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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.


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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Sunday, July 20, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #38 - Imitation

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Kate Bush is an original. By that I mean she has no predecessors, nobody who came before you can point to and say "oh, she's like so and so". Don't believe me? Try it.

There is certainly a long line of artists that came along in Kate's wake that have been influenced by her: indeed, many are more than happy to admit to it. I bear no judgement on this, it's just a fact of life; some lead, others follow.

Of course some of Kate's imitators are not riffing off her muse, they are quite literally taking her off. Impressionists were a mainstay of comedy and light entertainment in the UK, their heyday was undoubtedly in the 1970's and 80's, around the time Kate was at her most visible. Given her unique style of performance, it was inevitable that she would be the subject of parody.

Her most frequent imitator was the impressionist Faith Brown, who specialised in mimicking singers. Among her most popular turns was Kate, seen here in 1980 being "interviewed" by Faith and premiering a song from her third album, Kick A Lion Inside The Heart. (Excuse the poor video quality... it's old!).

Far from being upset by Faith's take on her quirks, Kate found them hilarious. As well as reportedly writing Faith a four-page fan letter, Kate also expressed her admiration for the detail in Faith's sketches in this interview from March 1979.

For my money though, the best Kate parody was by Pamela Stephenson, on the satirical sketch show, Not The Nine O'Clock News. In a number dubbed Oh England My Leotard, Kate's media image is cleverly deconstructed, alongside a wry commentary on the sexism directed at female musicians. What I particularly love about this though is the careful construction of the track from iconic bits of Kate; it must have been written by a true fan.

Impressions are no longer a staple of comedy, partly as tastes have changed, but also because I think there are just fewer originals around these days to inspire such affectionate caricatures. It's good to know that Kate saw the funny side; flattery gets you everywhere, after all.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #39 - Delight

Am I the only one that misses singles? I'm not talking about downloads, or limited vinyl pressings, or online exclusive previews. I mean proper physical singles you could pick up with your hands, after waiting impatiently for the day of release. They had sleeves, usually with new pictures of your favourite artists, and B-sides, that could often be as thrilling as the main song.

These days, for artists like Kate Bush, singles are almost irrelevant. Kate has released just one single apiece from her last three albums, really as a promotional tool to get radio interested, and only one of those had a physical release. How different it was back in 1980, when to stir up anticipation for her forthcoming third album, Kate released not one, but two singles ahead of its launch. Breathing had performed respectably, but it was her next single that would firmly signal that Kate was back in business.

"Babooshka is about futile situations: the way in which we often ruin things for ourselves."

That was Kate's take on her new single, set out in her fan club newsletter. Babooshka is indeed a tale of misadventure, of mistrust and jealousy leading to deception and disaster. It tells the tale of a woman who tests her husband's fidelity by posing as a secret admirer. You just know it's all going to end in tears. Let's see what happens in this stunning performance from German TV.

Despite it's dark subject matter, Kate's catchy tune and hooky chorus caught the public imagination and she had her biggest international hit since Wuthering Heights. The song's broad appeal wasn't hurt by the costume Kate chose to represent the temptress in the video, which has perhaps become her most iconic look.

Oh, and that smashing glass sound at the end of the track was achieved by Kate and her band breaking box-loads of crockery in the recording studio. Apparently the canteen ladies were less than impressed.

Sometimes in life, everything just comes together to create perfection. That's the case with Babooshka. The song, the visuals, the routine; it all synched. It is Kate, the storyteller, at the height of her powers. A strange delight indeed.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #40 - Breathing

Oh, the days before 9/11. What an innocent world we lived in... Wait, what is that terrible sound? And what is that in the distance? It's like a huge cloud. A huge, mushroom cloud!

Yes, back in 1980 we didn't have to worry about global terrorism. What kept us awake at nights was the very real fear that the USA and the USSR (that's Russia now, you know, that nice Mr. Putin) would blow each other to kingdom come with their ridiculously huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. That is after laying waste to Europe, of course, where most of the American bombs were based. Ah, happy times.

I know, you're thinking "why didn't somebody try to stop this madness!" Well, dear reader, somebody stood up and warned the world to think twice about the Armageddon we faced. A brave woman, willing to rock back and forth in a a huge inflatable ball and wade waist deep in water to get her message across. Yes, that's right, Kate Bush was back, and this time there was not a sign of a leotard. She had something important to say.

Kate's new single was called Breathing, and it explored the the threat of nuclear war through the eyes of an unborn child in the womb, forced to breath in the fallout from a nuclear blast. So intent was Kate to ensure we stopped the madness, she appeared on the BBC current affairs programme, Nationwide, to explain why she felt the need to speak out.

This was the first time we had heard a Kate Bush track over which she had complete artistic freedom. She called the song her "mini-symphony" and it is indeed a complex piece. Breathing clocked in at a whopping 5 minutes and 30 seconds, Kate's longest composition to that point. The backing was layered and textured, with the use of voice overs and sound effects to create the right atmosphere. This was a game-changer.

The visual side of Kate's work also took a leap forward. No longer just an interpretation of the song through dance and movement, the video for Breathing had an elaborate set, location filming and video effects that wouldn't have looked out of place in Doctor Who.

For all of Kate's production wizardry, at the heart of Breathing is a stunning ballad. It is one of the few songs recorded post-1980 that Kate has performed live. Here she is reinterpreting it as a piano solo at a Comic Relief show in April 1986.

For such a complex song, it did well to reach number 16 on the UK chart. It marked a turning point in Kate's career; what would she hit us with next?

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

50 Words For Kate: #41 - Special

The first two years of Kate Bush's career are remarkable by any measure: a number one debut single, two top-ten albums, a critically-acclaimed live tour, Kate had come from nowhere to become a household name. In light of these achievements, the BBC decided that Kate merited her own TV special: a rare honour.

Simply entitled Kate, the 45-minute show was broadcast on 28 December 1979. It featured a number of previously unheard songs, hinting that work was already underway on the third album. Among the new tracks was a real curiosity, a waltz that told the tale of a cheating wife and a cuckolded husband. Kate played the husband, naturally, and the routine of The Ran Tan featured Gary Hurst as the world's largest baby, and Stewart Avon Arnold giving some serious face as the wife. The choreography was truly stunning.

Kate's special guest on the show was ex-Genesis front man, Peter Gabriel, who had released two highly creative solo albums. His third, released the following year, would feature Kate on backing vocals on two tracks, Games Without Frontiers and No Self Control. Working with Gabriel would prove to be highly inspirational to Kate, not least through the discovery of the Fairlight synthesiser. But more on that soon. As well as performing Here Comes The Flood, Gabriel duetted with Kate on a Roy Harper song, Another Day. It is considered by many fans to be a classic. Although it is rumoured a studio recording of the song was made, it has yet to see the light of day.

Another highlight was a dramatic tale of love, murder and revenge. The Wedding List finds Kate at the altar, only for her groom to be shot dead in front of her. Who was that mystery man? Do you think she'd ever let him get away with it? Hell no! She'll put him on the wedding list...

Kate was a wonderful way to round off Kate's first two years. It underlined her success, showed how much she had grown as a performer and singer, and signaled that she was moving in an exciting and decidedly experimental direction with her music. What would 1980 bring?

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