As a new generation discovers Kate Bush, your editor looks back on his own discovery of and obsession with Britain’s most singular rock star.
The sudden revival of Kate Bush – more specifically, her 1985 track Running Up That Hill, a song that was already treated as something of a comeback on its original release when it stormed up the charts after a period of (commercial) disappointment and a three-year silence – is both a fascinating study in how our relationship with music has changed and the timeless qualities of her songs. As we’ve seen with other artists (hello, Stevie Nicks), one interesting aspect of how our experience and consumption of music has shifted is how older songs don’t simply have nostalgia appeal, as in the rock ‘n’ roll revivals of previous eras, but actually sound new and fresh to first-time listeners. Part of this is because, stripped of the weight of passing fads and most of the technical limitations that date songs from the Fifties and Sixties, these records often take on a certain timeless quality. Production methods in the 1970s might be primitive by modern standards but a lot of that music now just sounds like the more stripped-back, earnest and ‘credible’ music of today. Part of it is because there is a mystery and inherent coolness to these artists – we’ve shifted to a point where the haircut and dress sense of a vintage artist no longer looks hilariously old-fashioned to the kids but actually seem individual and exciting – they look like rock stars in an age when the rock star no longer exists and that seems exciting for a lot of people who are no longer weighed down by the baggage of having to hate everything that came before or existed outside their tribal group.
But Kate Bush is a rather different proposition than most (cough) ‘heritage’ acts because her music never really belonged to any time or place to begin with. Sure, she emerged out of the 1970s rock scene – and you can certainly hear that in her first few albums – but she never really belonged to it. We should remember that 1970s rock was never the one-dimensional monolith that it has long been painted as to begin with. Look back and listen with open minds and you find rampant individuality across the decade, with the biggest bands of the time having little in common – there is absolutely no musical connection between Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Electric Light Orchestra, Alice Cooper and Kiss. But even with that in mind, Kate Bush feels an artist alone, someone who – once she seized control of the production of her music – had one toe still in an era of music already passed but was otherwise entirely unique.
I first heard Kate Bush when Wuthering Heights was released and I didn’t much care for it. Hey, I was a little kid at the time and this was outside everything I knew and was comfortable with. I wasn’t alone – the single reached number one in the charts but was generally considered to be weird as fuck and this was the age where the novelty record was still very popular. For all anyone knew, Kate Bush might have been a one-hit-wonder whose single sold on eccentricity. This was still a year or so before the teenage switch flicked in my head and sent me down the path of rock music obsessiveness. People love to pretend that they loved whatever is now cool from day one but, as we all know that that is revisionist thinking – you only have to go back through old reviews to see what critics really thought and I clearly remember how Kate Bush was seen by a lot of people for several years – and especially in the years leading up to Running Up That Hill.
Over the next few years, she was a presence through TV appearances and radio – but not that much of a presence, frankly. Most of her subsequent singles didn’t make any impact on me… or so I thought. But there must have been something there, some subconscious awareness that here was an artist who was going to be an interesting subject for exploration by a kid who had already rejected most of the music of 1983 in favour of exploring the outliers of years past – by this point, I was listening to the Floyd and vintage prog acts and digging deep into the likes of the MC5, the Seeds, Iron Butterfly and The Runaways (note to Kerrang! editors – do your readers a favour and revive the ‘Strictly for Konnoisseurs’ column of vintage album reviews that was pivotal in pointing me in the right direction as an otherwise clueless early teens music fanatic). This exploration was helped by Granada TV’s habit of showing vintage rock shows – often from Germany’s Beat Club – as their closedown broadcast (24-hour TV has been a terrible thing, in retrospect, robbing us of all manner of late-night, after-midnight filler programming). I would scour the TV Times for anything interesting and set the VCR timer accordingly. A lot of this was the likes of Black Sabbath, Van Der Graaf Generator, Genesis and so on. But one week, there was a show about Kate Bush and for some reason, I decided to record that. No idea why as I’d been avoiding this series of pop star ‘biographies’ (i.e. an interview and a handful of music videos) and at that point, no one in the music press that I was eagerly consuming was talking about Bush. It was instinct, perhaps.
Whatever the reason, the show was a revelation. I was transfixed. I watched the show again and again, absorbed in the extraordinary, indefinable music being shown. These were the singles, the ‘pop’ tracks if you like, but they still seemed to be removed from everything else I knew and yet part of a world I understood. It was arty, personal, eccentric and unique. I was smitten. I showed the programme to a schoolmate – a big fan of Throbbing Gristle and Hawkwind – and he was even more stunned. He became the sort of obsessive collector that I’ve never had the energy to be, buying everything – picture discs, alternative covers, rare singles, the lot. He even made contact with fellow obsessives who had nine hours of rare video material, which he was loaned and which we both eagerly copied over a weekend session involving me bringing our VCR and newly purchased copying leads to his place. You can imagine the quality of those tapes – off-air recordings of European TV shows from 1978 and 1979 for the most part – but hey, that didn’t really matter.
