(#237: 20 September 1980, 1 week)
Track listing: Babooshka/Delius/Blow Away/All We Ever Look For/Egypt/The Wedding List/Violin/The Infant Kiss/Night Scented Stock/Army Dreamers/Breathing
Looking at the words of “Blow Away” – “With all of his licks and his R&B” – I’m reminded that once there was something called the KT Bush Band, which played various pubs in the waiting south-eastern space between Welling and Lewisham throughout the mid-seventies, with the teenage Kate belting out “Knock On Wood,” “In The Midnight Hour” and suchlike. Then I hear the nearly unbearable high note that she sustains over the second half of the second chorus of “Blow Away,” or her growls and screeches on “The Wedding List” and “Violin,” and remember that the Wilson Pickett thing was still within her, only to be brought out when enraged beyond articulation.
There was something called the KT Bush Band, pub rockers their type were once termed, and they would play the Rose of Lee around the same time that the Lewisham group Japan were moving into adulthood and still wanted to be the New York Dolls. But then there was art, and dance which looked like karate moves, and the things she heard and kept in her mind from her early youth which were not Stax or Motown. But there was still the KT Bush Band; two members, bassist Del Palmer and guitarist Brian Bath, stayed with her music when she moved beyond “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” (although, looking at that song title, I wonder if she ever really did), there to remember and help propel her into a future. Her future or the British music industry’s future?
Because while she was still seeing and hearing things – Ken Russell’s Song Of Summer, Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (from the song “The Infant’s Kiss” I’m guessing that she saw the movie before she read the Henry James) – it has to be remembered that, prior to around 1985, Kate Bush was not exactly hip, in the same way that late sixties/early seventies Scott Walker was not quite viewed as a way forward. A moderately intriguing side road or layby, maybe, but not the road to tomorrow.
She was, I recall, always on Nationwide, BBC1’s teatime news magazine, perpetually being followed around by Sue Lawley – recording her new album, rehearsing for her tour – and at the British Rock and Pop Awards (the not remotely cool ancestor to the Brits) she was held up as being an example of what might save the music business, for those alienated enough still to remember the Beatles.
She was perhaps, if you weren’t in sympathy with her – if you heard the hits and watched Pamela Stephenson send her up on Not The Nine O’Clock News but hadn’t listened to the rest of her music – a bit naff. Interviews were rare and she had the piss taken out of her for ceaselessly vacillating between the two expressions “Wow!” and “Amazing!” when she did them (when Julian Cope turned up not long afterwards with his “Waaaugh, Corrie, immense!” spiel, this was of course automatically accepted as gospel). She even released a single called “Wow” which, if you actually listen to it, is like “Hello Hurray” as restyled by the Mackenzie/Rankine Associates – melancholy, scared and resonant.
Worse than that, EMI initially thought to market her to the “cor blimey/wouldn’t kick her out of bed” (im)mature lads brigade with “saucy” press shots, exposed breasts and so forth. This after they had released “Wuthering Heights” as a single only after a tearful, enraged Kate insisted that they couldn’t go with “James And The Cold Gun.” The debut album The Kick Inside - an NME number one in early 1978 - talked as frankly about what it was like to be a young woman as anything in British pop had done; it is the secret prog flipside of the Slits’ Cut. She was rushed into making a follow-up album, Lionheart, which isn’t at all bad, but she resolved shortly thereafter that things had to be done her way completely or not at all.
This young person, barely into her twenties, more or less the same age as Gary Numan, telegraphing to her listeners that this is not what it sounds like.
A young person whose maternal family was Irish and who was raised as a Catholic.
A person who listens to those Pink Floyd records, and above all Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, just as the younger Diana has a poster of Prince Charles on her wall.
