We go inside the career of one of modern music’s most ambitious and innovative artists
This article was originally published in 2016
“First of all I thought she was mad, probably, a mad woman had slipped onto the airwaves. And then really I thought that it was very, very good.” Back in 1993, during an interview with Michael Aspel, British comedian Victoria Wood summed up in just two sentences the world’s collective response to the brilliant, bizarre, inimitable creature that was – and is – Kate Bush. A brave thing to say, perhaps, given that Bush herself was sitting alongside her. But Bush, in her quiet, lilting speaking voice, concurred. “Yes, I think I probably am truly mad, you know?”
It’s easy enough, though, to write off Kate Bush’s ambitious, constantly evolving eccentricity as madness. But behind her wide-eyed theatrics there lies one of those most innovative creators of the past 50 years. Here, we’ve compiled a guide to the essence, uncontainable though it is, of Kate Bush.
A IS FOR AMBITION
“You’re 21 and you’ve made it,” said a BBC interviewer, somewhat accusatorially, back in 1979. “What is there left to do now?” It was, in some sense, a logical question – she’d already achieved a number one single with the ubiquitous “Wuthering Heights”, had a hugely successful debut album with The Kick Inside, and sold out a tour that would irreversibly alter the face of live music. But it was also a foolish question – because this was Kate Bush he was talking to. “Everything,” she replied softly. “I haven’t really begun yet.”
B IS FOR BROTHERS
Bush’s two brothers, both significantly older (Paddy by six years, John by 14), were heavily involved in her career. As well as sharing her passion for music, with Paddy appearing on every album of hers up to 2005, they also took it upon themselves to ensure that their teenage sister wasn’t exploited by the record company (which led to the occasional clash), and to provide honest critiques of her work. But Bush was still, even as a teenager, resolutely independent. “If they said (a song) was rubbish, I’d think about it,” she once said, “But if I didn’t think it was rubbish, then I’d still carry on with it. You have to believe in yourself. You can’t just accept what other people say all the time, otherwise you become them.”
C IS FOR CLOUDBUSTING
Bush always drew as much from worlds outside of her own lived experience, be it books, films, or real people whose stories had spoken to her, for song material as she did from her own life. “Cloudbusting” – one of the best songs from 1985’s Hounds Of Love – does just that. The song was inspired by Peter Reich’s memoir A Book Of Dreams and is based around Reich’s relationship with his father, the psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Reich, who was arrested and imprisoned when his son was young. “But it’s very much more to do with how the son does begin to cope with the whole loneliness and pain of being without his father,” said Bush in a newsletter in 1985. “It is the magic moments of a relationship through a child's eyes, but told by a sad adult.”
D IS FOR DANCE
When Bush signed her deal with EMI at the age of just 16, she was effectively put on ice by the label, who feared – despite her fiercely precocious talents – that she was too young to cope with either success or failure. For two years, she had a record contract and reams of material, but wasn’t allowed to release a single thing. So she decided to while away the months learning to dance. Five days a week for over a year, she attended various dance and mime classes, most notably with Lindsay Kemp (who had worked with David Bowie a few years earlier), and honed the dramatic, wide-eyed, inimitable dance moves which would be so loved – and so heavily parodied – for the rest of her career.
E IS FOR EAST WICKHAM FARM
Bush’s childhood was spent on a 350-year-old farm in Welling, Kent. It wasn’t a working farm by the time her family moved there, but it housed a rose garden, a duck pond they turned into a swimming pool, a Wash House and a barn – which would eventually become Bush’s recording studio.
F IS FOR FAIRLIGHT
By the mid 1980s, the Fairlight digital synthesizer, which sampled and distorted any sound, was everywhere – but Kate Bush was one of the very first artists to fully embrace it. The Fairlight CMI (short for Computer Musical Instrument) basically looked like a keyboard with a black and green screened computer plonked on top. For the first time, it allowed musicians to record, distort and loop any sound they liked - an opportunity Bush relished. Look no further than the iconic glass-smashing sounds on “Babooshka”, or the strange, computerized ‘ooh’ that lurks throughout “Sat In Your Lap”.
G IS FOR DAVID GILMOUR
Though crediting anyone other than Kate Bush with the success of her career would be sacrilege, she certainly owes a debt to Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who was the first person outside her family and friends to notice her talents. After receiving a demo tape from a friend of a 16-year-old Bush performing, among other songs, “The Man With The Child In His Eyes”, Gilmour visited her home, then paid for her to record a higher quality version to send to record companies. After that, a record deal was an absolute inevitability.
