IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in 1978/PHOTO CREDIT: Gered Mankowitz
Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
A lot of people do not really look at an individual song…
IN THIS IMAGE: The single cover for Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights (1978)/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
and think about how it started life and why it is so highly regarded. I want to put certain tracks under the microscope – ones that mean a lot to me – and get to their heart(s). This might be the last time this year I get to write about Kate Bush – any excuse, me! – so it is only right I put her first. A debut single can be a hard thing to pitch. Most artists do not have the pull to call the shots and make any real demands. If they are with a record label, other people might write the single and the artist may only get a lot of say. Even if a songwriter feels they have this superb debut single, it may not be a sentiment shared by those who make the decisions. Kate Bush faced this sort of opposition when pitching Wuthering Heights. EMI’s – her label at the time – Bob Mercer wanted to release the more conventional James and the Cold Gun as the first single but Bush, knowing Wuthering Heights was special, fought for her choice! Given the fact Kate Bush was a teenager at the time and this was the first single the public were going to hear; standing up against the record label was a brave thing to do. Not many established artists today would combat a label’s opinion but Bush, on her first time through the machine, was passionate and angered – rumours that she broke down in tears show this song and her career meant so much.
IN THIS IMAGE: The cover for Kate Bush’s 1978 album, The Kick Inside/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Bush was someone, right from the off, who wanted more of a say regarding her music’s direction and sound – The Kick Inside, where Wuthering Heights is placed, is an album Bush has sort of distanced herself from. I will talk more about this unique song and why it has impressed and resonated through the years but, even before the song was released, it seemed like Kate Bush and Emily Brontë shared some D.N.A. They share a birthday and Wuthering Heights’ heroine, Catherine/Cathy, shares a forename with the iconic songwriter. Kate Bush’s inspiration for Wuthering Heights was not the book itself but a documentary/T.V. show she caught the final ten minutes of – where Heathcliff was being haunted by the ghost of Cathy outside his window. Everything about the creation of Wuthering Heights is wondrous. You have this ingénue songwriter who was captivated by this T.V. adaptation and decided, on 5th March, 1977, to sit at a piano one night (when there was a full moon) and pen this amazing song. The fact so few artists have covered the song since its release on 20th January, 1978 shows what an intimidating and rare bird Wuthering Heights is! The single was not expected to do well and nobody really thought it would do much in the charts.
It charted in 1978 and rose to the top spot within three weeks. It became the first U.K. number-one written and performed by a female artist and is viewed (by critics) as one of the finest songs ever. Although Kate Bush re-recorded the vocal for the song in 1986 (for The Whole Story), the original is still the absolute best. Not only has Wuthering Heights’ unusual source of inspiration not been repeated much – how many artists write about a famous novel or literary heroine?! – but Bush’s delivery was the source of music interest. The fact she was ridiculed because of her performance style and video – more on that later – did get to her but all of Bush’s attributes made the song was it is. The way she floats and twists lines; her pronunciation and sheer passion is immense. The Wuthering Heights video allowed Bush’s love of dance to show and, again, provided us this unique and beguiling talent. Andrew Powell (the song’s producer) stated the vocal performance was done in a single take and there were no overdubs. The session started at midnight and, with Bush encouraging everyone throughout, it was all completed by five or six in the morning. There was a lot of discovery and naivety in the studio when Wuthering Heights was being created but there was one person who was cool, professional and supportive: Kate herself:
“All of this served as Kelly's starting point for the very first Kate Bush session, during which he was "learning as I went along and dreadfully insecure. I give full credit to Andrew [Powell] and the great musicians, who were very supportive, while Kate herself was just fantastic. Looking back, she was incredible and such an inspiration, even though when she first walked in I probably thought she was just another new artist. Her openness, her enthusiasm, her obvious talent — I remember finishing that first day, having recording two or three backing tracks, and thinking 'My God, that's it. I've peaked!'"
So, then; how did all the parts come together and what was the atmosphere like in the room at the time? The Sound on Sound article explains:
“The live rhythm section that Jon Kelly recorded for 'Wuthering Heights' consisted of Kate Bush playing a Bösendorfer grand piano, Stuart Elliott on drums, Andrew Powell on bass and Ian Bairnson on a six-string acoustic. And in terms of the miking, Kelly adhered pretty closely to Geoff Emerick's favoured choices while adding some of his own.
