Melody Maker, 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Kate Bush is an English original. In 1978, when her debut single
"Wuthering Heights" hit Number One in the UK, her wavering,
starburst voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But only because it's
from that same un-American, un-rock'n'roll place as Johnny Rotten's
snarl or Morrissey's plummy plaintiveness. Like the above, Kate
Bush's singing is almost like 'English soul' (ie, nothing to do with
pseudo-American blue-eyed soul).
Exploding into fame at the tail-end of punk, Bush was initially
far from hip. Her sense of glamour, while outlandish and eccentric,
seemed closer to the conventionally feminine than the likes of
Siouxsie and Poly Styrene, while her florid art-rock, with its
frilly, sumptuous surfaces and lofty conceptualism, seemed to belong
with the middlebrow likes of Pink Floyd (whose Dave Gilmour was
instrumental in getting her career off the ground) and Peter Gabriel
(later a friend and collaborator). Songs like "England My Lionheart"
partook of the olde Albion nostalgia of progressive rock (Floyd's
"Grantchester Meadows", Genesis' "Selling England by The Pound").
Actually, Bush is half-Irish on her late mother's side, and thinks
herself as much Celtic as Anglo-Saxon.
But now sufficient time has elapsed since the punk v. hippy
wars for Bush to be reclaimed and acclaimed as part of the canon of
British-and-proud-of-it art-rock. And so the likes of Brett Anderson
of Suede rave about her in the same breath as Bowie or Bolan; Suede
play Bush melodramas like 'Wuthering Heights' as a prequel to
hitting the stage and singing ballads like 'The Next Life', in which
Anderson endeavours to scale Bush's stratospheric heights of vocal
excess. And as may prove the case with Suede, it's the Englishness
of Bush's singing that's prevented her from breaking America.
"I don't sing with an American accent," she admits. "I'd not
considered that as a factor before, but certainly a lot of English
singers do sing with an American accent. I used to love that about
Bryan Ferry, that he sung with such an obviously English voice, when
so few people did. I loved Roxy Music, really loved the first four
albums. I loved David Bowie circa 'Young Americans' too."
Hipness may have eluded her during punk, but with her first few
albums, Bush plugged into the same realm of suburban teen dreamlife
and angsty, arty intensity as The Cure (Robert Smith was once
described as "the male Kate Bush") and The Smiths did later. If she
lacked the street credibility that was de rigeur during punk and
post-punk, it's because she was busy exploring "the great indoors"
of her imagination, fuelled by visions from literature and
mythology. Bush's early music and image exude much the same kind of
wispy pre-Raphaelite feminism as Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks
(another England-obsessed hippy chick): a wild and free femininity,
an autonomy achieved not through confrontation but elusiveness. A
nicer, girl-next-door-ier Siouxsie Sioux, Bush has used maquerade
and mystique as a way of tantalising but evading the male gaze (as
opposed to the demystification strategy utilised by she-rebels from
The Slits and Poly Styrene to Riot Grrrl). For a certain kind of
young woman, Bush's dressing up and fantasies of flying free was a
form of rebellion that spoke to them more keenly than punk's anti-
glamour postures and agit-prop polemic.
In 'The Secret History of Kate Bush (& the strange art of
pop)", a brilliant subversion of the star biography, Fred Vermorel
pinpoints suburbia as the well-spring of Bush's magick. He quotes
the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: "If I were asked to name
the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters
daydreaming, and the house protects the dreamer, the house allows
one to dream in peace". Where Siouxsie sang songs like "Suburban
Relapse" which presented domesticity as a prison that drives women
mad, Bush was a homebody, cocooned in the bosom of her family, whose
encouragement allowed her to become the teen prodigy she was and
Renaissance woman that she remains. Home-loving, suburban, Bush has
never been much of a rock'n'roll character (rock being the sound of
the city, of leaving home, cutting the ties that bind).
"Being born in the back of a pick-up truck, yeah, that's
rock'n'roll...," she laughs. "I've always found it really ridiculous
that I'm doing what I'm doing, cos in some ways I'm really
Fred Vermorel also waxed lyrical about Bush's NICENESS, but
acknowledged that she sometimes seems to use it as a shield, fending
off intrusive questions, protecting her private space (one of her
most disturbing and perplexing songs is "Get Out Of My House" off
1982's "The Dreaming"). "She will neutralise you by dissolving her
prescence in a polite fog", Vermorel observed. A few of my more
pretentious or lofty lines of enquiry are deftly neutralised and
dissolved in this fashion. For instance, citing the host of female
friends who testified to me about the huge impact Bush's music had
on them as teenagers, I move on to ask her about the female-ness of
her art. But she snuffs out the woman-in-rock approach by
responding to the prequel: "if people get anything out of my music
that's fantastic, I feel very privileged to do what I like for a
living, it makes me feel very humble that people actually play my
records." Only later, in transciption, do I realise how expertly she
parried and quashed a line of enquiry that probably bores the pants
off her. Kate Bush is nobody's fool.
* * * * * *
Bush's new album "The Red Shoes" is 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". And 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".
"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-hairstyled
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 luscious 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 forth."
Another track on the album, "Big Stripey Lie", is the kind of
futuristic funk-metal freak-out that the boy wonder might have
knocked out circa "Purple Rain" or "Sign O'The Times". Unusually,
it's Bush herself who does the screeching axe-work.
"I'm not one of those people who can pick up an instrument and
make a noise - keyboards are my instrument. But for a couple of
years I really wanted to play electric guitar. I had no interest in
acoustic, I just wanted to have a thrash. There was this heavy
metal wild man inside me that just wanted to come out!"
