Off the Charts

Kate Bush: Musical Heights

Issue 130

There was always music, poetry, and dancing in the house when Kate Bush was growing up in Kent, England. Both her parents and her two older brothers were amateur musicians, and soon Kate was teaching herself to play piano and write songs. She added violin, organ, and interpretive dancing into the mix, not to mention a true poet’s eye for describing the world. The result was the wide-ranging, eclectic, and thoroughly original musical phenomenon that is Kate Bush.

In her teens, she put dozens of her songs on a demo tape and sent it around to record companies, who ignored it. But when it got into the hands of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who knew her brothers, her career had a chance. Gilmour was so impressed at Bush’s talent that he paid for her to make some high-quality demos to attract EMI. He even got Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to help out.

The 19-year-old entered the recording business with a roar: Her debut album, The Kick Inside (1978), included the song “Wuthering Heights,” which reached the No. 1 position on the UK singles charts. In all, the album yielded five singles, which is rare for a debut.

Among the album-only tracks was “James and the Cold Gun,” which opened side two. Ironically, this was EMI’s choice for the album’s first single because of its rock flavor, but the young songwriter was not afraid to insist on how she should be introduced to the world. In retrospect, knowing her range, it’s hard to imagine this distinctive song would have pigeon-holed her into a more conventional output, but she was probably right at the time.

 

Despite her huge success in the UK, America still hadn’t caught on. After The Kick Inside laid an egg in the US, her second album, Lionheart (1978), wasn’t even released stateside until she’d begun to amass a cult following in 1984. Lionheart did perform well in the UK; its biggest single was “Wow.” As with her first album, Bush used a combination of EMI-provided session musicians and members of her own KT Bush Band, including her brother Paddy on harmonica and mandolin.

The song “In the Warm Room,” with ethereal vocals stretching into Bush’s exceptionally high register, exemplifies her unusual mix of cabaret, jazz, modern folk, and prog rock.

  

Her popularity in the UK continued to grow. Never for Ever (1980) was her first No. 1 album, making her the first female British artist to win that spot. All three of its singles reached the Top 20, and “Babooshka” sold nearly as well as “Wuthering Heights.”

Cinema had a big influence on the creation of this album. For example, there’s “Delius,” inspired by the Ken Russell film Song of Summer, about the composer Frederick Delius. And Bush looked to another British film, The Innocents, as the starting point for the track “Infant Kiss,” which tells of a woman who tries to come to terms with her desire for the young ward in her care.

 

In one of those industry ironies that makes indie rock what it is, it was Bush’s oddest, least “marketable” album that finally broke her into the American market. She produced The Dreaming (1982) herself, accepting no outside help or smoothing down to make the work more palatable. As a result, impressionable youth – especially girls – were gripped by its untethered freedom of expression. Björk is among those who heard their own nascent voices reflected in Bush’s music. The payoff wasn’t immediate, but it was permanent.

The Dreaming was such an individual effort that Bush did not even use a band, instead relying on a Fairlight CMI digital synthesizer to imitate instrumental sounds. Nowadays, when everyone can get GarageBand in their phone, that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in 1982 it was a bold, radical move. “Pull Out the Pin” has a rhythmic freedom and a range of textures that match its amorphous lyrics that seem to focus as much on the phonetic link between the words “buddha” and “bullet” as on any message or meaning.

 

While The Dreaming wasn’t a huge seller anywhere despite its long-term importance, Hounds of Love (1985) put Bush back on top of the UK charts. She even managed the No. 30 spot on the Billboard 200, which was her best US showing. Those are amazing numbers considering the B side is a seven-track prog-rock concept piece, The Ninth Wave, inspired by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Side A’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” was the big hit.

There’s a lot of interesting and innovative music-making on this album, including “Hello Earth,” from the Ninth Wave song cycle. Bush brings in some guests here, including Irish uilleann (elbow) pipes virtuoso Liam O’Flynn and Irish bouzouki player Dónal Lunny, both from the band Planxty. (The bouzouki entered Irish music in the late 1960s, when some Irish musicians went on a dig to Greece and were introduced to the instrument.) The revered British choral conductor and arranger Richard Hickox leads his choir in a Georgian folk song as part of the track as well.

 

Her commercial success continued with The Sensual World (1989). And it wasn’t just consumers who loved her; she consistently attracted some of the most interesting artists to participate in her recording sessions. To name just a few, The Sensual World personnel line-up includes Gilmour, Lunny, violinist Nigel Kennedy, and the Balanescu String Quartet with custom arrangements by Michael Nyman.

Yet, despite an army of colleagues, Bush creates one of the album’s most intriguing moments all by herself when she layers her own voice in the opening of “Rocket’s Tail.” The result has the mesmerizing nasal sound of a Bulgarian choir. And because it’s Kate Bush, she doesn’t just give the listener a taste and then move on, but stays with that intense a cappella experience for a full 90 seconds before the hard-rock instrumental arrangement comes crashing in.

 

At this point, Bush’s fans were legion and openly embraced her oddities. Thus, when she released The Red Shoes (1993) in conjunction with her own experimental short film, The Line, the Cross and the Curve (starring herself and Miranda Richardson), everyone was happily on board; the album/soundtrack was a smash in the UK and a decent hit in America.

A perfect amalgam of Bush’s connection with spirituality, music, and poetry can be found in the song “Lily.” Its namesake is British healer Lily Cornford, born in 1906, founder of the Maitreya School of Healing and a longtime friend and adviser to Bush. Cornford herself opens the track with a mantra.

 

After The Red Shoes, at the height of her fame, Bush took a 12-year hiatus from touring and recording to raise a child. When she returned to the studio for 2005’s Aerial she had so much material that it ended up being her first double album – really two albums in one, called A Sea of Honey and A Sky of Honey, respectively.

Her most recent studio release was in 2011, when 50 Words for Snow reached the No. 7 spot on the Billboard Independent Albums list. True-blue fans were not scared away by the songs “Lake Tahoe” and “Misty,” each lasting well over 10 minutes. “Lake Tahoe” is like a mini-opera, alternating between countertenors Michael Wood and Stefan Roberts, singing in a dissonant but lyrical chorale style reminiscent of Benjamin Britten, and Bush singing a mournful, bluesy ballad.

 

Will there be another album? No one knows, perhaps not even the artist herself. If you need more than the official catalogue, you can enjoy plenty of covers and rare tracks on the special release The Other Sides (2019).

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Stephen Luff, cropped to fit format.

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