Welcome back to Turntable Talk! By now, if you’re a regular reader here – and if you are, thank you, I appreciate your time here – you know how this runs. We’ve invited several interesting and talented music writers to sound off on the same topic. In the past we’ve looked at topics like why the Beatles are still relevant, whether MTV and the video sensation helped or harmed music and great debut records which took them by surprise. This time around, it’s “Cover Me”. Much of what we hear and love is songs which aren’t original to the artists we hear. So we’re asking what makes a great cover song? Are there any that stand out as being very good, or even better than the original? (I add that we’re restricting this to cover songs in which the original was fairly popular or well-known. Thus ones which are cover songs but where the original was obscure, like perhaps The Clique’s “Superman,” made a hit by R.E.M., wouldn’t be counted.)
Today, we have Lisa from Tao Talk, a site where she showcases her creativity sharing poetry, photos from around her Michigan home and thoughts on things ranging from movies to the state of the nation. Lisa looks at covers…which aren’t conventional ones:
“Comfortably Numb,” by Roger Waters & Company on the In the Flesh Tour on June 27, 2000 at The Rose Garden Arena in Portland Oregon, featuring Doyle Bramhall II and Snowy White on lead guitars.
Instead of an essay on cover songs that gives a rationale of what kind I like or don’t like and why, I want to take it in another direction. What I want to talk about in today’s essay on cover songs is what I will dub a semi-cover or modified cover of an original, which I will define as a tune that is performed by at least one of the writers/performers of the song but the songwriter has a new line-up of musicians to perform it with. How often do we see where a kick-ass musical group records a mega-hit tune, the group breaks up, and wherever the songwriter ends up, they continue performing the song but with a new line-up? All of the time! Can it be called a strict cover? No; yet I still think it qualifies as one.
Unfortunately when these modified covers (MCs) are performed, often the new line-up’s names aren’t mentioned, only the name of the original star. I don’t think that’s fair.
The songwriter/musician and song I have chosen to chronologize and talk about is Pink Floyd’s song, “Comfortably Numb,” with a focus on Roger Waters, who wrote the lyrics. The plan is to talk about where it originated, where Roger took it, and the MC I chose to finish with.
Before getting into more, what I will call ritual in the live performance is that the guitar(s) doing the solos make a surprise entrance in an elevated position. Please keep that in mind as you watch the videos. To me, this symbolizes Pink’s mental state and the effects of the injection.
“Comfortably Numb“ first appeared on Pink Floyd’s eleventh studio album, The Wall, which was released on November 30, 1979. The album is described as “a rock opera that explores Pink, a jaded rock star whose eventual self-imposed isolation from society forms a figurative wall.” Roger Waters reportedly conceived the album concept during a 1977 tour and based the character of Pink on both himself and former band-mate, Syd Barrett. “Comfortably Numb” was one of the three singles released from the album. The band toured supporting it for a couple of years and Waters wrote a screenplay for a feature film based on it in 1982.
“Comfortably Numb” was released as a single in 1980, with “Hey You” as the B-side. The music was composed by guitarist David Gilmour, and the lyrics were written by Waters. It is notable for its two guitar solos. In it, Pink, the protagonist, is medicated by a doctor so he can perform for a show. There are varying yet similar stories as to what inspired the lyrics. One is that it was when Waters was injected with a muscle relaxant to combat the effects of hepatitis during the In the Flesh Tour, while in Philadelphia. Another is that it sprang from Waters being injected with tranquilizers for stomach cramps, not hepatitis, at the same concert. “That was the longest two hours of my life,” Waters said, “trying to do a show when you can hardly lift your arm.” The song’s working title was “The Doctor.” Of course, in the context of the album’s concept, it takes on another connotation, and it can also be expanded beyond a single concert, to man’s existential struggle to maintain sanity in a world he feels has continued to be hostile to his dreams for happiness.
The first known MC of The Wall (including “Comfortably Numb”, of course) was when Waters performed The Wall: Live in Berlin at The Berlin Wall on July 21, 1990 (just over twenty-two years ago now) The Berlin Wall had fallen just months before, on November 9, 1989. Rogers created not only a commemorative musical marker for the occasion, but he assembled a musical cavalcade of stars to perform it with him. A live album – which I have – and a video – which I’ve seen but do not have – were released from the performance, both of which are excellent. On the Live in Berlins’ MC of Comfortably Numb, Waters sang lead, Van Morrison sang Gilmour’s vocal parts backed by Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band, with guitar solo by Rick Di Fonzo and Snowy White, and backup by the Rundfunk Orchestra & Choir. This MC is memorable and runs a close second to the one I want to highlight.
In 1999, Waters began a tour with music from his solo career and Pink Floyd material, called, In the Flesh. Both a two-disc album, called, In the Flesh: Live and a DVD were released from it. The material for the DVD was taken from a June 27, 2000 performance at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon, which is the MC performance I want to highlight. From 1999 – 2000, Doyle Bramhall II and Snowy White (also one of the two guitarists at the Live in Berlin performance) stood in for Gilmour’s vocals and guitar solos and take the song to new heights, in my opinion. I have the DVD and have watched and listened to it countless times and am thrilled every time. (It was also my introduction to Bramhall’s talent and I’ve been a fan ever since. Thanks, Roger!)
I hope you have enjoyed reading, watching, and listening to this as much as I did putting it together. Thank you, Dave, for the topic to write on.
Youtube of the live performance of the song:
Sources for supportive documentation:
top image link
The Wall album by Pink Floyd
The Wall: Live in Berlin
Roger Waters In the Flesh Tour
In the Flesh: Live album and DVD
The Wall Live Tour