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Sunday, July 27, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #31 - Running

After being pretty ubiquitous since her debut in 1978, the sudden absence of Kate Bush through 1983 and 1984 led many to assume her career was on the rocks. Various bizarre rumours were in circulation: she'd ballooned in weight, moved to France, been dropped by EMI. In August 1985, NME even ran a "where are they now" article on Kate, but just days later that question would be decisively answered.


On that summer day in question, I was 14, and sat up in my bedroom on the third floor of our terraced house, probably mastering the intricacies of Kate's routine to The Dreaming, when I heard a screech coming from two floors down. My mother, who by this point was fully aware of my Kate-o-philia, was yelling "Kate Bush is on TV". I can still recall those 2.7 seconds it took me to descend two flights of stairs. My heart stopped beating and a rush of adrenalin propelled me down. What greeted me was quite literally beyond belief.



It was Kate! Live! Now! Really, really her. She was performing a new song. I knew it must be new, because I'd heard everything else she'd released. She was standing at a lectern, wearing a long, military style coat. She looked totally gorgeous. What was she singing about? She had her hand raised to make an oath. The band were dressed like Kate and in a V formation behind her. They were moving forward. The beat was insistent. The effect was dramatic and menacing and I just stood in the middle of the living room transfixed. Something about deals with God, hills, exchanging the experience. Then Kate removed a bow from her back, took an arrow from Paddy's quiver and knelt to the ground, aiming at the sky. Every hair on my body stood erect. Every goose was pimpled. I finally let out the breath I'd been holding for five, far too swift, minutes.


Oh, the agony and the ecstasy of that night. The record shops were closed. There was no Internet to find out what was going on. I didn't know any other Kate fans I could call. She was back! Out of nowhere. And all I could hear in my head was that insistent drumming, repeating over and over again. If only I'd had the presence of mind to press record on the video, but no, all I had was less than total recall of what had just passed.

The next morning I raced to my local record store and there on the counter was a special box with Kate's picture on it, filled with singles. The song was called Running Up That Hill and there she was on the cover, with the bow and arrow primed. My hands shook as I picked one up. It was a gatefold sleeve, the inside cover had the lyrics and Kate with her back to us, and words written across her arms and shoulders. It was a thing of beauty, an artefact to treasure. And there was a 12" single too! A first for Kate. It had an instrumental version and a remix that was about to blow my mind even more. More good news, there would be an album soon too. I raced home with my precious cargo and I don't think I surfaced from my room for a good few days, as I absorbed the joy of this surprise gift from Kate.


Over the next few weeks more joy, as the single climbed to number 3 on the charts, erasing the disappointments and silencing the doubters. The video was indescribably gorgeous. Kate and a male dancer wrapped around each other in choreography that was sensual and impressively elaborate. The final shot of Kate was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.


Kate was back, and I only had to wait a few short weeks to have a whole new album to explore...


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Saturday, July 26, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #32 - Baffling

Ever since Wuthering Heights hit number 1 in 1978, Kate Bush had been on an endless treadmill of recording, promoting, recording, promoting, touring, recording, promoting, recording. By the end of 1982 she had released four albums, numerous singles and embarked on her first tour. Everything she touched had turned to gold. And then, suddenly, it just didn't.


Kate must have felt confused about the the public and industry reaction to The Dreaming. Here was an album she had poured her heart and soul into, her first completely solo production, with hours of toil and sweat and blood and tears, and nobody seemed to care. The album charted at number 3, but sales soon quickly dried up. The title track stalled at 48 in the UK chart. EMI seemed bemused with what Kate had delivered and did little to help her promote it. After years of building to this moment of total creative freedom, suddenly the walls fell in.

Of course the fans stayed true, but in those days you couldn't tweet your support or post love to a Facebook page. Eventually The Dreaming would be reassessed and recognised as the masterpiece it is. If The Dreaming is Kate's great lost album, then its singles are similarly forgotten gems that deserve the attention of pop archaeologists.


The third, and final, single released in the UK was There Goes A Tenner, an uptempo romp about a robbery gone wrong. It became Kate's only single to fail to reach the top 75. Ok, it doesn't have a chorus to speak of and it's hard to pin down Kate's character as she veers from posh to cockney, but come on 1982 record buyers! What is your problem? Witness the genius at work in this completely trippy performance on children's TV show Razzmatazz.

video

In the rest of Europe a different track was released, my personal favourite from the album, the mystically whimsical Suspended In Gaffa. If you must know what it's about, it explores what it must be like to live in hell having had only a glimpse of God and then being made to spend the rest of your eternal life pining for more.


I don't think you need to know that to appreciate the song's brilliance, it is aural ecstasy. Here's Kate on French TV baffling another studio audience.

video

After all the disappointments of 1982, Kate decided it was time to take a proper break and regroup. It would be three long years until we heard from her again, but when we did...



