Here’s to one of today’s brightest up-and-coming pop stars: Kate Bush. And, in his third Perfect 10 feature for stevepafford.com, an exhilarating overview of her greatest singles, by author Callum Pearce
2022 then — what a year, eh? The year The Queen died, Britain had three — count ‘em! — prime ministers in two months, and Kate Bush was discovered. Well, sort of.
The most fascinating thing about 2022 was that, as with the release of the chart-slaying ABBA Gold thirty years earlier, Kate Bush enjoyed a most remarkable renaissance without having to lift a finger. However, the world and their mother already had an inkling this is one classy performer who you won’t see turning up on every chat show or Instagram feed available spilling her guts for a live audience whenever she needs validation. This most enigmatic of artists just seems to just disappear in between albums with maybe the odd breathlessly mysterious sighting, if we’re lucky.
It seems odd to think of how Bush was once popularly perceived: not with the reverence she’s held in now, but as a dippy space cadet with a penchant for saying “wow” a lot.
Her genius in her architecture of sound. Each album is distinctively different to the previous. A complete artist — an accomplished choreographer, a classically trained musician who plays the violin, piano and other instruments. Kate has taken me to places to where I’ve never been to before. No one is like her and will never be like her. Simply, her mould cannot be remoulded.
Yet Kate‘s Houdini-like existence is the stuff of endless conjecture, leading to ugly rumours about her health or even that she’s become so uneasy on the eye that she refuses to be seen. To put that in perspective, this tawdry tedium has been going on ever since she quietly withdrew after the challenging but immensely creative The Dreaming forty years ago. Oh, and see if you can spot Bowie‘s Ashes To Ashes costume in the vid.
As the silences have become ever longer, the faithful have tried myriad complicated calculations to try to predict when a new record might be on its way. Of course, there was never a clever mathematical formula to follow and the rumours would turn out to be nothing more than that. Simply, Kate Bush has never bowed to commercial convention and would simply announce an album when she felt it was ready.
Kate denies being a perfectionist and says that she, like Bowie and Eno at their most esoteric, embraces the randomness of happy accidents in music, but it cannot be denied that this diligent dame will work and work on something until she feels it is just right.
“It’s very frustrating the albums take as long as they do … I wish there weren’t such big gaps between them,” she told BBC Radio 4 in 2011, just before skinning up (probably). “I think it’s important that things are flawed … That’s what makes a piece of art interesting sometimes – the bit that’s wrong or the mistake you’ve made that’s led onto an idea you wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Because of these long hiatuses and the fact that she prioritises her family life and well being over painting a public profile means that every so often a new generation will discover her work and start rummaging through her back catalogue, which is a wholly unique self-contained entity in itself.
Sometimes a charity appeal will use Bush’s music, a popular group will cover it or it will be used effectively in a film or TV programme and interest in her peaks quickly. Garnering endless headlines and breaking many records, in 2022 one of her most iconic recordings was used beautifully in a moving scene in Netflix’s nostalgia-driven horror series Stranger Things.
Nothing illustrates how more beloved than ever these days Kate Bush is, since, thanks to an avalanche of streaming — and the fact that it sounds nothing like a song from 1985 — Running Up That Hill ran up many charts and spent the summer in the UK top ten between Lizzo and Harry Styles, ending as the sixth best selling single of 2022! Amazingly, it also peaked at number 3 on the American Billboard Hot 100. This was Kate’s first ever track to reach the top 10 of a US singles chart and the album it came from, Hounds Of Love became her first to reach the top of the Billboard album chart.
Of course, to anyone over a certain age, Kate Bush has been honing her craft as long as Annie Lennox, Blondie, Paul Weller and any number of those we lazily label ‘heritage acts’, however crusty that sounds.
La Bush started teaching herself piano at the age of 11 and was soon in child progeny mode, composing her own music and writing lyrics at her parents’ farm in Welling, where North Kent meets the outer extremities of South London. She learned interpretive dance from Bowie’s former teacher the amazing Lindsay Kemp and hit the world like a whirlwind. Of course, she was a fan of The Dame and some other fat-fingered fella that was knocking about at the time.