"Kate always recorded live vocals, and they were fantastic, but then she'd want to redo them later. In the case of 'Wuthering Heights', she was imitating this witch, the mad lady from the Yorkshire Moors, and she was very theatrical about it. She was such a mesmerising performer — she threw her heart and soul into everything she did — that it was difficult to ever fault her or say 'You could do better.'"
"That was a huge room, twice as big as the live area in Studio Two," Kelly remembers. "It could accommodate between 60 to 70 musicians, and had high ceilings and a lovely, bright sound. Everything sounded great in there. I miked the first violins with a couple of 87s, as I did for the second violins, the violas, the French horns and as overheads — back then you could have called me Mr. 87. At least there were FET 47s on the cellos. I'd try to use as few mics as posssible in Studio One because the room sounded so good and there was this phase thing going on — the more mics you used, you could fool yourself into thinking it sounded better, but things would cancel one another out and you'd lose the vibrancy...
Ian Bairnson's electric guitar solo, which winds its way through the closing stages of 'Wuthering Heights', was played in the Studio Two control room, his Les Paul going through a Marshall head and Marshall 4 x 12, miked with... yes, a pair of 87s, one close, the other about four feet away.
"Ian warmed up and developed that solo while I got the monitoring right, and there was one take that was just great," says Kelly. "Being in the control room, he missed the feedback from the amp, and I can remember telling him to get close to the speakers, expecting this to do the same. You can tell I was pretty naïve..."
IN THIS PHOTO: Engineer Jon Kelly in 2004/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
It is amazing to think how quickly and smoothly the track came together; how fast wrote it and how, over forty years after its release, nobody has created anything with the same mood and magic. Kate Bush, in 1978, was assured and an unpredictable creator. The Telegraph when putting Wuthering Heights under the spotlight, shed more light:
“Paranoid about being labelled, Bush strove to keep changing after Wuthering Heights. She said she wanted people to “chase after her”, to find out what she’d do next. “If I really wanted to, I could write a song that would be similar to Wuthering Heights. But I don’t want to. What’s the point?” she said in 1978.
This explains why over 40 years, it’s been impossible to anticipate her next move. She’s constantly created extraordinary musical netherworlds that have, in turns, taken in mainstream pop, Philip Glass-like minimalism and Balearic house, to name just three. To this day, Bush remains one of pop’s last great eccentrics. Her sold-out and critically lauded run of 22 shows at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014 showed what a force she remains.
But it was the uniqueness of Wuthering Heights that gave her this licence to experiment. Its release announced the arrival of an honest, unusual and fearless performer, rather than the arrival of a singer of piano ballads based on Victorian gothic literature...
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in 1979/PHOTO CREDIT: Gered Mankowitz
As all truly great performers would, Bush used her unforgettable and idiosyncratic debut as a springboard rather than a template. And it is sadly unimaginable, in our more homogenised pop climate, with its fragmented listening patterns and lack of must-see TV music shows, that a song such as Wuthering Heights would have such a national impact if released today.
I first encountered the song when watching a VHS of her ‘best of’ compilation, The Whole Story. Two videos of the song was released – one with Kate Bush wearing a red dress; the other in a white dress – but it is, essentially, her dancing in time to the song. The fact such a simple conceit could stay in the mind and become this iconic visual proves Kate Bush, even then, was peerless and like nobody else. Wuthering Heights went against the boring Pop grain and did not play by any rules. I have not heard another track even vaguely like Wuthering Heights since 1978 and (the track) never loses its appeal. From the twinkling and seductive piano notes to the legendary and aching guitar solo at the end; Wuthering Heights is a masterful piece of songwriting that gave the world this wonderful artist. Kate Bush is still creating – she has just remastered and reissued her back catalogue and a book of lyrics, How to Be Invisible, is out next month – but she never flew as high as she did on the debut single. It can be quite intimidating having this genius debut single but it acted as a springboard for Bush. Wuthering Heights is an amazing and strange song; a timeless classic and filled with nuance and visions. It is a dreamy epic that, forty years later, has yet...
TO find an equal!