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Friday, July 25, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #33 - Dreaming

"People can react as seriously as they want to. I'd like them to sit there with the lyrics in front of them and the record turned up really loud giving themselves to it. A lot of people will listen to it, and a certain percentage will take time and effort to get into it."

I'm just going to put this out there. Kate Bush's fourth album, The Dreaming, is a work of genius.


What's that? You need more information? How can I make such a bold assertion without backing it up with evidence? Fine, have it your way.

Having retained Jon Kelly, who engineered her first two albums, as co-producer on Never For Ever, Kate was finally ready to take over sole production duties for her fourth album. Given free reign, Kate could experiment and push the boundaries of her sound like never before. And boy, did she.

On first listen I admit The Dreaming could seem impenetrable. Not one of its ten songs lets you off easy. There are no catchy Babooshka-like choruses, no simple piano-led ballads. Each song is intense, layered, lyrically complex, occasionally brutal. There are strange noises, hypnotic rhythms and treasures buried deep in the mix. In the album notes, Kate writes: "This album was made to be played loud." More than that, it was made to be listened to, not just heard.


To fully appreciate the magic of The Dreaming, you need to sit in a darkened room, turn up the volume (no headphones, these sounds need to bounce off walls), turn off your many digital distractions and wallow. Be transported across time and place - Vietnam, Australia, Ireland - let your pulse be driven to a different metre. Absorb the words, unpick their poetry. Get caught up in the drama - a failed bank robbery, a home invasion or Houdini's desperate escape act. Submit to this temple of weirdness and be rewarded with an emotional euphoria more intense than I can try to describe in words.

If you've never heard the album, here's the title track performed by Kate on German TV, complete with giant lizards. The lizards aren't important, they're just cool.


So the critics at the time didn't get it. So it sold less than her other albums. So the emotional and financial toll caused Kate to retreat and regroup. Let's be clear, The Dreaming is the foundation on which all of Kate's future successes were built. It is her coming of age, fulfilling her potential and changing forever the boundaries of what was possible in music.

This album changed my life. I knew after hearing it that I would be judging every other record I heard against it. I'm still waiting for something to beat it. I'm content if nothing ever does.


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Thursday, July 24, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #34 - Knowledge

"...I think I've discovered that while videos are needed to go with a single, I can explore the medium of film-making, of what works and what doesn't. Much of what happens in a video is dictated by the song: the mood, the subject matter; but it's a fascinating area, and from what I can see so far, it's very similar to the recording process. It's working with pictures instead of sound..."

Despite Kate Bush's career beginning in the pre-MTV era of pop, she has always been a very visual artist. She described herself as "one of the television generation" and she loves cinema. Visual imagery has often been a source of inspiration for her songs, and she ranks directors like Hitchcock, Gilliam and Powell among her inspirations. It is this visual acuity that makes Kate such a magnetic performer, it is hard to tear your eyes away when she is in front of you. Even simply sat at a piano, Kate will use her face to full effect to convey the emotions in her music.


Kate is rightly regarded as one of the pioneers of music video, which was becoming a prime promotional tactic by the early 1980s. While she disliked the necessity of producing a video for every single, she decided that she could at least use that medium to explore visual ideas.  It also reduced the need to promote her music in distant territories, and compensated in a small way for the lack of a further tour. The videos from Kate's first three albums were directed by Keith "Keef" Macmillan, though the visual ideas were all Kate's. Each video would become more elaborate as Kate's knowledge and confidence in working in this new medium grew.

In 1981, Kate was hard at work on her fourth album. Strengthened by the success of Never For Ever and entranced by the possibilities for experimentation presented by the Fairlight synthesiser, Kate was determined to take her time. EMI was concerned that going a year without releasing a new song could risk Kate slipping from the public's consciousness (oh, how we laugh - a whole year, you say?). To appease them Kate agreed to release a single.


Sat In Your Lap was a very different sound for Kate. She says that seeing Stevie Wonder play live inspired her to create the rhythm track, which helped transform her piano demo into a fevered search for knowledge. The video plays out like a dream, with Kate hearing voices warning her against hubris and fierce bull-headed creatures running rampant. Kate appeared on the children's show Razzmatazz to talk about her new video.


And in case you've never seen a man-bull rollerskate, or if you don't know how to properly wear an armwarmer, here's the video in its full glory.


The single was a solid hit and gave Kate the space to beaver away on her new opus. If Sat In Your Lap was any indication, it was clear we were heading in another new and exciting direction.



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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #35 - Magic

When Kate Bush released her last album in 2011, 50 Words For Snow, she was at pains to point out that, despite the songs being linked by the theme of snow, it should not be considered a "Christmas album". It was understandable that she would want to make this distinction, as records made specifically for the Christmas market have a somewhat checkered reputation. It was also clear upon listening that 50 Words For Snow was far from a fuzzy concoction created to warm a winter's night.

