The Real Story Behind Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb

Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (1979), often considered their best album and one of the greatest rock albums of all time, actually tells one massive story across all its songs. At the time of its development, Roger Waters and his bandmates were completely exhausted from touring to the point of despising their audiences, so they channeled these emotions into songs about a fictional rock star (via Far Out Magazine).

As the album plays, the character "Pink" experiences much suffering, including the death of his father as a child, indoctrination by the government and education systems, his marriage falling apart, and stardom turning into a nightmare. In response, he builds a mental wall to cut himself off from the world and descends into madness (via Bret Urick's "The Wall Analysis"). Waters, who drew much inspiration from his own life for these songs, turned the album narrative into a film in 1982, which maintains a strong score on Rotten Tomatoes.

The two-record album brought us "Hey You," "Mother," and of course "Another Brick in the Wall." But its greatest triumph may have been the last song on Side 3: "Comfortably Numb."

The Backstage Doctor

Pink is lost to the world, high on drugs and completely inert, when "Comfortably Numb" begins (via "The Wall Analysis"). He's supposed to perform soon, but in his condition, that's not looking likely. "Well I can ease your pain / And get you on your feet again," a soothing voice promises in the opening verse, before flowing, liberating instrumentals sound, reflecting the contents of a sudden injection coursing through Pink's veins. A doctor has given him a powerful shot. Soon "there is no pain, you are receding ..."

"Can you stand up?" the doctor then asks. "I do believe it's working, good / That'll keep you going through the show / Come on it's time to go." Pink emerges from his stupor. "I have become comfortably numb," he sings.

Roger Waters said that this scene was inspired by what happened to him on June 29, 1977, when Pink Floyd was performing in Philadelphia. "I had stomach cramps so bad that I thought I wasn't able to go on. A doctor backstage gave me a shot of something that I swear to God would have killed a f***ing elephant" (via Far Out Magazine). The drug got Waters on stage — but had serious side effects.

"I did the whole show hardly able to raise my hand above my knee," Waters recalled. "[The doctor] said it was a muscular relaxant. But it rendered me almost insensible. It was so bad that at the end of the show, the audience was baying for more. I couldn't do it." He sat out during the encore.

2 Balloons Explained

"Comfortably Numb" famously features far more interpretive lines as well. For instance, "A distant ship smoke on the horizon" is one of the more puzzling sentences. Perhaps it alludes to Pink returning to the world after the injection, as if he was marooned at sea and a rescue ship appeared.

"When I was a child I had a fever / My hands felt just like two balloons" echoed Roger Waters' heavy hands at the Philadelphia concert, but more directly came from one of his childhood experiences, according to Far Out Magazine. "I remember having the flu or something, an infection with a temperature of 105 and being delirious," Waters said. "It wasn't like the hands looked like balloons, but they looked way too big, frightening."

For being partly about a musician's desire to shelter himself from his fans, "The Wall" offered audiences quite a treat. Its experimentation, narrative, emotion, and semi-autobiographical elements combined for a powerful work of art. It's sold 33 million copies (via Best Selling Albums).