Pulse magazine, 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Kate Bush is very... unlikely. A teen prodigy, she
rocketed to the pinnacle of the British charts with her 1978
debut, "Wuthering Heights", a very... unlikely pop single
inspired by the Gothic/Romantic novel. Her keening,
cloudbusting warble ("it's meeee, I'm Katheeeee") immediately
marked her out as an original. Over the next few years,
Bush's florid art-pop, outlandish image and lofty lyrical
concerns won her a devout cult following, while a larger mass
audience was seduced by pop hits like "The Man With The Child
In His Eyes". If her feminine glamour and the lavish
loveliness of her music prompted sneers from critics (punk
was all the rage), Bush connected with the imagination of
suburban youth, and particularly with the fantasy life of
introspective young women. Her albums, "The Kick Inside" and
"Lionheart" (both released in 1978), found a place right next
to Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and Genesis' "The
Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' in every small-town dreamer's
Kate Bush gradually whittled away her mass popularity
by pursuing an increasingly experimental course, a tendency
that surfaced on 1980's 'Never for Ever' and the harrowing
nuclear-Armageddon scenario of the single "Breathing", and
blossomed with the extravagantly uncompromising 1982 album
"The Dreaming". Bush faded from public view for a while,
then returned to enjoy a second phase of pop stardom with the
ecstatic lyricism of singles like "Running Up That Hill"
(from 1985's "The Hounds Of Love") and 'The Sensual World'
(from the 1989 LP of the same title). And for the first time,
Bush began to make an impression in America, hitherto rather
baffled and bemused by her Englishness and arty-ness.
Her new LP "The Red Shoes" could be the one to break her
big over here. It's a diverse affair, almost a collection of
singles rather than an 'album', ranging from a classic Bush-
style keyboard-based ballad like "Moments Of Pleasure" to a
futuristic funk-rock scorcher like "Big Stripey Lie", which
sees Bush wrenching out some feral noise-guitar. And it
surely won't hurt that she's got a raft of illustrious guest
players on board this time, 'big names' like Eric Clapton,
Jeff Beck and Prince.
"My guitarist [Alan Murphy] died a few years ago," says
Bush, now in her mid-thirties but remarkably ageless. We're
sitting in a North London film editing studio where she's
putting finishing touches to her directorial debut, "The
Line, The Cross, The Curve" (see side panel). "And there
were a lot of tracks I wanted guitar in and I felt a bit
lost. So when I wrote a song I'd start to imagine who would
be the best guitarist I could possibly have. It was a bit of
game at first! But people were so responsive. It did concern
me a bit that if I wasn't using these people well, it would
just come across as very flash. Sometimes having someone who
has a distinctive sound doesn't always work very well in
other people's music."
The subdued, desolate ballad 'And So Is Love' features
Eric Clapton and, on keyboards, Gary Brooker (ex-Procul
Harum). "When I was writing that song, it took on a certain
flavour. Quite empty, slightly bluesy. And I felt how
wonderful it would be to have Eric to play on it. What he
played was so beautiful, it became a question of finding
other sounds that would suit the texture. I love the Hammond
organ, and I'd met Gary Brooker years ago on some charity
thing and I'd wanted to work with him."
Other guest players include Jeff Beck, the punk-coiffed
classical violinist Nigel Kennedy, and the Black British
comedian Lenny Henry, all of whom Bush describes separately
as "a bit of a mate". Lenny Henry doesn't tell any gags,
but does some rather fine soul singing on "Why Should I Love
You"--the same song to which Prince contributes guitar,
keyboards, bass and vocals, lending the track a distinctly
Paisley Park feel. Apart from obviously having some kind of
mutual admiration pact, Prince and Bush share some
affinities: hippy-dippy mystical leanings, but more
importantly, a love of sumptuous arrangements, a delight in
molding the exquisite stuff of sound, frolicing in the studio
playpen. Prince and Bush both make records that are so
luscious, tantalising and succulent, they're almost edible.
