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Formidable Fourths: Kate Bush’s The Dreaming

Well, it’s a one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, Kate, go…

When surveying artists’ repertoire, the cliché is the early stuff is always the best. Indeed, marking a new feature at, the chronological artistry assessment is usually along the lines of:

The Strong Start

The first album is usually good because the act had the freedom to hone their craft. So the songs are tight, having had their entire lives to forge a set of perfect songs which have been meticulously rehearsed, adapted and primed to hit with maximum impact. Though the LP sometimes suffers a bit from studio jitters and/or inexperience while making up for it in unbridled raw enthusiasm. 

The Sophomore Slump 

The difficult second album syndrome catches the outfit off-guard, because the debut was a hit, and thus, the record label are desperate to capitalise on said success and have given them approximately two weeks to write and record the follow up. Alas, the best material has been used already and the grind of touring and newfound fame doesn’t make it any easier to conjure up new songs, so often the material suffers, often being leftovers that didn’t make the debut. 

Third Time Lucky

With the third album, they’ve been humbled by the second set’s relative failure (artistically and/or commercially), and they probably have few older songs to mine. So with the thought (if not their label masters instructing them) that the next record better be a big improvement or they’ll be dropped, there’s an incentive to write a new batch of strong songs from scratch, and they’ll usually deliver the goods.

Formidable Fourths

If the second album done right consolidates the gains of a debut, and the third album shows the act at the apex of their powers, then the fourth should be everyone lined up and ready. Along with having a fair amount of studio experience, they know by now where their strengths and weaknesses lay. They either concede they’ve run out of ideas, or the floodgates are well and truly open and invention, reinvention and unfettered creativity is unleashed to provide in some cases the most rewarding album of their career.

Many music aficionados make a perfectly valid case for an act’s fourth album being their career best, and when that list boasts The Small Faces’ Ogdens‘ Nut Gone Flake, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain and Pet Shop Boys’ Behaviour, well, that’s certainly a set of excellence not too often surpassed. 

Pop stars don’t always do a good job describing their own work, but Kate Bush, who has turned 65, had a point when she described The Dreaming as her “I’ve gone mad album.” It’s teeming with wayward production techniques that summon Public Image Ltd more than the mainstream radio acts of 1982. 

Kate with Paul Hardiman, Del Palmer at Advision Studios, recording The Dreaming in 1982 (via Del’s Facebook page)

The pounding maelstrom of frenetic drums amid moody synth atmospheres, and layered vocals free of her almost effortless commercial hooks of old, inaugurates Bush’s fourth LP, in which the celebrated songwriter plunges brain-first into avant-pop paranoia. There’s certainly a school of thought that insists The Dreaming is her high watermark of darkly complex creative abandon. It’s not my favourite Kate Bush album, but, perhaps more than any other entry in her discography, the way in which her mastery of the Fairlight concretises her mythopoetic strain still startles.

There’s a reason why Kate never toured her ’80s and ’90s albums, because when you’ve reached the zenith of studio artistry time and time again, why wouldn’t you move on to bigger and better things?

Most artists tend to just rest on their laurels once they find a sound that works. Yet everything Kate Bush has done since the early 1980s feels like it’s been a risk in some way. Ever since she got the nod from David Gilmour on her nascent recordings, everything from her fourth album on has felt like they’re coming from a completely different universe than the majority of pop artists. 

“The title actually came last,” said Kate upon the LP’s release in 1982. “It always does. It’s the most difficult thing to do. I tried to get a title that would somehow say what was in there. It was really bad. Then I found this book. I’d written a song and hadn’t really given it a proper name. I knew all about this time they call Dreamtime, when animals and humans take the same form. It‘s this big religious time when all these incredible things happen. The other word for it is The Dreaming. I looked at that written down and thought, ‘Yeah!’”

“I knew the beat from Sun Arise and Aborigine music, so we just ripped that off, used what was already there ethnically. Rolf just came in and did didgeridoo. A Fairlight was used to demo the song, but there is no comparison with the real thing, especially with an instrument like that when it is played by someone as brilliant as Rolf Harris. He was an absolute dream to work with, and so much more fun than a machine.”

These days we’d wokeishly call it cultural appropriation, though in 1981 none other than Adam Ant got there first by basing his Prince Charming squall on the hypnotic Harris hit, which had been produced by the ‘Fifth Beatle’ George Martin back in 1963. However, in more recent years Kate had to content with more pressing issues. Following his conviction for sexual abuse, the disgraced Australian artist and one-time telly fave was digitally removed from the 2018 remaster (as well as his contributions to Bush’s 2005 album Aerial) and subsequently replaced. He died in May 2023.

“The stimulus started years ago, when Paddy [Bush, her older brother] bought Sun Arise by Rolf Harris; a unique and wonderful song. And for many years it has greatly disturbed me, the way ‘civilised’ man has treated ancient tribes such as the Aborigines, Red Indians, Tasmanians… and because of the beauty of the Aborigines’ music and the way it seems to exude space, and the feeling of having great contact with the earth, I felt it was the perfect way to portray this feeling of invasion by white man.”

