The Epic Track: “Comfortably Numb”

pink floyd

Editor’s Note: There are certain rock tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In the first of a series, we take a look at one of them (and don’t forget to suggest your picks for an Epic Track in the comments).


When Pink Floyd’s concept album, The Wall, came out in 1979, it was an Event. Like, a big one. The anticipation in the rock world was palpable. I remember reading/hearing about it for weeks ahead of its release. When it finally hit the record stores, two of my guy friends insisted on a “listening party” in their dorm room. Lights were dimmed, candles (and a few joints) were lit, the stereo needle was dropped.

And…we were off.

This dark journey through the even darker mind of Roger Waters as the jaded rock star, “Pink,” (with some Syd Barrett thrown in) covered childhood trauma, isolation, abusive British schools, cheating wives, controlling mothers– pretty much a full buffet of psychic (and physical) pain. At first listen, it was weird, cinematic, and a little hard to piece together. The ensuing stage show, and 1982 movie (with Bob Geldof as “Pink”) wasn’t any cheerier.

But there was one Epic Track on the album that effectively summed up the  Trauma-fest of The Wall: “Comfortably Numb.” To this writer, it remains the beating heart of the project, neatly capturing all the pain (and there’s a lot of it) expressed throughout – and the desire to run or otherwise hide from it. (Note: “Hey You” was the B-side to the single version.)

“Comfortably Numb” was co-written by Waters and David Gilmour. Gilmour came up with the tune, something he’d been noodling on for an upcoming solo project. Waters wrote the lyrics (partly based on his experience being injected with tranquilizers on an earlier tour stop). Initially, he was reluctant to include Gilmour’s piece because he really, really wanted to take sole credit for the entire project (#greedybugger). Wisely, he was persuaded otherwise.

The two argued frequently during recording, with Waters wanting a bigger orchestral treatment of the song and Gilmour preferring a more stripped-down version. The end result combined both of their ideas, but Gilmour noted that it was the last time they were able to work together in any constructive way. Waters left the band in 1985.

Two things stand out, namely, Gilmour’s guitar solos. The first is considered one of the most brilliant ever played, reportedly captured on the first take. I’m sure I’m not alone in closing my eyes whenever I hear it, just reveling in its sheer gorgeousness.


The second, darker solo takes the listener into the depths of “Pink’s” internal agony, like a swirling descent into Hell. This one also ranks high up on many lists of Great Guitar Solos.

Waters’ evocative lyrics capture something faintly remembered by all of us, I would wager: “When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse/out of the corner of my eye/I turned to look but it was gone…”  The longing in this lyric, buried within the need to keep pushing through Life’s Obligations (“That’ll keep you going through the show/come on, it’s time to go”) is heartbreaking. In a neat six minutes and 21 seconds the track encapsulates a painful journey from dazed childhood into confused, damaged adulthood.

While Gilmour and Waters have had a contentious relationship for decades, they ultimately gifted us with some epic tracks along the way. “Comfortably Numb” is at the top of the pile, ranked at #179 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs Ever.” Both of them continue to perform it in their own live shows, albeit in somewhat different ways.

Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” is tragic, beautiful, and all these years after that dorm room “listening party,” timeless. Truly, an Epic Track.

-Cindy Grogan

Photo: Pink Floyd (Getty)

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16 comments on “The Epic Track: “Comfortably Numb”

  1. Mark Hudson

    Epic track picks? Sheesh, so many. But just off the top of my head: Awaken by Yes. Supper’s Ready by Genesis. A Day in the life – Beatles. Free Bird – Lynyrd Skynyrd. Firth of Fifth – Genesis. Hotel California – Eagles. Song for America – Kansas. I could go on….

    • When we started brainstorming tracks for this feature, it was indeed verrrrrrry long. Guess we can consider it “job security”!

      • I became a Floyd fan in 1979 when the Wall album first came out and still their today. To understand the wall album u must watch the movie!!!

  2. Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

    I had to go back & listen to Gilmour at Pompeii (not included in post) to get the full picture. Truly a spooky epic, kind of reiterates the entirety of the Who’s Tommy though to me, with more elegance than the precursor.

  3. What’s really tragic is Roger’s ego. He could never get past the idea that the vast majority of Pink Floyd fans find David Gilmour the key cog in their sound.

  4. Bravo, Cindy. Easily my favorite Floyd tune.

    Limiting to two suggestions for further such entries:

    “Living for the City”, Stevie Wonder.

    “Time Has Come Today”, The Chambers Brothers.

  5. I totally agree with this Cindy. For me, “Comfortably Numb” is one of the greatest ever songs – epic sounds right indeed. The mix of the two different voices and then that incredible guitar solo. I still remember hearing The Wall when it came out and it has been with ever since as one of the all-time great albums. Great article, thank you. David Bedford

  6. Mark Hebert

    The Logical Song by Supertramp…”and then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical”…basically sums up my existence since 1979. Outstanding.

  7. Richard Mechling

    And I always thought this song related to dying. The fingers feeling like balloons involves circulatory changes near death, and the ships sailing on the horizon are what is often referred to at hospice has the real World drifts away. I thought this one of Floyd’s several references to seeing a passing image out of the corner of an eye relates to seeing what is behind the veil that during life prevents seeing what consciousness is connected to. Being numb is the loss of real world sensations as the brain’s functions dissipate and be in comfortable meant it wasn’t so bad and one had come to terms with it. Heck- I was going to have it played at my funeral.

    • Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

      What a great idea for a funeral song…beats the heck out of “Whiter Shade of pale.”

  8. Chris Meyer

    Love this pick. I can relate to the 1979 anticipation you described – I was counting the minutes to The Wall’s release! Comfortably Numb is epic on several levels, with Gilmour’s leads topping the list. But there is one other Pink Floyd tune that should be on your list – Time, from Dark Side of the Moon. Not only my favorite guitar solo of all time (talk about evocative!), but also an epic statement about the cavalier way many squander away their precious time here on Earth. And let’s not forget that phenomenal intro!! Time had a major impact on me in my teens and still resonates to this day.

  9. Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

    Hmm what exactly makes a track “epic”? So far it seems like it has to feature male players/vocalists…but what about Patti Smith’s Because the Night, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 + (Grace slick’s vocals on) Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and Crown of Creation? All continue to reverberate for me long after the records stopped playing…

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