"I think he's so talented," gushes Bush. "One of the few
people in this business who's very prolific, but very
consistent. Again, it was a bit of a whim, I was writing
the song and I thought 'who'd be nice to play guitar?'. We
never actually met while doing the track, only later. But
that appealed to my sense of humour, sending tapes back and
"The Red Shoes" also sees Bush resume her periodic
delvings into non-Western ethnic music. The sprightly "Eat
The Music" is the result of a recent infatuation with
Madagascar's folk music. She first heard it through her
brother Paddy, who hips her to a lot of world music. (He
plays 'fujare' and Tibetan singing bowls on "Lily", another
song on the album).
"If I hear things and think they're really great, it's
hard not to be influenced. I've always had an interest in
traditional music. Madagascan music is so fantastically
joyous. And I really wanted to do something that could
hopefully use that joy but fit it into a rock context.
It was wonderful working with this Madagascan guy, Justin
Vall. His energy was extraordinary. Just like the music, so
very innocent and positive and sweet.
"Paddy's always listening out for traditional music. It
probably came from my mother, who was Irish. She was always
surrounded by traditional music when she was a kid. When I
was growing up people would come in and they'd just start
playing a tune. So there was always, in my early life, this
thing of music being treated as a joyous thing, part of life.
Someone would pick up a fiddle and everyone else would get up
and dance." Bush mourns the absence today of that festive,
convivial, participatory approach to music. "It's to do with
our English temperament, it's hard for us to learn to enjoy
ourselves. In Ireland, people just play music all the time
cos they love it."
"The Red Shoes" also renews Bush's collaboration with
the Trio Bulgarka, whose Bulgarian harmony singing stems from
a folk culture in which music is intertwined with the prosaic
textures of everyday life. The Trio can sing songs about
doing the laundry and make it sound transcendental. "Well,
not all of their songs are so trivial as that," says Bush.
"Some of the stories are really quite sad. But yes, they can
make you cry to a tune that's about making bread!"
Bush first called on the Trio's services for her
last album, "The Sensual World". Again, it was Paddy Bush
who turned her on to Bulgarian music, but it was Joe Boyd
(legendary producer of The Incredible String Band and other
folkadelic weirdos associated with Elektra, and founder of
Hannibal, the pioneering world music label) who hooked her up
with the Trio, and equally important, with a translator and
an arranger. "I was scared," recalls Bush. "'Cos what they do
is so... profound and so ancient, and I felt naive in my
musical ability. I didn't want to involve them in some...
pop song, y'know, and end up abusing their talents. They're
people with such integrity. Such lovely people. They have
such hard lives."
The everyday hardship of Eastern Bloc life led the Trio
Bulgarka to respond rather oddly to one line in "You're The
Only One I Want". It's a song about breaking up a
relationship, and Bush proclaims herself a free spirit who
can go where she pleases 'cos "I've got petrol in the car".
"The Trio were most jealous, cos they have to queue for 48
hours to get a gallon of gas. They had a totally different
way of looking at it!"
There's a similar soundclash of folk traditionalism and
modern studio artistry on the title track, "The Red Shoes",
where acoustic textures (mandolo, whilstes, valiha) rub
up against synthesisers. The effect suggests that Bush was
trying to make connections between ancient and modern ideas
of dance, between the Celtic jig-and-reel and the techno-
pagan rites of raving. "I was trying to get a sense of
delirium, of something very circular and hypnotic, but
building and building, so that you transcend the normal.
With its dervish-whirling frenzy, the song is vaguely
evocative of the Tarantella, in which angst-racked young
Italian women would dance away the heartache, dance their way
out of their "constrictions" (as Funkadelic put it in "One
Nation Under A Groove"). Dancing has sometimes had that same
trance-endent function for Bush. Earlier in her career, she
used to relate an anecdote about how, as a small child, she
would dance whenever pop music came on TV, quite
unselfconsciously. But one day, some family friends saw her
and laughed, shattering her innocence, and "from that moment
I stopped doing it. I think maybe I've been trying to get
back there ever since".
