Kate Bush: The enduring fascination of this woman’s work over four decades
Forty years ago this month, Abba's Take a Chance on Me, was knocked off the Number 1 spot by a teenager's self-penned tribute to an Emily Bronte novel. Graeme Ross chooses this and nine other classics in his playlist of favourite Kate Bush songs
It's one of those jarring, stop-you-in-your-track moments when you suddenly realise that a memory or an event of some kind that is still fresh in your mind actually happened rather a long time ago. And that was certainly the case for me when the penny dropped recently that it is now exactly 40 years since Kate Bush exploded onto the music scene and the nation's consciousness with her unforgettable debut single, Wuthering Heights.
Seemingly from nowhere, a rather eccentric 19-year-old girl with a squealing, high-pitched voice entranced the nation and transcended the prevailing musical trends of punk and disco with a song based on a classic novel from the 1840s that most who bought the record would never have read (indeed Bush herself only read the novel after she had written the song).
Wuthering Heights spent four weeks in March and April of 1978 at number 1, launching Bush's celebrated career as one of the most imaginative musical auteurs of the rock era, a career that has produced some challenging, eccentric, but brilliant music with Bush effortlessly balancing the fine high-wire act between art and pretension.
A child prodigy born into a musical family, Bush was discovered and mentored by Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour and signed to EMI aged 16 with a large cache of songs already written. It was evident from the beginning that this was a unique talent, and EMI nurtured Bush, allowing her to develop until her first album The Kick Inside - containing many of her stockpile of songs, Wuthering Heights included - was released in January 1978.
With every subsequent release it became clear that Bush liked to do things on her own terms and brooked no boundaries for her songs. By her fourth album she was self-producing and was in complete command of her own career.
She had studied mime and dance and this led to a series of lavish, pioneering music videos that luminously illustrating her songs. In the decades since Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush has beguiled, perplexed and fascinated so many of us with her unique, visionary art. She has hardly been prolific, just 10 studio albums over those four decades, but this woman's work is enduring, important and hugely influential, with every increasingly rare release greatly anticipated.
Famously, Bush had only toured once at the very outset of her career until the 2014 Before the Dawn tour, universally lauded as a triumph and, along with her most recent studio album, 2011's 50 Words For Snow, only her second of new material since 1992, demonstrated that this most innovative of artists had lost none of her unique lyrical, musical and conceptual powers.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Wuthering Heights and Kate's imminent 60th birthday (another stop-you-in-your-tracks realisation), here is my list of Kate Bush's 10 greatest songs.
10. Misty (From 50 Words for Snow, 2011)
A young girl builds a snowman which comes alive and visits her at night. It's a familiar story, but Raymond Briggs was never like this. Over a stately 13-and-a-bit minutes, Bush weaves a spare, piano-led, erotic tapestry that, as in Briggs' fantasy, can only end one way. More than 30 years after she first rose to fame with Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush proved with 50 Words for Snow, her last studio album to date, that she was still a singular talent. In other hands, Misty would have been an absurd premise, but, with a dream rhythm section in ace session drummer Steve Gadd and double bass legend Danny Thompson, lush but never intrusive orchestration and Bush's deep, husky vocals, Misty is a fantastical experience, as challenging and ambitious as any of her finest works.
9. Breathing (Never for Ever, 1980)
Kate adopts the persona of a foetus fearful of being born in the midst of a nuclear holocaust. With the Cold War intensifying, this was a pertinent, typically ambitious, risk-taking song and a highly unlikely hit single from Bush as she conjured yet another startlingly unique performance.
8. This Woman's Work (The Sensual World, 1989)
"This woman's world/Ooh, it's hard on the man/Now his part is over/Now starts the craft of the father", Bush sings tenderly at the outset of an incredibly moving performance. More evidence of that wonderful Bush empathy and humanity on a song written specifically for the soundtrack of the 1988 movie She's Having a Baby. This time it's the expectant father, whose wife's and unborn baby's lives are in danger, who is the object of Bush's compassion. Bush recut the song for 2011's Director's Cut album with her 13-year-old son Bertie's angelic chorister-like vocals a particular highlight.
