(#340: 17 January 1987, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Wuthering Heights (New Vocal)/Cloudbusting/The Man With The Child In His Eyes/Breathing/Wow/Hounds Of Love/Running Up That Hill/Army Dreamers/Sat In Your Lap/Experiment IV/The Dreaming/Babooshka
How many of the thousands of people who recently saw her at the Hammersmith Apollo, or the thousands more who didn’t get a ticket but bought or re-bought her back catalogue, have bothered to listen to The Whole Story all the way through, let alone all those people who imagine Bush still to be a cuddly National Treasure? Hardly any of her pre-Hounds Of Love work was performed at Hammersmith, and the impression with this summary, even at the end of 1986, was the drawing of a line under her previous career.
But this woman’s work is exceptionally dark, and violent, and noisy. Half of the album comes from Hounds and Never For Ever, but in this new context the songs are even more jarring. In one song she sings from the point of view of an unborn foetus, from another as the mother of a slain son. She seems to get particularly animated when the concept of family gets disrupted, undermined or disguised; thus “Babooshka” is a far from reassuring finale, with its smashing glasses and an unsolved mystery; is his wife “his wife,” and what happens after the song has ended (a recurring obsession of Then Play Long)? The only one of these songs where the protagonist expresses true, familial (not romantic) love is “Cloudbusting,” where she portrays a son who loves his father, and is this not a natural progression from the gender-swapping implied throughout “Running Up That Hill”?
The clear idea was that The Whole Story would be a digestible KB starter’s pack for those newly hooked by Hounds. Yet the juxtaposition of older and newer songs demands reconsideration of both. Bush might have got hip with Hounds – or, more to the point, had finally mastered the art of handling and manipulating the recording studio; the wobbly synthesisers of “Wow” could have come off Bill Fay’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow And Tomorroe – but at the time of her initial popularity she was anything but.
I well remember how the BBC, and the Nationwide news magazine in particular, drooled over Bush’s minutest doings practically on a daily basis. She was commonly viewed as the “safe” option, a reassuring throwback to the days of ’67-77 mavericks before that nasty punk rock came and wiped them out, or at least sent them back underground. She was impersonated and parodied on countless television comedy shows. No consideration of how important her work was, as a woman, to other women; no, she was the conservative (and possibly Conservative) future.
I am not particularly minded to try to disprove that; there has always been a Thatcher-esque not-bending steelness to Bush, and I imagine her in her daily doings to lead the fairly conventional life of a middle-aged Kentish housewife and mother, albeit with a presumably formidable head for business. Some of her mid-period work – particularly “Sat In Your Lap” – sounds to me like the work of the recently deceased Lynsey de Paul taken to its extreme but logical conclusion (and Bush does carry a Lynsey whisper of sensuality when urgently needing to communicate with the listener).
But “Sat In Your Lap” in particular stands as a terrifying pop single, even by 1981’s exalted standards, and if anything it predicates the internet, with its goldfish attention spans and the urge to amass knowledge immediately without bothering to take the time and effort necessary to gain wisdom (“Just gimme, gimme, gimme, GIMMEGIMMEGIMMEGIMME!”). As the backing vocals thicken and Geoff Downes’ Fairlight goes haywire, it sounds like the internet killing the planet. At other times (as on the song “Hounds Of Love”) – specifically, the “just when I think I’m King” parts (and she wasn’t the only person in 1981 to think that; see Sylvian and “Ghosts”) – she sounds exactly like Elvis (and if only he had lived to cover both songs!). And all of this is long, long before “King Of The Mountain.”
As for the seventies stuff. “Man With The Child” was recorded back in 1975 and was quasi-mysterious in a Mandy More-moving-towards-Elaine Paige kind of way. “Wow” sees her still working out how to work the studio, but the proto-Billy Mackenzie long lines at the end still provoke a shiver. Perhaps the core problem is summarised in the reworked “Wuthering Heights”; Bush offers a new, “grown-up” vocal over what sounds like the original backing track, albeit drastically remixed. This is what I wrote about the original recording (and have not, until now, published) a few years back:
“Having spent so much of her time at home, Emily had always been the one most dedicated to, and involved in, her imaginary world…Despite its precise use of dates, Wuthering Heights is set in an indistinct past and in an imprecise location: though entirely accurate in its depiction of Yorkshire dialect, customs and life, there are also features of the Gondal world. All the things which so shocked the critics when the novel was published were typical of both Gondal and Angria, from the amoral tone to the scenes of drunken debauchery, casual cruelty and passionate love. Like Poems, Wuthering Heights was presented to an uncomprehending public without preface, introduction or explanation and it was left to Charlotte, ever her sister’s apologist, to insist that it was simply a tale of the ‘wild moors of the north of England’ produced by a ‘homebred country girl.’ The wilder and darker world of Gondal which had actually bred the novel must remain a secret.”
