Today, Kate Bush performs at the Hammersmith Apollo in London – her first concerts since 1979. But calling her a recluse based only on that 35-year gap between gigs is doing her a disservice. In the over four decades since she began making music, she has built an oeuvre that is both fascinating and compelling, and has inspired many artists, from Björk and Natasha Khan to Big Boi and Courtney Love. It’s very likely you’ve heard your favorite artist make a reference (or three) to her. So, yes, I know that condensing her career to five songs is also doing her a disservice – there is just a lot to talk about – but as a starter, we might as well get on with it. Ladies and gents, Kate Bush. [NB]
“The Man With The Child In His Eyes” by Kate Bush | Coming from a artistically-inclined family, Kate began playing the piano at 11, and wrote her earliest songs during her teens. Some of the songs from her 1978 debut, The Kick Inside – which were written when she was just 13, like “The Man With The Child In His Eyes”, produced by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and her first single “Wuthering Heights”, which debuted on the top of the British charts. Her literary approach and visual sensibilities dovetailed with the popularity of prog rock, and The Kick Inside proved to be a huge success. That and her second album, Lionheart, saw Kate testing the limits of her voice, which partly explains the similar sound. The latter was rushed into production by EMI, to capitalize on her success; Kate has since stated that she’s not happy with the record, and has resolved for bigger control over her work.
“Babooshka” by Kate Bush | Kate’s third album, 1980’s Never For Ever, debuted at the top of the British charts, the first album from a female artist to do such. It also featured synthesizers (notably the Fairlight CMI, which pretty much broke her free) and drum machines more prominently than her first two albums, whose warmer sound was due to session musicians (and, well, the whole 70s feel in general). The result was a diversity not seen before: “Babooshka” sits in between the rocker “Violin” and the contemplative “Army Dreamers”. (In a recent BBC documentary, writer Neil Gaiman cited that song as an important example of Kate’s feminist approach to writing: the female viewpoint in difficult topics was rare in popular music at the time.) Her follow-up, 1982’s The Dreaming, saw Kate assume solo producer duties, and saw an even bigger diversity: however, it received mixed reviews, decrying its inaccessibility. Kate herself calls it her “‘she’s gone mad’ album”.
“Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush | The Dreaming‘s disappointing performance, coupled with the long time it took to produced, sparked concern among EMI executives; Kate responded by building her own studio. The result is arguably her masterpiece. The Hounds of Love was a triumphant return of sorts for her, yielding her biggest hit, “Running Up That Hill”. (I’m partial to “Cloudbusting” though, because of the back story, partly – the arrest of psychologist Wilhelm Reich from the perspective of his son – and partly because of the music video, starring Donald Sutherland.) But Kate didn’t sell out: the record’s second side is a song cycle about a man adrift at sea. The record, since been named on many best-album-ever lists, saw Kate merge everything she learned from her last four records: this is her at her best.
“Moments of Pleasure” by Kate Bush | Kate’s next two records, 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s Red Shoes, saw her songwriting take a more personal tone. Both records also share a more contemplative aesthetic, with simpler arrangements and recurring elements. Critics now call “This Woman’s Work” – originally written for the film She’s Having A Baby, and later covered by Maxwell – a high point among her works, but I’ll spotlight “Moments of Pleasure”, which was written about the many deaths in Kate’s life during the production of The Red Shoes, as well as the illness of her mother, who passed shortly after its release. The Red Shoes was produced in a way that its songs could easily be replicated live, but the planned tour never materialized. She planned to take a year off, ostensibly to recharge and to cope with her mother’s death, but she ended up being away for twelve; during the time, she gave birth to her son Albert, with guitarist Danny McIntosh. She has since said she wanted to give Bertie a normal childhood.
“50 Words for Snow” by Kate Bush | Speculation as to Kate’s state was ripe during her twelve years off; while she made a few public appearances, she didn’t perform on stage nor on screen, and did not give interviews. The interest, thus, for her eighth album, 2005’s Aerial, was quite immense. Aerial, inspired by birdsong, had a yet more diverse range, from Renaissance music to reggae: while technological advances meant the sound was snappy rather than warm, it is still undeniably Kate Bush. In 2011, she released two albums. Director’s Cut was a reworking of her previous songs, notably an overhaul of “The Sensual World”, which was supposed to include a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Later that year she released 50 Words for Snow, a quiet, jazzy song cycle about snow, featuring contributions from Stephen Fry (on the title track), Elton John, and her son Bertie. And now, an artist who’s worked hard to be in control of her work and her life, returns to live performance: it would be her first series of concerts since the release of Lionheart.