A musician who comes out, whether she knows it or not, of that miraculous late sixties/early seventies congruence between different, parallel streams of British music, where folk-rock bled into prog-rock leaked into free jazz…
(if the viol scrapings of various members of the Skeaping family at the climax of “The Infant’s Kiss” sound spookily familiar, listen to the opening section of side three of 1978’s Frames: Music For An Imaginary Film by Keith Tippett’s 22-piece big band Ark – one of the string players in that line-up is Roderick Skeaping – whose slow, patient build-up and final eruption sound like Delius being resuscitated by the approaching ghost of Mingus.)
…and whose first album debuts with, of all things, “The Saxophone Song,” in which tenorist Alan Skidmore is nearly as unhinged as he is on the Walker Brothers’ “Fat Mama Kick,” recorded at pretty much the same time.
…and who absorbs all of this art into her head and mind and heart and feels that it can only come out one way; the cover of her third album was controversial at the time, with an illustrated (by Nick Price) Kate, hands clapsed to the back of her head as though sleepwalking, giving birth to hordes of animals. The analogy is uncomplicated – these songs are her babies – but the reverse cover, featuring an airborne Kate as a bat in the encroaching dusk, suggests more than just the routine succession of darkness (if song titles like “Night Scented Stock” don’t make it abundantly clear, this is definitely a record to be listened to at night, or on a dark winter’s afternoon).
But then the whole of Never For Ever is essentially about life and death; how we allow ourselves to die and how we might treat ourselves better to live. What goes and who doesn’t.
The music is rich and full; the only person who stops this album from being the first one in this tale to be wholly written, performed and produced by a woman is co-producer Jon Kelly; he was Kate’s engineer on Lionheart and clearly taught her a lot about how to work the studio – he works very hard indeed to bring out as good a sonic picture as possible, so that, although nearly thirty-three years old, the album does not sound remotely dated, even if it is unquestionably of its time. The Fairlight CMI sampler, to which Kate was introduced when she guested on the third Peter Gabriel album, was programmed here to excellent effect by John L Walters and Richard James Burgess from the adventurous electro-jazz group Landscape; when listening to songs like “Army Dreamers,” it is important to recall that in 1980 this was a new sound.
But if casual listeners or Bush followers had delved beneath the record’s winsome 1971 surface (or so it was largely perceived at the time) they would not have found a cycle of songs to reassure and comfort Nationwide viewers. Everything here is about death and birth, in that order, bearing a darkness that is frequently and I think deliberately oppressive. Some of it goes, lyrically and emotionally, beyond anything ever previously attempted in “pop” or “rock.” What would the average Daily Mirror-reading suburbanite have made of tribute songs to Sid Vicious (“Blow Away”) or punk thrashes which reference the Banshees and “Johnny” (Rotten?) (“Violin”)?
And is the album all just one – menstrual – song cycle about the one family?
Furthermore, what relation does it bear to previous number one albums?
Consider how, on Gabriel’s “Intruder,” the protagonist stops to smell the woman’s clothes and perfumes.
And then how, on “Babooshka” (a top five single; was anybody really listening to it?), a woman disguises herself, sends her husband “scented letters.”
Could the intruder be the husband himself, creeping out of the communal bed to remind himself of how he thinks his wife once was?
Because although he doesn’t know who’s sending these scented letters, we are told that he receives them with “a strange delight.”
Hold on a minute…haven’t we been here before?
“Better men than I/Have tried your strange delight/Is there no strange delight?”
He falls for her again, like he had done once before, and they meet up in a restaurant, and he recognises something in her but isn’t quite sure what. The song doesn’t give us an ending but the endless chinking and breaking of wine glasses at the end suggest that it may not last.
If Gabriel finds that the only solution to his internal crisis is to face out into the world, Bush seems to want to withdraw “the world” from her viewpoint altogether.
