Humming: Kate Bush’s revolutionary song about David Bowie is finally released

“Now, hear this David Robert Jones, I wrote a song for you.”

By pop parameters, remastering the catalogue of an artist like Kate Bush is like trying to do a restoration on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — how do you improve upon such peerless perfection? 

But as 2018 draws to a close, this veteran visionary’s recorded output has never looked or sounded better, with the arrival of two neatly packaged box sets that collect all ten of her core albums, plus the Before The Dawn double live set if you’re opting for the CD edition, as I have.

Team Bush has also gathered up various 12” mixes, B-sides and cover versions on a four-disc collection of studio extras entitled The Other Sides, which are themed and subtitled as follows:

12” Mixes — though, intriguingly, only the ones from the mid-‘80s Hounds of Love period were deemed worthy of inclusion. Having said that, Experiment IV is a curio as it’s the previously unreleased video mix, though as it’s not listed as such it may be an archive error.

The Other Side 1 & 2 —two volumes of B-sides, bonus tracks and non-album singles, plus the re-vocalled rejigs of Wuthering Heights and Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) from 1986 and 2012 respectively. 

In Others’ Words — a collection of nine cover versions of compositions written by the likes of Donovan, Gershwin and Marvin Gaye that Kate had previously issued on various singles, soundtracks and guest appearances.

Of course, the bigger the catalogue the louder the grumbles over what’s missing. The absence of crucial fan favourites is certainly felt, such the The Empty Bullring, the pretty piano-based flipside to 1980‘s Breathing; and the bombastic, bonkers Ken, which was originally recorded for the Comic Strip film GLC. Considering it’s about former Labour politician Ken Livingstone, in the light of Bush’s recent comments in support of Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May it’s an intriguing omission.

Also absent are various extended mixes from the era of The Red Shoes, plus a smattering of radio edits, alternate mixes, instrumentals and live material that made up the 1979 On Stage EP, it’s certainly an incomplete collection. For those of you that are that way inclined, 1990’s This Woman’s Work box set would seem to have most of those covered.

Nevertheless, generic over-literal title aside, Kate Bush Remastered is a treasure trove of some of the best music of the last 40 years plus a smattering of medium-rare treats.

So there aren’t any completely unreleased songs then?

Actually, for the faithful there is a solitary carrot, but it’s a good one: an almost legendary early recording that’s a much talked about part of Bush’s recording history, in fact.

It’s called Humming and it happens to be one of Kate Bush’s earliest compositions, first demoed in 1973. Also known back in the day as Maybe and/or Davy, Bush completed the master with producer Andrew Powell in the same 1975 session for The Kick Inside that produced The Man With The Child In His Eyes and the Saxophone Song, at George Martin’s Air Studios on London’s Oxford Street.

Humming was featured, somewhat surprisingly, on BBC Radio 1’s Personal Call with Andy Peebles in 1979

Musically, Humming’s country-tinged melody owes more than a small debt to Tiny Dancer, by her hero Elton John, as well as another song from ’71 I’ll come to in a minute. But it’s really the songbird’s words that are more than a little intriguing. They’re not included in How To Be Invisible, Bush’s plain but classy new book of collected lyrics, but received wisdom suggests they are as follows… 

You set the scene for any revolutionary

Who’ll ferry me

A crossing to enlivenment

Well not a cloud in his eye, not a blue in the sky

And they were rocking 

Because he’s a rock singer too

So maybe you may have many birds

And many songs for your morning

You’re so like a star upon me

You’re so like a star upon me

To be one in your garden

Humming, humming

Well strike a light in my head

Watch me buzz around the floor

But it’s no good

Because you give your own buzz and more

Everything is a stride it’s alright

While you’re playing boy

But when you go there’s nothing

There’s nothing left

© 2018 Noble & Brite Ltd

Not a cloud in his eye. Hmm, which one, the blue one or the ‘brown’ one? Studying these lyrics, and remembering that in Kate’s much bootlegged original piano demo (above) the chorus lyric was “Oh Davy” not “maybe”, it’s pretty obvious the song is about her other musical hero, David Bowie. 

This is Kate’s Song For Bob Dylan. And she was a big enough Bowie fan to know that some of his earliest 1960s recordings were billed as Davy (or Davie) Jones. And that playful reference to ‘ferry’ is brilliantly cheeky. Of course, in 1973 Kate was also a confirmed Roxy Music fan, and the band’s dapper frontman Bryan Ferry just happened to be the Dame’s biggest rival in the glam rock art pop stakes.

