How Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” Was Born From an Argument Between Roger Waters & David Gilmour

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 17-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Pink Floyd Albums: The Evo­lu­tion of the Band Revealed in 209 Tracks (1967–2014)

Under­stand­ing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Their Trib­ute to Depart­ed Band­mate Syd Bar­rett

Hear Lost Record­ing of Pink Floyd Play­ing with Jazz Vio­lin­ist Stéphane Grap­pel­li on “Wish You Were Here”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (24)
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  • Petee says:

    Great­est band of all time peri­od end of con­ver­sa­tion.🎼🎵🎶

  • Jesse C says:

    Wow. What a long and hard fought road to get to one of,if not the best song in his­to­ry. Long live Pink Floyd!!

  • Don says:


  • Desiree says:

    Pink floyd heals the soul.…

  • Michael H. says:

    Agreed.👍 If this song, with the most emo­tive gui­tar solo ever record­ed by any­one, ever, does­n’t make you feel some­thing, then your obvi­ous­ly dead!

  • DAVID T. CARLTON says:

    Heals the soul.…..nail on the head!

  • Doug Fresh says:

    In our lives we can go from dark to light, from dingy to vibrant dur­ing our day with no expla­na­tion as to why. All the rat race crap piled on in one 8 hour work day that pro­gress­es until we are able to tap out. Atti­tudes, polit­i­cal views, com­peta­tive­ness, reli­gious direc­tions, social or com­mu­ni­ty sta­tus, per­son­al worth and wealth, and of all things, add race. But, what you feel is what Pink Floyd tries to make you under­stand con­ser­v­a­tive­ly with sort­ing it out through it’s music. Least that’s my opin­ion. Every time I hear a tune on the radio, I’m like a zom­bie of the apoc­a­lypse. It just grabs me and wants to give me peace while scream­ing the lyrics in my auto­mo­bile on the open road. Win­dows down might put me in jail though. Haha.
    I’ll enjoy this music until I die. Now that’s music!

  • Janet Griggs says:

    The genius that is born in Pink Floy­d’s music through the dark side of Waters and the light deliv­ered by Gilmour is what gives me the great feel­ing of peace as I lis­ten. The tur­moil of the lyrics always is brought into a calm place with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of sound from every­one of the men we now, for­ev­er call Pink Floyd! Takes me right to my hap­py place!

  • Jeff says:

    Hie Desiree, “Pink Floyd heals the soul” was my exact com­ment a while back in reply to some­body else’s com­ment. So true though, I just had to say hie to you. I’m Com­fort­ably Numb think­ing about the fact. Peace, Jeff

  • Erin Moen says:

    “Dark to light” or light to dark.. Maybe that’s the ‘grab­bing’, Doug. The dual­i­ty of our­selves we all learn to cope with. Pain. Grief. Numb­ness. Love. Tears and fears. Mem­o­ries. It is bit­ter­sweet, brit­tle and soft, a good­bye of pro­found pro­por­tions, end­ing with the sharp and sad under­stand­ing of loss, and gain, under­stand­ing, yet hat­ing, a les­son of Wis­dom…

    ‘Com­fort­ably Numb’ always wrench­es my soul and heart when I hear the song, leav­ing me pen­sive and unset­tled, feel­ing a great loss of unde­fin­able breadth..

    I Love Pink Floyd.

  • Fouad says:

    Pink­floyd makes you feel high with their music, heal your soul and heart,

  • William Reilly says:

    Have become.…comfortably numb, again.….pPp, Enjoy~~~

  • Ronny says:

    I adore this song!

  • Andrew Gomez says:

    Pink Floyd is the best band ever. Espe­cial­ly when you are high, you just can’t beat the won­der­ful music to my ears. For­ev­er Pink Floyd!

  • Pete logan says:

    The world’s most amaz­ing band bar NONE!!!!!!!!!Pure genius 🍻🍻🍻

  • John Backus says:

    What more can be said! Their music is calm­ing, intel­lec­tu­al, enter­tain­ing while being such a feel good for the soul. Pink Floyd the band is a ” Rid­dle wrapped up in an Enig­ma”. Which is a quote from the great Win­ston Churchill while describ­ing the Sovi­et Union after WWII.

  • Liz Hill says:

    One of my favourite Pink Floyd songs, I could & do play it on repeat, usu­al­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sions! Live at Gdańsk is my favourite!

  • Tenacious P says:

    I know of a way you can take this superb song and improve on it in a very spe­cif­ic way.

    Play it live in Los Ange­les at some back­wa­ter sta­di­um (I for­got its name) on Feb. 10, 1980. Put David Gilmour on top of the wall and engage him in bat­tle with a soli­tary kleig light. Or what­ev­er the heck you call that blaze of musi­cal glo­ry. It was a rock moment I will nev­er for­get.

  • Austin Conroy says:

    Cre­ative split­ting the dif­fer­ence:

    Ground­hog Day
    (Fun com­e­dy or deep philos­phy between Ramis and Mur­ra. Con­flict tuined their friend­ship and bal­ance is so per­fect makes it one of the best come­dies that deliv­ers on every lev­el. End­less­ly rewatch­able :)

    The God­fa­ther
    (Puzos pulpy book and stu­dio want­i­ng mob movie vs Cop­po­la’s inter­est in depth and cin­e­mat­ic abstrac­tion- this one is indi­rect, but if you look at his career doing the stu­dio movie he did­n’t want to make for the mon­ey led to his best work as it bal­anced uni­ver­sal engage­ment)

    Not just great exam­ples, but all three, with com­fort­ably numb are pin­na­cles of their form.

  • David says:

    The per­son who wrote this arti­cle knows noth­ing about song­writ­ing. Most rock songs are writ­ten in this exact fash­ion with the tune com­ing first and the lyrics lat­er although there are some excep­tions where the lyrics are writ­ten first. Here’s the process: 1) The song­writer comes up with the basic chord pro­gres­sion. 2) The writer often hums a melody over the chord pro­gres­sion or comes up with a tune using non-sense lyrics. 3) The writer then comes up with a basic set of lyrics. 4) The band (or per­haps just the writer) hash­es out the full band arrange­ment (bass part, drum part, gui­tar part, gui­tar solo etc). 5) The lyrics are then giv­en final tweaks (if nec­es­sary). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the per­son who wrote this arti­cle nev­er heard the sto­ry about how Paul McCart­ney wrote the song “Yes­ter­day”, which fol­lowed this same pat­tern. He had the tune of the song writ­ten before he fin­ished the lyrics. His pre­lim­i­nary lyrics includ­ed “Scram­bled Eggs” instead of “Yester-day”.

  • John Emerson says:

    Pink Floyd — Still the first In Space .

  • Stephen says:

    You know, David, Bernie Taupin wrote lyrics inde­pen­dent of all of Elton John’s musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment, which was almost always added lat­er…

    Song writ­ing is an organ­ic, artis­tic pur­suit. It has no rules as to how it works, just some basic para­me­ters of what the fin­ished prod­uct will be. The way Paul McCart­ney wrote Yes­ter­day is not the blue­print for all song­writ­ing.

    Josh Jones (the per­son who wrote this arti­cle) is not claim­ing to know any­thing about song­writ­ing, he’s just telling the sto­ry of how this one par­tic­u­lar song was writ­ten.

  • tonystark says:

    Great­est dead met­al music band.

  • tonystark says:

    great­est dead met­al music band ever

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