Back into the womb or the tomb – so hard is it sometimes to differentiate the two, as she points out on “All We Ever Look For”; parents who just want their children to be their replicas, and so set them off on a lifelong quest for something – anything, God, drugs, “a big hug” – to reproduce that original feeling, that not-remotely-strange delight. A wilful stepsister to Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song,” it likewise detours into a strange, quietly meditative section with the sound of doors opening and shutting, footsteps, birdsong, motorway traffic; its conclusion appears to be that the cycle won’t quite repeat itself – we’ll never be exactly like our parents (“But we never do score”) – but we’re doomed to keep on searching for…well, “IT.” Our elusive dreams.
“Delius” is about death, too; the last days of the composer (and Eric Fenby is acknowledged; “In B, Fenby”) contemplated over a purring drum machine and a semi-abstract musical background with booming bass voices alternating with Bush’s high waves. Somewhere between McCartney’s “Summer’s Day Song” and John Martyn’s “Small Hours” – if it sometimes resembles one of those amiably discursive inter-song links on Saint Etienne records (e.g. “Wilson”) then Bush’s “Ooh, he’s a moody Old Man” has a touch of the Sarah Cracknells about it.
(Was Ken Russell the only influence, however? In 1979 Vibing Up The Senile Man, the “challenging” second album by Alternative TV, was released to general ridicule, and predictably now sounds uncannily prophetic; the original record ends with a drunken freeform singalong: “Vis-sssss-iting DE-lius was a MAD aff-AIR!”)
Whereas “Blow Away” is about Bill Duffield, the lighting man on Kate’s 1979 tour who accidentally fell to his death while preparing the stage at Poole Arts Centre (given the Thomas Hardy/Dorset setting, one might be forgiven for seeing Hardy’s “President of the Immortals” silently at work in the background of this song), following which Kate resolved never to tour again (and she has kept to this resolution ever since). Never For Ever? – no, EMI, I am not going to keep playing your game. No, happy Surbiton lawn-sprinklers, I am not here to say what you’d like.
In the music she thinks of where the music goes after it’s gone into the air. If you were Eric Dolphy you’d say it went everywhere, but Kate is not so sure. “One of the band told me last night,” she sings, “that music is all he’s got in his life.” Slight but immense pause. “So where does it go?” What happens to a life when the music’s gone? Does it simply end?
The thought here is that it doesn’t, that people can have a near-death experience and glimpse the afterlife but come back, and anyway it’s all metaphorical – it’s the ghosts, the spirits, of Bolan and Moon and Buddy Holly that continue to inspire the musician. She gets points for remembering Minnie Riperton, for acknowledging one of her indirect ancestors Sandy Denny, and…the unusually emphasised “Vicious, Vicious”…
…coming from a partly Irish background, I’m sure Kate would have understood “Death Disco” in an instant; Lydon simultaneously holding a wake and a jig of life…
…but what does this have to do with a woman “testing” her husband?
(The heartbreak implicit in Pauline Yates’ smiling face near the end of the first series of The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, when she realises who Martin the dentist really is but knows enough never to say anything…)
(does anybody else realise that Perrin is just the slapstick flipside to The Prisoner? “You resign, you disappear, you return”…”I feel like a new man!”…”Die, ‘SIX,’ DIE!”)
And then “Egypt.” At first glance this is just another piece of exotica, not really connected to anything else on the album, but that line:
“I cannot stop to comfort them/I’m busy chasing up my demons.”
Or, as Peter Gabriel put it: “I don’t know how to stop.”
…and then her vocal becomes tortured, harsh, disturbing as the song gets nearer its end. “Oh, I’m in LOVE with Egypt!,” sung as though she is being held prisoner in Egypt.
The record is all about Kate Bush’s demons really.