"I remember being incredibly unselfconscious," says Bush
now, "but it wasn't that people laughed at me, so much that
they came as an audience, and it made me self-conscious that
suddenly I was being observed. I was only 3 or 4 and I would
dance to anything. Children all reach that point where they
become self-conscious about things that are obviously
extremely natural to them. and then you either never get back
there, or you spend a lot of time trying to recover it."
A yearning to recover lost innocence, to attain a state
of grace and easy connection with the world, is something of
thread running through Bush's work, from her early obsession
with the 'eternal child' Peter Pan to the spiritual and
religious allusions that still pepper her lyrics (in the past
she's had hit singles inspired by oddball mystics like
Gurdjieff and Reich).
Although Bush is too "wary of
doctrines" to align herself with any particular belief
system, she admits that she's something of a seeker. On the
new album, "The Song Of Solomon" is inspired by the famously
sensual and erotic passages from the Bible, while "Lily" is
riddled with apocalyptic imagery: "unveil to us the face of
the true Spiritual Son", ""walking in the Veil of Darkness" .
The song was written as gift to its namesake, a "very dear
and a wise lady" who helped Bush through a "rough time" (a
veiled reference to the death of her mother Hannah, to whom
'The Red Shoes' is dedicated). And it's the real Lily who
recites the song's first verse.
"She's one of those ladies who has gifts, and she's very
giving. She believes very strongly in angels, in a way I've
not really experienced before. My concept of angels comes
from when I was a child. But the way she understands angels
is not like that at all, she sees them as very powerful,
helpful forces - a bit like that film 'Wings Of Desire'. And
angels are something that are coming forward in the public
consciousness, in films and art - don't you think?"
* * * * *
Along with her "wispy" mystical leanings, if there's one
thing that makes Bush a love-or-hate, adore-or-abhor
proposition, it's her voice. For some it's swoonily intense,
a voice to drown in; for others, it's gratingly over-the-top,
frilly and overwraught. Bush's bursting, exultant style is
unique and unprecedented, and, as is the way with originals,
it's been a big influence on subsequent female singers. Not
that Bush appears to have noticed (indeed she likes to make
out she doesn't listen to much contemporary music). She's
non-committal when I reel out the roll-call of the indebted.
These include Tori Amos (whose piano-based melodrama owes a
lot to Bush's early style), Sinead O'Connor, 'kooky' Canadian
singer-songwriters like Mary Margaret O'Hara and Jane
Siberry, and even a few post-punk chanteuses (ex-Sugarcube
Bjork, Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins).
Bush has always loved to make an unusual voice even
more unearthly, by revelling in studio treatments and multi-
tracking herself into a disorientating schizo-chorale
polyphony. On the new album's "Rubberband Girl", she lets
loose a geyser of scat-vocalese mid-song, a sort of horn solo
for the human voice, then spirals off into an eerie drone-
chant roundelay. "A lot of those vocal experiments just
happen in the studio," she says. "But then a lot of the times
I'm writing in the studio, onto tape, as opposed to taking a
written song in with me."
From very early on, Bush made production an inseparable
part of composition. She's vigorously and flamboyantly seized
on the studio's possibilities for sound-sculpting.
Surprisingly, given that she's one of the few female artists
to go so deeply into studio-mastery, she's done hardly any
production for other artists.
"I've had offers, but I've been too busy. I do love the
idea of helping someone else to make a record, 'cos it's a
very difficult process. The whole question of songs and
sounds and which ones go together and which don't, it
fascinates me. You have to use very strange language to
describe sounds to musicians or engineers, like 'cold' or
'warm'. Sound's a bit like smell, in that it's hard to
describe without comparing it to something inappropriate.
They say that smell is most closely connected to the memory
centre of the brain, and I've always been obsessed with the
fact that you can just smell something and it'll take you
right back. You can't even place where it comes from, but you
just know it's from someplace way back in your childhood.
