FEATURE: A White Dress and Mist to the Sword-Wielding Alter Ego: Kate Bush, The Early Years: 1978-1980



A White Dress and Mist to the Sword-Wielding Alter Ego

IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in 1978/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Kate Bush, The Early Years: 1978-1980


THE reason for writing this feature (if one were needed)…

IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush during her Tour of Life in 1979/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

is to highlight a period of Kate Bush’s career that often gets overlooked in favour of her activity around Hounds of Love (1985) - or the transition from The Dreaming in 1982 to that landmark record. I have a lot of respect for Kate Bush’s entire career and, whilst Hounds of Love is a masterpiece that was recorded when she was in a very happy and calm space, I am intrigued to look at where it all started: a wide-eyed and beguiling teenager whose debut album, The Kick Inside, arrived in 1978 and was like nothing that came before – it remains this peculiar and stunningly beautiful album that has no equals or soundalikes. I am not simply going to cover her work from The Kick inside to Never for Ever (1980) and just leave things there. What I wanted to highlight is how Bush sort of started out; how she changed from this unique-if-misunderstood artist right at the start to one who, by 1980, was in the production chair and only two years away from The Dreaming – an album she produced solo and, whilst it divided critics, it remains underrated and hugely important. With any great artist, there are the early and later years. They are distinct and provide contrast. I prefer the work of The Beatles from 1963-1965, whereas many feel their greatest work was recorded between 1966-1969. I guess it depends on what you look for in music and what age you were when you discovered that artist.

There is a definite split between Kate Bush prior to 1980 and where she moved from The Dreaming and into Hounds of Love. A third revolution occurred when she released Aerial (after a twelve-year gap) in 2005. If, like The Beatles, Kate Bush came into her own and produced her most complete and bold work by 1982, I feel the first three years of her career (she recorded music before 1978, but I am taking the start of her career as the moment Wuthering Heights was released in January 1978). I guess part of my motivation for writing this is the fact a lot of radio stations play Kate Bush songs from Hounds of Love and tend not to venture too far beyond that. Whilst her 1985 album is a vital work, look at how she started out and the variety of her music. Of course, when it comes to debut singles, they do not come as majestic and original as Wuthering Heights. Many might argue there have been finer debut singles – although none come to mind! –, but there are few songs that arrest the senses like Wuthering Heights. In terms of the biggest changes between the early Kate Bush albums and the later works, one can say she became more confident and took more control of her work. Some dismiss albums like The Kick Inside as being very high-pitched and quirky; Bush as this very wide-eyed singer who was easy to parody and overlook.   

I can appreciate there was a distinct sonic and musical shift that happened after Never for Ever, but I love her early sound and how gorgeous it is. The Kick Inside, back in 1978, received some positive reviews, but there were those who did not know what to make of Bush. Many felt Wuthering Heights the best she would do and she was this one-hit wonder. The Kick Inside is my favourite album ever because it is a hugely positive, intriguing and deep album. Bush, still a teenager, sounds so alive and ambitious in every track. She writes about love, but she does it in a very different way to her peers. The Kick Inside is a very sexual album with sensuality and poetry. There are some fantastic female songwriters around today, yet I feel few have the same brilliance and insight as Bush. The Kick Inside is a very feminine album and one that contains little negativity. So many songwriters, when discussing love, are accusatory and anxious; they point fingers and rake over broken glass. Not only does The Kick Inside – and most of Bush’s work – paint men in a very positive light, but her use of language and imagery is stunning. In their review of The Kick Inside, Pitchfork unpicks some of the songs’ key moments and how Bush’s extraordinary voice brings to life her songs:

The louche “L’Amour Looks Something Like You” treads similarly brazen territory though lands less soundly. She fantasizes about “that feeling of sticky love inside” as if anticipating a treacle pudding, and there is an unctuous gloop to the arrangement that makes it one of the album’s least distinctive songs.

More complex desires tended to elicit her more inherently sensual and accomplished writing. “Moving,” her tribute to dance teacher Lindsay Kemp, is so absurdly elegant and lavish that its beauty seems to move Bush to laughter: There is deep respect in her admiration for him, in concert with piercing operatic notes and impish backing vocal harmonies that sound like they should have been handled by a chorus of Jim Henson creations. “You crush the lily in my soul” as an awed metaphor for the timidity of girlhood gone away is unimpeachable.

What made Bush’s writing truly radical was the angles she could take on female desire without ever resorting to submissiveness. “Wuthering Heights” is menacing melodrama and ectoplasmic empowerment; “The Saxophone Song”—one of two recordings made when she was 15—finds her fantasizing about sitting in a Berlin bar, enjoying a saxophonist’s playing and the effect it has on her. But she is hardly there to praise him: “Of all the stars I’ve seen that shine so brightly/I’ve never known or felt in myself so rightly,” she sings of her reverie, with deep seriousness. We hear his playing, and it isn’t conventionally romantic but stuttering, coarse, telling us something about the unconventional spirits that stir her”.

Many state Bush went on to make better music; you cannot argue against the sheer unexpectedness and affect her debut album has. It was different to anything around. Bush did not want to copy songwriters like Carole King, feeling they were too dramatic and dependent on heartbreak. Bush arrived with a different attitude, a staggeringly agile voice and songs that have remained hugely popular to this day.

IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in 1978/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Albums like The Kick Inside cannot be defined by songs like Wuthering Heights and The Man with the Child in His Eyes. The latter is an observation by Bush that a lot of men have a sense of childhood locked inside them; that they retain a sense of innocence, despite their older years – an amazing observation, considering she was thirteen when she wrote the song! I do think there are tracks on The Kick Inside that many people have not heard that warrant greater exposure. Aside from Wuthering Heights, there is this mesmeric Strange Phenomena and the gorgeous Feel It; the swoon and skip of Oh to Be in Love and The Kick Inside – a brilliant finale about incest and suicide. Look around at the most daring and original songwriters today and few have matched Bush when it comes to her fearlessness and range. Lionheart was released late in 1978 and, so soon after The Kick Inside, it is inevitable that the album would not soar as high and make the same impact. Wuthering Heights hit number-one – making Bush the first British female artist to have a self-written number-one song -, and The Kick Inside hit the top-five in many countries. Again, Lionheart is an album that does not get a lot of praise and anything like the same focus Hounds of Love receives. Yes, there are weaker moments on Lionheart, but songs such as Symphony in Blue rank alongside Bush’s best-ever moments.

By 1985, the Pop landscape had changed. Artists like Madonna were making Bush’s most sensual moments seem almost tame. In the late-1970s, Punk was still raging and Bush was this bolt out of the blue. She had critics on board by Hounds of Love but I do think her earliest work requires retrospection and fresh appreciation. Lionheart has some flawed moments, but Wow, Kashka from Baghdad and Don't Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake are remarkable works. If Kate Bush’s music changed and grew after 1980, her visual flair was there from the start. Maybe the video to Wuthering Heights seems quite basic, but it is striking, classic and perfect – it fits wonderfully with the song. Lionheart’s Wow is another gem that is backed by an incredible video – Bush beguiling and enraptured throughout. With every album came new confidence and achievements. Bush set to work on her Tour of Life (or The Tour of Life) not long after Lionheart as released, and it began its life on stage on 2nd April, 1979. There is no doubt Bush’s experiences planning and executing her Tour of Life bled into her future work and the fact she did not want other people producing her work. That incredible tour redefined what a live Pop/Rock show could be. Her incredible songs were brought fully to life with these physical, eye-opening routines and theatrical flair. The Tour of Life remains a marvel where Bush let her fevered imaginations and ambitions flower and bloom.

Bush, even by 1979, was in a league of her own and turning into this star. 1980’s Never for Ever was the last album where Bush had a co-producer – she worked alongside Jon Kelly and she would take what she learned on Never for Ever into The Dreaming. Whilst The Kick Inside and Lionheart are undermined when it comes to great songs for radio exposure, Never for Ever remains the most neglected. In only a couple of years, Bush had transformed from this almost girl-like figure we saw dancing gracefully in the Wuthering Heights video. On Never for Ever, she evolved artistically and visually. In the video for Babooshka – the album’s lead single of April 1980 -, we saw two sides to Bush. The song talks about a wife and her desire to test her husband's loyalty. In order to do so, she takes on the pseudonym of ‘Babooshka’ and sends notes to her husband in the guise of a younger woman - something which she fears is the opposite of how her husband currently sees her. Babooshka arranges to meet her husband, who is attracted to the character who reminds him of his wife in earlier times. In the video, Bush transforms from a woman in a veil spinning a double bass to this vixen who is wild-eyed and revealing. The fact that Bush was scantily-clad for that video would not shock people who read her lyrics, but her videos up until that point were relatively chaste and less revealing.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in a promotional photo for the single, Babooshka (1980)/PHOTO CREDIT: John Carder Bush

Bush wanted to her videos to reveal the essence and true potential of the songs. This visual boldness and ambition was another reason why she stood out in the 1970s and 1980s. At the turn of the decade, Bush was still relatively new; the Pop market was fairly bland and there was nobody like her around. Whilst I will always prefer The Kick Inside, it is clear Bush was producing some truly outstanding material on Never for Ever. With greater production responsibility, Bush was becoming more experimental in the studio. I know The Dreaming and Hounds of Love have some incredible tracks, but listen to All We Ever Look For, Egypt and The Infant Kiss and how wonderful they sound. One hardly hears them on the radio and, even as a huge fan of Bush, I do not listen enough to these tracks. The complexity and beauty of Bush’s voice, teamed with her poetic and hugely intelligent lyrics sound fresh and original today – even though countless artists are inspired by Bush. Bush started moving in a more political direction by 1980. The last two songs on the album, Army Dreamers and Breathing, were, perhaps, a reaction to the feeling from the press that Bush was quite flighty, insubstantial and lacking in seriousness. That was not the feeling from a lot of critics, but there were some who highlighted Bush’s spiritual and mystical side; wondering whether there was any depth beneath the skin.

Two years before The Dreaming would see Bush holler down in the studio and produce her most varied and challenging album, she was showing seeds of what was to come. I can understand why a lot of fans and critics gravitate towards albums such as The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. Her voice grew deeper and more masculine, her songwriting became more enterprising and she won enormous kudos. I respect that, but I love those first few years; where Bush was starting out and seducing the public. It is more than forty years since Bush put out her debut album, The Kick Inside, and it knocks me back! Lionheart is an underrated album with ample promise, whilst Never for Ever is the sound of a young artist coming into her own. Not only did the music grow stronger and more adventurous, but look at her music videos and visual side. It is clear Kate Bush is unique and remains unparalleled, but look around the Pop landscape of today and I wonder whether we will ever see anyone with half of her magic and genius. I think things have become too safe and predictable so, now more than ever, I think music fans, artists and radio stations should pay more attention to Bush’s oeuvre from 1978-1980. There are some rougher moments, for sure, but there is also so much beauty, firepower and unbelievable songwriting! Kate Bush would hit her commercial peak by 1985, but seeing her first steps and moves in the music industry is…    

TRULY inspiring to watch.