The Heights of Kate Bush

Kate Bush

Stephen Luff from West Sussex – Kate Bush, CC BY 2.0

There are some acts in popular music who make such an indelible impact on their audience that their fans can pinpoint exactly where they were when they first encountered them. Usually they can recall the occasion completely, the mere mention of their favourite star being enough to induce a Proustian rush of memories. That first sighting of the Beatles on the BBC, or, for American viewers, The Ed Sullivan Show, can stay with their devotees forever. Similarly, the Sex Pistols’ memorable performance on London Weekend Television, when, goaded by resident presenter Bill Grundy, they turned the air blue, is an occasion seared into the collective consciousness of a generation. Another such occasion occurred sometime in 1978, when a leotard-clad Kate Bush appeared on Top of the Pops for the first time, singing as a woman haunting her lover from beyond the grave in an unearthly voice that few who heard it would forget.

I must come clean here; I was not one of them, being just a little too young to have remembered the occasion. The singular genius of Kate Bush only became apparent to me around 1985, when her highly-regarded album Hounds of Love came out. Even then I underestimated her, thinking of her merely as Britain’s answer to the then ubiquitous Madonna. I even once made the grave solecism in conversation with friends of confusing her with Jennifer Rush, then riding high in the charts with her turbo-powered pop ballad ‘The Power of Love’. My baptism by fire came a year or so later when I heard her voice in Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’. Kate sang in the role of the supportive partner of a man whose fruitless search for work leads him to feel unwanted and worthless, a scenario inspired by the Great Depression but sadly relevant to many in Thatcher’s Britain. Her tenderness and understanding seemed to reach me from another world. The poignancy of that song, and its evocation of a loving, supportive relationship, was also present in the first of Kate’s own songs to make an impact on me: ‘This Woman’s Work’. Here Kate adopts the persona of the partner of a woman about to give birth, and also seems to suggest the voice of the woman herself, perceiving the man’s future role as father and the strains that will be placed on him. All this is sung in a voice of warmth and compassion that tugs at the heartstrings.

Originally forming part of the soundtrack to the late Eighties movie She’s Having a Baby, it later appeared as the penultimate track of her 1989 album The Sensual World. At the time of its release, Kate already had five studio albums behind her, and was now one of the most popular British artists of her generation. Things were very different in 1975, when an unknown Kate Bush was discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and put on a retainer by EMI, giving her financial security to hone her craft before releasing her first single, ‘Wuthering Heights’, at the age of 19. The album that followed, The Kick Inside, showcased the many sides of her songwriting talent as it had developed over the past few years, from the rock-influenced ‘Them Heavy People’ to the romantic balladry of ‘The Man with the Child in His Eyes’. The emotional maturity of the latter track is even more astonishing when you realise that it was written when she was only thirteen. While the orchestration of the album, mainly piano and guitar augmented by a rhythm section did not reflect Kate’s own ideas so much as those of the album’s producers, the songs themselves, with their precocious musicality and unconventional subject-matter, announced the arrival of a major new talent.

This was confirmed by her follow-up album, Lionheart, memorable not least for its cover, showing Kate looking very fetching in a lion costume. This continued the cinematic and literary references of its predecessor, including allusions to Peter Pan and the Hammer Horror franchise, but Bush revealed a new note of English pastoralism in what is, for me, the album’s standout track, ‘Oh England My Lionheart’. Mercilessly parodied by Pamela Stevenson on ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ as ‘Oh England My Leotard’, this is in fact a paean to a lost England of Medieval traditions and literary glories as experienced in the mind of a World War II Spitfire pilot as he hurtles to his death. Kate later distanced herself from this song, perhaps feeling that it veered perilously close to kitsch and lacked any saving undercurrent of irony and ambiguity. In fact she was later to speak of the recording of the whole album as unduly rushed, with the result that in her opinion it failed truly to capture the sound she had in her head. With her next album, Never For Ever, she began to show that she could be as innovative sonically as she was as a melodist and lyricist. The first album where she had a measure of creative control over the overall production, it showed her utilising programmed sounds for the first time, while also demonstrating a wider and more personal range of subject matter.

The album begins with what is for me her most flawless single, the glorious ‘Babooshka’, which tells the tale of a husband’s fidelity tested by his wife’s impersonation of another woman. The Slavic-style melody is augmented by the sound of a balalaika, one of several nods to the music of eastern Europe Kate would give throughout her career, from the Bulgarian voices of the albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes to the Georgian melody featured in ‘Hello Earth’ from Hounds of Love. The rest of Never For Ever is as far removed as possible from the conventional pop album, containing as it does a homage to the English composer Delius as well as ‘The Infant Kiss’, an account of a woman’s disturbing attraction to a child placed in her charge. Kate Bush was never afraid to tackle controversial or taboo topics, as the reference to brother-sister incest in ‘The Kick Inside’ the final song of the eponymous debut album makes clear. Unlike several artists whose obsession with uncomfortable subjects stems from a traumatic childhood (such as John Lennon or the chanteuse Barbara), Kate is not known to have had any personal reason for her choice of taboo subject matter. Yet her use of such subjects never seems merely gratuitous or attention-seeking, instead appearing to be the expression of an untrammelled personality, open to all of human experience.

Kate took more time to record her next album. Dark and relatively uncommercial, The Dreaming divided critics. Some saw it as manifesting her willingness to experiment with found sounds and unconventional subjects, whilst others thought it incoherent and lacking in the straightforward melodic hooks of her earlier albums. Yet a common critical consensus regards her subsequent album, Hounds of Love as one of her finest achievements. I would agree. Having first become aware of her during the mid Eighties, it was the singles, including ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ and ‘Cloudbusting’ that initially drew me into her unique world.

Yet these singles only scratched the surface of this extraordinary album, which demands to be heard in its entirety. The second side in particular is virtually a seamless flow of music, a self-contained suite as exceptional in its way as side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Mention of the Beatles at this point is not accidental. Hounds of Love proves that Kate Bush is part of the same tradition of flawlessly-crafted studio albums exemplified by their later work. But whereas the Beatles were helped by the technical wizardry of EMI’s technicians under the direction of the consummate George Martin, Kate Bush, with the aid of a Fairlight which she installed in her bespoke recording studio, could do all the experimentation on her own. The danger with this approach, as Peter Gabriel would also find out to his cost, is that it can exacerbate an artist’s innate perfectionism, causing them to slow their production of new material. It would be four years before Kate would release her next album, The Sensual World, and subsequent releases would arrive at even more lengthy intervals. Yet such is the esteem in which she is held that a new Kate Bush album is an event, one awaited with baited breath by her legions of adoring fans.