“I was sitting in my bath, submerged in bubbles, listening to Radio Luxembourg when I heard David Bowie for the first time. ‘There’s a Starman waiting in the sky’. I thought it was such an interesting song and that he had a really unusual voice. Soon I was to hear that track everywhere, and Bowie’s music became a part of my life… his clothing was theatrical and bizarre; was that a dress? No one was sure, but my conclusion was that he was quite beautiful. His picture found itself on my bedroom wall next to the scared space reserved solely for my greatest love — Elton John.”
With audacious, oh-so-memorable hits like Wuthering Heights, Wow and Army Dreamers, Kate’s own utterly distinctive voice and fearless performance style propelled her into one of the most celebrated careers in music, occupying a unique place as the most revered female singer-songwriter the British Isles has ever produced.
So for new fans and older gatekeepers alike, here are our 10 best Bush’s on 45.
The Man With The Child In His Eyes (1978)
This is a very sweet, innocent song about a young woman in a relationship with an older man. Kate wrote the song when she was 13 and for obvious reasons it was withheld from release until she was 16.
For a long time, it was thought to have been written about Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who was a pivotal figure in Bush’s early career, and helped to produce a more professional demo tape for her when she was 16. The demo and the first two albums were produced by his friend Andrew Powell. The guitarist also made sure that the music was heard by the EMI executive Terry Slater who was highly impressed and signed her on the spot. Gilmour is credited as executive producer on two tracks on her debut album The Kick Inside. He also performs backing vocals on Pull Out the Pin (1982) and plays guitar on Love And Anger and Rocket’s Tail, both featuring on 1989’s The Sensual World.
Another contender is former radio/TV presenter and Kate’s first boyfriend Steve Blacknell, who says that he was told by mutual friends that the song was about him. Kate has never gone public with who the song was about, claiming at the time that it referred more to the male species in general
“It was a theory that I had had for a while that I just observed in most of the men that I know: the fact that they just are little boys inside and how wonderful it is that they manage to retain this magic.”
Symphony In Blue (1979)
The sophomore set-piece, you might say. Taken from the second album Lionheart, Symphony In blue was released as a single in Canada and Japan. In Canadian climes, the B-side was the British minor hit, Hammer Horror; in Japan, the deep cut that opened the second side of the LP, Fullhouse.
In some ways a prototype Running Up That Hill, this song seems to be her attempt at unpacking her own beliefs around — God, sex and the meaning of life. In a very Bowie-esque way, the girl with the Irish Catholic mother also uses a palette of colours to explore deep emotions and life events.
Like pretty much all of her work, it’s instantly recognisable as a Kate Bush song. The lyrics and music are simpler and less experimental in this than in some of her work. It’s a very straightforward exploration of life and our quest to find meaning in everything.
As straightforwardly pop as Bush ever got, Babooshka is probably one of the more familiar songs on this list, famed for a raunchy video that looks like a dream a Dungeons & Dragons-playing pervert once had. Either way, Babooshka is still irresistible: its howled chorus unshakeable, the sound of smashing glass presaging ’80s sample-mania. It shows her great ability to hear or read a story that intrigues her and then translate it to tell us in a new and interesting way. It makes sense that this song would have a resurgence now when people deal with catfishing, trolling and spying on each other’s social media pages.
It tells the story of a woman who has grown old, bitter and paranoid. Determined to prove her husband’s disloyalty or disinterest in her, “she sent him scented letters” under the Russian pseudonym Babooshka. Babs is young and the opposite of how she imagines her better half sees her. Like something out of a Coronation Street scene featuring the Duckworths, when arranging a meeting with her hubby as Babooshka she finds that he was drawn to her because of how much she reminded him of his wife before the bitterness and paranoia became a big part of who she was.
