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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.

Just four weeks left until the end of the Bottom Feeders series. Get your ’80s fix while you can by listening to more songs that hit the rock charts in the decade but failed to cross over into the Billboard Hot 100.

Joe Walsh
“Things” 1981, #36 (download)
“Rivers (of the Hidden Funk)” 1981, #35 (download)
“Waffle Stomp” 1982, #20 (download)
“I Can Play That Rock & Roll” 1983, #13 (download)
“The Confessor” 1985, #8 (download)
“The Radio Song” 1987, #8 (download)
“In My Car” 1987, #14 (download)

Over the past year or so, my opinion on Joe Walsh has changed. The Eagles were always okay in my book but they were never a must listen for me. And Walsh’s solo stuff always seemed a little too basic and/or kind of silly at times. Maybe it’s simply the songs here are the best of his solo catalog or maybe I’ve changed but I’ve started to dig tunes like “Things” or “Rivers” and even the somewhat ridiculous lyrics of “Waffle Stomp.” Once I got to thinking that not everything has to be groundbreaking, Walsh’s songs kind of hit me differently. I still don’t know if I’d ever pull out say, ‘87s Got Any Gum? voluntarily but I’m closer to doing that than I ever was before.

The Waterboys
“Fisherman’s Blues” 1988, Modern Rock #3 (download)
“World Party” 1989, #48 (download)

A lot of people think the Waterboys’ 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues is their best recording but it also threw some people for a loop as it was their first album that really brought both traditional Scottish music and folk to the forefront of their recordings. Both of these tracks come from that album. Keyboardist Karl Wallinger co-wrote “World Party” before leaving the group in ’85 to form yep, World Party.

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The nuclear danger after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan made me think back to another, equally less innocent time, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was that dark cloud that hung over the world.  In the early to mid ’80s when I was transitioning out of high school and into college, the “new wave” of music was decidedly electronic, at time sterile, and often rather glum.  Besides the superstars of pop at the time, there weren’t many who were very optimistic about the future – or maybe lack thereof.  The music I listened to at that time spoke in fragments and phrases about impending destruction brought about by an escalation in the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States.  Nuclear arsenals were built up, more missiles were deployed in western Europe, the rhetoric on both sides were increasingly hawkish and it all seemed like it was going to end in a fiery exchange of ICBMs.  I lived near a weapons depot and my friends and I would joke that if we got word that missiles were coming, we’d pack up our lawn chairs and binoculars and haul ass over to the weapons depot to watch the bombs drop on their targets.  We figured it was better to go out in the belly of a mushroom cloud than be part of the sickly survivors of a nuclear holocaust.  A grim outlook, I know.  But I wasn’t the only one. As you’ll hear in this mix, these artists were also worried that all that humanity had built would be gone if the mad fuckers in the White House and the Kremlin didn’t come to their senses and quit playing chicken with some dangerous toys.

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.

May is the unofficial start of the summer concert season, so to unofficially celebrate the shows of 2009, Popdose.com and internet radio station The Penguin have teamed up for Penguimania 2009. Tune in each Wednesday at 9:00 EST for Radioshow With Dw. Dunphy to hear

You probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that this has been the hardest post for me to write since Popdose started. I mean, it’s been a damn month: what’s the holdup? Well, the truth is I discovered it is a lot easier to write about straight-up criminals like the members of Mötley Crüe, or hardcore divas like Diana Ross, than smug, pretentious assholes like today’s subject, Roger Waters. Simply put, it’s rather entertaining to write about individuals in the former categories. To write about Waters, however, is as trying a task as actually listening to his solo work in an attempt to find if any of them are worth talking about in this column. But I was able to find a good one, or a “good” one, depending on one’s ability to stomach conceptual prog joints. First though, a refresher on Herr Waters’ crimes of pomposity.

-Waters became the default main writer in Pink Floyd after Syd Barrett’s descent into mental illness, apparently exacerbated by a horrible LSD experience. And while Waters often spoke about how he wished to find and kill the man who gave Syd bad acid, this level of care did not apply to the addictions of other members of the band. Waters made the unilateral decision to fire founding Floyd member and keyboardist Richard Wright during sessions for The Wall, when he deemed Wright’s addictions too much of a distraction. Then, as an added slap in the face, he hired Wright back as a session musician to complete the album and go on the abbreviated Wall tour. In other words, Wright was not messed up enough that his talents couldn’t be used, but was messed up just enough that Waters wished to symbolically disassociate himself from him. Charming.

-More than just the main lyricist, Waters made himself de facto leader of the Floyd, taking complete creative control of the direction of the group. This culminated in refusing to put any Gilmour’s songs in 1983’s The Final Cut, then leaving the group after its release and declaring them over, with that album as their final, definitive statement, as if the rest of Pink Floyd really wanted to have their last album be a de facto Waters solo album: The record jacket even said “The Final Cut by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd.” Waters then sued the other members of Pink Floyd to stop them from carrying on under that name after he left the group. His defense was that Pink Floyd should not be allowed to continue because he was the creative leader of the band, and additionally there remained only one original member (Nick Mason) who wanted to carry on. In other words, though Gilmour had been the musical centerpiece of the group for two decades, he was still nothing more to Waters than a hired hand to replace Syd Barrett, so f-all what he wanted.

Yeah, yeah, we know what you’re thinking: “The Hooters? Are they even still together?” Well, actually, if you’d asked that question between 1995 and 2001, the answer would’ve been a resounding “No.” After the tremendous success of the band’s 1985 breakthrough, Nervous Night, their commercial success in the States began a gradual descent; simultaneously, however, their stock was rising overseas. When the band took a break in 1995, singer-guitarist Eric Bazilian proceeded to keep very busy as a songwriter, working with everyone from Midge Ure to Jon Bon Jovi, but when the gang got back together in 2001 he was right there with them. The Hooters did a fair amount of touring in Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden, but it wasn’t ’til 2006 that the band finally started doing some shows in the U.S. The next thing you know, the band was back in the studio to record Time Stand Still, their first album in 14 years. Popdose had the good fortune to speak with Eric about the history of the band as well as his solo career, touching on subjects like the Hooters’ omission from the Live Aid DVD, what it’s like to meet three out of four Beatles, and what a glorious gift it was to have Joan Osborne record “One of Us.”