And in some ways, maybe music does the same thing."
Bush's interest in exploring the possibilities of the
studio-as-instrument, the importance she places on
"chromatic" timbres and textures in music, makes her very
much part of the British art-rock tradition. In particular,
she has much in common with Brian Eno (his first band, Roxy
Music, was a childhood favourite of Bush's). Both are
fascinated by what Eno regards as the most radical aspect of
rock, the timbres, textures and treatments that can't be
scored with traditional notation, can only be gestured at
feebly with metaphor and simile. Eno too has pointed out the
affinities between smell and sound as sensory zones for which
we have no verbal map.
As it happens, Bush has "a lot of respect" for Eno.
"I think he's had a very big influence on the music business.
The album he did with David Byrne, "My Life In The Bush Of
Ghosts", that's been incredibly... revolutionary. A lot of
the sample-based music that's happening now stems straight
from that. Such a turning point in music, the whole use of
repetition. It was a big influence on me too. It's a shame
that 'My Life In The Bush' was so under-rated at the time.
But that's always the way: the innovators tend not to have
such big hits. And then you get people who copy two or three
stages down the line, who get huge hits and are hailed as the
new sound. "
Could this be a veiled allusion to Bush's own neglected
mistress-piece, "The Dreaming"? While far from a flop, the
1982 album was sufficiently avant-garde to alienate some of
her audience, and it didn't spawn many chart-toppers.
"I had bit of a rough time with 'The Dreaming' but I'm
not surprised really. It's kind of a weird album. But it was
a very important period for me, I just wanted to do something
that meant something to me and wasn't at all commercial. I
was happy with what we achieved, even though a lot of people
didn't get it. It consolidated feelings in me about doing
things that felt right as opposed to doing things so they'd
be incredibly popular."
As well as containing her first concerted embrace of
world music influences (like the didgeridu-driven, aboriginal
soundscape of the title track), "The Dreaming" was also the
album on which Bush got to grips with sampling, in the form
of the then expensive and rather exclusive Fairlight.
Nowadays samplers are cheap and commonplace, and the
sampladelic sorcery Bush trailblazed is part of the fabric of
modern music, from hip hop to techno. Appropriately, Bush
recently found herself being 'sampled'. For their rave hit
"Something Good", British techno unit The Utah Saints took a
slice of vocal euphoria from her "Cloudbusting" hit (off 'The
Hounds Of Love'), and modulated it into a swooning loop.
Bush's mystic ecstasy ("I just know that something good is
going to happen") was transformed to evoke the raver's
breathless anticipation as the Ecstasy starts to come on
strong. Perhaps unaware of its full naughtiness, Bush
approved of the song, and with typical, almost thespian
modesty, says she was "flattered".
These days, of course, it's hip to declare that you
always liked Kate Bush. But when she started out, she was
very much identified with progressive rock (Pink Floyd's Dave
Gilmour helped kickstart her career, and she's long been a
close friend with ex-Genesis art-rocker Peter Gabriel).
While Bush's success dwarfed most of the punk bands,
critically she suffered somewhat from punk's overhaul of
values, which decreed that social realism and raucous
minimalism was where it was at, and Bush-style conceptualism
and sonic maximalism was passe. For many, Bush was a bit of
a hippy chick, a throwback.
"It was one of those points in time when stuff was being
thrown up, and it was quite incongruous, me turning up at the
same time," she remembers. "At that time, there was a certain
over-the-topness that needed to be expressed by a lot of
people. But I did like a lot of punk music at the time. It
an important period of music, it shook things up a bit."
Looking back, it's now possible to reappraise Bush as
a sort of nicer, more palatable version of Siouxsie Sioux,
the punk Ice Queen. They share a similar piercing, banshee-
like vocal style, a similar delight in ransacking history's
wardrobe for striking images, a similar blend of proto-
feminist strength and feminine mystique. Unlike the rock
tomboys (from Joan Jett to L7), who emulate cock-rock
mastery, the likes of Bush and Siouxsie use mystery as a
weapon. Like Stevie Nicks' Welsh witch "Rhiannon", they
elude and evade the male gaze, even as they enthrall it.
