Comfortably Numb (as made famous by Pink Floyd)

“Comfortably Numb” (working title “The Doctor”) [3] is a song by the English rock band Pink Floyd, which first appears on the 1979 double album The Wall. It was also released as a single in 1980 with “Hey You” as the B-side. It is one of only three songs on the album for which writing credits are shared between guitarist David Gilmour and bassist Roger Waters. The chorus music and guitar solos were written by Gilmour while Waters contributed the lyrics and the music for the verses. An early version of the song was included under the working title on the “Immersion Box Set” of The Wall, released in 2012.

The song is one of Pink Floyd’s most famous, and is renowned especially for its guitar solos in the middle and at the end of the song.[4] In 2004, the song was ranked number 314 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[5] In 2005, it became the last song ever to be performed by Waters, Gilmour, keyboardist Richard Wright, and drummer Nick Mason together. In 2011, the song was ranked 5th in the BBC Radio 4’s listeners’ Desert Island Discs[6] choices. The two guitar solos were ranked as the greatest guitar solos of all time by both Planet Rock listeners and WatchMojo.com.[7][8]

The Wall is a concept album about Pink, an embittered and alienated rock star. This song compares Pink’s memories of being feverishly ill as a child with his feeling nothing at all in adulthood. The lyrics feature interplay between a doctor treating the adult Pink (verses, sung by Waters) and Pink’s inner monologue (chorus, sung by Gilmour).

A large group consisting of Pink’s manager (Bob Hoskins), the hotel manager (Michael Ensign), paramedics, and roadies burst into Pink’s trashed hotel room, to find an unconscious Pink (Bob Geldof) sitting in a chair. As the paramedics try to revive Pink, his manager berates him, complaining about how he never liked him. The hotel manager does not take kindly to Pink’s destruction of the room, but Pink’s manager insists that “he’s an artist”, and eventually resorts to stuffing cash into the hotel manager’s pockets. After injecting a drug into Pink’s arm, the paramedics drag Pink out of the hotel and to his limousine.

He is then transported to a concert where he was scheduled to play. Flashbacks of Pink’s childhood are inter-cut into the scene. In the flashback, a young Pink finds a wild rat and shows it to his overprotective mother. Her negative reaction towards the rodent causes Pink to hide the rat in a nearby shed. Pink later catches a fever that keeps him bed-ridden for some time. After he recovers, Pink returns to the shed only to find that the rat has died in his absence. Pink dumps its lifeless body in a nearby river.

As he is dragged through the halls of the hotel towards a waiting limousine, the drug causes Pink to hallucinate that his body is developing into a hideous, bulbous pink shell. He dreams of injured (or perhaps dead) soldiers attempting to give him back his deceased rat, accompanied by his disapproving (and heavily made-up) doctor and teacher. Upon being pushed into the limousine, Pink tears off his diseased shell to reveal himself in Nazi-like military attire, and now appears very clean, alert, and in control of his surroundings.

The mix of “Comfortably Numb” in the film is very much the same as the album version, except that Richard Wright’s organ before David Gilmour’s final solo is removed, the bass guitar is more prominent, and Pink’s screams (as performed by Roger Waters) are mixed in, as he claws his way out of his shell. Additionally, the song in the film has an additional line at the start, “Is there anybody in there?”, when Pink’s associates barge into his hotel room.

The verses are composed in the key of B minor, while the chorus is in that key’s relative major, D major. The song, together with “Mother”, is one of two tracks on The Wall which are free-standing and do not fade into or out of an adjacent track. This is also the longest song on the album at 6:21, followed by “Mother”, which is 5:32.

According to Rolling Stone, the lyrics came from Roger Waters’ experience when he was injected with tranquilizers for stomach cramps by a doctor prior to playing a Pink Floyd show in Philadelphia on the band’s 1977 In the Flesh tour.[9][10] “That was the longest two hours of my life,” Waters said, “trying to do a show when you can hardly lift your arm.” The experience gave him the idea which eventually became the lyrics to this song.

An afterthought from Gilmour’s first solo album, the music first existed as a largely wordless demo. “I never get to the ‘I have become comfortably numb’ bit,” the guitarist recalled, “because Roger said he wanted to put that line in as a lyric, and I had to write the extra bit there and then.”[11]

Waters and Gilmour disagreed about how to record the song as Gilmour preferred a more grungy style for the verses. In the end, Waters’ preferred opening to the song and Gilmour’s final solo were used on the album. Gilmour would later say, “We argued over ‘Comfortably Numb’ like mad. Really had a big fight, went on for ages.”[12] For the backing of Gilmour’s vocal section, he and session player Lee Ritenour used a pair of high-strung acoustic guitars, similar to “Nashville” tuning, only the low E string was replaced with a high E string, two octaves higher than normal, instead of one. This tuning was also used for the arpeggios heard throughout most of “Hey You”.[13]

In 1989, readers of the Pink Floyd fanzine The Amazing Pudding voted this song the best Floyd song of all time.

This song features two guitar solos by Gilmour. The first solo is played over a shortened version of the chorus music, and the longer outro solo is played over the verse structure. David Gilmour’s solo was rated the 4th best guitar solo of all-time by Guitar World magazine, in a reader poll.[14] Also in Guitar World, there were details on David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” solo, stating that the solo (most likely the outro solo) was pieced together from several other solos that he had been experimenting with at the time; this was accomplished by recording several solos and marking his preferred segments for the perfect final take. In August 2006, it was voted the greatest guitar solo of all time in a poll by listeners of digital radio station Planet Rock.[15] In addition, Gilmour’s guitar tone in the song was named best guitar sound by Guitarist magazine in November 2010.[16]

Phil Taylor, Pink Floyd’s technician, declared:

[David Gilmour] is obviously using a couple of effects, like a Big Muff and a delay, but it really is just his fingers, his vibrato, his choice of notes and how he sets his effects. I find it extraordinary when people think they can copy his sound by duplicating his gear. In reality, no matter how well you duplicate the equipment, you will never be able to duplicate the personality.[17]

During the 1980/81 The Wall tour, where a giant wall was constructed across the stage during the performance, the song was performed with Roger Waters dressed as a doctor at the bottom of the wall, and David Gilmour singing and playing guitar from the top of the wall on a raised platform with spotlights shining from behind him. It was the first time the audience’s attention was drawn to the top of the completed wall. According to David Gilmour, the final solo was one of the few opportunities during those concerts that he was free to improvise completely.

Gilmour declared:

It was a fantastic moment, I can tell, 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.[18]

After Waters had left the band, Gilmour also revised the verses to his preferred grungier approach during live performances. The verse vocals were arranged for three-part harmonies. In both 1987–88 and 1994, the verses were sung by Richard Wright, Guy Pratt and Jon Carin.

In December 1988, a video of the live performance from Delicate Sound of Thunder reached number 11 on MTV’s Top 20 Video Countdown. The video was two minutes shorter than the album version and the video clip had different camera angles from the home video version.

A 10-minute version of “Comfortably Numb” was performed at Earls Court, London on 20 October 1994, as part of The Division Bell tour. The Pulse video release edited out approximately 1:20 minutes of the ending solo, whereas the original pay-per-view video showed the unedited version.

Pink Floyd, complete with Waters, reunited briefly to perform at the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park, London in July 2005. The set consisted of four songs, of which “Comfortably Numb” was the last.

Roger Waters – vocals (verses), bass guitar
David Gilmour – vocals (chorus), bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, Prophet-5 synthesiser
Nick Mason – drums
Richard Wright – organ
Michael Kamen – orchestral arrangements
Lee Ritenour – acoustic guitar[24]