“The Wedding List” is aptly demonic. I don’t know whether the song was more than obliquely inspired by the Truffaut film, since the latter’s plot is entirely different; the bridegroom is not shot on his wedding day in a crime of passion, but killed accidentally by some guys horsing about with a rifle in an opposite tower. Jeanne Moreau’s widow systematically and pitilessly hunts them down and disposes of them, even unto prison. It’s not a terribly successful film – it’s another of Truffaut’s periodic attempts to do a Hitchcock, and Moreau is clearly out of her acting comfort zone for much of the time – but Kate’s song makes do with more than a McGuffin. She ambiguously tracks down her husband’s assassin and goes into some detail about how she’s going to kill him. But it really, and uncomfortably, is unclear whether there even is another assassin present, since the final verse (not printed in the lyric sheet) details how she then commits suicide, and inside her is found an unborn baby (“Was it Rudi’s?”). The verses are fast and intent, the choruses slow and funereal. Bush’s vocal becomes half-deranged; given the song’s subject matter and the time of its release, it is disturbing how much Bush sounds like Yoko Ono.
“Violin” is as “punk rock” as Kate ever got; she loves the instrument and tries to imitate its vast swoops and sweeps (“Filling me up WIIIITTTTTHHHH…”). Again there is Yoko-type screaming and a general feeling of early Roxy Music.
But what if that music is all you’ve got?
Why not let the child live?
Or does the child of “Babooshka” grow up and become confused, and then angry?
Is the widow of “The Wedding List” the “new” wife from “Babooshka,” and was one version of her husband battling another?
But what is the alternative?
Bring the child into the world, watch him grow (and for lyrical and continuity-related reasons the protagonist of two of the next three songs is male) and then see what happens.
But “The Infant’s Kiss” goes beyond all that.
I think Kate knew The Innocents. It isn’t The Turn Of The Screw but very little is. Deborah Kerr’s governess – a Cubist inversion of her character in The King And I - is plainly scared by her charge and equally plainly is sexually frustrated. So she sees the children, indeed sees into them and sees the spirits of the bad grown-ups who’d been there before.
It’s nearly the same with Bush’s protagonist. She tucks the child into bed, says goodnight…and then the song becomes truly frightening, because although nothing as such happens in the song, everything is going on in her mind, and, as I suggested above, it’s something that goes beyond and indeed turns around all the previous maleness in this tale, with those “young girls,” and “only seventeens,” and “back to schools.” Nobody went as far as this, and I doubt whether a song like this would even happen now. It is almost as if Bush is turning “rock music” on its head and pointing a mirror back at it.
And the difference is that here, like Morrison’s distraught driver in “Cyprus Avenue,” she holds back. She knows she can never have him – the implications she puts into the line “I want to smack but I hold back” are truly scary – knows in herself that what she is feeling is very, very wrong, and retreats (“I must stay and find a way to stop before it gets too much”).
(from earlier in 1980, already a ghost: “Gotta find some therapy/This treatment takes too long.” Two years before The Dreaming)
The song also has what is probably the most reluctant Picardy third I’ve heard in any piece of music.
A brief, multitracked, wordless vocal chorus; “Night Scented Stock,” which could have been named “Her Prayer”…
…and then the Joyce Grenfell on Factory electro-waltz of “Army Dreamers” where the infant of “The Infant’s Kiss” grows up, is sent off to war – perhaps to Northern Ireland (drummer Stuart Elliott here plays the bodhran) – and comes back in a box. The male/female call-and-response from “Delius” returns, more insistently, as Bush spells out the reasons why he couldn’t not be blown up (“What could he do? Should have been a rock star,” “But he didn’t have the money for a guitar” – a reason, pace “Blow Away,” why music can matter). The loss is profound, although the depth of the singer’s grief is buried within her ironically jaunty high-pitched delivery. What’s the point, the song appears to ask; we’re all going to die anyway.
(A lifetime later, a not dissimilar female musician, who would have been about eleven when Never For Ever was released, sang the following:
“Later in the dark
I thought I heard Louis’ voice
Calling for his Mother, then me,
But I couldn’t get to him.”
[PJ Harvey, “The Colour Of The Earth,” from Let England Swing, a record which goes some way towards answering some of the questions Bush asked three decades before.)
On which subject…
The last word – virtually – comes from the unborn child itself.