In the UK, Babooshka was her second top five hit and if somebody mentions Kate Bush in a documentary, they will likely have this, Wuthering Heights or Wow winking in the background. It was also another single that enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently, especially amongst American audiences, having been used in a plethora of TikTok videos from Moscow to Marseille.
Incidentally, sandwiched between the also exquisite Breathing and Army Dreamers 45s, Babooshka was released the day after that Steve Pafford guy celebrated his 11th birthday, as the second single extracted from Never For Ever. One for the record books, Kate’s third LP holds the unique position of being the first album by a British female solo artist to top the UK chart, as well as being the first album by any female solo artist to enter the chart at No. 1.
Suspended In Gaffa (1982)
“Suspended In Gaffa is reasonably autobiographical, which most of my songs aren’t. It’s about seeing something that you want – on any level – and not being able to get that thing unless you work hard and in the right way towards it.” – Kate Bush, NME, 1982
The Gaffa referred to is obviously gaffer tape. In subsequent interviews, Kate, ever the enigma, describes this as “being given a glimpse of ‘God’ — something that we dearly want — but being told that unless we work for it, we will never see it again, and even then, we might not be worthy of it.”
This thrillingly unhinged tour de force speaks of obstacles to what you want and is accompanied by a light-hearted dance routine in the promotional video. The whole shebang is set in a barn, and for a brief flash at 2:49 features Kate’s mother Hannah as a reassuring figure as daughter mumbles the child-like line, “Mother, where are the angels? I’m scared of the changes.” And if you’ve ever wondered why Kate sings much of the verses in a cod-Irish accent, well, Hannah was from Dungarvan in County Waterford, 90 minutes from the country’s famous Blarney Stone.
Musically, not only is Gaffa is deliciously twee but it appears to have inspired Tori Amos’s entire career — kind of jolly baroque and roll, a happy/sad example for lyrics that speak so much of frustration and being kept away from what you desire the most. The whole affair is extraordinary if impenetrable, and something of a ‘lost’ Kate Bush 45. EMI — clearly struggling over what the hell to release from fourth album The Dreaming (frequently brilliant, but deeply experimental and devoid of obvious singles) — slipped Suspended In Gaffa out on 2 November 1982, the day Channel 4 went on air. Alas, it was only released as a single in Australia and continental Europe, where the B-side was a brand new recording entirely sung in French, Ne t’enfuis pas, which means Don’t Run Away. Not a hit, for some reason.
In the UK, the label opted for the equally abrasive Kurt Weill meets am-dram cockney bankrobber folly, There Goes A Tenner, which became Bush’s first single to miss the top 75, peaking at number 93. Still, a revival of sorts was a mere three years away — a small interlude by latter day standards.
Like just about everyone in the eighties, my parents had one of those glass hi-fi cabinets that had the music system at waist height and a space underneath for an assortment of vinyls. Whilst having a good root through the oldies’ collection, I came across Cloudbusting, the cover of which had a short-haired pixie-like Kate Bush on an oversized machine called a cloudbuster. I was certain that this must be the soundtrack to some fabulous fantasy film that I had yet to see. There was something very simple and magical about it, and was another great example of Kate sharing an interesting story that she found deeply moving.
One of her most evocative 45s, this second single taken from the epochal Hounds Of Love (after Running Up That Hill), was inspired by the relationship between psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Reich and his young son, Peter, as outlined in the latter‘s 1973 memoir, A Book Of Dreams. In the song (and video, starring Donald Sutherland as the father), Kate takes on the role of the young son. The young charge is remembering the times that he and his father spent “Cloudbusting, daddy”, a pseudo-scientific rain-making process which involved pointing an aluminium machine built by Reich at the sky, at his Orgonon estate in Maine. It further explores the boy’s feelings of helplessness at not being able to hide or protect his father when he was later arrested and incarcerated.
Kate’s voice gives the whole story a truly magical quality, too — evoking the days of happiness, wonder and hopefulness of the boy experimenting with his father before he was taken away to rot in prison. Powered by its locomotive-like strings, the song twists and turns dramatically, before reaching its final euphoric refrain.
