Kate Bush - Singer/Songwriter
Created | Updated Jan 18, 2011
In early 1978, the British music scene was still reeling from the upheavals wrought by the then-recent new wave of punk rock bands. Those who loved the energy and rebellion of bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Clash were in a state of cultural war with those who remained loyal to established progressive rock acts like Pink Floyd and Yes.
Suddenly, in this acrimonious climate, there appeared a unique single. It was called 'Wuthering Heights', and it simply sounded like nothing else on earth. The voice was unearthly: sweeping through the octaves, piercing and sensual, emotive and startling. The song, loosely based on Emily Brontë's classic novel of the same title, was passionate, dramatic and attractively alien. The nation's music-lovers duly sent it to number one for four weeks.
And so began the career of an artist who managed to appeal to the broader-minded members of both the warring tribes in late 1970s British rock. Kate Bush's exoticism and romanticism appealed to the progressive rock followers, but punks appreciated her defiant individuality. She was discovered by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, but The Sex Pistols' John Lydon is a long-term Kate fan, as are many current music stars. Those who have sung her praises range from the hugely successful American hip-hop duo Outkast, who have publicly declared their wish to collaborate with Kate, to the acclaimed British alternative rock quartet The Futureheads, who scored a UK Top 10 hit single in 2005 with an energetic cover of Kate's song 'Hounds Of Love'.
Performing on television, Kate would illustrate the songs with distinctive moves that borrowed from mime and modern dance. She'd stare wildly and throw strange shapes. She also happened to be young, beautiful and sexy, which certainly didn't hurt her record sales.
Kate toured only once in her career as a singer-songwriter: a series of British and European dates in 1979. Though ticket sales were brisk, the tour proved expensive and exhausting for Bush1. Worse, the venture was touched by tragedy right at its beginning, when lighting engineer Bill Duffield was killed in an accident after the tour's low-key warm-up date at Poole Arts Centre, Dorset, UK on 2 April, 1979.
Declining to perform live and taking a 12-year-break between albums, as Kate did between 1993's The Red Shoes and 2005's Aerial, would have been more than enough to destroy the career of a lesser artist. However, Kate Bush has unique qualities that have won her a large and devoted following. She has a voice with an astounding range and extraordinary expressive, emotive power. Her choice of lyrical subject matter has been daring, and her music has often been experimental and unorthodox. She was an inspiration for many female performers who came after her, urged on by her ability to follow a personal vision while remaining both commercially successful and innovative.
The Budding Bush
Catherine Bush was born in Bexleyheath, Kent, UK on 30 July, 1958 - giving her the same birthday as Emily Bronte, whose book Wuthering Heights would inspire her breakthrough hit. Kate was interested in music from an early age. Her first instrument was the violin, which she began to play at school in 1969; but her passion for music intensified after she took up the piano in 1970 and began to write her own songs. By 1971 she had composed early versions of 'The Man With the Child In His Eyes' and 'The Saxophone Song', both of which would appear on her debut album The Kick Inside.
In 1972 Ricky Hopper, a friend of Kate's family, began to take demo tapes of Kate's songs to record companies. Hopper initially found no takers, so he contacted David Gilmour, who was then actively looking for new acts that he could help to develop. Gilmour was impressed by what he heard, and invited Kate to record a new demo tape in his home studio. Her backing band for the occasion comprised Gilmour on guitar and two members of a band named Unicorn, drummer Peter Perrier and bassist Pat Martin.
Surprisingly, despite Gilmour's endorsement, there were still no takers at the record companies. Undaunted, in 1975 Gilmour put up the money for a professional-quality, three song demo, recorded in Air Studios, London with Gilmour acting as producer, Andrew Powell as arranger, and Geoff Emerick, who had previously worked with The Beatles, as engineer. 'The Saxophone Song' and 'The Man With The Child In His Eyes' were re-recorded at the Air Studios session.
