One of the biggest enigmas of British music is about to perform live for the first time since 1979. Who knows what will happen? We asked four writers to distil the elusive essence of Kate Bush.
THE IMPACT: LISA MARKWELL, JOURNALIST
The crimped hair. The tiered skirts. The heavily kohled eyes. The wraith-like movement. I wanted to be her. My big sister Claire — for it was she — was glamorous and mysterious back then, in 1978. What I didn't know, but found out soon after, was that Claire was herself in awe of, and had modelled herself on, Kate Bush, the newly emerging musician who looked and sounded astonishingly fresh and unusual.
Wuthering Heights drifted through the house and I became word-perfect. I wasn't allowed to wear multiple skirts or crimp my hair but I practised the voice that soared from high squeals to low moans in front of the mirror, along with the slightly deranged movements. I had the album cover of The Kick Inside on my wall and gazed at the exotic creature on a Japanese kite with a giant eyeball. What did it all mean?
It was some time before Kate Bush influenced my life again, but in my mid-twenties, when dance music was still evolving and interesting, I met a DJ who played the six-year-old Bush song Running Up That Hill in his set. It was no one's idea of standard-issue groove, but I loved it. The relentless beat combined with the urgent voice were intoxicating (incidentally, I went on to marry the DJ).
But perhaps of everything that Kate Bush has recorded, This Woman's Work has been the most meaningful. It stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it, and when it bobs up occasionally on BBC 6 Music I find tears welling up. The lyrics are as highly potent now as they were in 1989. At 24, it felt like a distant narrative; now it's an emotional link to experiences of adversity.
In the intervening 25 years her influence on recorded music has been huge — it's difficult to image Tori Amos, Björk, even Lady Gaga, without her. Her influence on me might be, beyond the crimped hair and the artistic dance, that you don't have to fit into an easily marketable box. You can write about “uncomfortable” subjects and receive recognition and gratitude, if not easy glory. And you can control your own career.
Does Claire still like Kate Bush? She moved on to Peter Frampton and Lynyrd Skynyrd quite quickly, but I think the spirit of Kate was running through her: she went on to raise two extraordinarily ace daughters on her own and is on at least her third career. These women work ...
THE MUSIC: NICK COLEMAN, MUSIC CRITIC
Without really meaning to, Kate Bush has stood for many things. She has stood for English pop as a discrete idiom, sheared free of its American roots. She has stood firmly for artistic independence in the face of corporate will, by standing up to record company bosses and by forming her own management and publishing companies at an age most of us are prepared to swallow whatever trickles down. She has stood for privacy in the face of presumption by the media. She has stood, fiercely, against the sexual objectification of women as an industrial norm. She has maintained the conviction that one's first duty is to one's own artistic muse, and she has done it as if it were all in a day's work and not a continuation of her work by other, self-dramatising means.
In a career that has been successful across five decades she has stuck to her guns resolutely and grumpily, demonstrating that it is possible, if you have the will, to be both celebrated and no kind of a celebrity at all. She has done it all without appearing to mean to, and she has done it while producing work that is not always great. But the good bits have been fantastic.
It's quite hard now to recall with any sort of completeness the context of her advent in 1978, at the height of disco and punk and at the tail end of the English art-rock sensibility, which favoured style, performance and smart ideas over the American pop verities of personal authenticity, songwriting and musical discipline. She didn't, at the time, come off like the illegitimate daughter of Bowie, Roxy and The Sensational Alex Harvey, any more than she fit the herky-jerky street-art model proposed by the incipient New Wave. She was way too literary, polished and home-bound for that, and she was waywardly, romantically stubborn, like a devoted Noel Streatfeild heroine: overtly middle class, when “middle class” were two dirty words. She was always an outlier.
So pop was not changed by her, even if she did seem at one stage to be hellbent on supercharging its vocabulary, both technically and scenically. She bounced back from the relative failure of The Dreaming (1982), her third album, by producing in 1985 her acknowledged masterpiece, Hounds Of Love, a prog-pop masque of an album built with the cold instrumentation of a neophiliac age: chiefly, Fairlight synthesizer and gated drums. It appeared then that she made records not to pleasure an audience but to answer a pressing chorus of inner voices. You, the listener, were afforded the privilege of listening in.
Bush is really a storyteller before a musician, and she's a musician before she's a self-analyst. She did grasp in due course that it wouldn't hurt to do “warm” — 1993's The Red Shoes is as “intimate” and “warm” as her music has ever been. But it seems unlikely that she will ever be minded to concern herself with temperature control, even if she does know 50 words for snow. Any more than she's bothered that, relatively, she hardly makes a bean in America.
