The Guide to Getting Into Kate Bush
From the mother, to the daughter, to "Wuthering Heights," here are the essential stages of Kate Bush's career.
Lead image by Laura Backeberg
In a copy of Q Magazine from 1990, Kate Bush recalled how, growing up, she would dance to the music on the TV. “It was completely unselfconscious and I wasn’t aware of people looking at me,” she says. “One day some people came into the room, saw me and laughed and from that moment on I stopped doing it. I think I’ve been trying to get back there ever since.”
By the time of that interview Bush had released six groundbreaking and easily mockable albums, and each one of them seems to have achieved this unselfconscious state. The listener’s reaction is either to laugh and leave the room, or to stay and remain transfixed by the dance. In many ways, that divide characterizes Kate Bush’s five-decade spanning output of music and our reaction to it. To one set of eyes, her music is dreamily intuitive, to another it’s material to repost on LadBible with the caption ‘WTF’ and several cry-laughing emojis.
Despite paving the way for the next bulk of great musicians—including Tori Amos, Big Boi, Tricky, Lorde—you’ll find a startling omission of Kate Bush in many comprehensive histories of women in music. It’s a jarring oversight for someone whose accolades include multiple best selling singles, pioneering use of new music technologies and an album named Never For Ever which made her the first woman musician to top the UK albums chart. Women with a lesser impact have been privileged over Kate and have even been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame over her. But these are performers who spit and fuck and cuss and ooze fierceness even after they undress from the pantomime. They are in short, rock stars.
Meek, obsequiously English and conservative (spelled both with a lower-case and upper-case C) Kate seems to be anything but rock and roll. Being a rock star requires triumphing over some kind of adversity—whether that’s an addiction or poverty or abuse. But Kate has never suffered like a rock star. She’s chosen chocolate and cigarettes over heroin and cocaine, and has always had a nice amount of money. She inherited a lump sum from her aunt, which helped her move out at 18 and focus entirely on her music, and she grew up in a nursing home in Kent to comfortably middle-class parents.
In her early infancy she watched as her father placed three fingers on three piano keys and pressed. A C Major chord rang. From there, Kate began to pair the poems she’d written with the chords she’d learned. The words and the ringing of the piano became embryonic forms of songs, and were evidence that from a very young age, Kate Bush was gifted. “I found it very frustrating being treated like a child when I wasn't thinking like a child,” she reflected later on, “From the age of 10 I felt old." By the early 70s, her unfounded wisdom and instinctive musical deftness brought Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour to her door. She recited the suite of songs she’d spent her childhood creating, and was signed to EMI Records shortly after. Since then her songs have made acrobatic leaps from key to key change and back again without warning. Their effect feels something like a nursery rhyme, in the way that they move you and scare you and teach you. But they're also much more.
Many of the songs that you’re about to hear come from the imaginative release of childhood. They’re from that time before you first looked in the mirror and recognised yourself as a body in the world. When you could shit and piss your pants and dance in front of the television without being aware of how the world’s gaze sat upon you. That’s at least the case for her first three albums, which spanned the space of only two years. Kate amassed huge critical success until her fourth effort, The Dreaming, which was released in 1982. Having spent early adulthood as EMI’s poster girl, Kate began to take control of the production and her own presentation. On record, Kate’s character turned from a child into a teenager, and gaps between releases became longer as Kate took better care of herself and her music.
She became defiantly feminine with her 1989 release The Sensual World, and then came back four years later after a break up, the death of her mother and the birth of her son, with the Prince-featuring The Red Shoes. She then spent a long eight year hiatus focusing entirely on her son and home before 2005’s Aerial, which was a lens into Kate Bush’s little and profound domestic life. Then came a rerecording of her hits with 2011’s Director’s Cut and around that Christmastime she released her latest LP 50 Words for Snow. In 2014 she toured again for only the second time in her entire musical career, providing a perfect glimpse into the musical world of Kate Bush and the impact it’s had on its millions of listeners. The audience was silent, grateful tears were in our eyes, and during the encore we became dancing strangers, embracing another, knowing we’d spend one of the greatest nights of our lives together. We were all in that room with her, and none of us were laughing.
