Flower of the Mountain
IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Bush in the photoshoot for Hounds of Love (1985)/PHOTO CREDIT: John Carder Bush
Kate Bush: The Uniqueness of a True Icon
EVEN though she has not released any new material…
PHOTO CREDIT: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy
for eight years (or just shy of), I am always fixated by Kate Bush and the fact that, even now, there is nobody quite like her! If I repeat myself then I apologise (or do I?!) but, when it comes to Kate Bush, there is always relevance and angles unexplored. I am writing this for two reasons. For one, it is her birthday on Tuesday and, I hope, it means more of her music is played and dissected. Another reason for doing this feature is to explore the uniqueness of Kate Bush and her incredible catalogue and ask, with such a body of work under her belt, why so many people only associate her with a few tracks. I will start with that point, actually. I am a huge follower of radio and feel that it is still the essential resource when it comes to discovering new artists and those classic tracks. I am not sure whether there are station guidelines and strict rules but, when it comes to certain huge artists, you only tend to hear a small selection of their songs played. Take Kate Bush as a perfect example. You occasionally hear her songs played but, when you do, you just know it is going to be the same tracks – usually Wuthering Heights, Hounds of Love; maybe Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) or Babooshka. I understand one cannot play every song by every major artist but, when you think of Kate Bush, you think of this singular artist whose album tracks are as compelling as her singles.
Think about a song as intriguing and stunning as The Dreaming’s Houdini. Maybe throw in Symphony in Blue (from Lionheart) or, perhaps, a dash of The Infant Kiss from Never for Ever. We all know how brilliant Bush’s music is but I do not think she gets as much exposure as she deserves. So many great tracks are nestling on albums but do not get featured on radio playlists. That is a shame but, as I pitch a case for Kate Bush as this unique artist, go and buy her albums and discover just how fantastic she is. I do have a feeling we will hear news from Kate Bush at some point this year! It has been a while since 50 Words for Snow was released (in 2011), so I sort of think there will be movement. Listen to any Kate Bush song or see one of her videos and you cannot compare her to anyone! Her visual flair and inventiveness in front of the camera is striking; her music never sat with the sounds of the time and, when it came to lyrics, she was talking about subjects no other Pop artist was. From incest and menstruation her debut album, The Kick Inside, to warfare and nuclear destruction on 1980’s Never for Ever – not too bad considering, at that point, she was only on her third album! We have some pretty bold and daring artists in today’s music scene but, whilst none can really touch Bush for inventiveness and originality, there are artists who have shades of Bush.
PHOTO CREDIT: PA
This Variety article mentions U.S. artist Billie Eilish and asked whether she is 2019’s Kate Bush:
“Eilish is an outlier who arrived at a time of need: Despite her couture-in-a-blender look, her songs represent a move away from verses full of conspicuous consumption. Rather than focusing on the well-worn territory of interpersonal transactions — “Me!” “You!” “We!” — the 17-year-old vital and visual artist twists our notion of gender.
Neither Eilish nor Bush are ruled by men. Rather, they thrive in their own versions of femininity.
She officially proved herself as a pioneer when, at 19, she released her literary first single, “Wuthering Heights” — based on Emily Bronte’s gothic romance — which topped the U.K.’s charts for an entire month. In so doing, Bush became the first female artist to score a No. 1 hit that she wrote herself. She went on to become the first woman in the history of the British charts to have eight records simultaneously in the Top 50. (To put this achievement in context, she’s now trailing Elvis and the Beatles for having simultaneous Top 40 records; Presley had 12, the Beatles 11.) Not bad for an artist who only toured twice in her entire career — with a 35-year break in between”.
It is true that both Bush and Eilish are trained dancers; both sort of keep their music in the family (Bush’s brothers, Paddy (Patrick) and John (or Jay), worked alongside her whilst Eilish writes with her brother, Finneas O’Connell); both are non-conformists regarding sound and lyrical content and both artists create strong albums rather than bang out a few commercial singles here and there.