Which is why so many teenage girls in the late Seventies
and early Eighties fixated on Bush or Siouxsie (and sometimes
even both). With her interest in literary and mythological
archetypes of wild women, Bush connects with that part of
female experience that involves adventures in "the great
indoors". Where boys go wild in the streets, girls more often
roam the wilderness of their imagination.
Talking to female friends, I discovered that Kate Bush
had much the same formative effect on them as someone like
Johnny Rotten/Lydon had on me. There are some parallels
between Bush and the ex-Pistol: the influence of a Catholic
mother; the fact that Bush was a Pink Floyd protege, whilst
Rotten was wearing a Pink Floyd T-Shirt when he first met his
svengali Malcolm McLaren. Admittedly, Rotten had scrawled
'I Hate..." on top in biro, but he must have liked them
once (his tastes in prog, glam and art-rock were otherwise
remarkably close to the young Bush's). There's even a
parallel between Public Image Limited's experimental 1981
album "Flowers Of Romance" and Bush's "The Dreaming": both
Lydon and Bush messed around with a palatte of exotic, non-
rock instruments, and there are remarkably similar stories
about them devoting days to extracting strange percussive
sounds by bashing together unlikely objects.
But what they really have in common is the originality
and sheer Englishness of their voices - Rotten's Dickensian
snarl, Bush's quivery stratospherics, were both defiantly un-
American. So now that the punk versus prog wars have long
since faded, it's possible for a new Brit-and-proud-of-it
band like Suede (current ringleaders of a 'Yanks go Home'
anti-grunge backlash) to talk of loving the Pistols, Kate
Bush and Bowie all in the same breath.
Bush doesn't respond too well to questions of gender,
perhaps wary or plain bored of the 'women-in-rock' fix, but
she is very interested in androgyny (an Anglo-pop tradition
recently revived by Suede). In "Eat the Music", she
celebrates the fact that "not only women bleed". "It was
just playing with the idea of opening people up, the idea of
the femininity in a man that's hidden, and the man in a
woman," she says. In fact, Bush believes that there's "a
world movement towards androgyny. Whether people are
consciously controlling it, or not, I do think it's what's
happening. The main thing I'm aware of is that the concept
of 'anima' and 'animus'" (she's referring to Carl Jung's
female and male archetypes) "has entered the public
imagination in quite a big way. Then there's the way people
are dressing too. I think it's very positive. It's seems
such a shame that men and women don't help each other, that
they're always working against each other."
Back in 1978, Bush confessed that "when I'm at the piano
writing a song, I like to think I'm a man, not physically but
in the areas that they explore." While this may simply be an
indication of the extent to which Bush was venturing into a
field - art-rock - almost totally barren of female role
models, it also suggests that pop is a space for androgyny,
for playing with gender and transcending limits. A utopian
"That's what all art's about - a sense of moving away
from boundaries that you can't, in real life. Like a dancer
is always trying to fly, really. To do something that's just
not possible. But you do as much as you can within those
physical boundaries. All art is like that, a form of
exploration, of making up stories. Stories, film, sculpture,
music: it's all make believe, really."
SIDE PANEL: THE FILM
The title of Kate Bush's new album is a tribute to the
late film-maker Michael Powell, who, in partnership with
Emerick Pressburger, made "The Red Shoes" and other classic
British movies like 'Black Narcissus', 'The Life and Death of
Colonel Blimp', 'A Matter Of Life and Death' and 'Peeping
Tom'. Confusingly, Bush is making her directorial debut with
'The Line, The Cross, The Curve', based on the same fairy
story as "The Red Shoes".