In July 1975, around the same time that Kate was at school taking her mock 'A'-level examinations, Pink Floyd were in London's famous Abbey Road Studios working on their classic album Wish You Were Here. Bob Mercer, then the General Manager of EMI Records' pop division, paid a visit to check on the Floyd's progress, and Gilmour grabbed the opportunity to play him the new Kate Bush demo. Mercer liked what he heard, and lengthy negotiations for a recording and publishing deal for Kate began. After protracted negotiations, Kate signed a four-year recording deal with EMI in July 1976, receiving a £3,000 advance on record royalties and £500 for publishing rights.
Over the following year, Kate recorded more demos and studied dancing with famed choreographers Lindsay Kemp and Arlene Phillips. And then, in March 1977, she wrote 'Wuthering Heights'. She would later recall that she had written the song
...Sitting at the upright piano one night in March at about midnight. There was a full moon and the curtains were open, and every time I looked up for ideas, I looked at the moon. Actually, it came quite easily. I couldn't seem to get out of the chorus - it had a really circular feel to it, which is why it repeats. I had originally written something more complicated, but I couldn't link it up, so I kept the first bit and repeated it. I was really pleased, because it was the first song I had written for a while, as I'd been busy rehearsing with the KT Band.
I remember my brother John talking about the story, but I couldn't relate to it enough. So I borrowed the book and read a few pages, picking out a few lines. So I actually wrote the song before I had read the book right through. The name Cathy helped, and made it easier to project my own feelings of want for someone so much that you hate them. I could understand how Cathy felt. It's funny, but I heard a radio programme about a woman who was writing a book in Old English, and she found she was using words she didn't know, but when she looked them up she found they were correct. A similar thing happened with 'Wuthering Heights': I put lines in the song that I found in the book when I read it later.
In April 1977, Kate made her live singing debut at the Rose Of Lee pub in Lewisham, London, fronting The KT Bush Band - a group assembled by her brother Paddy and his friends Del Palmer, Brian Bath and Charlie Morgan. The band mostly played covers of rock and soul standards like The Rolling Stones' 'Honky Tonk Women', Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' and The Beatles' 'Come Together'. However, Kate's compositions 'The Saxophone Song' and 'James And The Cold Gun' were added to the set as the dates continued in pubs and clubs in and around London over the following three months.
In August 1977, the call came from EMI for Kate to record her debut album, and by the end of September 1977 all the material for The Kick Inside was completed. Initially, EMI executives wanted to release 'James And The Cold Gun' as Kate's debut single, but she argued the case for 'Wuthering Heights' - and, of course, she won. The single was scheduled for release on 4 November, 1977, and promotional copies were distributed to radio stations. However, a late decision to change the sleeve design - again at Kate's request - delayed the single's release, and it was decided to hold 'Wuthering Heights' until the New Year so that the single wouldn't be overshadowed by the traditional Christmas rush of novelty records and new releases by big-name acts.
'Wuthering Heights' finally reached the UK's record shops on 20 January, 1978. Thanks to the early distribution of the single to radio stations, it had already picked up a lot of airplay, and quickly entered the charts. On 7 March, 1978, it reached number one, making Kate the first British female singer ever to top the UK singles chart with a self-penned song, and launching a brilliant recording career that is discussed in depth in a separate Entry: Kate Bush - The Albums.
The Best of Bush
So what was Kate Bush's finest moment? Not surprisingly, Kate-loving h2g2 Researchers have differing views. Here are some of their nominations.
Some Researchers look back with particular fondness on the thrill of seeing Kate for the first time:
1978, and across the land a generation's adolescent testosterone was stirred into life by one flimsy white-robed caterwauling wild-haired third of a standard Shakespearean coven. Oh, how we all wished we could be Heathcliff.
Ethereal and eccentric, Kate Bush's almost demented wailings of her near-namesake Bronte character provided smooth transition for those stuck on the pop-punk divide, paving the way to The Cocteau Twins and latterly (and probably middle-agedly) Faye Wong.
