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8 April 2022

Can Pink Floyd’s song for Ukraine really make a difference?

With benefit songs unlikely to raise money, and social media taking care of awareness, pop records might seem beside the point.

By David Hepworth

The tune is an old patriotic song. The vocal is sampled from an Instagram performance by the Ukrainian singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk. The backing is provided by David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Guy Pratt and Nitin Sawhney. There’s a video combining their performance with news footage from the catastrophe in Ukraine. Thanks to Mason’s steady pace and the characteristic fights of Gilmour’s weathered old Telecaster, it elegantly answers the question of how a Ukrainian anthem would have sounded had it popped up on Wish You Were Here in 1975. But what counts about “Hey Hey Rise Up” is that it’s the first new release since 1994 under the name Pink Floyd.

The names that bands give themselves, usually on a teenage whim, often end up being the most immortal and controversial thing about them. The question of who controls the name is often more important than who controls the songs. In the case of Pink Floyd, the guitarist David Gilmour simply had to ask the drummer Nick Mason for permission. Roger Waters, the band’s former bass player, no longer gets a say. Judging by the fact that he has sometimes been billed for his live shows as “the creative genius behind Pink Floyd”, that’s got to rankle.

Over the last few weeks, many musicians, from Sting to Twisted Sister, have put their hands up for Ukraine in different ways. None has a name that resounds the way Pink Floyd’s does. From the early days, when they used to perform in the dark, directing the audience’s attention to the light show above their heads rather than themselves, their mystique has been invested in their name rather than their faces. That the name was no more scrutable in English than in a foreign tongue helped make them popular all over the world, but particularly in Eastern Europe.

The proceeds of this new record, likely to be on less of a Band Aid scale now that we’re no longer going into Woolworths and paying cash for our 45s, will go towards humanitarian relief. Benefit records don’t raise either the money or the consciousness that they did in those days, but nobody’s come up with a better idea. The greater motivation, particularly for Gilmour, who has Ukrainian family, is to be seen to be doing something. 

In a situation where a war is being waged in a country not far away and its issues are being contested via social media, it’s difficult for pop records not to seem beside the point. Some of the sentiments of past rock anthems seem particularly inapplicable at the present time. “Give Peace a Chance”, for instance, has rarely sounded weedier than it does at the moment. The slogans that used to go into songs now go into Twitter. One of the more striking features of the music world’s reaction to this war is the unlikely spectacle of boomer rock heroes like Steve Van Zandt taking what some call a hawkish attitude to how it might be resolved. 

Only one thing’s for certain. Right now we don’t need any record to remind us of the fact that this war is going on. The time we’ll really need it will be when the compassion fatigue sets in, and we no longer wish to be reminded. 

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