H IS FOR HEADSET
Believe it or not, microphone headsets, worn by everyone from Madonna to Britney Spears in order to free their hands during live shows, didn’t exist before Kate Bush’s Tour Of Life. Because of the aforementioned dedication to dancing, Bush was unhappy with lugging around a handheld microphone as she cascaded theatrically across the stage. And so her stage sound engineer, Martin Fisher, rigged a wireless headset out of a coat hanger. It was the very first of its kind.
I IS FOR INTROVERT
Though undoubtedly an extroverted performer, Kate Bush the person – as is latently obvious if you watch any interview with her – is anything of the sort. While she’s always possessed a quiet confidence in her own abilities, she’s hardly gregarious, and finds social situations draining. In 1978, before she’d even begun touring, she said, “I miss being by myself very, very much, but it’s very difficult because you can’t just ask people to leave, they don’t understand. I can’t remember the last time I was alone for any length of time, even a day. It must be well over a year.”
J IS FOR JAMES BOND
In 1979, just before she was due to embark on her Tour Of Life, Bush was asked to perform the theme song for that year’s Bond film, Moonraker. She declined, and Shirley Bassey stepped in for the third time instead.
K IS FOR KATE
Obviously. But it might surprise you to learn that Catherine Bush adopted the nickname Kate fairly late. Until the age of 18, she was known as Cathy – a name she shared with the central character of a novel that would prove pretty significant to her career.
L IS FOR LEWISHAM
A pub in Lewisham isn’t exactly the place you’d expect one of the biggest musicians on the planet to perform their inaugural live show – but then, Bush never did do what people expected. As well as spending the two years between being signed and releasing music learning to dance, she also – at the label’s request – honed her live skills as the frontperson of The KT Bush Band. The band performed a residency at Lewisham’s The Rose Of Lee (now called The Dirty South), and played mainly covers. “I was so scared,” she subsequently recalled. “I really was. But once you’re up there it’s different, you just forget all about it, because they’re there to see you and you have to give it to them. Considering it was a pub and we were totally unknown they were very good, very respectful.”
M IS FOR MOTHERHOOD
When Bush had just turned 21, a male, middle-aged interviewer asked her, “Is there ever a chance that you might give up, get married, settle down, be an ordinary mother?” I’ll leave it to your imagination as to whether he’d have asked a 21-year-old Mick Jagger something similar. Her answer was admirably polite. “Obviously there is a chance, because I’m human and humans are very unpredictable,” she smiled. “I don’t see that happening, not for a while. I’ve got so much to do, and I think freedom is important to be able to do all those things.” She did eventually have a son, Albert, but not for another 18 years. Albert, known as Bertie, featured prominently in her 2014 comeback tour, Before The Dawn.
N IS FOR NUMBER ONE
With her breakout single, “Wuthering Heights”, Bush became the first female artist to reach the top spot in the UK charts with a self-penned song. She also reached number one with her 1985 album, Hounds Of Love, a few months after the NME prematurely featured her in a “Where Are They Now?” article.
O IS FOR OUTSTANDING
Bush has won a plethora of awards throughout her career, but among the most notable was her Outstanding Contribution To British Music award at the Ivor Novellos in 2002. She also surprised everyone in 2012 by actually turning up to receive her South Bank Sky Arts Award for her album 50 Words For Snow, after years away from the public eye.
P IS FOR PANIC
Given how many iconic musicians have left this earth in 2016, it’s hardly surprising that we’re all a little on edge when it comes to the mortality of our favourite artists. A study by BCalm, which analysed 300,000 social media posts, found that Kate Bush was the most panicked about celebrity this year after her name started trending on July 29. The actual reason she was trending? It was the day before her birthday.
Q IS FOR QUEEN
In 2005, Bush met the Queen, and decided to take the opportunity to ask for her autograph. “I made a complete arsehole of myself,” she told The Guardian. “I'm ashamed to say that when I told Bertie that I was going to meet the Queen, he said, 'Mummy, no, you're not, you've got it wrong' and I said, 'But I am!' So rather stupidly I thought I'd get her to sign my programme. She was very sweet.” Sweet she may have been, but she didn’t sign the programme.