As it transpired, the single turned out to be an ABBA-displacing number one hit for Kate, and deservedly so.
The first flowerings of Bush
Some prefer other songs from Kate's early work:
I'm most familiar with the first two albums, The Kick Inside and Lionheart, so here are a few favourites: 'L'Amour Looks Something Like You', 'Moving', 'Wow'. Yes, the third has been satirised by alternative comedians into virtual self-parody, but still the massive production (massive in terms of space as opposed to 1980s overkill) and precocious originality is undeniable...
'L'Amour...' is also mentioned by this Researcher who appreciates the piano power in an early Kate rocker:
'L'Amour Looks Something Like You', 'The Man With The Child In His Eyes' - or, some days, 'James And The Cold Gun'. The latter especially for the fabulous rhythm in the piano playing...
Kate's second UK hit is also appreciated by this Researcher, who first heard it via a Scottish duo's cover version:
I really love the fragility of 'The Man With The Child In His Eyes'. A lot of people have interpreted the song as being about child abuse, but Kate has often refuted that. It sounds to me like the 16-year-old Kate was actually singing about her feelings as a precocious and creative child and looking up to the men who were shaping her career. But that's just how I see it.
Have to admit, I first heard the song when Hue And Cry sang it on Radio 1 on Philip Schofield's Sunday show. It was sung in the second person - 'You hear him...' rather than 'I hear him...'. I think it was subsequently released as a Hue And Cry B-side.
Another Researcher also loves that particular early track, but prefers Kate's 1980 Christmas classic, 'December Will Be Magic Again.' It wasn't a huge hit, peaking at number 29 in the UK chart, but it's a big favourite with this fan:
'The Man With The Child In His Eyes' is indeed superb, but the winner for me has to be oft-overlooked festive classic 'December Will Be Magic Again'. I always loved Kate, especially because she used to put messages in the run-off to her vinyl. (I remember the one to the B-Side of 'Sat in Your Lap' was 'Thanks Donovan'.) I'll get me coat...
Great Late Kate
Other fans prefer Kate's more mature work, and one particular track from The Sensual World has meant a great deal to this Researcher:
'This Woman's Work'...I first heard that when I watched She's Having A Baby with Kevin Bacon. It played over the scene where Elizabeth McGovern is suffering through a very difficult labour. The rest of the movie was fairly forgettable in my estimation, but that scene... wow.
I instantly knew who was singing even though I'd never heard the song before... I squeezed my girlfriend's arm and said quietly 'That's Kate Bush singing!' As I listened to the lyrics, I couldn't help but get very choked up. I still do whenever I listen to it.
When my sister died, I put on a brave face for the rest of the family, stoically holding up so that the others could mourn...but when I got home after the funeral I put on that song on repeat and cried for hours. It will always be the saddest, most beautiful song I know.
The same track also won this Researcher's heart:
My favourite track, without a shadow of a doubt, is 'This Woman's Work' from The Sensual World. I liked it so much that I taught myself to play it on the piano (this was before I ever took piano lessons, and I had to cheat and play it in a different key, because Kate likes the black notes). It's one of the few songs that can make me cry.
Meanwhile, another Researcher fondly remembers Kate's tale of an uphill struggle:
It's a really tough choice, but if pushed to name one favourite track I think I'd have to pick her second biggest UK hit, and the song that first got her into the American singles chart: 'Running Up That Hill'. I can't think of a song that better exemplifies Kate's ability to reconcile apparent opposites. It's one of her most viscerally exciting pieces, with its galloping drums and impassioned vocal, but it's also melancholy and reflective. It's a tender love song about isolation: about the painful fact that however close you get to someone, you can never really feel what they feel and experience the world just as they do. It acknowledges that we're all alone, but it's also intensely romantic in the way that it conveys the desperate desire for closeness and communion. It's moving and magnificent.