Nick Coleman is the author of The Train In The Night: A Story Of Music And Loss (Vintage)
THE FASHION ALEXANDER FURY, FASHION EXPERT
Kate Bush. Fashion. There's not as immediate a connection as there is, say, in the cases of Madonna's collaborations with Gaultier and Dolce and Gabbana, Grace Jones's skin-tight, Amazonian Azzedine Alaïa ensembles, or the chameleon morph of David Bowie from Ziggy clad in Kansai Yamamoto to the monochrome, attenuated Duke.
But is there a Kate Bush image? Yes, absolutely. It's her drifting about in a nimbus of white chiffon for the Wuthering Heights video, hair crimped to kingdom-come, arms tremblante, lots of backlighting, like a 1970s album cover come to life. It's an image that has proved as potent and memorable as Madonna's cone bra or Bowie's Ziggy-zagged maquillage. But unlike them, that image is frozen in our collective consciousness as her fashion identity: the bush of Bush hair, the vaporous frocks, the witchy incandescence. It's there in the video of Babooshka, sort of — the filminess is veiling the head or spliced open around a leotard. Six years later she's wafting around in swathed cloth and a lilacy glow in the video for 1985's Running Up That Hill — not to be confused with the Terry Gilliam-directed short for Cloudbusting, in which she actually does run up a hill.
Stylistically, Bush is anchored firmly in the 1970s. For fashion trainspotters (such as me) her look recalls the likes of Bill Gibb, Thea Porter and John Bates, harking back to late 1960s hippies and looking forward to the New Romanticism of the early 1980s that culminated in the Princess of Wales' ruffled taffeta wedding gown.
Bush herself seems less interested in fashion than the transformative power of clothing. Her one and only touring show, 1979's Tour Of Life, undertaken when Bush was 20, featured 17 costume changes, including aviator and Egyptian ensembles alongside those trademark slipstream chiffons (how else would you attire the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw?).
And she has inspired generations — “I think she was one of the first artists that made a connection between her visual work and her music,” the fashion designer Hussein Chalayan said in 2005. “I think it became like a world, the ultimate Kate Bush world, where you heard the sound, and then you looked at the videos and the imagery that went with it.” In a sense, that's the fundamental difference between Bush and the likes of Bowie and Madonna. While they influenced the world, Bush merrily fashioned her own.
That world has, to date, been limited to just that one 1979 tour — which perhaps accounts for the time warp when addressing Bush's fashion, and the fashion furore over what she may pitch up in 25 years later for her Before The Dawn shows. My bet? Cathy will still be billowing in chiffon as she begs to be let in that window.
THE INFLUENCE: LAUREN MAYBERRY, VOCALIST WITH SCOTTISH ELECTRONIC BAND CHVRCHES
The first time I heard Kate Bush it was thanks to a parental purchase of So by Peter Gabriel. A classic album on all fronts, what blew my child mind more than anything else was Kate's heartbreaking but stoic chorus vocal. I was hooked — and with 10 albums, 25 UK Top 40 singles, an Ivor Novello and countless other gongs now under her belt, I can't have been the only one.
What makes Kate Bush special in my eyes is that she is absolutely, unequivocally an individual. Her first single on EMI was Wuthering Heights, an ode to Emily Brontë. What b***s (oh, to be a fly on the wall when that label meeting was had). And with it she became the first woman to achieve a number one in the UK charts with a self-penned song — no mean feat in the aggressively male-dominated music industry of the 1970s — starting as she meant to go on.
Bush didn't tour if she didn't want to tour. She didn't release records if she didn't feel like her material was ready to be shared, and most recently she has self-released on her own label (Fish People, on which she released a handful of work, including 2011's 50 Words For Snow). She was, and is, ferociously in control of her own creative output and her image as a whole, quoted as saying, “The media just promoted me as a female body. It's like I've had to prove I'm an artist IN a female body.”
Yes, Bush has a distinctive aesthetic but this is another part of her as a performer — a furtherance of her art, rather than a tool to sell records as is, and has been, the case for many less talented artists. And talent Bush has. By the bucket. Her vocal — admired by nerdy singer types such as myself for its four-octave range — is instantly recognisable, beautiful, strong and cited as an influence by artists from Björk to Florence Welch. Her lyrics are deep, thoughtful, sometimes completely mad (she may well be the only artist to have reached the Top 20 with a song about James Joyce's Ulysses) but always idiosyncratic.
I have found in this industry that outside observers — be they label bods, critics or the public — often have a very strong idea of what they think you should be doing. It covers everything from what one should and should not discuss in interviews to how to dress, how to sing, what to sing about and how to perform. It is endless, but you have to drown it out. Bush is one of the many performers who taught me that being whoever and however you want to be is the most genuine thing that any artist can be. Just make sure that vision is completely yours, and protect it with everything you've got.
Kate Bush's sold out series of Before The Dawn concerts will take place from Tuesday, August 26, at the Eventim Apollo, London