R IS FOR RUNNING UP THAT HILL
The lead single from Hounds Of Love was supposed to be called “Deal With God”, but Bush was told in no uncertain terms that “if we kept this title, it wouldn’t be played in any of the religious countries.” So she reluctantly changed it – a decision that she’s “always regretted” – but the sentiment of the song remains. “I was trying to say that, really, a man and a woman can’t understand each other because we are a man and a woman,” she told Classic Albums in 1991. “And if we could actually swap each other's roles, if we could actually be in each other's place for a while, I think we'd both be very surprised!”
S IS FOR SCHOOL
Bush attended St Joseph’s Convent Grammar School, run by nuns and with a school song called “Death Before Dishonour”, until the age of 16. Bush, somewhat surprisingly, didn’t much stand out. She simply quietly bided her time, safe in the knowledge that she was destined for something altogether different. “My only memories are of someone quiet,” said her classmate Jane Wilkinson in Graeme Thomson’s biography Under The Ivy, “who certainly didn’t stand out as someone destined to be a rock star.” But destined she was.
T IS FOR THE TOUR OF LIFE
Kate Bush’s first ever tour was so unprecedented in its scope and theatricality, so innovative in its technology, and so grand in its scale and production, that she didn’t do another one for 35 years. What more of herself could she possibly give, after all? “She used to just collapse, really, at the end of the show,” said bandmate Brian Bath, “and I’d have to carry her back a few times. It was not… it wasn’t really good you know.” In 2014, years after most fans’ hopes of a follow-up had fizzled out, Bush finally got her breath back. She played a critically acclaimed run of shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, titled Before The Dawn.
U IS FOR UNINHIBITED
When Bush stepped out of her dressing room for a “Wuthering Heights” promotional photoshoot wearing a see-through pink leotard, neither she nor the photographer, Gered Mankowitz, foresaw how iconic, and controversial, the resulting photos would become. When they appeared on posters on London buses, many people (her brothers included) were shocked. “It didn’t occur to me at that time that would be a problem,” Mankowitz told The Big Issue. “I know that it was pretty edgy for the late 70s but it wasn’t sort of discussed or thought about a great deal. That was how she looked and I wasn’t going to say to her, ‘I think you should cover up’. She certainly knew what she was doing, that’s how she came out of the dressing room, looking like that, and there was no attempt by anybody to make her look like that.”
V IS FOR VOICE
Despite the fact that every leftfield female artist in her wake has been lazily compared to Kate Bush, her voice is like no other. At once seemingly possessed and utterly in control, sliding from falsetto wails to guttural growls, she uses it as much as its own instrument as a simple carrier of melodies – as is perhaps most evident in the likes of “Wow” and “Babooshka”. It wasn’t always like that though – if she’s to be believed, that is. “When I first started,” she said simply, “my voice was terrible.”
W IS FOR WUTHERING HEIGHTS
Bush’s debut single was never supposed to be “Wuthering Heights”, that beautifully strange falsetto tale of love and madness. Her label, EMI, preferred “James And The Cold Gun”, but Bush put her foot down (according to Bob Mercer, she came into his office and burst into tears, but she’s always disputed this account). And thank goodness she did. The first sparks of the song came not from Emily Bronte’s novel, but from a 1967 TV adaptation, of which Bush caught the last five minutes. “It just really struck me,” she said of the infamous window scene, a nightmarish vision which sees Cathy pleading to Heathcliffe from beyond the grave. “It was so strong, and for years it’s just been going round in my head. And I read the book before I wrote the song, because I needed to get the mood properly.”
X IS FOR EXPERIMENT IV
Possibly one of Bush’s creepiest songs, “Experiment IV” was released in 1986 to promote her greatest hits album, The Whole Story. Its narrative revolves around a secret military project attempting to create a sound that can kill people. “It was music we were making here until / They told us all they wanted / Was a sound that could kill someone from a distance.” The video – which was banned from Top Of The Pops for being too scary – features some pretty hammy acting from a young Dawn French, Gary Oldman, and Hugh Laurie.
Y IS FOR YOUNG
It’s impressive enough that Bush released her debut single when she was 19 years old, but some of the songs on The Kick Inside were written even earlier. “The Man With The Child In His Eyes”, for example, which includes lyrics such as, “Suddenly I find myself listening / To a man I've never known before / Telling me about the sea / Oh his love is to eternity”, was written when she was just 13.
Z IS FOR ZANY
Zany, kooky, quirky, you name it – if it’s a patronizing, subtly gendered platitude on her eccentricity, Bush will have heard it. But zaniness alone does not a 40-year career make. As is surely evident by now, there’s a lot more to Kate Bush than many, even now, give her credit for.