Retrospectives of Pink Floyd tend to devolve into rehashing fights between Roger Waters and David Gilmour, but there’s good reason for that. Some of the band’s best work came out of this personal and creative tension, especially their most beloved song, “Comfortably Numb,” which, as we know it, emerged as a compromise between two different visions.
Unlike, say, Lennon and McCartney, who made some excellent music without each other, Gilmour and Waters never shined as brightly as when they contributed to each other’s work. Part of the bittersweetness of “Comfortably Numb,” then, is that it represents, as Gilmour himself admitted, “the last embers of mine and Roger’s ability to work collaboratively together.”
The song began life as a skeletal demo leftover from songwriting sessions for Gilmour’s first, 1978 solo album, but it only came together, with lyrics by Waters, during sessions for the following year’s epic The Wall.
When it came time to work that album's songs—essentially a Roger Waters’ solo concept presented to the band—Gilmour wisely took the rudimentary progression off the shelf and offered it to his bandmate. It consisted then, as you can hear above, of nothing more than the chord progression in the chorus and a vocal melody conveyed by “doo doo doos.” In the interview clip below, Gilmour talks about the demo’s “genesis” on a “high strung guitar.”
Despite the delicate acoustic strumming of the demo, Gilmour wanted the Floyd version of the song to have a harder edge. Waters, on the other hand, wanted a big, theatrical sound. As Waters remembers it in an interview with Absolute Radio at the top, the disagreement boiled down to a rhythm track, and the negotiation involved taking pieces of the verse and chorus from two different versions and piecing them together.
Writer Mark Blake, citing co-producer Bob Ezrin, describes the argument in much more detail, as between a “stripped-down and harder” take and what Ezrin calls “the grander Technicolor, orchestral version” Waters liked. “That turned into a real arm-wrestle,” Ezrin recalled. “But at least this time there were only two sides to the argument. Dave on one side; Roger and I on the other.” After much wrangling, “the deal was struck,” Blake explains: “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.”
As the song was integrated into Waters’ conceptual scheme (which Gilmour later admitted he found “a bit whingeing”), early versions like “The Doctor,” above, show the grittier sound Gilmour wanted. This take also showcases some lyrical howlers (“I am a physician / who can handle your condition / like a magician”) that, thankfully, didn’t make the final cut. The Final Cut also happens to be the title of The Wall’s follow-up, another Waters’ solo concept and the effective end of his collaboration with Gilmour for good.
Learning the history of “Comfortably Numb” makes us appreciate all of the maneuvering that went into turning the song into the masterpiece it became. In listening to it again (below, in a video with the wrong album cover), I’m amazed at how splitting the difference between two competing creative directions created a piece of music that could not be improved upon in any way. If you can think of such a thing happening before or since, in any art form, I'd love to hear about it.