I love the fact that there are (clearly) artists taking a lead from Bush but, even when the best of the new breed are moving in Bush’s direction, none can penetrate her golden circle (that sounds weird but, hey, I think Bush would approve…I hope!). To me and so many others, Kate Bush’s music is transformative and sense-altering. I can be in a really bad mood and I find Bush’s songs evoke emotions and feelings nothing else can. I will not go as far to say she is some sort of tonic and cure but, when you want to escape and truly immerse yourself in music then put on one of her albums and the effect is staggering. I guess many people associate her with 1985’s Hounds of Love and, when it comes to her high-point, few would argue against it. On her first couple of albums, Bush was definitely unique in regards what she was writing about and the vast maturity she displayed. That voice, the central weapon, was higher in pitch (than it would go on to be) and there was this very distinct and unusual sound. In interviews, Bush claimed not to listen to a whole lot of contemporary music (anything from, say, 1980-ish and the years surrounding it) and listened to relatively few female artists – as she did not want to be influenced or lead in that sense; she listened to artists like Elton John, Pink Floyd and David Bowie.
PHOTO CREDIT: John Carder Bush
By the time Hounds of Love arrived, her voice moved in a different direction – slightly deeper, rawer and less flighty – and, as you’d expect, she was not about to go conventional and chart-friendly when it came to her tracks and concepts. This fascinating article from The New Yorker talked about Bush as an enduring talent and explained why Hounds of Love, and especially its conceptual second side, was a revelation:
““The Ninth Wave” is about a woman lost at sea after a shipwreck and awaiting rescue. As she floats in icy waters, she fights but intermittently succumbs to fitful sleep, longing for the ordinary human pleasures, wishing she had a radio (“I’d tune in to some friendly voices, talking ’bout stupid things”), and hearing the murmurings of her family, coaxing her back from the brink of death. The songs make poignant and musically ambitious use of spoken word and helicopter sounds, church bells and chopped-up vocals, Uilleann pipes and fiddles, and of a single whistle note at the end of “And Dream of Sheep.” The Irish folk musician Dónal Lunny said later that Bush had him play it over and over for three hours until it acquired the right “bend.”
On just a listen or two, the lyrics from “The Ninth Wave” worm their way deep. Take these, in which the woman, alone in the cold, dark water, imagines sheep in a meadow: “Oh their breath is warm / and they smell like sleep / They take me deeper and deeper / like poppies, heavy with seed.” Everything about those lines is right, down to the poppies, with all their layers of association: the field of sleep-inducing flowers in “The Wizard of Oz”; poppies as the source of opiates, and as symbols of remembrance for the dead, adopted after the First World War in Britain; poppies, which, because they have such wide, blowsy heads atop such tall, slender stalks, can look like they’re nodding off as they sway in a summer breeze”.
So many modern artists – and even some legends – sound too safe between albums; they never really push themselves and one wonders why that is. Maybe they are fearful of losing some of their fanbase or they might be aiming to keep a familiar sound in order to remain popular; maybe taking bigger risks further down the line. Kate Bush was moving tonally and thematically in every album. She was loathed to stand still and repeat herself. She never wanted to follow the commercial crowd and was (and is) this always-curious and ambitious artist who wanted to explore just how far she could take her music. Hounds of Love is the moment when her ambitions and life situation – she moved from London and set up her own studio in the countryside; after a tough period creatively and personally, she was definitely refreshed and revitalised – sort of meshed and peaked; there was this special time when everything sort of fell in line. Although albums such as The Dreaming (1982) are quite divisive, just listen to all the different sounds running rampant and consider how many other artists of the time were doing what Bush was! There were some great albums released in 1982 – no less Michael Jackson’s Thriller! – but there was nothing out there like The Dreaming; perhaps it was too experimental and intense for critics to handle. Even now, the album sounds mind-altering and, although Bush temporised and focused more for Hounds of Love, it goes to show that she was unique – in the space of two albums, it is almost like you are listening to two artists; or the same artist decades apart.
I will end this piece with a Kate Bush playlist – a slightly revised one; I have published others before – that shows how she evolved through the years. Not only has her music eluded convention and predictability but, when she arrived on the scene in the late-1970s, her demeanour and look was not exactly familiar and traditional. Whereas many artists then were embracing Punk and had a particular vibe, Bush’s more ethereal, mystical and spiritual bent caused some consternation in the press – as the article from The New Yorker explains:
“…(Graeme)Thomson (whose Kate Bush biography, Under the Ivy, is essential reading) contends that, at a time when musical camps were more fiercely armored than they are now (remember when people had to choose, absurdly, between punk and disco?), Bush got a bad rap from some music journalists for being a dreamy middle-class girl rather than an angry working-class bloke. There was grumbling about her tweeness, her witchy, unapologetic femininity. “Most of her records,” the jazz critic Richard Cook, writing about Bush in Sounds magazine, complained, “smell of tarot cards, kitchen curtains and lavender pillows.” That said, John Lydon—a.k.a. Johnny Rotten—loved her music. In a BBC documentary about Bush, from 2014, he allows that “a lot of my friends at the time couldn’t bear” Bush’s high-pitched, passionate warbling on “Wuthering Heights” and other early songs. “They just thought it was too much”—and, indeed, Bush is the high priestess of too much. “But that,” Lydon said, “was really what drew me in”.
