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Pink Floyd’s The Wall is being released February 27 in an expanded Immersion Edition that charts the development of this landmark release. To mark the occasion, we take a close look at the album’s most enduring song.

“Comfortably Numb” is more than just a great song, more even than Pink Floyd’s final great achievement. It is the culmination of the fitful and often antagonistic partnership between Roger Waters, the band’s lyricist and creative visionary, and David Gilmour, its primary singer, lead guitarist and most accomplished musical technician. Never close friends, the two men had grown increasingly embattled as Pink Floyd ascended the pyramid of rock megastardom. “Comfortably Numb” marked the last occasion of artistic accord between them, an unlikely flowering of beauty that melded their complimentary gifts as no Pink Floyd song ever had.

For all the rancor they would unleash toward each other, neither man ever lost his affection for this song. Like a child of divorced parents, it would go on to live under a kind of dual custody; one writer has claimed, and I can’t gainsay it, that Gilmour and Waters have played “Comfortably Numb” at every single concert each has performed since the song was released. In that sense, there is nothing quite like it in the rock and roll canon; imagine if Lennon and McCartney had both insisted on playing “We Can Work It Out” at every one of their solo performances. The history of “Comfortably Numb” is like a fossil record detailing the last decade of Pink Floyd and beyond, with each permutation reflecting the essence of its creators and highlighting each man’s strengths and weaknesses.

Despite its climactic position at the end of Side 3 of The Wall, “Comfortably Numb” was actually conceived before the album was written, and it had no place in the song cycle as originally roughed out by Roger Waters in 1978. The song began as a wordless demo recorded by David Gilmour for his 1977, self-titled solo album. While missing some elements — lyrics, for a start — it is still recognizable, and there is undeniably the seed of something beautiful here:

David Gilmour, Home Demo (1977)

Gilmour has said that he “ran out of time” before he could finish the piece for his album, but my guess is that this is a face-saving way of admitting that he sat on the song, knowing he wouldn’t be able to complete it satisfactorily on his own — and knowing who he could turn to for help. Gilmour has been candid about his lack of self-confidence as a songwriter and lyricist, which kept him from contributing to Pink Floyd on equal footing with the domineering Waters. Yet whatever Gilmour may have thought of Roger Waters as a person, the bassist had shown skill and great generosity in transforming Gilmour’s musical sketches into fully conceived, moving songs: “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” both owe their existence to Gilmour guitar phrases that Waters made a point of building upon and completing — often seeing in them more potential than the guitarist himself.

Accounts differ — this is Pink Floyd we’re talking about — as to how keen Waters was to incorporate “Comfortably Numb” into The Wall. Waters, irked by his colleagues’ claims that he shut them out of the creative process, said recently that “I was desperate for [the other band members] to write, always, always, always.” Bob Ezrin, co-producer of The Wall, remembers, “At first Roger had not planned to include any of Dave’s material […] I fought for this song and insisted that Roger work on it.“ Whether Waters leapt or was pushed into working on “The Doctor,” as it was known at this stage, his first pass at the lyric sounds like a piss-take on Bob Dylan, with a suitably hammy vocal on this later demo:

Pink Floyd, Band Demo (1978)

Waters also asked Gilmour for some extra bars to accommodate the chorus he had written. The climactic melody Gilmour came up with gave the song its identity, and “The Doctor” was henceforth known as “Comfortably Numb.”

Apart from the odd lyrics (which, in fairness to Waters, may have simply been filler and never intended for the finished song) and the lack of a second chorus, the main point of difference between this version and the finished studio production is the rougher, more ragged accompaniment to the verses. Gilmour preferred this guitar-heavy approach, while Waters and Ezrin favored a cleaner orchestral arrangement. This difference of opinion escalated into one of the most heated and notorious arguments in the Pink Floyd saga, with Gilmour and Waters eventually reduced to shouting at each other over appetizers in an L.A. restaurant. Gilmour lost, and “Comfortably Numb” was recorded as Ezrin and Waters wanted it. (Though this by no means settled the issue for Gilmour, as we will see shortly.)

In its finished state, “Comfortably Numb” is Pink Floyd’s “A Day in the Life” — the song on which the band’s two chief creative forces came together at their absolute best. Gilmour’s chord progression is simple and effective in classic Floydian manner: a B-minor verse alternating with a D major chorus, each section acting as the distorted mirror image of the other. Singing as the doctor, Waters is all oily charm, his cajoling manner hiding an icy professional (“I do believe it’s working. Good!”) only interested in propping up the battered Pink for one more performance. Gilmour’s section depicts Pink at his most childlike and vulnerable; you can hear the voice of the pleading child in the melody itself. Waters and Gilmour had shared vocal duties on songs before, but never had the contrast between their voices been put to such powerful and dramatic effect. (It is telling that neither man ever attempted to sing the song entirely by himself.)

And then there are the guitar solos.

