It was June 29, 1977, and Roger Waters was in a bad way. Pink Floyd had arrived in Philadelphia to perform at the Spectrum, and the band's bass player and singer was wracked with pain.
"I was getting ready to do a gig there, and I had some stomach bug. Terrible, terrible stomach cramps," Waters told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We had a doctor come into the hotel and say, 'Well, we can take care of that.' And he gave me a shot, and to this day I don't know what it was. But it's not something I would ever recommend giving to a human being. It came out of a dart that felt like it was used to tranquilize an elephant. And we did the whole show, and I was barely able to stand. And that's where the term 'comfortably numb' came out of. Though obviously the song developed in a different direction."
The experience was the clear influence for "Comfortably Numb," the third and final single from Pink Floyd's blockbuster double-album, The Wall. Released on June 23, 1980, the song somehow failed to chart in America. A far cry from the first single from The Wall, "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)," which had peaked at #1 in March 1980. Still, it's gone on to become one of the band's most popular and celebrated songs, and ranked #314 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
"Comfortably Numb" plays a pivotal role in the film version of The Wall, as explained by Waters during a 1979 interview with Radio 1: " After 'Bring the Boys Back Home,' there is a short piece where a tape loop is used; the teachers voice is heard again and you can feel the groupie saying 'Are you feeling okay?' and there’s the operator saying, er, “There’s a man answering” and there’s a new voice introduced at that point and there’s somebody knocking on the door saying 'Come on, it’s time to go,' right, so the idea is that they are coming to take him to the show because he’s got to go and perform that night, and they come into the room and they realize something is wrong, and they actually physically bring the doctor in, and 'Comfortably Numb' is about his confrontation with the doctor."
The song is famous for guitarist David Gilmour's epic guitar solo, which provided one of his favorite moments from the legendary tour for The Wall: "It was a fantastic moment, I can tell, to be standing up on there, and Roger's just finished singing his thing, and I'm standing there, waiting," he explained in a 1984 interview. "I'm in pitch darkness and no one knows I'm there yet. And Roger's down and he finishes his line, I start mine and the big back spots and everything go on and the audience, they're all looking straight ahead and down, and suddenly there's all this light up there and they all sort of--their heads all lift up and there's this thing up there and the sound's coming out and everything. Every night there's this sort of '[gasp!]' from about 15,000 people. And that's quite something, let me tell you."
In 2005, "Comfortably Numb" would be the last song Pink Floyd ever performed together when they reunited for the Live 8 concert.