Bush’s music videos, like her music, were fantastical and unique. Many people’s first exposure to Bush was the video for Wuthering Heights - a transcendent debut single that was backed with a video (two, actually) of Bush dancing in a dress; a simple but beguiling choreography that could not but transfix. Again, I look at so many modern artists and, whilst they might put out one or two truly moving and special videos, there is very little that catches the eye and stays in the mind. The first video I saw featuring Kate Bush was her single, Them Heavy People (from The Kick Inside). Maybe it is her facial expressions – exaggerated and playful – or the way she is moving – I was stunned as a child and this was, literally, the first time Bush’s music entered my mind. Go check out Bush’s videos because they are as inspiring and dream-like as her music. Everything about Kate Bush was original when she arrived in 1978 and, in 2019, I still cannot see anyone who comes close to capturing her essence and unique cupboard of potions, spells and scents. That said, as this article explains, so many modern artists have a lot to thank Kate Bush for:
“Little Boots joins a small army of musicians to have saluted Bush: everyone from Grimes to Florence Welch, and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke to Outkast’s Big Boi has hailed her. “What caught me [about Bush] the most was, first, the production and the voice of course, but also the different meanings behind the stories she was telling,” Big Boi told Rolling Stone in 2011. New York-based Brazilian musician Yann similarly describes himself as a Bush super-fan.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
“If it wasn’t for Kate, I’m not even sure if I’d be a musician today,” he tells me. “The way she’s able to convey such vivid imagery through songwriting is masterful. The song and video that made me a huge fan at such a young age was Babooshka – the storytelling and visuals really mesmerised me. Growing up gay in a conservative culture as I did can be extremely isolating. Kate’s unapologetic weirdness felt like a safe space to me: she didn’t sound, look, dress, sing, or even dance like anyone else”.
We have just seen the annual flashmob: where Bush fans dress up as she did in the Wuthering Heights video:
“Inspired by a one-off flashmob organised by British performance artist Shambush in 2013, “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” has grown to become an annual event where people in over 30 cities unite to celebrate Bush’s most famous song and video.
“There’s something liberating about spinning with abandon dressed in a flowing red gown in a field, and I think that resonates on some profound level with her audience,” Belinda Burton, who organises the Sydney event, tells me. “I’ve heard people say time and time again that they would kick aside their lounge room furniture and spin to Wuthering Heights whenever it came on. For other people, they see it as a ‘reclaiming’ of their personal power from past relationship traumas. In an increasingly grey and punitive world, you could even say it’s an act of defiance. I know it’s an overused word these days, but there’s an authenticity to Kate Bush that’s inspirational. And I think that’s her legacy, really”.
It is clear that there is such devotion and love for Kate Bush! Another reason, I guess, for penning this piece now is because I can sort of sense the desire for new Kate Bush material. Maybe it is the political climate and the fact Boris Johnson is now Prime Minister; maybe it is the weather or the fact one always needs Kate Bush music. There is nothing on the horizon at the moment but, as an artist who normally released albums around September through to November, there is still time. If nothing comes this year then that is okay: just listen to what Bush has put out and you cannot help but marvel. I have not even mentioned her interviews and how engaging they are. Always full of intelligence, light and warmth, she is a fascinating and charming subject. She gave quite a few interviews when she released 50 Words for Snow and hearing the then-fifty-three-year-old discuss her music and comparing that with her earliest interviews is…well, you can hear the difference but that Kate Bush charm and beauty remains. In six days, it is her birthday so I hope there will be new articles and fresh appreciation for an artist whose career has spanned over five decades and, as I have stated, there is nobody quite like Kate Bush. In this very hot and sticky weather, it is best (if you can) to stay inside or as cool as possible – listen to some Kate Bush and that will definitely do you the world of good! Go buy her albums, go stream her music; watch her videos and read up about a woman who, since 1978, has delighted the world. It is clear that, when it comes to Kate Bush and her multiple gifts, she is an artist…
IMPOSSIBLE to rival.