If you bothered to read this piece at all, you probably take at least a casual pleasure in David Gilmour’s guitar playing. And if you’ve read this far, it’s just possible that those signature high, pealing notes do something to you that no other player quite manages. Lots of guitarists of all stripes have a style; Gilmour is the rare player who has a voice, as expressive in its wordless way as Roger Waters’ most expansive lyrics. I actually find the first solo better — or at any rate more satisfying — than the show-stopping final one, not just for its economy but for the emotional high it delivers. The comfortable numbness into which Pink escapes in the first chorus is warm and welcoming, even rapturous, and Gilmour’s phrases are feather-light and flow effortlessly from one to the other. (For all the times Gilmour has played “Comfortably Numb” live, he never alters a note of this solo.) On the extended coda, he plays over the minor chords of the chorus, and the effect is much more unsettling. Phrases sputter to life and drop away, or jostle against each other brusquely. In keeping with its thematic role in the song, the solo has no clear shape; it is more of a sequence of utterances, short primal bursts of pain and confusion that hearken back to Gilmour’s signature work on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” This is even more the case on this version, recorded during a live performance of The Wall (skip to 5:20 if you just want to hear the solo, and note that the video footage is taken from a different performance):


Pink Floyd, Live in Concert (1982)

“Comfortably Numb” proved to be the final peak of inspiration for Pink Floyd. With founding keyboardist Richard Wright thrown out of the band by Waters, the three remaining members convened for one last album, the entirely Waters-driven The Final Cut, before all concerned acknowledged that Pink Floyd could not endure in its present form. In 1985, Roger Waters formally informed Pink Floyd’s record label that he was leaving the band, which he described publicly as “a spent force,” and one which he had every expectation would promptly lapse into dignified retirement. David Gilmour had other ideas.

It’s a Christmas edition of Bottom Feeders where we feature nothing even remotely about Christmas! But part 32 treats us way better than 31 as we continue looking at the letter M and songs that hit the Billboard rock chart that failed to cross into the Hot 100.  Merry Christmas everyone!

Mary’s Danish
“Don’t Crash the Car Tonight” 1989, Modern Rock #7 (download)

Mary’s Danish was a bit of an eclectic group playing a mix of rock, funk and country. They were front by a female duo of Gretchen Seager and Julie Ritter with guitarist Louis Gutierrez coming over from The Three O’Clock which he had left before Vermillion came out. “Don’t Crash the Car Tonight” was from their debut album – There Goes the Wondertruck.

The more interesting thing is that the name Julie Ritter rings a bell. I know she’s released a couple solo records, but it’s not from that and I thought for a minute that she might be a Popdose staff favorite but a quick search yielded no articles on her. So, now I’m curious why I think I recognize her so much.

Dave Mason
“Something in the Heart” 1987, #24 (download)

Since Dave Mason was in Traffic it really wasn’t very hard to piece together that Steve Winwood was on this track, but isn’t it amazing that one note from the Win-Synth just gives that away without any doubt in your mind? Not only that, but the layered vocals kind of make Mason sound like Billy Joel here.  So “Something In the Heart” could very well pass for a Billy Joel & Steve Winwood tune.

Nick Mason & Rick Fenn
“Lie For A Lie” 1985, #21 (download)

Nick Mason is the drummer for Pink Floyd and Rick Fenn was the guitarist for 10CC. These guys actually worked together on this (billed as Mason + Fenn on the album) and scored two movies together. “Lie for a Lie” is one of only two songs on Profiles that contain vocals – and of course you are hearing David Gilmour on this track.

Max Q
“Way of the World” 1989, Modern Rock #6 (download)

Don’t recognize the name Max Q? Listen to the track then. If you’re an ‘80s fan you won’t be able to forget the recognizable voice of Michael Hutchence. Yeah, this was Hutchence’s one-off side project from INXS in 1989 and while the self-titled album doesn’t match up with the best INXS discs, it is quite good and if nothing else a neat piece of his musical history that a lot of people haven’t heard. The band never played live and the album didn’t sell so it’s never been re-released, even after his death. This is definitely worth a couple bucks if you can locate it.

The double album turns 30 this year. In upcoming installments of Test of the Boomerang, ‘ll be taking a look at the album’s creation, live spectacle, aftermath and legacy. In this first installment we’ll be looking at the long-storied origins of the album and sharing the band’s original demo recordings.

I. Origins

It’s one of the most repugnant tales in rock history: The final show of Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh” tour, July 6th, 1977 in Montreal. Roger Waters had had quite enough. Floyd was performing in a stadium, fans were setting off fireworks during the quiet numbers, the sound was lousy, and finally, out of the roiling sea of people, a fan, imploring the band to play “Careful With That Axe Eugene,” clambered onto the stage, only to have Waters spit in his face.

Pink Floyd had come a long way from the spirited whimsy of “See Emily Play” just 10 years prior. 1977 saw the release of Animals – a visceral and venomous five-song diatribe on class and culture. After the worldwide success of Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, the grislier Animals showed Roger Waters exerting himself more and more as band leader and the weightier themes on their new album suggested a pretension that was very unlike the zen parable simplicity of Dark Side’s best moments or Wish You Were Here’s built-in nostalgia.