There are some musical artists that defy categorization and their very uniqueness is the thing that caught your attraction in the first place. This keeps you going back to them every few years, like a puzzle that you’ve not quite solved or a book where there is still an unread chapter. With Catherine Bush, there always feels like something to go back for, even if it is just to gain a reminder of what caught you in her spell in the first place.
It’s as true for Kate Bush as any other pop star, perhaps more so, that once you become a fan of her music you can’t really go back to the state of affairs before you heard her. She clearly doesn’t sound very much like anybody else (except some who came after her)and her music treads such a fine line between whimsy, lunacy and the downright odd that it’s often easy to loose sight of how good her material is, and how thought provoking and occasionally life affirming her music and lyrics can be. At least two of her singles (“Wuthering Heights” and “Running up That Hill”) were so unlike anything heard in the top ten before that they must have caused people to double take their attention and catch themselves; who is this and what is she singing about? So, once a Kate fan, forever a Kate fan I would say, because even the overplayed singles keep on giving, rewarding you with a fresh surprise years after you last heard them. Perhaps the only pity for fans is that she hasn’t toured since 1979, perhaps due to the death of her 21 year old lighting director Bill Drummond, although I suspect it is more to do with the huge work and exhaustion involved in getting the final show just right. With this being Kate Bush, the tour wasn’t just an average tour, it was a full mixed-media performance piece. Whatever the reason it looks unlikely she’ll tour again (barring the occasional live appearance), but with Kate you just never know.
If you’re reading this you probably know the Kate Bush story by now- how the teenage Bush was ‘discovered’ by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, wrote much of her first album when she was at school, stood up to the big wigs at EMI so they would release her choice of song as her first single (the chart topping Bronte inspired “Wuthering Heights”). Her idiosyncratic image and music quickly got her noticed and late ‘70s Britain really took to her, culminating in her 1979 TV Christmas special and further success in Europe, Japan and Australasia, amongst many other places. In the United States she would have to wait a little longer for mainstream recognition, although she would remain very much a cult star. By the time she released her defining work and knocked Madonna off pole position (1985’s album Hounds of Love) she was just 26. More mature and even more musically sophisticated work was to follow, but neither The Sensual World or The Red Shoes albums appealed to me as much at the time, despite the high standard. I think I’d fallen in love with the slightly unhinged and beautifully poetic creature in her old videos and wasn’t quite ready for Kate THE WOMAN. Yet all these years later I’m hearing that more mature music, and you know what; it’s just as good as her early period, and that’s the sign of a good artist- they can and have to change. No way would Kate Bush ever recycle her old hits for a quick buck, probably hence her lack of live tours and compilation albums (she’s still only ever released one, the increasingly inaccurately titled The Whole Story). For over a decade, she largely disappeared from the media’s eye to raise her son Bertie. She’s never stopped making music, but her suspicion of the media has meant tighter control over the use of her image and public appearances accompanying her new material. Like fellow musician and fan John Lydon, she has a well developed bullshit detector when it comes to the music industry’s money making emphasis at the expense of art and creativity.
I got into Kate’s music through my sister, who to be honest hasn’t much of an interest in her now. She had The Whole Story, but it wasn’t too long before the album was spending more time in my bedroom than hers. Memories of hearing “Wuthering Heights” as a child, and the attention grabbing presence of “Hounds of Love” on Hits 4 made me exceptionally curious about what else this unique voice had produced. Before too long I’d heard an almost esoteric love song (“The Man with the child in his eyes”), an anti-war ballad (“Army Dreamers”), an Australian spiritual manta (“The Dreaming”), a banshee wailing pop anthem about an illicit affair gone wrong (“Babooshka”) and a chilling and uncanny warning about nuclear war, from the point of view of an unborn embryo (“Breathing”). Suddenly Madonna and Cyndi Lauper seemed a bit vacuous and bland.
