"Comfortably Numb" 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 Roger Waters and David Gilmour. The chorus melody was written by Gilmour while Waters contributed the lyrics and the music for the verses. The song had the working title of "The Doctor". An early version of the song was included under this 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 2004, the song was ranked number 314 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2005, it became the last song ever to be performed by Waters, Gilmour, Wright, and Mason together. In 2011, the song was ranked 5th in the BBC Radio 4's listeners' Desert Island Discs choices.
While most songs on The Wall were written by Waters alone, most of the music for "Comfortably Numb" was written by David Gilmour, who originally recorded the instrumental demo during the latter stages of recording his first solo album, hoping to find some later use for it. Gilmour later brought his demo of it to The Wall sessions. In Gilmour's original demo, though there were no lyrics, he sang a melody not unlike the final version of the chorus. The verses, however, were in the key of E minor (a progression of E minor, D major, C major, A minor, and back to E minor again), rather than B minor, as in the final version. Also, the chord sequence for the final chorus line "I have become comfortably numb" did not exist in Gilmour's demo. So, while the music is widely considered to be Gilmour's work, it is likely that Waters composed the chords for that line, as well as making the decision to change the verses from E minor to B minor.
As with the other songs on The Wall, "Comfortably Numb" tells a segment of the story about Pink, the album's protagonist. This song has to do with Pink's battle to handle the world. The lyrics feature interplay between a doctor treating Pink (verses, sung by Waters) and Pink's thoughts (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 hotel room to find an unconscious Pink 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 untidiness, but Pink's manager insists that "he's an artist". 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. 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 film version of "Comfortably Numb" is very much the same as the album version, except that Richard Wright's organ before David Gilmour's final solo is removed, and Pink's screams (as performed by Roger Waters) are mixed in, as he claws his way out of his shell.
The verses are composed in the key of B minor, while the chorus is in that key's relative major, D major. The song is one of two tracks on The Wall which are free-standing and do not fade into or out of an adjacent track. (The other free-standing song is "Mother".) This is because on the original LP there was a hiatus of the music as side 3 of the album finished. 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. "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.
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." 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").
This song features two guitar solos by David 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. In 1989, the readers of the Pink Floyd fanzine, The Amazing Pudding, voted this song the best Floyd song of all time. David Gilmour's solo was rated the 2nd best guitar solo of all-time by Guitar World magazine, in a reader poll. 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. In addition, Gilmour's guitar tone in the song was named best guitar sound by Guitarist magazine in November 2010.
'[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.'
The song has become an established favourite, and an essential part of any live set by Pink Floyd, and also by Waters and Gilmour during their respective solo careers.
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. According to David Gilmour, the final solo was one of the few opportunities during those concerts that he was free to improvise completely.
'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.'
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, rather than attempting to imitate Waters' voice. In both 1987–88 and 1994, the lyrics 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 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 five songs, of which "Comfortably Numb" was the last.
Gilmour has performed the song during each of his solo tours.
In his 1984 tour to promote his album About Face, the set list referred to the song as "Come On Big Bum". The vocals during the verses were performed by band members Gregg Dechart and Mickey Feat.
In 2001 and 2002, the verse vocals were performed on different dates by guest singers: Robert Wyatt, Kate Bush, Durga McBroom, and most notably Bob Geldof, who had played Pink in the movie version of The Wall.
On 29 May at the Royal Albert Hall, David Bowie, in a guest appearance, sang Waters' part of the song. The next day, on 30 May, Richard Wright sang Waters' part, by himself, on the same venue. Both performances were immortalized on Gilmour's Remember That Night concert video.
In 2006, David Gilmour performed the song in a concert, with the Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra providing the orchestral parts that had usually been done with backing tapes or multiple synthesizers. This version would be released on Live in Gdańsk.
