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 (22)
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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.

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