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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Craft Of Love: the songs of Kate Bush, part one

A rare celestial event took place on the first of May: Kate Bush appeared in public! She attended the South Bank Show Awards to receive the Pop Award for her latest album, 50 Words For Snow. Kate rarely makes public appearances; she has little interest in attending events for the sole purpose of being seen. When she does emerge it is usually to accept yet another accolade from the music industry, which has rightly elevated her to the status of legend. Kate this week battles Adele and P J Harvey to claim Best Album at the Ivor Novello Awards, which recognise excellence in songwriting. It is the first time that the category has had an all-female shortlist, though that perhaps says more about the traditional misogyny in the music industry than any emerging trend. Doubtless this is the correct line-up for this award and I cannot pick a winner. If the award is truly about songwriting, and not commercial success, then I do believe Kate should win, as with 50 Words For Snow she has created something unique and extraordinary. It is the culmination of over forty years of experiments in songwriting and, in my view, marks a turning point in the history of popular music. I want to explore how Kate's songwriting has developed over these four decades and what has led her to create such an engrossing album. I cannot justifiably do that in one blog, so here is the first of three installments of my exploration of Kate's songs.

The process of songwriting can be mysterious to those of us who do not possess the ability to create melodies out of thin air. I understand the mechanics and can compose a workable tune to pass a music theory exam, but I do not have the spark of genius it takes to create real music. Kate has been writing songs since she was a child of eight. She taught herself piano after her father showed her the scale of C major on the keyboard and almost immediately began to compose her own melodies. She also wrote poems, including some that were published in her school magazine, and before long she started to combine words and music and create her first songs. She has told of how her father would patiently listen to her new compositions and encourage her, even though she admits her early efforts were not great works of art. This early support ensured Kate continued to develop her craft and soon she had a significant repertoire of strong songs.

Her early works are wholly structured around the piano and her voice. When she began searching for a record contract at the age of 14, she had a single reel tape of over twenty home recorded songs that she sent as her calling card. Despite the poor feedback Kate received, many of these songs show that even at this early stage there was magic brewing. Recordings of these early demos emerged on bootlegs in the early nineties and although Kate was upset that these juvenile works had been distributed, it was too great a temptation for guilty fans not to listen. The demos included early takes on songs that would later appear on Kate's first albums, such as Hammer Horror and Oh To Be In Love, but it was the lost songs that were really startling. The lyrical content was amazingly mature for a young teenager, with sophisticated reflections on love affairs, sexual longing and social mores that reveal a level of emotional awareness and empathy that is simply astonishing in one so young.

My favourite of these early demos is known as The Craft Of Love, and you can hear it by clicking on the video link below. The song looks at the art of seduction and contains knowing references to aphrodisiacs and sexual techniques. May I remind you she was not yet sixteen when she wrote this! We can safely assume that Kate wrote the song from reference rather than personal experience, particularly as the character of the song seems to be a much older woman. The melody is stunning and the song is the equal of many that made it on to her early albums.

Kate's earliest compositions all featured interesting melodies with inventive and often dramatic embellishments. Her lyrics were fully formed and could stand apart from the music in their own right. It seems clear that at this stage Kate saw words and music as two separate things to create and then combine. In the years ahead she would go on to break down the barriers between words and music until the compositional seams were all but invisible.

Kate's approach to songwriting did not evolve much over the course of her first two albums, The Kick Inside and Lionheart, which were both released in 1978. Kate was focusing on honing her skills as a performer and learning as much as she could about the recording process. She would quickly become frustrated at her lack of control over the finished songs on these albums, with Andrew Powell doing a competent but sometimes unimaginative job on production. Kate called on her stockpile of songs for the albums, but she showed developing maturity in the way she began to edit her words and melodies, creating tighter, more polished final versions.