It would be wrong though to suggest that Kate is dismissive of Christmas songs. In fact she has written two songs that are specifically linked to that most festive time of the year. While I understand that Christmas is the last thing many of us want to contemplate in July, let us, just for a second, close our eyes and feel the snowflakes land on our face...


One of the new songs Kate previewed on her 1979 BBC TV special was a seasonal number called December Will Be Magic Again. Kate sang the song at her piano with only a few jingle bells for accompaniment. As you might expect by now, the song is far from a straightforward celebration of all things Yule-ish. Kate does indeed promise us magic again, but with a wry eye on the realities of life.

As the snow falls, Kate is parachuting down from the sky. Well, why not? She romantically pictures the snow falling, laying on lovers, sparkling up the dark and... covering the muck up. Not the most uplifting sentiment, but we know what she means, don't we? Kate manages to capture the essence of Christmas: the traditions, the hope, the magic and the truth that we sweep everything else under the carpet until the New Year.


Kate's original studio recording of the song in 1979 didn't get commercially released until it surfaced on a Christmas compilation a couple of decades later. Affectionately known as the "bongos" version, Kate performed it on ABBA's Christmas special that year in a gorgeous routine in a big red chair.

video

A more sophisticated version, with a gorgeous arrangement was released for Christmas 1980. It performed reasonably, reaching the top 30, but that festive season was marred by the murder of John Lennon. Perhaps Kate burst of realism was too real for people that year. The single did bear another wonderful illustration by Nick Price and is one of my favourite Kate record covers.


So what was Kate's other Christmas song you ask? Stick around, you'll find out in due course.



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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #36 - Waltzing

It's fair to say there aren't that many waltzes that make the top twenty. There's something about a 3/4 time signature, it harks back to a simpler time, suggesting romance and longing and love and loss. Kate Bush harnessed these traditions to create a waltz to lament the many young men who have died in service to their country.


Army Dreamers though is not about to be adopted as an anthem by the Royal British Legion. It is not told from the point of view of a grateful nation, drumming up feelings of patriotic pride. It is in the voice of a grieving mother, wondering whether she could have helped her son along another path, and possibly a different fate.

The song is the earliest example of Kate exploring her Irish heritage (her mother was from County Waterford), which would add such richness to some of her later work. She also sings the song in an Irish accent, though as a nod to the influence of traditional Irish music, not because the song is about Ireland.


The third and final single from Never For Ever, Kate made a memorable and moving appearance on German TV to promote the song in a routine that's become affectionately known as "Mrs Mopp".


It is a masterful piece of songwriting, with the lulling waltz sharply undercut by the sound of rifles being cocked and the shouts of a sergeant major. Without preaching or posturing, Kate showed us the very human cost of war.



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Monday, July 21, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #37 - Exciting

"It's strange when I think back to the first album. I thought it would never feel as new or as special again. This one has proved me wrong. It's been the most exciting."

Kate Bush's primary ambition was to make an album, something she achieved at the age of 19 with The Kick Inside. However, she soon realised that composing and performing music is only half the creative act. An album's producer has enormous power in defining the final shape and sound of a record. The reason Kate found working on her third album so exciting was that for the first time, she would be the only one calling the shots: she had persuaded EMI it was time that she produced her own music.


A rack of my brains and my record collection has found only one other woman who had that amount of control over her music at that time: Joni Mitchell. Even today, producers are predominantly male. So what, you may ask? To answer why this is so critical, you only have to compare Kate's work before Never For Ever, with everything she has done since. Finally we were not just hearing Kate's compositions, we were hearing inside her head.

An immediate and obvious difference is a shift away from a traditional band sound, to more complex, layered arrangements. For example, Kate beautifully creates the sense of a sunny day by the river on her gorgeous ode, Delius (Song Of Summer). Here is Kate in a special performance of the song from, of all things, a Dr Hook BBC special.


Kate's move into the production chair also coincided with her introduction to synthesisers, notably the Fairlight CMI, which she discovered through her work with Peter Gabriel. Now Kate was able to experiment with sound not just from traditional musical instruments, but from pretty much any source she could imagine. Her first tentative steps into such creation are found here. The explosion of ideas coming from Kate is playfully interpreted on the album sleeve, illustrated by Nick Price, which shows all manner of creatures bursting out from under Kate's skirt (you need to see it...).


The one thing that didn't change was the broad palette of themes and stories Kate would share with us. This time we visit Egypt, witness a bride brutally widowed, get more than a little excited by a violinist, and experience questionable feelings towards a child. If you're looking for "boy meets girl", you'd better look elsewhere...

My favourite track from the album is Blow Away (For Bill), a song that muses on the meaning of life and death. and imagines an incredible heavenly jam session featuring some of rock's departed legends.



So Kate had done it, proven that she was the best person to produce her music. If EMI had any qualms, they were stifled by the album becoming Kate's first number one. In fact it was the first UK number one album ever by a British woman, and the first to enter the charts in pole position. Surely there would be no stopping her now...



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