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.
Photo: Pink Floyd (Getty)