At 17 years old I sat on the floor of the living room with The Kick Inside on the stereo. From the moment the whale song started to leak out of the speakers at the beginning of “Moving”, until the promise of ‘sending my love to Zeus’ during the title track, I did not move. This was not The Doors or Nirvana (who I was also listening to at the time), but sometimes it was as forceful and challenged my perceptions of what women did in music. Kate’s music could confront you in a way few (if any) female artists had done before. Hendrix had his guitar, but Bush had her piano and with that voice the impact was just as powerful as Jimi’s sonic bursts, but underpinned with a different essence- the psyche of a woman, which took the music into an arguably more emotionally engaging and challenging direction. Few men are as comfortable going there, but Bush’s music was often straight to the heart of the matter. One of her biggest hits actually addresses the differences between men and women, and offers the suggestion that nothing less than a ‘deal with God’ to swap our places could solve our life long misunderstandings and conflicts. A song about physical reincarnation wasn’t a normal occurrence in 1985, or now for that matter.
Two pivotal former girlfriends were huge Kate Bush fans (and one could actually sing as well, which certainly opened my eyes to the more erotic content of Bush’s lyrics). This made me realise how female Kate Bush fans are usually far more outspoken about the fact than men, who I think used to view Kate Bush as a guilty pleasure, particularly given the amount of drag acts she has inspired over the years and the quiet but strong gay following she has attracted (the lyrics to “Wow” say it all). However, over the last 20 years I think this view has changed considerably, to the extent where Kate is considered in the same breath as Bowie; they are both certainly as experimental and surprising and as likely to push the creative boundaries as anyone. Plus they have a knack of releasing damn good pop tunes as well; you know, the kind you can actually sing along to in the car or the shower (although singing along to Kate Bush is always likely to make you sound like Alan Partridge, especially if you’re a bloke).The mention of Alan Partridge there also makes me realise what a good sport Kate Bush has been over the years, always willing to take the piss out of herself as much as anybody else. Knowing your bohemian and bonkers pop idol is occasionally quite down to Earth and a bit of a laugh surely can’t harm the record sales. She even did an appearance for charity on Comic Relief, singing with Rowan Atkinson, and she counts many of the Comic Strip crowd as friends. A sense of humour and healthy irony is woefully missing from modern pop; they all seem too busy pretending to be gangsters while rapping over a sampled loop (probably from a Kate Bush song actually!)
So, here I am now in 2011 with the promise of the second Kate Bush album of the year (you’d have to go back to 1978 to see the last time that happened), and a new single “Wild Man”, which is about the Yeti. Yes, a song about the Abominable Snowman. Only Our Kate would think that was a great subject for a lead single for a new album…but why the hell not. Just because no one else does it, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Plus, after so many quiet years (a 12 year gap after 1993’s The Red Shoes album, and six years since her last, Aerial, in 2005) it’s wonderful to have her back. She’s earned the warm reception the media and public give her, even if it’s because some people only remember her as that unhinged looking girl in a long white dress waving her arms around on ‘Top of the Pops’ and pining for her Heathcliff in a shrill otherworldly voice.
And this is the thing with Kate Bush- a lesser artist could come across as contrived and really silly if they were trying to do what she does. Her 1982 album The Dreaming, now hailed as a masterpiece, was a challenging and experimental collection that began with tribal drums and ended with her braying like a donkey. It might well be pop music in the general sense of the word, but this wasn’t music you could listen to without an open mind. Also, when you consider the mad eyes, the professionally choreographed but bizarre dances and the sometimes impenetrable lyrics, not to mention THAT voice; they’re all elements that are so easily lampooned (and often have been) that you could wonder how she ever got taken seriously in the first place. But there’s the thing, you see, it doesn’t take long to see beyond all that and realise she isn’t a novelty act or a joke. She really means it, and that’s why as a teenager, I was rooted to the spot while I listened to all 45 minutes of her debut album. At that special pivotal time in life where you want some insight into life, the universe and everything and with a discovery of the mysteries of sex and love, this music really made an impact. It’s also fascinating to hear Kate drawing from the ebbs and flows in the tide of her own life, with the birth of her son and death of her mother being two personal events that coloured Aerial. As Kate has grown up, she often has more to say in her music, and that doesn’t always mean acting out the part of another character, as she has often done. Her capacity to dig deep for inspiration keeps her fresh and strangely relevant, despite her obvious removal from the mainstream. She may have left some of her more visually radical days behind her, but all these years on and her music still matters, and I’d love to know there is another teenager somewhere being entranced by one of her albums, old or new. Because Kate Bush really meant it, and she still does.
Kate Bush’s new studio album ’50 Words for Snow’ is released on the 21st November 2011 on Fish People/EMI. The single ‘Wild Man’ has already been released.