And some fans simply can't make their minds up - understandably enough, given the wealth of diverse delights in the Bush back catalogue. This Researcher has different favourites on different days:
It's not easy to pick a 'best track'; it depends what mood I'm in. Today, I'm inclined towards 'Get Out Of My House' - played very loudly indeed. In a more gentle mood, I might go for 'The Red Shoes'. (Which reminds me - the video is quite odd - Kate and Miranda Richardson struggling in a roomful of fruit. Or maybe I was hallucinating.) 'Rocket's Tail' needs a mention too, as does 'Sat In Your Lap'. I can't pick a best album either, but I usually put on Lionheart or The Dreaming for preference. The second side of Hounds Of Love is rather special. I once put this on, sprawled on the couch, and was lulled to the edge of sleep... and then a voice said 'Wake up!' I was alone in the house, and panicked for a couple of moments. Oh dear! "Suspended In Gaffa" - I once waltzed to this song, with a friend, in the main hall of the Adelaide railway station. Most passers-by pretended not to see us. Can't think why...
Kate Bush's brilliant career has included some notable contributions to other artists' work, and some other celebrated artists have added their creative input to her recordings. Here are just some of the diverse talents Kate has worked with:
Kate's voice can be heard on three of one-time Genesis singer and WOMAD festival organiser Peter Gabriel's better-known tracks. She provides backing vocals on two tracks from Gabriel's 1980 album Peter Gabriel, the third of his series of self-titled albums2: 'Games Without Frontiers' and 'No Self Control'. Both were released as singles in the UK, 'Games Without Frontiers' reaching number four in the national chart and 'No Self Control' peaking at number 33.
She played a more prominent role on 'Don't Give Up', a track from Gabriel's 1986 album So that also became a top ten UK hit. Bush sings a duet with Gabriel on the track, playing the loyal, supportive partner of a man (portrayed by Gabriel) driven to the brink of despair by unemployment.
As detailed above, Pink Floyd guitarist and singer Gilmour played a key role in Kate's early career, helping her get a recording contract with EMI and producing the versions of 'The Man With The Child In His Eyes' and 'Saxophone Song' that appeared on her debut album The Kick Inside.
Gilmour supplied backing vocals on 'Pull Out The Pin' from The Dreaming, and played guitar on two tracks from The Sensual World, 'Love And Anger' and 'Rocket's Tail'. He is also one of the few people to have appeared in concert with Kate: at the charity concert 'The Secret Policeman's Third Ball' in 1987, he played guitar as Kate performed 'Running Up That Hill' and The Beatles' 'Let It Be'.
On 18 January, 2002, Bush broke her long absence from the public eye to sing the Pink Floyd song 'Comfortably Numb' with Gilmour at his concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. She sang the first and third verses of the song, taking the role of the doctor who supplies the numbing drugs, and harmonised with Gilmour on the other verses.
The Trio Bulgarka
The Bulgarian vocal group The Trio Bulgarka were among Bush's favourite collaborators on her later work. The three women - Yanka Rupkhina, Eva Georgieva and Stoyanka Boneva - added their distinctive harmonies to 'Deeper Understanding', 'Never Be Mine' and 'Rocket's Tail' on The Sensual World and to 'Song Of Solomon', 'You're The One' and 'Why Should I Love You?' on The Red Shoes.
Talking about the Trio to an interviewer, Kate once enthused:
'They work so hard...we worked from nine in the morning to eleven at night. They'll sing all day and always stand in the same order. You'd think that the soloist would stand in the middle, but she stands at one end. They run Yanka, Eva, Stoyanka - and it spells 'yes'...!'
Famed for his virtuoso violin playing and his passionate devotion to Aston Villa FC, Nigel Kennedy is probably the UK's best-known classical musician. He was a regular contributor to Kate Bush's later recordings. He can be heard playing violin on 'Experiment IV', 'The Fog', and 'Big Stripey Lie', viola on 'Heads We're Dancing' and violin and viola on 'Top Of The City'.
