The greatest music debuts of all time #3: Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights

And so is Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights 40 years old today? It most certainly is.

Not only did it kick off the hugely influential singer-songwriter’s career in rather spectacular fashion, she became the first female artist to land a Number 1 single in the UK with a self-written song; proving women were just as capable at turning out hits by their own fair hand.

One of the most astounding, audacious debuts ever (cf Roxy Music and Virginia Plain, which the precocious 14-year old Catherine Bush had adored) this most climactic of compositions was based on Emily Bronte’s Victorian novel of the same name; a violent, vampiric tale of unrequited love, jealousy and quite a lot of death. Legend has it Kate hadn’t even read the book when she wrote the song in the spring of 1977 at an upright piano in her flat in Brockley, an unremarkable suburb in South East London. But, unlike many of us in our English Literature exams, she got away with it.

Released by EMI during an era when punk and disco reigned, the label considered the more conventional James And The Cold Gun as obvious lead for 1978’s The Kick Inside album, but the teenager fought tooth and nail to ensure Wuthering Heights was the single, exerting an admirably tight control over her career from day one. “I’m the shyest megalomaniac you’re ever likely to meet,” she once admitted.

Could you believe what you heard the first time you caught that high octave gothic melodrama shrieking out from somewhere? Then there was that much-mimicked video on Top Of The Pops (or Countdown if you’re from Australia). There were better records to come, but nothing as momentous and impactful as Wuthering Heights. Just who was this wild eyed, wild haired girl with the flailing limbs – cooler than the red dress she was wearing – acting out every word whilst prancing across the moors like a kooky acrobatic banshee, emoting about Heathcliff just like Cathy must have?

A doctor’s daughter, Kate began playing piano at age 11, writing songs at 13, and making a demo tape with Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour at age 16. EMI signed her and gave her two years to develop her songwriting and that otherworldly four octave range voice. Oh, and the dancing. Those “self-expression” lessons with Bowie‘s former mime mentor Lindsay Kemp had certainly paid off, as the landmark track’s engineer Jon Kelly would attest:

“In the case of Wuthering Heights, she was imitating this witch, the mad lady from the Yorkshire Moors, and she was very theatrical about it. She was such a mesmerising performer — she threw her heart and soul into everything she did — that it was difficult to ever fault her or say ‘You could do better.’”

Kate’s handwritten lyrics. Yup.

Everything But The Girl’s Tracey Thorn takes up the story…

“In 1978, when Kate Bush released Wuthering Heights, I was too immersed in my punk records to like it. More than the fact that it featured piano – drippy – and referenced a novel – swotty – I struggled with the singing. That melodramatic, all-over-the-shop approach to vocal melody just screamed “hippy” at me, and seemed to be the aural equivalent of shawls, beads, headdresses and candles, all of which I suspected Kate Bush was wearing or surrounded by while she recorded the vocal. It was this very flamboyance that imprinted itself on people’s minds and made it so appealing to the amateur performer (still imprinted on my eardrums, eyeballs and indeed damaged psyche, is the memory of two friends’ moving rendition at a Christmas karaoke party), but singing in that way, in that voice, steered the song close to the ridiculous. You could contend that the novel itself is somewhat manic and hysterical, so Kate Bush’s vocal is true to the tone of her source material, and yet, what a gamble to take. It paid off, of course – four weeks at No 1 for a debut single about a Victorian novel isn’t bad going – and proved once again that with rock and pop singing it’s probably safe to say that you can never go too far in your quest to find a distinctive voice for yourself.”

At the time people assumed Bush would be a one hit wonder. The single certainly sailed close to being a novelty hit (“Sounds like a bag of cats!” John Lydon‘s mam told him when the Sex Pistol brought the 45 home), but 40 years on here we are. Incredibly, Kate, who’d spent her childhood in the Kent countryside “immersed in English folk music, and Irish jigs and sea shanties,” was just 19 when Wuthering Heights topped the British charts, knocking off Abba‘s Take A Chance On Me and spending four weeks weeks at the summit, holding off a cheeky challenge from Blondie’s Denis. It also reached the top spot in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Italy, and was a smash right across the world. Except the US. Go figure.

The full story

While Debbie Harry and her auto-American boys only had to wait a year before going that one step further in with Heart Of Glass and a succession of other UK chart-dominators, Wuthering Heights remains KB’s only No.1 single – the closest she’s come since being 1985’s Number 3-peaking Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God), the trailer for her undisputed masterpiece, the epic dreamscape that is the Hounds Of Love.

If we can talk an earlier album for a second; Amazingly, in the pre-Madonna, pre-Adele days of 1980, Bush’s third set, Never For Ever, was the first ever long-player by a British female solo artist to top the UK album chart. Bolstered by a triumvirate of memorable hits – Breathing, Babooshka, Army Dreamers – it was also the first LP by any female solo artist to enter the chart at No.1. In 2014 she was still setting new records. Thanks to the hardly surprising hoo-ha surrounding Before The Dawn, her first live shows in 35 years, Kate became the first woman to have eight albums in the Top 40 simultaneously. Indeed, at the end of that August every one of her eleven (11!) albums made an reappearance in the Top 50, a pretty staggering achievement for a living artist.

Remix fix? In 1986 Kate inexplicably re-recorded the song’s vocals for her only singles collection, The Whole Story because “It sounded dated. I think if we’d had more time I probably would have done the same with a couple of other songs.” Wow, just wow.

Wow, what a career, what a startlingly original talent. Kate’s had so many brilliant and unique songs course through her veins – Cloudbusting, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, This Woman’s Work, Under The Ivy, The Sensual World, Moments Of Pleasure to reel off just a few – and all of them self-penned. What vision, what self-possession. She really is the closest any country has got to producing a female Bowie.

But unlike the grand old Dame, she was never interested in that ghastly word celebrity, and never flinched from her bloody minded refusal to present her affecting art on her own terms. This is why we love her – those admirable qualities to never compromise, never play the game and to do what the fuck she wants. Cherish the genius. Cherish that cultural legacy. Cherish the Bush.

Long may she reign.

Steve Pafford

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