Humming dates from the time Bowie blazed trail after trail, making his maximum impact on the charts with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane. After 1971’s Hunky Dory, he’d ditched the long-haired hippy from Beckenham look, and with Ziggy and Aladdin adopted his celebrated space-face alter egos that completely revolutionised the very meaning of what a rock star was.

In fact, with many of the lyrics reflecting on the past tense the track could have been inspired by Bowie’s farewell to Ziggy Stardust — the legendary Hammersmith Odeon concert where he announced his ‘retirement’. It’s a show which is well documented that Kate, then a mere 14 years old, attended, and which made such a huge impression on her. 

The more oblique lyrics concern the bird metaphors, and the desire to be in Bowie’s garden. A teenage boy, George O’ Dowd, who was born in the same Kent borough as Bush, relishes reminiscing about how he’d make the short journey to Beckenham so he could sit outside the swinging star’s home so he could hang out with all the Bowie freaks. It’s the Boy’s Bowie badge of honour. With the now-demolished Haddon Hall just a half hour’s journey from her family’s East Wickham farmhouse, is Kate admitting she did the same?

With Bowie uppermost in our collective consciousness since he went to meet his Starman in the sky in 2016, it would be certainly go some way to explaining why Kate, a notorious control freak who’s frequently dismissed her entire body of work prior to 1985’s epic Hounds of Love, has decided to release a 43 year-old recording after all these years. It’s assumed the role of double-edged tribute: a song about Bowie leaving the stage becomes a tribute to Bowie now he’s left the planet.

I mentioned in an earlier article how in 1999 the Dame had been listening to a lot of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, which fed into that year’s ‘hours…’ album. Five years earlier, Bowie and Bush met at the Flowers East gallery in London Fields in September 1994, where they had both contributed newly created artworks to Brian Eno’s War Child fundraiser Little Pieces From Big Stars. Doing more than their bit, David and Brian went back a couple of days later to give the show a thoroughly bemusing early morning plug on breakfast telly with the thoroughly out of her depth Anthea Turner, and to show off Kate’s “quite delightful” pair. He never did bid for them, by the way, though he did grant me my first interview after ITV had left the building.

Perhaps Kate held Humming back because, like Song For Bob Dylan, it could be seen as a little critical of her subject: “maybe you have many birds” – Bowie’s voracious sexual appetite and his open marriage to first wife and fellow bisexualist Angela Barnett was the stuff tabloid dreams were made of.

Just don’t expect Kate to extrapolate on any of this. This most media-shy of singer-songwriters isn’t doing any interviews for these reissues, largely because she hates talking about her past records. But also because she doesn’t want to be quizzed about one of them in particular: 2005’s marvellously multi-layered double set Aerial, which has been de-Rolfed, with all contributions by convicted sex offender Rolf Harris as The Painter replaced by Kate’s son Bertie. It’s been done for perfectly sound legal reasons, but I have to stick my neck out and admit to vastly preferring the disgraced Australian’s warm and soothing take to the son’s stage school vibrato. Still, what a lovely afternoon.

Humming Rheingold: Aerial’s Pink Floydian cover image is emblematic of the album’s celebration of sky, sea, and birdsong. which shows a waveform of a blackbird in call masquerading as rocks reflected in the sea during a glowing sunset. I’m glad we cleared that up then

How To Be Invisible is out now through Faber & Faber

Steve Pafford

Bonus: Kate isn’t known for making too many public statements, but the Thin White Dame‘s passing brought about tributes by all sorts of artists, from Adam Ant and Blondie to Tina Turner and Madonna. In a remembrance article published by The Guardian, Bush, who famously studied under Bowie’s legendary mentor Lindsay Kemp, put out the following statement:

“David Bowie had everything. He was intelligent, imaginative, brave, charismatic, cool, sexy and truly inspirational both visually and musically. He created such staggeringly brilliant work, yes, but so much of it and it was so good. There are great people who make great work but who else has left a mark like his? No one like him.

I’m struck by how the whole country has been flung into mourning and shock. Shock, because someone who had already transcended into immortality could actually die. He was ours. Wonderfully eccentric in a way that only an Englishman could be.

Whatever journey his beautiful soul is now on, I hope he can somehow feel how much we all miss him.”

 

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