As a single, Cloudbusting reached No. 20 in Britain, and was met with mixed reviews, and from some, a sense of bewilderment. “A dreamy, gentle, intense Sousaesque marching tune chockablock with the usual whimsy,” cooed Caroline Sullivan in Melody Maker, while Record Mirror’s Andy Strickland was a tad more strict, dismissing it little more than an “infuriatingly catchy bit of stringy nonsense.”
Don’t Give Up (Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush) (1986)
Written by Peter Gabriel for his fifth album So, and inspired by Depression era photographs by Dorothea Lange, Don’t Give Up was originally intended to be a duet with Dolly Parton. When Dolly declined, he asked his old chum who’d provided backing vocals on his 1980 singles Games Without Frontiers and No Self Control. And it’s fair to say a little piece of magic was made.
Peter’s verses lament the state of the world and the difficulties of life. Kate’s choruses implore him not to be weighed down by everything, and to look at the things he still has rather than what he has lost or can’t have. It could be a conversation between two people or a conversation in your own head when the world looks rough and you need to keep pushing on.
David Bowie listened to Don’t Give Up a lot during the making of his Hours album, and in a 2014 interview, Elton John gave the song credit for helping him when he was getting sober:
“She [Bush] played a big part in my rebirth. That record helped me so much.”
“Rest your head. You worry too much. It’s going to be all right. When times get rough you can fall back on us. Don’t give up. Please don’t give up.”
Indeed, with lyrics like that it’s a situation that is as apt today as it was three and a half decades ago.
This Woman’s Work (1988)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXzx–YefD8
This Woman’s Work was written for the dramatic climax of John Hughes’ romantic comedy She’s Having A Baby. When the original plan to licence Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren fell through, Kate stepped in and conjured up the song whilst sitting at a piano and watching a rough cut of the sequence.
Belying her reputation as a pernickety studio perfectionist, it apparently took just a matter of days to write and record. Kate tells the story of what she was seeing through the male character’s eyes (Jefferson ‘Jake’ Briggs, played by a slightly hammy Kevin Bacon) — a man feeling powerless as his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and unborn child’s life are in danger.
It’s an infinitely beautiful and sad song that has been used in myriad media over the years, another lilting chestnut whose hands keep grabbing a new audience for Kate or reminding her older audience to revisit her. Included on 1989’s The Sensual World album, the 45 made 25 that year, and extracts of the song were used very effectively in NSPCC adverts in 2005, which shot the track back to No.3 on the UK’s download chart. Maxwell’s stripped-down cover version, too, has taken on a life of its own.
Moments Of Pleasure (1993)
The Red Shoes was Kate Bush’s seventh album, a work frequently haunted by loss, never more so than on this moving piano ballad, on which Bush listed dead friends by name, quoted adages used by her mother and concluded: “Just being alive – it can hurt so much.”
The remembrance is delivered in little snapshots of her last moments with people or vignettes that stood out in their time together. Kate wrote the chorus “to those we love, to those who will survive” for her mother Hannah, who was battling cancer. She sadly succumbed to the disease on Valentine’s Day 1992.
“Every old sock needs an old shoe” was also one of Hannah’s sayings, and even though, arguably Kate’s father (literally Doctor Robert — he was a GP) was more of a sounding board and willing audience of his daughter’s music (especially pre-The Kick Inside), there is no doubt that Mother Bush was at the heart of the household. And from the queen to the king…
King Of The Mountain (2005)
By the noughties, Bush’s production of new albums had slowed to a trickle, but as true now as it was then, any music she releases is worth the wait. Twelve years after The Red Shoes, she released Aerial. The so-called comeback album wasn’t exactly overburdened with obvious singles. Perhaps the beautiful, sunlit Somewhere In Between might have worked out of context of the sublime Sea Of Honey song-suite, but instead she plumped for a song that involved her impersonating a is-he-dead-or-isn’t-he? Elvis Presley and knowingly ruminating on the benefits of withdrawing from the public eye and living off the grid.