Perhaps Kate's most famous song, certainly in the UK, is her debut single and number one hit Wuthering Heights. It is certainly an arresting song and I remember being hypnotically drawn to Kate when I first heard it as an impressionable seven-year-old boy. It was like nothing I had ever heard and the strange, ghostly voice combined with Kate's unique brand of interpretative dance left me captivated. It is easy to see how it became such a major hit, though it is far from being my favourite Kate song now. It is brilliantly written and totally captures that moment in the story when Cathy's ghost haunts Heathcliff. The lyrics are beautifully evocative, with the "wiley, windy moors" all that is needed to set the scene. The melody is bewitching, with the "wuthering, wuthering" loop leading in to the chorus a marvellous hook. It started the cult of Kate Bush as a somewhat mystic, bizarre, reclusive sorceress: a description that could not be further from reality. The fact that the song was written based on an image Kate glimpsed in a filmed version rather than a detailed literary study is an interesting insight into the way she absorbs influences and lets them inspire her songwriting. Kate has often used literature and films as jumping off points for her songs, but they inevitably end up being her own creations based on the source material rather than a faithful reproduction, with the honourable exception of her Molly Bloom homage, Flower Of The Mountain.

My favourite Kate composition, and therefore my favourite song of all time, has to be Kate's second single, The Man With The Child In His Eyes. It stands as a perfect example of Kate's early songwriting, featuring lyrics that were originally a poem she wrote as a thirteen-year-old, set to a delicate and reserved melody that supports, but does not overwhelm the lyric. There is something timeless about the love that Kate evokes in this song and the depiction of her almost mythical lover, it is not surprising that there are many cover versions out there. However, there is something authentically heartfelt in hearing Kate sing this, that no interpreter can touch.

The Kick Inside was a huge hit and Kate was an overnight sensation. Her ubiquity in popular culture at the time seems hard to imagine now when a public appearance can cause a sensation because of its scarcity. The songwriting on the album is a major factor of its success, with all thirteen songs sounding unique, unusual and unheard. It was clear that Kate was an immense talent, but also that there was untapped potential. It was also evident that Kate was not going to conform to the expected mould for female artists. The title track of the album is based on The Ballad Of Lucy Wan and deals with brother/sister incest. It is the first example that Kate was not afraid of tackling taboo topics in her songs and she would have little time for other people's unease at her boldness. The song is not meant to shock, it is simply a beautiful retelling of a traditional folk tale. Kate plays Lucy and the song is a letter written to her brother. It is heart wrenching and dramatic, without being overwrought. It is among the more simple arrangements on the album, with just the piano and a subdued orchestral backing and Kate's voice has rarely sounded more beautiful.

Kate's early works are often thought of as theatric, which I think has more to do with the high register that she was singing in at that time. Kate had immense vocal range, but was often singing near the top end of this, most notably as the ghost of Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Her second album Lionheart certainly has a number of dramatic songs, with one literally theatric, telling the story of an ageing actor and a young starlet at opposing ends of their stage careers. Wow is another favourite of mine, it is perhaps the first Kate song that wholly captured me. It is almost a period piece now, with its references to the 70's cop show The Sweeney and once-favoured lubricants. However, that only adds to its charms for me. The lyrics are a masterclass in character study, with whole life stories told in just a few bars. The sweeping chorus of the repeated "wow"s takes the song to the edge of the cliff in terms of campness, but Kate pulls it back at just the right moment, creating true pathos as the song concludes.

Another highlight from Lionheart for me is In Search Of Peter Pan, which is the first of Kate's recorded songs to really experiment in structure. The song starts with Kate's usual piano style, before breaking in to a rhythmic bridge that leads into a brief chorus-like visit to the second star on the right. The song repeats this structure before dissolving into a ominous coda of When You Wish Upon A Star. The song leaps about like a child's imagination, there is no adult constraint of expectation. It is an early sign of the way Kate would go on to play with the traditional pop song structure of "verse, bridge, chorus, rinse, repeat". It is also interesting that here Kate plays the role of a young boy, showing that her songs are rarely autobiography, but the stories of characters that Kate has chosen to channel.