So You Want To Get Into: Mainstream Kate Bush
Kate Bush was immediately thrust into the mainstream when she released her debut single in 1978. Written when she was just 16, ”Wuthering Heights” became the first ever UK number 1 single that a woman performer wrote for herself. It was a product so singular that it became novelty. There Kate Bush was, spinning furiously in her white dress in the music video. Eyes, mouth, legs all open and agape. The song was Kate’s tribute Emily Brontë’s mid-19th century novel, which was rendered with great comprehension and clarity, but that’s probably not why the record sold.
Really, Kate Bush has always tended to to bridge the way between a previous musical trend and the next thing. “Wuthering Heights” was inculcated with progressive rock signifiers—a trend that emerged at the end of the 60s, with its penchant for musical dexterity and complex song structures. Despite being told by the execs at EMI that the straightforwardly rock and roll “James And The Cold Gun” should be her first single, Kate was adamant that no other song on The Kick Inside would introduce the world to her better than “Wuthering Heights.” She was right.
Critics eventually came round to Kate’s genius with her 1979 tour, The Tour Of Life. With $150,000 in funding and strictly choreographed dance and mime routines, the show offered a clearer vision of Kate’s spectacular world. It also shouldered proof that Kate was a pioneer. She was one of the first performers to ever wear a hands-free microphone, as she danced and leapt across the stage while she sang. A couple of years later, she became one of the first musicians to incorporate the Fairlight CMI synth and samples into her music. Although it’s taken for granted now, this was one of the world’s first digital synthesisers – and for better or worse, artists from Aphex Twin to Diplo probably wouldn’t exist now without it. If “Wuthering Heights” doesn’t grab you straight away, begin with “Running Up That Hill” instead, which is one of the best examples of Fairlight Kate.
Playlist: “Wuthering Heights” / “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” / “Wow” / “Babooshka” / “Army Dreamers” / “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” / “Hounds Of Love” / “Cloudbusting” / “This Woman’s Work” / “King Of The Mountain”
So You Want To Get Into: Sexy Kate Bush
“Okay, I won’t beat around the bush (chance would be a fine thing)” goes one of the first pieces ever written on Kate. “Kate Bush is… .a girl.” The same writer goes on, “A girl with a neat line in pre-packaged, stay fresh sexuality. A girl with the breasts of a Victorian princess, the lips of a Rembrandt cherub, the eyes of an Arabian Night, the hair of a…” And this doesn’t even scrape the barrel. It takes hours of reading through every single interview, one of which focuses entirely on her “naughty little toes”, another details how “her breasts stimulate the lovemaking” between the writer and her husband, before Kate’s asked about her music. In a 1980 interview with Sounds magazine she was asked why whale-song commenced her debut album The Kick Inside. “Whales say everything about 'moving'. It's huge and beautiful, intelligent, soft inside a tough body,” she replies, as though she knew exactly what it was like to be burdened by the body.
And in some ways she was. She was optimally post-virginal and menstrual when EMI released her debut LP, a time when the only other woman being publicised at Kate’s level was Blondie. “We were both being promoted on the basis of being female bodies as well as singers. People weren’t generally aware that I wrote my own songs or played the piano until maybe a year or so after that”, Kate relayed to the NME in 1982. Instead Kate had to prove that there was something inside her frame.
Incredible sadness, terror, pleasure is excreted in her music, as though it were made from mucous or tears. A vast amount of Kate’s catalogue consists of tales rooted in the deeply perverse and disturbing. Never Forever’s “Instant Kiss” details a woman feeling desire towards a child, while “The Kick Inside” tells the story of a woman who commits suicide after becoming impregnated by her brother. It “could be one of the most beautiful relationships in the world” she later told Smash Hits. If its audience weren’t so keen to tease out fantasies of those ‘naughty little toes’, they would have seen how deranged the sources of Kate’s sexual curiosities really were.
When it wasn’t horrific, the sexiness was scattological. On the cover of her third album Never For Ever, Kate wears a dress with a print pattern of clouds, as she queefs out swans, bats, cats. “But there couldn’t be anything about ‘wind’ in it or that would make the album one big fart,” she told Sounds Magazine. Besides this one interview, writers at the time didn’t make much of an attempt to deconstruct the sexuality in her songs. Any attempt to scrutinise the perfect presentation of her body would have been boner-killing as it often didn’t amount to much other than a fart. Go back to “The Saxophone Song” from her debut, where Kate is sat brooding in a Berlin bar before yelping with revelry, “It’s in me, It’s in me” as she’s “tuning in on your saxophone,” before the spurt of a sax solo wheezes and squelches and farts. Classic.