On a deeper level, the song is a canny commentary on conspiracy theories and the ridiculous byproducts of being famous — “There’s a rumour that you’re on ice/ And you will rise again someday,” she shares — and the way fiction becomes conflated with the truth when public figures are concerned. “I mean, that kind of fame that he must’ve been living with, must’ve been unbearable,” she told BBC4. “I can’t imagine what it must be like. I don’t think human beings are really built to withstand that kind of fame.”
Musically, King Of The Mountain is a joy, with a naggingly repetitive electronic element reminiscent of Björk that sounds like it could’ve been released in 2022. Back in 2005, it entered the UK singles chart at number 4 making it her first top ten single since Don’t Give Up.
Deeper Understanding (2011)
You could see why Bush chose to trail the Director’s Cut album — where she warmly reinterpreted some of the better songs from the digitally recorded The Sensual World and The Red Shoes she wasn’t entirely happy with — with Deeper Understanding. Its lyric about the isolating effects of home tech seems weirdly prescient for a song from the 1980s. One could argue that it’s one instance where the original, replete with ethereal vocals by Trio Bulgarka (subsequently swamped by a guest appearance by Kate’s son, Bertie), is better, but that original was never released as a 45, natch.
Deeper Understanding explore our relationship with technology and how human relationships are being replaced by relationships with our computers or gadgets. A man sees an advert for lonely and lost people which he orders, and a voice comes out of the device telling him that he is loved. Kate described it as divine energy coming through the least likely conduit. Finding warmth and love in our cold machines was something Kate extrapolated on in an interview with Radio 1’s Roger Scott.
“For me, when I think of computers, it’s such a cold contact and yet, at the same time, I really believe that computers could be a tremendous way for us to look at ourselves in a very spiritual way because I think they could teach us more about ourselves than we’ve been able to look at, so far. I think there’s a large part of us that is like a computer.”
The track starts off as pretty typical Kate Bush fare until the computerised voice hits and calls back to Laurie Anderson’s brilliantly weird Oh Superman, or, if you’re a gamer, GLaDOS’s song in the portal game Want You Gone. Either way, the guest voice gives the sound an extra edge and the story a little more texture. The quirkily entertaining video doesn’t feature Kate but boasts the late, great Robbie Coltrane as the star of the show — a businessman who’s being slowly drawn away from his family and the real world by the PC he obsesses over. His missus is played by Frances Barber of Billie Trix fame, from the Pet Shop Boys’ musical Closer To Heaven (Oh, and I worked with her on Silk, actually — Ed). Also, there’s a wee little cameo at the end with The Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding getting strangled.
Them heavy people indeed.
What? You want more Bush? Said to the actress to the bishop.
These weren’t singles in the conventional sense, but I heartily recommend the following:
Humming (from 1975, but only released in 2018), which, with his laser-like forensics, Steve Pafford himself expertly interpreted as Kate’s tribute to David Bowie.
December Will Be Magic Again is Kate’s only official Christmas single, released in 1980, whereas Home For Christmas was released as a flipside in 1993 (to Rubberband Girl in the US and Moments Of Pleasure in the UK).
Sat In Your Lap (1981) is brilliantly bonkers, as is Get Outta My House (1982), which is based on Stephen King’s The Shining; a roaring Fairlight-fabulous noise that has to be played, Ziggy-like, at full volume.
In the early ’90s Kate did a favour to her old hero Elton John and dashed off a couple of excellent covers in the shape of Rocket Man and Candle In The Wind, which were combined as a double A-sided single in 1991. An ailing Hannah was watching her daughter performing it on Wogan too.
Lake Tahoe is a beautiful tune too, from 2011’s surprise winter album 50 Words For Snow, the only one of her studio sets not represented in the P10. Just go and explore the lot and then work your way back. I insist.
I Say I Say I Say: Did you hear the one about Kate Bush producing Erasure? The Andy Bell interview is here