(Juliet Barker, The Brontës, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London: 1994, chapter 17, “The Book Of Rhymes”)
Despite having been nurtured, developed and watched over by EMI for at least three years, the executives were reluctant to release “Wuthering Heights” as a single, preferring the more conventional “James And The Cold Gun.” But the 18-year-old Bush burst into tears and demanded, as demurely as possible, that “Wuthering Heights” should be the lead single. The weary A&R man decided to yield to her lamentations, thinking that when the single sold the five copies he fully expected it to sell, it would teach her a harsh but fair lesson about the realities of the music business.
That notion was doomed from the start, since the only realities to which Kate Bush has paid any attention are the ones she knows, comprehensively and intimately, and she may well be the single most remarkable artist in this survey. “Wuthering Heights” – composed after she watched a TV dramatisation, then read the source novel – seemed, even in the dying embers of punk, to have sprung from nowhere, and I have rarely witnessed so many broadcasters and colleagues literally at a loss for words. To what could it be usefully compared? Was it, or she, really a 1967 hippy hangover (but, as Paul Weller contemporaneously argued, how could she be a revivalist when she was only eighteen)? There were bells and a Hammond organ in the song’s last third, but even those signifiers wouldn’t suffice.
No, it was the stark, sheer voice which shocked and startled. It glides and swoops at will, covering three-and-a-bit octaves so effortlessly that you scarcely notice the range. On its own, the music might have come across as a grander pop-prog prototype; but even those chord progressions on the piano, their delayed sustain, their unexpected trapdoor modulations, the very fingers which are playing them, couldn’t be ascribed to any precedent – for one very important thing, they sounded so unambiguously feminine.
It has been said that Kate Bush was to the girls what Dylan was to the boys; somehow she freed something vital, emotionally and aesthetically, which listeners and emulators alike found irresistible to pursue and to adore. How could an album like The Kick Inside, with its unapologetically 1971 cover design, prosper in the middle of the interregnum between punk and post-punk? Perhaps because so many listeners – so many women – who liked the punk ethic but couldn’t abide the beer and leather undertow identified something in Bush’s music and art which could make them think equally: my God, someone’s singing to me, FOR me, at last! And the title song, which sang about incest – dressed up in mythological clothing, but incest it unmistakably was – probably kicked down more doors than the whole of the first wave of punk combined. That, and the album’s constant referrals to the teachings of Gurdjieff.
She was discovered by Dave Gilmour, and was immediately assimilated into the EMI family tree – after the Pistols fiasco, they had to come up with something, or someone – such that on “Wuthering Heights,” half her backing band are from the original Cockney Rebel and the other half from Pilot. There is no doubt that Roy Harper and Peter Gabriel were her absolute musical idols – though touring the pubs of Kent in the mid-‘70s as frontwoman of the KT Bush Band, she apparently could do some mean Motown and Stax (you can hear that in her frequent howling and yelling throughout The Whole Story) – and there is something of a feeling that Kate Bush was the last to sneak through that boundary before it closed forever; that blue area of adventurous, post-flower power singer-songwriters open to everybody and everything in terms of influence and expression. As such she has been exceptionally fortunate, and the carte blanche which such a position has allowed her has granted us one of the most remarkable bodies of music this side of Scott Walker. She was the last one to get away with it.
But “Wuthering Heights” – the unconcealed derangement of that vocal performance, though not uncontrolled (note the emotional turnaround from the gnarled “I hated you” to the unspeakably tender “I loved you too”), and her performance of it on TV – neither owes anything to any record or artist which had preceded it, or her. I could perhaps go even further and assert that with its frantic knocking in the rain on the stalwart oak door in the middle of the “wily, windy moors,” “Wuthering Heights” is the first number one single written and sung by a woman for other women. Petula, Dusty and Sandie; even Suzi Quatro; they struck a pose, and frequently a beautiful and profound one, but in the end they were (in most part) dependent upon men to articulate their feelings for a mass audience, regardless of their essential greatness. But Bush was different (“They told me I was going to lose the fight”) and “Wuthering Heights” stands for the final breakthrough by the female musician, ready to storm the citadel with courage, charm and candour – note the clever sideways reference in the chorus to the ‘60s kitchen sink TV drama about homelessness, Cathy Come Home. She wants to return to her Heathcliff, but we know that such a re-entry will be strictly on her terms; it is very much an “ain’t no mountain high enough” philosophy.