After leaving Pink Floyd, Waters first performed "Comfortably Numb" at the 1990 concert staging of The Wall – Live in Berlin on 21 July 1990. The event's purpose was to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Roger Waters sang lead, Van Morrison sang Gilmour's vocal parts backed by Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band, with guitar solos by Rick Di Fonzo and Snowy White, and backup by the Rundfunk Orchestra & Choir. This version was used in the Academy Award-winning 2006 film The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese. It is also heard in the TV show episode of The Sopranos, titled "Kennedy and Heidi", when Christopher Moltisanti plays The Departed soundtrack on his car stereo before a serious accident. Van Morrison's 2007 compilation album, Van Morrison at the Movies – Soundtrack Hits includes this version.
Waters subsequently performed the song at the "Guitar Legends" festival in Spain in 1991 (with guest vocals by Bruce Hornsby), and at the Walden Woods benefit concert in Los Angeles in 1992 with guest vocals by Don Henley.
During 1999–2000, Doyle Bramhall II and Snowy White stood in for Gilmour's vocals and guitar solos; a role carried out by Chester Kamen and White in 2002. In 2006–2007 Gilmour's vocals were performed by Jon Carin and Andy Fairweather-Low with Dave Kilminster and White performing the guitar solos.
During Waters' The Wall Live tour, Robbie Wyckoff sang Gilmour's vocals, and Dave Kilminster performed the guitar solos, both of them atop the wall, as Gilmour has been in the original tour. During the 12 May 2011 performance at the London O2 Arena, David Gilmour appeared as a guest during this song, and both sang the choruses and played guitar from the top of the wall, echoing the original Earls Court performances. The song contains one of the show's most memorable moments, when at a specific point in the final guitar solo, Waters runs to the wall, pounding it with his fists, triggering an explosion of colour in the previously dark grey projections.
An orchestrated version of "Comfortably Numb", arranged by Jaz Coleman, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and conducted by Peter Scholes, appears on the 1995 instrumental album Us and Them: Symphonic Pink Floyd.
Various Pink Floyd tribute albums include this song, including Luther Wright and the Wrongs on Rebuild the Wall (2001), Graham Parker on A Fair Forgery of Pink Floyd (2003), Billy Sherwood with Yes members Chris Squire and Alan White on Back Against the Wall (2005); Mostly Autumn with Heather Findlay singing verse, Sarah Slean on Pink Floyd Redux (2006)
In addition, Gregorian recorded it on Masters of Chant Chapter V (2006). Staind included a live acoustic version on their compilation album The Singles 1996→2006. Bruce Hornsby performs "Comfortably Numb" as part of a medley with his own "Fortunate Son") on the 2005 DVD Three Nights on the Town. Dar Williams recorded it on her 2005 album My Better Self.
Collide made a cover of the song on their album "These Eyes Before" in 2009.
The Scissor Sisters recorded a radically re-arranged disco-oriented version released in January 2004 on Polydor, with the b-side "Rock My Spot (Crevice Canyon)". This release reached number 10 in the UK Singles Chart, becoming the most successful cover of a Pink Floyd song to date in the UK. David Gilmour and Nick Mason expressed a liking for the group's version, and Roger Waters is said to have congratulated the Scissor Sisters on the version, although a lyric was changed, from "a distant ship's smoke on the horizon" to "a distant ship floats on the horizon". Jake Shears, the band's lead singer, was invited by Gilmour to sing "Comfortably Numb" with him in some 2006 shows, but the idea was dropped at the last moment to Shears' public disappointment. This cover received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording, but lost to "Toxic" by Britney Spears.
On 7 July 2008, Van Morrison began to include this song on the set list of some of his live concert performances, echoing his duet with Waters in the 1990 Berlin staging of The Wall. After singing it at the Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada he remarked, "I hope you liked that. I'm not numb and I'm not comfortable."
Bluegrass country band Hayseed Dixie, who began their career recording and performing rock and metal covers, regularly finish their live sets with this song. However, they have never recorded it for official release.
- Roger Waters – vocals (verses), bass guitar
- David Gilmour – vocals (refrain), acoustic guitar, electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, Prophet-5 synthesiser
- Nick Mason – drums
- Richard Wright – organ
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