A couple of weeks ago, Pink Floyd’s guitarist and singer David Gilmour was asked if he’d seen the Instagram feed of Andriy Khlyvnyuk, frontman of Ukrainian rock band BoomBox. Gilmour had performed live with BoomBox in 2015, at a London benefit gig for the Belarus Free Theatre – they played a brief, endearingly raw set of Pink Floyd songs and Gilmour solo tracks – but events had moved on dramatically since then: at the end of Feburary, Khlyvnyuk had abandoned BoomBox’s US tour in order to fight against the Russian invasion.
On his Instagram, Gilmour found a video of the singer in military fatigues, a rifle slung over his shoulder, standing outside Kyiv’s St Sofia Cathedral, belting out an unaccompanied version of Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow, a 1914 protest song written in honour of the Sich Riflemen who fought both in the first world war and the Ukrainian war of independence. “I thought: that is pretty magical and maybe I can do something with this,” says Gilmour. “I’ve got a big platform that [Pink Floyd] have worked on for all these years. It’s a really difficult and frustrating thing to see this extraordinarily crazy, unjust attack by a major power on an independent, peaceful, democratic nation. The frustration of seeing that and thinking ‘what the fuck can I do?’ is sort of unbearable.”
The result is Hey Hey, Rise Up!, a new single by Pink Floyd that samples Khlyvnyuk’s performance, to be released at midnight on Friday with proceeds going to Ukrainian humanitarian relief.
Most observers assumed Pink Floyd were long defunct. They last released original new music 28 years ago, although in 2014 Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason reconvened to turn outtakes from their 1994 album The Division Bell into the largely instrumental The Endless River, as a tribute to the band’s late keyboard player Rick Wright. At the time, Gilmour was insistent that was the finale for a band that began in 1965 and sold more than 250m albums. Pink Floyd couldn’t tour without Wright, who died of cancer in 2008, and there was to be no more music: “It’s a shame,” he told the BBC, “but this is the end.”
The invasion of Ukraine changed Gilmour’s mind. “I hate it when people say things like ‘As a parent, I …’, but the practicalities of having an extended Ukrainian family is part of this. My grandchildren are half-Ukrainian, my daughter-in-law Janina is Ukrainian – her grandmother was in Kharkiv until three weeks ago. She’s very old, disabled, in a wheelchair and has a carer, and Janina and her family managed to get her all the way across Ukraine to the Polish border and now they’ve managed to get her to Sweden, literally last week.”
After “finding the chords for what Andriy was singing and writing another section that I could be” – Gilmour rolls his eyes – “the rock god guitar player on”, he hastily convened a recording session last week with Mason, Pink Floyd’s longstanding bassist Guy Pratt, and musician, producer and composer Nitin Sawhney on keyboards, layering their music with Khlyvnyuk’s sampled voice; Rick Wright’s daughter Gala also attended. They also shot a video for the song, with Mason playing a set of drums decorated with a painting by Ukrainian artist Maria Primachenko (the fate of her paintings remains unknown following the bombing of a museum in Ivankiv).
“I rang Nick up and said: ‘listen, I want to do this thing for Ukraine. I’d be really happy if you played on it and I’d also be really happy if you’d agree to us putting it out as Pink Floyd.’ And he was absolutely on for that.
“It’s Pink Floyd if it’s me and Nick, and that is the biggest promotional vehicle; that is, as I said, the platform that I’ve been working on for my whole adult life, since I was 21. I wouldn’t do this with many more things, but it’s so vitally, vitally important that people understand what’s going on there and do everything within their power to change that situation. And the thought, also, that mine and Pink Floyd’s support of the Ukrainians could help boost morale in those areas: they need to know the whole world supports them.