo.
Today, we’re taking a dive into the making of “Comfortably Numb”; where it came from, how it evolved, and the fraught, fracturing partnership that produced it.
For many, “Comfortably Numb” is synonymous with the concept album it first appeared on; “The Wall.” Surprisingly though, the track wasn’t originally intended for that record. David Gilmour originated the song during sessions for his 1978 self-titled solo debut. Demos reveal a skeletal version of the track, little more than a chorus chord progression with Gilmour humming the vocal melody.
While the guitarist didn’t find a place for it on his own album, he recognized the track’s potential for the upcoming Floyd disc. “The Wall” was essentially a Roger Water solo concept presented to the band, a sign of the changing creative dynamic that would soon tear the band apart. Nonetheless, Gilmour offered up the chord progression to Waters and it was integrated into the project.
Both men agreed that the embryonic track – which Waters initially titled “The Doctor” – had potential. But their visions for the final song were radically different. Contrasting the airy demo, Gilmour wanted a hard-edged, stripped-back rendition for the album, as evidenced by the version demoed during “The Wall” album sessions. Waters, meanwhilepushed for what producer Bob Ezrin described as a “grander Technicolor, orchestral version.”
The disagreement “turned into a real arm-wrestle,” according to Ezrin. But, after plenty of toing and froing, a compromise was finally reached. As Floyd biographer Mark Blake notes:
“The body of the song would comprise the orchestral arrangement; the outro, including that final, incendiary guitar solo, would be taken from the Gilmour-favoured, harder version.”
It was the right approach. The contrast between Waters’ orchestral body and Gilmour’s searing outro transformed the song into one of rock’s enduring epics. Indeed, the transition between the two sections seems so right, it’s hard to imagine that there was any doubt.
While it was an artistic high point for the band, the recording of “Comfortably Numb” marked the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd. As Gilmour later noted, the sessions represented “the last embers of mine and Roger’s ability to work collaboratively together.” By the time of the group’s next album, 1983’s “The Final Cut,” Waters had assumed control, with Gilmour effectively relegated to the role of session man. Waters would fold the band the following year, while Gilmour would resurrect Floyd without him in the late 1980s, much to the anger of his former writing partner.
It would take the largest charity concert in history to bring the Waters-Gilmour-fronted Floyd back together. For Floydians, that one-off reunion for 2005’s Live 8 was a landmark moment; a fleeting glimpse of one of rock’s greatest legends. But, in true Floyd style, getting to the stage of the performance was hardly plain sailing. Opening old wounds, Waters and Gilmour reportedly bickered about the show’s setlist until the zero-hour. But, through all the back-and-forth, there was never any question about which song should end the set.
Both knew that “Comfortably Numb” was Floyd’s greatest hit, and the only track to finish the story with.
As rock critic Colin Maguire noted, on one side were the Collins detractors who claimed "[Genesis] sold out and became too corporate when Collins stepped into the spotlight." On the other were those who argued that “the [prog-heavy] Gabriel years were boring and hard to stomach.” Today, those factions remain.
Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi is the man who invented heavy metal. “War Pigs,” “Children of the Grave,” “Symptom of the Universe”: those seismic riffs presented a blueprint that a generation of hard rock axe-wielders would follow. Circa 1970, Iommi’s playing sounded like nothing out there. His doom-leaden, monolithic, end-of-the world riffs were, well, heavy… man.