If you were inclined to watch Top of the Pops – or other TV shows that featured music videos – in 1980, then you might just have fond memories of Kate Bush’s Babooshka. Perhaps not her best promo video, certainly not her best song, the track is nevertheless one of the best known, thanks to the skimpy, sexy and dramatic warrior woman costume that she wears during the song chorus. Possibly the sort of thing that would have the Daily Mail spitting blood about ‘sexualisation’ these days (while publishing screen grab after screen grab), but also an oddly powerful image – no mere sex object, this.
Oddly – and unknown to most who saw it at the time and to this day – the image was lifted (with or without permission, who knows?) from artwork by Chris Achilleos for the 1978 novel Raven – Swordsmistress of Chaos. The first of five books by Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock – the pair collaborated on the first novel and then alternated between the remaining titles – under the name ‘Richard Kirk’, this was a curious mix of Conan-inspired sword and sorcery and the sort of sexy pulp fiction that filled the racks of newsagents at the time. Teasing nudity on the covers perhaps hinted at the sort of readership that the books were aimed at, though such imagery was far from uncommon on Conan, Thongor or other barbarian literature at the time.
The Raven novels are not entirely awful – I actually quite enjoyed the first one – but they are a little too generic and formulaic to be memorable, and oddly overwritten, becoming increasingly hard work as the series progresses. The series clearly wasn’t a huge seller – it fizzled out after the first five novels, and is almost forgotten today.
Yet Kate Bush’s appropriation of the costume – minus the singular bare breast, much to the disappointment of schoolboys everywhere -brought the character to life, albeit out of context and unbeknownst to most viewers. Looking at Babooshka now, you can perhaps see what a Raven movie would have looked like, had the books been more popular (sword and sorcery cinema had its brief day in the sun during the early 1980s). Given the market for comic book action and the demand for female action characters, maybe Raven – shorn of the more exploitative elements – is overdue a resurrection…