7. Army Dreamers (Never for Ever, 1980)
Behind the childlike vocals and the mandolin-led waltz melody lies a powerful anti-war message as Bush laments the waste of young, unfulfilled lives ("He never even made it to his twenties") in the form of a mother mourning her dead soldier son. Time hasn't diminished its impact and resonance and Army Dreamers remains a song for all ages and all wars.
6. Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) (Hounds of Love, 1985)
Beginning with 1982's The Dreaming, Bush began to self-produce and had also constructed her own recording studio at her country home. She had also mastered the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, one of the first sampling machines, and all this resulted in complete artistic freedom and a blossoming of her unique talents. The result was the Hounds of Love album, the peak of her creative and commercial success. Four hit singles, all making good use of the Fairlight and backed by stunning videos, emerged from the album, the first of which was Running Up That Hill, her biggest hit since Wuthering Heights. Complex, adventurous and more mature vocally with a memorable drum track, Running Up That Hill relates to the song's two lovers swapping genders to experience the other's emotions and understand one another better - the deal with God of the subtitle.
5. The Man with the Child in His Eyes (The Kick Inside, 1978)
The maturity and grace of the follow-up to Wuthering Heights erased any lingering suspicions that Kate Bush was a one-novelty-hit wonder. Composed when Bush was just 13, The Man with the Child in His Eyes is an achingly romantic, hugely affecting ballad, its simplicity in direct contrast to the pomp and circumstance of her debut single. Contrary to speculation, it probably wasn't about one man in particular, more likely being an early example of Bush's intrinsic perception and observation. Bush herself has claimed that the song was about how men in general seemed to her to hold on to the little boy inside them.
4. Cloudbusting (Hounds of Love, 1985)
Stunning in conception and realisation, Cloudbusting, based on the loving relationship between unconventional psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich - who was imprisoned in the USA in the 1950s after conducting rain-making experiments with a "cloudbusting" machine - and his young son, really is an amazing, magical record. Bush masterfully conveys the boy's innocence and wonder, not just on the record but in the groundbreaking video that accompanied the hit single in which she played the son.
3. Hounds of Love (Hounds of Love, 1985)
The title track from Bush's magnum opus draws on the classic 1957 Jacques Tourneur horror film Night of the Demon for its "It's in the trees ... it's coming!" sample at the beginning of the song and is full of vivid imagery with love taking the form of hounds. Beware the hounds of love, says Bush, they will rip you to shreds, but courage, courage. With a stentorian drum track imitating the pulsing of the heart, Hounds of Love is about fearing to commit when love comes calling and the inevitability that when it does, you are powerless to resist.
2. Moments of Pleasure (The Red Shoes, 1993)
Beautifully revisited on 2011's Director's Cut, this is one of Bush's most personal and moving songs on which she remembers friends and family who have passed on and in doing so, she allows the listener rare access to her own past and inner circle. Life is sometimes a hard gig, Bush says, and it is remembering fleeting moments from the past - like lying on a beach with a loved one, or a quirky little saying of her mother's - that smooth the ride. But it never seems intrusive and the listener is encouraged to make their own moments of pleasure for their loved ones to remember in this life-affirming masterpiece.
1. Wuthering Heights (The Kick Inside, 1978)
In a year when Scotland's World Cup song, Ally's Tartan Army, The Smurfs and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band challenged the domination of punk, disco and the Grease movie soundtrack, Wuthering Heights was dismissed in some quarters as a novelty hit. How ridiculous that assessment looks now. But there is no doubt Kate Bush's haunting epic was unlike anything ever heard before. Famously, Bush had never read Emily Bronte's novel before composing the song, based on a brief glimpse of a BBC adaptation when she was a child, but the portents were there. She had been christened Catherine and the book's heroine was called Catherine Earnshaw; even more bizarrely, Kate shared a birthday with Bronte. Hugely theatrical, Wuthering Heights almost never made it as the lead-off single from her debut album as Bush, displaying what would become her trademark single-mindedness, had to fight EMI for its release. When she performed it on Top of the Pops, Bush later described her performance as "watching herself die", but the instant impact of Wuthering Heights, with its highly original subject matter and distinctive musical treatment along with the otherworldly quality of Bush's remarkable four-octave voice, set Kate Bush apart as a uniquely individual artist who has continued to follow a fearless and uncharted path.