Playlist: “Feel It” / “The Saxophone Song” / “The Kick Inside” / “Symphony In Blue” / “The Infant Kiss” / “Houdini” / “The Sensual World” / “The Song Of Solomon”
So You Want To Get Into: Kate Bush As The Daughter
Long into post-adolescence and self-sufficiency, Kate was still referred to as the “doctor’s daughter,” and far into her forties, critics still tied Kate’s music to her father’s Englishness and her mother’s Irishness. She was treated as the product of something else, rather than the creator of genius. A mythology of Anglo-Saxon purity and stoicism webbed itself around her, while the great Irish intuition explained her musical talent. From the age of 12, she wrote songs that sounded as old as oak trees. But that changed at 23.
Released in 1982, The Dreaming has become the greatest temper tantrum ever set to record. Drums banging like bloodied fists open the album in its first track “Sat In Your Lap,” as she sings “I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a scholar, but I really can’t be bothered,” and she thrashes with impatience: “Ooh just gimme gimme! Gimme gimme gimme!” On “Suspended In Gaffa,” she’s stuck in this same purgatorial, boring state of betweenness, as she greedily asks again and again “Can I have it all now?” It’s a blunt departure from the well-to-do, good behaviour of a previous Kate.
Before The Dreaming, Kate was presented as the idyllic English rose, an image of purity and meekness fit for one of Jane Austen’s protagonists. From 1982 she was deemed a hermit, a mental case, one of Brontë’s wastrels. As critics became crueler and Kate got older, she reached more and more for her mother. Parts of Kate’s following album The Hounds Of Love are as splenetic as The Dreaming, particularly on “Mother Stands For Comfort,” which sees Kate sneaking out of her mother’s house, though her mother “won’t say anything.” Instead, she allows Kate to rattle and dander, to do what it takes to set out the stakes of her life and claim it as her own.
Later, 2005’s Aerial celebrated Kate’s son and her own motherhood, but not without the unexpected spectre of her mother. On “A Coral Room”, Kate imagines sailing through a town which was ruined years ago and has been webbed over by spiders like a fisherman’s net—the result of abandonment and time. She puts her hand down the side of the boat and is asked what she feels. The piano stops, there are five seconds of silence. “My mother.”
Playlist: “Breathing” / “Sat In Your Lap” / “Suspended In Gaffa” / “Get Out Of My House” / “Mother Stands For Comfort” / “Moments Of Pleasure” / “Lily” / “A Coral Room”
So You Want To Get Into: Kate Bush As The Mother
When you are a mother, you develop an aerial view of the world and on Aerial, Kate Bush is both mother and sky. She sees the process of light and life, dark and death each day. “Every sleepy light must say goodbye to day before it dies,” she reminds us on Aerial B-side “An Endless Sky Of Honey.”
But mothers also stand for comfort: “Keep us close to your heart, so if the skies turn dark we may live on in comets and stars,” she sings on “Endless Sky Of Honey”. Kate Bush reminds us that what's leftover from loss is beauty, and that’s the mother in her speaking. Like any good mother should, Kate encourages you to be kind, to treat the world and everything in it as though it’s worth it. She makes us pay attention to the minutiae and cosmos of beauty, while the daughter would rather rebel. “See how the child reaches out instinctively to see how the fire will feel” she makes us notice on The Sensual World’s “Reaching Out.”
As a listener, Kate Bush will also mother you personally. "Her personal addresses somehow become our own. Even when she sings nonsense things or about fiction or totally relatable subjects, somehow she still manages to seep in to us" a Kate lover named Sibyl told me after I reached out to fans on Twitter, "I was astounded at the depth of her empathy, love of (creative, professional, experimental) risk, and boundless fascination with the world and all the creatures that live within it”, says another fan named Chip. In between the stories and the absurdities, Kate Bush reaches out for us specifically. Listen to her with all of your kindness and attention. Question her, allow her to mother you, rebel against her. But take it on with full force, be as sensitive to the music as a little plant. Question why we don't demand this standard of beauty from everything.
Playlist: "Reaching Out" / "Top Of The City" / "Constellation Of The Heart" / "Bertie" / "An Endless Sky Of Honey" / "Among Angels"
You can find Emma on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.