Kate fans usually agree that the purest Kate experience is when it is just her and her piano. One of the most sublime examples of this is In The Warm Room. Kate recounts a tale of seduction which is strange, somewhat disturbing and utterly erotic. There is something extraordinary about hearing Kate stripped back like this, you really get to hear the building blocks of her genius; the strength of her melodies, the poetry of her lyrics and that incredible voice.

For her third album, Never For Ever, Kate demanded more control over the production. She worked with engineer Jon Kelly to create the specific sounds and arrangements that she heard clearly in her head. The other significant change in creating the album was Kate's introduction to one of the early synthesisers, the Fairlight CMI, which could sample sounds and then play them musically. Kate discovered this amazing tool when she worked on Peter Gabriel's third solo album; she also was stunned to see that he composed music using the Fairlight and a drum machine. This way of working seemed incredibly alien to Kate, but she was suitably intrigued. She and Jon experimented with the Fairlight on Never For Ever, adding smashing plate sounds to the end of her big hit single Babooshka to signify the apparent violent end to the errant husband in the song. Babooshka was another early encounter for me and Kate, I was not yet of an age to buy my own records, but I knew that the more I heard of this odd, slightly scary woman, the more I liked it. The story is a Kate original, but you would not be surprised if it was based on another folk tale, as it is so full of archetypal imagery. It is also damn catchy, not something every Kate song can be accused of, but no doubt why it was such a big international hit.

Babooshka is the starting point of Kate's journey into experiments with sound and marked a major leap forward in the development of her work. Kate shared her writing process of the song on a Capital radio show in 1982, where she played a number of the early demos of the song. It clearly showed how Kate would tweak and polish every note and word until the song was as close to perfect as she could make it. This search for perfection would lead to long sessions in the recording studio, which would eventually require a change in Kate's working arrangements.

Kate was still composing her songs on the piano, but she did begin to craft songs on the Fairlight, building up rich soundscapes that are a leap ahead of the traditional rock band backing of her first albums. Kate's early experimentation can be found throughout Never For Ever, with the addition of almost hidden backing vocals, ambient sounds and other embellishments that sometimes only emerge after years of faithful listening. A good example of this is the track Blow Away (For Bill), which is a traditional piano composition, but the multi-layered vocals and backing create a suitably spooky track. The song is a homage to great artists who have died and left their legacy of music to the world. It is a sweet song and again has a non-traditional pop structure, with no sing-along chorus, but rather an evocation of the dead followed by a plea from Kate to be allowed to stay with the music.

The final single from the album was Army Dreamers, which is one of two "political" songs on Never For Ever, the other being the anti-nuclear Breathing. Kate was not a natural activist and has confessed she has little time for politics, but this does not mean that she doesn't have opinions to express. The message of Army Dreamers is pretty simple; too many young people die in wars. The character in the song is the mother of a teenage soldier who waits at an airbase for his body to be returned to her. The song is not preachy though, instead it cleverly uses a waltz rhythm to create a touching elegy for the lost son. It is not edgy and hard-hitting, but by lulling the listener it gets under the skin and really makes you think about the subject, when more in-your-face political songs can tend to turn off listeners. The sound of a rifle being cocked in the background becomes quite chilling as the song progresses and demonstrates that Kate's experiments with sound samples weren't whimsy, but she was clearly looking for the right sounds to add texture and meaning to the tracks.

I believe Never For Ever marks the end of that first period of songwriting for Kate, as she would go on to explore new methods of composition away from the piano. Kate rarely gets mentioned as an electronic music pioneer, with most people thinking of Gabriel and the likes of Ultravox, Duran Duran and other New Age artists. However, Kate's approach was groundbreaking in its combination of traditional songwriting, electronic sampling and live musicians. She would go on to explore the boundaries of soundscapes possible through sampling to a degree that very few artists dared, while arguably creating the artistic pinnacle of the first age of electronic music. But more on that in the next episode...

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: The Craft Of Love


  1. Such a fascinating exploration of Ms. Bush's early music and so utterly detailed. Thank you so much for sharing your insights.