Developed in Sydney, Australia (it takes its name from a Northern Beaches harbourside suburb close to my Manly hood), the Fairlight CMI was an innovative synthesizer, sampler and a digital audio workstation that had been famously adopted by the Bush’s pop pal Peter Gabriel.

Kate first used the machine on her third album Never For Ever, most notably with the sound of breaking glass on the single Babooshka. During work on The Dreaming she delved deeper, making it her go-to tool for composing, whose possibilities were limited only by her imagination.

“Most of the songs were written on Fairlight and synths, which was moving away really from the earlier albums, where all my material was written on piano. And there is something about the character of a sound – you hear a sound and it has a whole quality of its own, that it can be sad or happy or… And that immediately conjures up images, which can of course help you to think of ideas that lead you on to a song.”

Kate cut and pasted layers of timbres and segments of sound rather than recording mixing lines of instruments, a method that would later be commonplace among the producer-musician. Like Gabriel, Bush also reached the peak of her powers when she took control of the production. The Dreaming is dense, daring and delectable, truly captures the artist in her own world, creating surreal cathedrals of sound from her voice, samplers, pianos, and unorthodox percussion like Paddy Bush’s bamboo sticks.

Marking her transformation into a fearless experimental artist who was legibly, audibly a bit bonkers, and very obviously totally enamoured with pop music, the album envisages, in part, an English culture broken by war and made mad by nuclear threat. Even schoolgirl fact gets muddled: “Some say that hell is heaven,” a chorus of multitracked Kates avers in Sat In Your Lap, a slightly remixed version of the 45 that signalled this new free spiritedness back in the heady riot-plagued summer of ’81. And tellingly, the last time Kate enjoyed a top 40 single until 1985’s perennial Running Up That Hill.

Peaking at a lowly 48 in the UK, the didgeridoo drones of the title track, preceded its parent album by a couple of months. In certain territories, the magical waltz-time reverie of Suspended In Gaffa, which laments falling short of enlightenment through the metaphor of light bondage in black cloth stagehand tape, was a subsequent single but did little.

The Mockney in the music hall affectations of There Goes A Tenner fared even worse, becoming Bush’s first single to miss the UK top 75. Across the pond, in 1983 Ireland was, fittingly, treated to the Uilleann pipes-propelled Night Of The Swallow as the set’s fifth and final 45, which again failed to chart.

Happily, Kate was less concerned with chart positions and more interested in the dissonance of delivery. Elsewhere, The Dreaming is full of jarring flourishes: on the violent Pull Out The Pin, trucks and horns wail as the soldier about to vaporise himself exclaims via scorched cries of “I love life!” with the conviction of the character in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.

Sometimes, Kate’s phrasing can almost bring you to tears. She can make the most mundane things sound magical, as in the lyric to All The Love, where she goes out of her way to appreciate the people around her while she still can.

From the trippy vocal effects on Leave It Open to the lush strings of Houdini, The Dreaming is a classic headphones album, offering new sounds to discover with each listen. By the end she’s turned into a mule, literally. The utterly frightening donkey brays on Get Out Of My House signalling that somewhere amidst this chaos Kate Bush makes you feel like you’ve been transported to the place she’s singing about. Usually they’re fantasy places so you feel you’re with her in the wilderness of her swooniverse. Can I have it all now?

In summation, one of the best reviews came from Jon Young writing for Trouser Press: 

“A stunning record in more ways than one. Besides being a triumph of inventive songwriting and unpredictable performances, it is so overpowering that it repays the careful listener with exhaustion. The Dreaming shuns the soothing blandness of much contemporary “product,” but its sensory overload will drive away the less than dedicated. One side of this LP easily outweighs most full discs.”

Entering and peaking at No. 3 in the same September week that saw the Kids From Fame hogging the top spot, even if The Dreaming wasn’t much of a commercial success, Kate evidently revelled in the experience so much that she never allowed another outside producer to take control of another album. Her formidable fourth is where Kate Bush joined rock’s great eccentrics.

You can’t help but wonder how its author feels about The Dreaming now. Nothing from it has ever been performed live, although an understanding of how 2014’s Before The Dawn residency came to be structured mostly explains that omission. Guitarist David Rhodes revealed to the Homeground fan club magazine that Kate did initially plan to include Sat in Your Lap in the show, thing it got switched out for The Sensual World’s Top Of The City before they reached rehearsal stage.

In the nineties, Kate did recall looking back at the record “and it seems mad. I heard it about three years ago and couldn’t believe it. There’s a lot of anger in it. There‘s a lot of ‘I’m an artist, right!’”

New converts may wonder how the Kentish elf travelled from the sweet naïveté of Wuthering Heights to the polymorphous art-pop genius of Hounds Of Love. They need only spend some time with The Dreaming to find out. 

Steve Pafford

Perfect 10: Kate Bush on 45 is here

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