Me, I bought all the albums (there were only four so it wasn’t difficult) and the VHS releases and the box set of 7-inch singles. That was pretty much the sum of what was available. Being a Kate Bush fan around 1984 was a near-solitary experience because believe me, she was not popular or fashionable at that time. Her album The Dreaming had been a critical success and hit the top of the charts but its overly-arty weirdness had alienated a lot of people and the last few singles had been (relatively speaking) bombs. Even at the peak of her popularity, Kate Bush had never been cool – the music press and the mainstream media always saw her as a hippy-dippy eccentric who sometimes made good records and treated her accordingly – and now she was almost forgotten. It seems odd now when artists routinely go for years between albums, but back then, three years seemed a lifetime in music, where trends could come and go. Kate Bush was effectively silent between 1982 and 1985 and that allowed me to become completely immersed in her back catalogue uninterrupted by anything new, much as I had done with much older acts.
A new release, then, might have been a dubious proposition – for the first time, I was going to experience her work hot off the press. Of course, in your teens, you don’t have the cynicism of continual disappointment. My anticipation of the new music was off the chart. It came with the single Running Up That Hill, delivered in a slick gatefold sleeve and it was everything I could’ve hoped for and more. It’s a song that had elements of what had gone before but tempered, the wild experimentation with Fairlight samplers now focused precisely and mixed with more traditional instrumentation. It was both entirely in keeping with her past work and entirely new – and it didn’t sound like anything else around in 1985. Perhaps more than at any point in her career, Kate Bush had successfully rejected the influence of everything else happening at the time and created her own genre of music. It’s no surprise that Running Up That Hill still works because it is not tied to anything else beyond the album that it was part of. The only music you can compare it to is that of the constant stream of acts under her influence (or shamelessly copying her) and so it remains timeless.
The album as a whole, The Hounds of Love, was equally satisfying. I can’t tell you how much I loved the fact that Bush had rejected the whims of fashion so much that she recorded a conceptual piece, The Ninth Wave, as side two of the LP. Nothing was as unfashionable as the concept album in 1985 and while this was only half the album, it was unashamedly a whole, narrative piece. Fears that she had taken the (relative) rejection of The Dreaming to heart and was about to deliver commercial pop could not have been more wrong. But side one of the album was full of hook-driven songs, albeit creatively far removed from anything else in the top 40 – the single, the title track and Cloudbusting, the album’s most triumphant moment for me (just wait until the new fan base discovers that song and its extraordinary video). As a johnny-come-lately, I hadn’t even been waiting all that long for this but it still felt like a triumphant return (and when you are in your mid-teens, a year feels a lot longer than it does when you are older – so it seemed like forever).
This was the culmination of my fixation with Kate Bush. I would still buy each subsequent album as soon as it was released – the gaps between each growing longer and longer – and I think that both The Sensual World and The Red Shoes are magnificent albums, massively underrated (seemingly by Bush herself as much as anyone) but as you get older, the obsessiveness of the teenage fanatic diminishes and you find a lot of other music to inspire you. I had my first disappointing experience with Aerial in 2005, an album that I still think has a few great tracks and a lot of filler, and this perhaps was the point where she and I parted ways. The tracks I heard from the Director’s Cut remix album sounded inferior to the original versions and 50 Words for Snow didn’t interest me at all. I liked the fact that she was continuing to go her own way with no interest in commerciality (and another concept piece to boot!) whatsoever but its ambience didn’t grip me. Not that Kate Bush owes me anything – there’s something quite pleasing about the fact that she is still doing what the hell she wants. And I’m always going to be interested in anything she does – if nothing else, her work is unpredictable and if there is another album to come, we can be sure that it won’t necessarily sound like anything that has gone before. That’s the benefit of waiting a decade between projects.
It’s pleasing too to see her reach the top of the charts after all this time, even if it is on the back of a TV show. I’ve never watched Stranger Things – from what I’ve seen of it, I imagine that it would annoy me a great deal – but the fact that this song from the 1980s, above all others, has spoken to a new generation says a lot about how timeless it is and how Kate Bush’s music remains beyond definition. In a world where everything is everywhere and it can all be accessed without the weight of passing fads and the dictatorial control of a long-gone music press, perhaps Kate Bush – an artist who has always existed outside fashion, outside genre and outside time – is the totem of the new age.
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