The song also reminds me a bit of the cross-generic
crush-collisions that a producer like Bill Laswell loves to throw
together (only less academic and sterile than his hybridology tends
"I do have a fascination with taking things that supposedly
don't go together and finding a way of making them go together. I
like playing with opposites a lot. The whole question of songs and
sounds and which ones go together and which don't - it fascinates
"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!"
* * * * * *
Along with her "wispy" mystical leanings (in the past she's had
hit singles with songs about oddball mystics like Gurdjieff and
Reich), 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 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. "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 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
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. 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
masterpiece, "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 sampler-delic 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".
* * * * * *
Coincidentally, the title track of "The Red Shoes" hymns the
trance-dental power of dance - an obsession that also inspired
Bush's directorial debut, "The Line, The Cross, The Curve".
Currently in the final throes of post-production, the hour long film
stars Miranda Richardson and mime Lindsay Kemp, (with whom Bush
studied dance in her early days of stardom). It's based on the same
fairy story as Michael Powell and Emerick Pressburger's classic
movie "The Red Shoes".
"It's just taking the idea of this shoes that have a life of
their own," Bush says of both the song and her film. "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.
Before I had any lyrics, the rhythm of the music led me to the image
of, oh, horses, something that was running forward, and that led me
to the image of the dancing shoes. Musically, I was just trying to
get a sense of delirium, of something very circular and hypnotic,
but building and building."
With its mix of acoustic instruments (mandola, whistles,
valiha) and synth-like keyboard textures, "The Red Shoes"
immediately made me think Bush was trying to make a link between
ancient and modern ideas of dance, pagan rites and techno-pagan
raving. The way that these primal modes of ecstatic trance-endence
have resurfaced in an ultra-modern hi-tech context --lasers,
strobes, 50 K sub-bass sound--suggests that these impulses lie
dormant in our collective unconscious or even genetic code. People
have instinctively reinvented these rituals despite, or perhaps
because, our culture in impoverished when it comes to forms of
"Something very similar was on my mind, the idea of trance,
delirium, as a way of transcending the normal. Maybe human beings
actually need that. Things are very hard for people in this country,
maybe they instinctively need to transcend it. It's very much that
Has dancing ever had that ecstatic function for you?
"A couple of times, it has really made me feel like that. Of
course, just doing exercise puts you in a much better state of mind.
I can feel negative before I do a class, and I always feel so much
better afterwards. But that may simply be a question of getting
oxygen to the brain!"
The reason I ask was that you used to tell a story sometimes
about your childhood: how you would dance unselfconsciously to pop
music on TV, but then some visitors laughed at you, shattering your
innocence, and you never danced that way again. You even said: "I
think maybe I've been trying to get back there ever since."
"I do remember being incredibly unselfconscious, but it wasn't
that people laughed at me, it was that they came as an audience at
one point. And suddenly being observed made me terribly
self-conscious. I was only 3 or 4 and I would dance to any music.
But 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."
* * * * * *
This longing for lost innocence is a thread running through
Bush's oeuvre. The genderless protagonist of "In Search Of Peter
Pan" (from 1978's "Lionheart"), keeps a picture of Peter Pan in a
locket, as a symbol of the limitless imagination and fantastical
dreams of chilhood, which he knows he's about to lose as adulthood
looms. Some critics have seen J.M. Barrie's immortal boychild as
androgynous (before the calamity of puberty, which Peter Pan never
suffers, the sexes aren't so differentiated, which is why the Riot
Grrrls so often mourn the lost invincible tomboy of prepubescence).
As it happens, androgyy remains an obsession for Kate Bush (another
Suede connection!), and surfaces on the new record with "Eat The
Music". The song's crux is the lines: "he's a woman at heart/and I
love him for that/let's split him open/like a pomegranate/insides
out/all is revealed/not only woman bleed".
"It's playing with the idea of opening people up," explains
Bush, "And the idea of the hidden femininity in a man, and the man
in a woman. I do think androgyny is a world movement. Whether people
are consciously controlling it or not, it's what's happening.
Although in some ways it's extremely confusing, it's got to be
positive in the long run. It seems such a shame that men and women
don't help each other. Maybe that's a naive thing to say, but
they're always working against each other. The main thing I'm aware
of is, in terms of growing awareness, is the fact that the 'anima'
and 'animus'" - she's referring to Carl Jung's feminine and
masculine archetypes -"is quite a popular conception now."
Back in 1978, Bush declared: "when I'm at the piano writing a
song, I like to feel I'm a man, not physically but in the areas they
"I do remember saying that I didn't necessarily feel like a
woman," she says now. "If you have a subject matter for a song, you
pretend to be that character. It's one big make-up and dressing up
game. Not so much now, but early on, I did write songs from a man's
point of view, or even from an object's point of view".
While the 1978 quote may simply reflect the lack of female role
models in the prog-rock/art-rock field to which Bush aspired, it
suggests to me another idea: that pop is androgynising. It's a space
which in which either gender can appropriate the other gender's
"privileges": men can be hyper-emotional and vulnerable, women can
seize the creative reins, be self-aggrandising, aggressive,
larger-than-life, loud. Is pop, at its best, a utopian space in
which the limits of gender and physical identity are transcended?
"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 try to do as much as you can within those physical
boundaries. All art is like that: a form of exploration, of making
up stories. Writing, film, sculpture, music: it's all make believe,