"I'm a big fan of Michael Powell's films. They're just
very lovely - very sumptuous in their look, but very human as
well. There's this lovely sort of heart all the way through
his stuff. I also think he had a really wonderful attitude
to women, they're always portrayed as women AND as people. I
was very lucky in that I got to meet him just before he died,
and he was such a lovely person. He left quite a big
impression on me. My film is nothing like his film 'The Red
Shoes' really, but it's based on the same idea of these shoes
that have a life of their own, and if you're unfortunate
enough to put them on, you're just going to dance and dance.
It's almost like the idea that you're possessed by dance."
For 'The Line, The Cross, The Curve' Bush hooked up with
two of her heroes, the dancer and mime Lindsay Kemp (with
whom she used to study with in her early days of pop
stardom), and actress Miranda Richardson (Oscar-nominated
star of "The Crying Game"). "I just think she's one of the
best actresses we've got," gushes Bush. "I'm just so pleased
she got involved."
The hour long film was made with amazing swiftness. "It
was written and rehearsed in a couple of months, and took
three weeks to film - we should really have had twice as
long. It's been hard work, but really interesting for me,
really educational. For years I've been saying to friends,
'oh, I'd love to make a film', but I hadn't really planned on
doing a film like this, one that's partly based around tracks
from the album. I would like a shot at making a proper film
one day. See, I'm not really sure if there's a a lot of
opportunities to show short films like 'The Line, The Cross,
The Curve'. I've no idea where it will actually be shown, but
it would nice for people to get to see it in its entirety.
Kate Bush as the child Cathy - a photo book by her brother
Fred Vermorel on Kate Bush
extracts from Fred Vermorel's piece (Village Voice/Voice Literary Supplement, October - November 2000) on his approach to renegade biography Fantastic Voyeur:Lurking on the Dark Side of Biography
"There was a metal fire escape up one side of her house. At the top was a black emergency door with a bar, the kind you find in cinemas. Such doors could be jimmied open. But was it alarmed? I often climbed to the landing outside this door and made a nest, camping on the iron slats. Sometimes her cats passed below and looked up at me. Would they tell? Sometimes she passed below, wheeling her bicycle for nocturnal sorties. Squatting there, refreshing myself with sandwiches and tea from a flask, I would listen to her dwelling as a lover sprawled over her body, detecting her heart."....
.... "There is also a sensuous and flirtatious aspect to biographical research: breaking seals and confidences, untying ribbons from bundles of documents, raising the dust of strangers' lives, dealing and unpacking other people's intimacies, deciphering their photos . . ."
.... "Sometimes I pressed my ear to the door and heard distant comings and goings. The gist of events and conversations, uncertain threads and emissions of her and her brother's lives. Explosions of hoohas, pounded stairs, slammed doors, flushing cisterns, music. It was as if they were putting it on to fascinate and tease me. Listen here, Fred! What is this noise here? And that one?"...
"All games I played while researching The Secret History of Kate Bush, an absurdist experiment to see how far the rock bio could be stretched without snapping. I adopted the persona of a mad professor so obsessed that he traces Kate Bush's genealogy back to the Vikings. And I also stalked the woman, as a phenomenological acting out of that uneasy and twisted boundary between fascination and obsession. Oddly (or perhaps not), the book became the bestselling bio of that singer. But what most struck me was how straight were the readings people made of this text. I still find discussions on the Internet debating whether "I" was "really" obsessed with Kate Bush, as well as allegations I not only had an affair with her, but that while researching her life I ran over her cat.
Far from running over her cat, I seduced both her cats, Zoodle and Pywacket. I'd watch her let them out the door at night and coo them over to my hiding place, where I'd stroke their grumbling fur. Her cats were my Trojan horses to carry the smell of the hand I caressed them with back into her house, into her very lap. "
... "The morning John Lennon was shot I woke suddenly around 4:15. Numbers were flashing through my head: a phone number. I jotted it down on a pad. Turned over but still couldn't sleep. Around seven I turned on the radio and heard the news. A few days later, out of curiosity I rang the number. Kate Bush answered."....