There has been a nuclear war, the cavortings of the “Babooshka” couple(s), like those of Tristan and Isolde on the Rhine, have somehow led to Gotterdammerung – one scarcely notices that for the most part “Breathing” and “Babooshka” follow the same chord sequence, are at times practically the same tune, and I am sure that was not accidental – and at last we get to hear from the child herself. She is in her mother’s womb; she may or may not be born but all she knows is that she is breathing in particles of fallout radiation (“Chips of Plutonium are twinkling in every lung,” Bush almost weeps) as well as her mother’s nicotine. Whatever state her mother is in, the foetus itself is suffering.
(Compare the opening “Outside gets inside, through her skin” with the paraphrasing of Ponting’s “The Sleeping Bag” on Ute Lemper’s “Scope J,” written by…Scott Walker. Although in that middle section Lemper sounds far more like Carla Bley than Kate Bush, I should say it is not my intention to place Walker at the crossroads of all of this music, however tempting that prospect might be; it just seems that somehow, he is there, even in 1980, a full year before Cope more or less brings his name back to the world – when I played Cope’s Fire Escape In The Sky compilation in my first year at university, I lost count of the number of times my fellow students made comments in the line of: “I thought Scott Walker was dead” – when he is entirely out of public view and his back catalogue can be purchased from most second-hand record shops and you’d still have change out of a fiver.)
The child wants to live but knows it will most probably never get the chance – and this, remember, is 1980, when the prospect of there being a 1981 was far from certain. “I love my beloved/All and everywhere” she sings, as though prematurely saying farewell (all the love she’ll never have or know; see the heartrending collage of telephone call signoffs on The Dreaming).
And then, following a long, indistinct, sampled speech about the effects of The Bomb, rather than looking out onto the world, as Gabriel has to do, the world looks in at her.
“What are we going to do?/We are all going to die!” they sing, as if readying themselves for meeting the ghosts of “Blow Away,” sounding as though they are taking the world down with them. Bush screams, whispers – “Ooh, please let me breathe,” “Quick, breathe in deep” – and, finally, as she herself succumbs, finds the key: “Ooh, life is…breathing.”
(N.B.: don’t underestimate those “Ooh”s; they are sometimes important, as they let things sink in.)
(Another album from towards the end of 1980; the second Specials album, in which Jerry Dammers wrongfoots his fans and explores Muzak. The record is uneven but when it works, its impact is enormous: the climactic “International Jet Set” closes with a ‘plane heading towards crash landing, passengers (including the Go-Go’s) screaming that they’re all going to die, what are they going to do, and a taped announcement implying that there is no pilot on board.)
And that is it; in nearly a quarter of a century, a woman has her full say on Then Play Long. It was a long time coming but if you’re dealing with life and death, these things can’t be rushed. As a collection of songs, Never For Ever does anything but reassure; the mood is generally foreboding, and in the context of a number one album I might risk moderate blasphemy and say that I think that even as a gesture, or statement of intent, this album is far “braver” than moving yourself entirely out of the system and putting in your music as an uncensored stream of mind flotilla – expression becoming interchangeable with thought. The Wire’s collection of Walker essays No Regrets finally fails for me because it propels itself towards the misleading assumption that Tilt and The Drift constitute the apex of his work; Ian Penman’s “A Dandy In Aspic” contribution, in marked contrast, does succeed for me because it has the informed temerity to suggest that the Philips work of the late sixties and early seventies might actually still be Walker’s artistic apex, and that he benefited from the tension of showbiz and needing to sell records. As startling and original as Walker’s later work is, I am not sure that he has not simply been walking away from something – I don’t know what, or who, or why – since about 1977.
But Bush has stayed within the system, miraculously twisted it towards meeting her own terms, and negotiated a rare kind of compromise; she keeps selling, but continues to do exactly as she likes. We will meet her again in five years or so from now, when the rest of the world catches up with her breath.