Renowned as the world's finest harmonica player, Larry Adler was an American forced into exile in the UK by McCarthyism. In 1995, to coincide with his 80th birthday, Adler released an album entitled The Glory Of Gershwin, on which he and several different singers interpreted the works of the great songwriters George and Ira Gershwin, with George Martin of Beatles fame acting as producer. The record included a version of 'The Man I Love' sung by Kate Bush, and the song was released as a single, becoming one of Kate's last hits of the 1990s. Adler died in 2001.
The Comic Strip
The Comic Strip was a loose aggregation of leading UK comedians, responsible for several series of short films and one-off 'specials' between 1982 and 2000, the shows being billed first as The Comic Strip Presents... and then later simply as The Comic Strip. The personnel shifted from show to show, but the most regular contributors included Peter Richardson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Robbie Coltrane, Rik Mayall and Keith Allen.
Kate made her acting debut in the Comic Strip episode Les Dogs, first transmitted on 8 March, 1990, playing young bride Angela Watkins. Bush also contributed the dramatic title song 'Ken' and some incidental music to another 1990 Comic Strip episode GLC, and the song Home For Christmas to the comedy team's 1992 Christmas special Wild Turkey.
Some Comic Strip members have crossed paths with Bush in other contexts. 'The Ninth Wave', the song cycle from Hounds Of Love, features a cameo appearance from Coltrane, who supplies one of the voices trying to rouse the protagonist from sleep. French appears in the video for 'Experiment IV', and Richardson directed the video for the single 'The Sensual World'.
A former member of Cockney Rebel and The Alan Parsons Project, drummer Elliott is the only musician apart from Kate herself and her brother Paddy to have appeared on every Kate Bush album to date.
Kate's brother Paddy has enjoyed a long career as a folk musician when not working with his famous sibling. An expert on medieval music and ethnic music, Paddy has personally built some of the unusual instruments he's played on Kate's records.
Paddy has also released an album entitled Skyscraping as one half of the duo Bushtucker. That group's other member was Colin Lloyd-Tucker, who contributed backing vocals to two songs, 'The Red Shoes' and 'Constellation Of The Heart' on Kate's The Red Shoes album.
Improbable as it might sound, Ms Bush once made music with Mr. Bean - or at least, with the actor best known for his portrayals of the hapless Bean and the dastardly Blackadder. It happened at a Comic Relief charity show at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on 4 April, 1986. Rowan Atkinson, playing a sleazy cabaret singer, duetted with Kate on the comic song 'Do Bears...' at the show, during which Kate also performed 'Breathing'.
Gary Brooker MBE
Procol Harum singer/keyboard player Brooker first worked with Kate when she made one of her rare stage appearances. He accompanied her when she sang 'The Wedding List' at the Prince's Trust Rock Gala on 12 July, 1982. More than a decade later, Brooker played on three tracks on The Red Shoes, one of which - 'You're The One' - contains the line 'Doing cartwheels 'cross the floor', a near-quote from Procol Harum's best-known song 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'. Brooker was reunited with Kate years later on her Aerial album, to which he contributes Hammond organ.
Backing vocals on Kate's song 'Breathing' were provided by British singer-songwriter Roy Harper. In return, Kate sang on the track 'You (The Game Part III)' on Harper's album Unknown Soldier, released in 1980, and on the title song of his 1990 album Once. On his official website, Harper says of Kate's contribution to the former track: '"You" is remarkable for Kate's vocal. On the day, she picked the song up by the scruff of the neck and shook it up for me. It was quite an experience.'
Rolf Harris OBE
Veteran entertainer Rolf Harris has played didgeridoo on two Kate Bush albums, The Dreaming and Aerial. Rolf can be heard on the Aerial tracks 'The Painter's Link' and 'An Architect's Dream', acting the role of the pavement artist whose painting is caught in the rain.