Musically it is wonderfully delicate and hard-hitting when needed (without ever being aggressive); the doubling up of piano and celeste to represent the raindrops inside Cathy’s bruised heart, the subtle panning out of the landscape in the second verse as the string section discreetly enters, and the will-she/won’t-he suspense engendered by the song’s 14/8 construction. Eventually, Ian Bairnson’s lead guitar (is he Heathcliff, opening the door at last?) takes the record out soberly, as we survey the drenched landscape – and even then we scarcely credited that she would come up with so much subsequent, scarcely utterable magic; make a deal with God? Be the only musician to make any sense of Joyce? Stand in the Atlantic and become panoramic? Though not her greatest record, “Wuthering Heights” is nevertheless the most distinguished and singular debut of all pop careers; so assured, yet so bewitched; so uncompromising, yet so all-embracing. I think of the scuffed table still resident in the dining room of the Brontë Parsonage, in which I have stood more than once, with its little scribbles and appendages, together with the knowledge that all three sisters, and Branwell, would nightly walk around the table holding hands and chanting to give them inspiration for yet further writing.
But I also wonder exactly what Bush is attempting with the reworking; the drums and guitars are much more turned up, with considerably more echo, and she now practically screams to demand re-entry (Lena compared her howls on the fadeout with Levi Stubbs). It is as if, this is what she has learned, and this is how she now comes back and demands to be presented. Take her or leave her. It sounds as though she is now belting out the song from the stage of a pub in Lewisham or Bexley, somewhere in pre-punk 1976, against an impatient (but inaudible) audience wanting “Knock On Wood” or “In The Midnight Hour.” She did not perform the song at Hammersmith, and there has never been The Whole Second Story. There might never need to be.
The obligatory new song is “Experiment IV,” a dark reversal of “Cloudbusting” where the father’s daft but harmless, and possibly enlightening, free enterprise is twisted into what the nameless powers would do under the same supposed banner – it has to be said that throughout even Bush’s darker work, the finger is never pointed at a specific body of authority; it is always “the Government” or “the military” – namely to distort the production of music into producing a sound that can actually kill people. The video, with Bush’s metamorphosis into a banshee (but not Siouxsie) and its mass casualties, was deemed too violent for television (and so the single underperformed slightly in its own right), while the music sounds like late-period Bryan Ferry rawk constantly disrupted and derailed by blank noises and huge silences (Bush’s songs are never afraid of pausing, of stopping to take stock) and the longest, most ominous and quietest drone fadeout.
But then there is also “The Dreaming,” a song I first heard in the summer of 1982 on Radio 1’s Round Table show. It was that week’s guess-the-artist mystery record – and nobody got who it was – and as I listened, the sky suddenly darkened and showered down intense rain for the record’s duration before receding. So there has always been this air of ominosity about the song for me, the sense of encroaching, nightmarish apocalypse. Now I note the song’s similarity in construction and arrangement to Peter Gabriel’s “The Rhythm Of The Heat” (from just a couple of months later) and how much Bush’s deliberately awry Australian voice makes her sound like the younger Kylie.
But I also now note the unsettling presence of hidden evil in the record itself. He’s on it, probably helped inspire it – a formerly trusted, reliable family entertainer who we now know to be a rather nasty piece of work – and even though he himself is not particularly noticeable, playing the droning didgeridoo (other voices sound like, but are not, him), he does cast a sinister shadow, like a dreaming Mr Hyde, over the soundscape. Despite his presence, “The Dreaming” nevertheless ends up sounding like an uncommonly lucid nightmare, yet its nature is fully in keeping with the far from reassuring music we hear elsewhere on this record. Perhaps all those people returning The Whole Story to today’s chart put “Running Up That Hill” on repeat, but that in itself had little to do with the rest of 1985; step forward, step BACK, but otherwise stay still, wait…for the ghost train…or deliverance.