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33 at 45: Kate Bush and the outsider art pop of The Kick Inside

“Hello everyone. This is Kate Bush and I’m here with my new album, The Kick Inside, and I hope you enjoy it. The album is something that has not just suddenly happened. It’s been years of work because since I was a kid, I’ve always been writing songs and it was really just collecting together all the best songs that I had and putting them on the album, really years of preparation and inspiration that got it together. As a girl, really, I’ve always been into words as a form of communication. And even at school I was really into poetry and English and it just seemed to turn into music with the lyrics, that you can make poetry go with music so well. That it can actually become something more than just words; it can become something special.”

(Self Portrait promotional interview album, 1978)

When Kate Bush reissued her redoubtable run of ten studio albums late in 2018, she exerted an even greater degree of control over her back catalogue, which, it must be said, she’d barely glanced at over the decades. Issues over modified artworks and Rolf Harris erasure aside, one of the more fan-friendly and audiophile elements I noticed was how the new remastering (by James Guthrie and Kate herself, naturally) was subtle and sympathetic rather than engaging in the overbearing and fatiguing loudness war known in the trade as brickwalling. The sonic differences are modest but compliment and, at times even enhance the music.

Many of Kate’s LPs sounded kind of unbelievable anyway. What’s even more astonishing is it is 45 long years since her dazzling debut, the kooky prog-rock jolt that is The Kick Inside, entered the British charts — at a slightly lowly No.13 (the same day Wuthering Heights assumed its place at the summit), though the album would rise steadily to peak at No.3 a month later.

On TKI’s 2018 rejig there’s a touch more bass response, and a greater depth to the vocals – such as on the “You crush the lily in my soul” section on the album opener, Moving. The Man With The Child In His Eyes sounds superb, especially when the gentle ensemble of strings soar in the chorus; the lead vocal on L’Amour Looks Something Like You sits far better in the mix, and even the wondrous Wuthering Heights reveals lovely little flourishes that were previously less prominent.

These albums have been issued by Parlophone through Kate’s vanity imprint Fish People. Now owned by Warner Music, Parlophone was, of course, EMI’s iconic and thoroughly British record label that signed The Beatles and put(s) out music by Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys, Queen and David Bowie.

In 1977, EMI and KB had tussled over what song should launch her career. At age 19, and far wiser than her corporate overlords, Kate Bush had adamantly fought for and won the chance to release her choice for a single over the more conventional dance-rock of James And The Cold Gun. The label heads agreed, doing so only to prove a point. If she chose a track they believed would flop, she’d rescind and succumb to let them control the rest of her career. Oh to be that naive.

Finally released in January 1978, few expected how absolutely out of the norm a song like Wuthering Heights would treat reality. She achieved something unheard of. Rocketing up to pole position in the UK charts for a month in March, this spectral mix of symphonic folk, prog and Kate’s own utterly unique pop sensibilities dethroned ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me, making her the first female artist to have a No.1 single with a self-penned composition and first female English songwriter to top the charts. 41 years alter, it’s easy to forget just how unusual this occurrence was at the time.

When Wuthering Heights was unleashed, Paul McCartney & Wings were flying supreme with a nine-week assault on the No.1 spot (and some would say the nation’s collective ears as well, but I digress) with Mull Of Kintyre, a bagpiping folk ballad dedicated to Macca’s Caledonian homestead. It swiftly became the first single to sell over two million copies nationwide and Britain’s biggest selling single ever until 1984’s Band Aid behemoth.

What knocked Wings off their perch would be a reggae pastiche (courtesy of Althia & Donna), then a cash-in by an openly ABBA-aping English group (Brotherhood of Man), and finally a magnificent neo-motorik dance pop single from the Swedish supergroup themselves. Somehow, few expected this flouncy young girl with the lilting limbs to come out of nowhere to captivate and dominate such a dancing scene. However, when one hears the mesmerising mysticism that kicks in around the 30 second mark you start to appreciate just how damn easy it was to fall under her bewitching spell.

As shy as she was, Kate always had a unique ability to see beyond her current situation. Rather than face the indignity of releasing a single with a blatantly sexual cover (as originally conceived by the EMI heads), she bided her time and succeeded on her own terms. According to Kate, the song was written almost as an end piece, being conjured up during a full moon at her flat in Brockley, South East London, when she was nearing the completion of the album.

A year before its creation, she had caught the last ten minutes of the BBC’s rebroadcast of their 1967 miniseries based on the Emily Bronte novel Wuthering Heights. She was intrigued by the gothic love story presented on TV and went on to read the book, only to learn that she shared the same birthday as Emily. Inspired by this discovery, one late night with the moon shimmering outside her window, the song came streaming in to her psyche. Sussing it out on her upright piano, as she has always done with countless other songs, something about this dark romantic song attracted her attention.

Sharing the same name as one of the main protagonists from the novel allowed the woman born Catherine Bush to inhabit a role. By using her as the cypher from who to sing a viewpoint of she was able to shine a light on some hidden feelings. Catherine, from the novel, haunts the romantic anti-hero of it, Heathcliff, either through class warfare waged during her more mature waking life, or in death through ghostly apparitions showing the wilder parts she gave up when she nearly all of the parts absconded with him at a younger age.

From a young impressionable age, Kate had been struck hard by music. All of her family, of half-Irish and half-English descent, had played in some sort of band or practiced some instrument. Her father, Robert, a doctor, would frequently play records for them (mostly jazz and traditional folk) and together with Kate’s mother, Hannah, there would be an encouragement to learning the musical art as an addendum to the children’s regular studies.

Cathy always felt beyond her years. She would think about the world not in the eyes of a child, but in terms far older than that. She frequently wrote poems about loneliness, escaping to the woods, or even whales as escapes from her thoughts. At age 13, she had already started to write embryonic strains of songs like The Saxophone Song or The Man With The Child In His Eyes. Diligently listening to the records her older brothers would listen to: Bowie, Elton John, King Crimson, Genesis and other prog; her own faves like Nina Simone and Minnie Ripperton; plus a plethora of traditional folk music they would hear or play on the side, she started to realise that her poetry sounded best when she moulded it to something she could sing or portray.

Plonking away at the piano endlessly, sometimes six hours a day, seven days a week, she taught herself how to master its workings. As long as she hit three notes, she knew she had a chord. Using that as a basis she expanded on her compositions. Setting aside copying lyrics from library books, she started to write her own, seeing as how she could bend the music to fit the words more. Striking up the courage to record those songs, she used a portable recorder to lay down some fifty or so scratchy demos of her just performing and singing along to her piano.

Her family encouraged Bush to publish her music. A cassette found its way into the hands of Ricky Hopper, a mutual friend of the family who worked in the music industry. Hopper was floored by Kate’s all-encompassing talent, and passed the scratchily recorded tapes to a certain Pink Floyd guitar honcho. Imagine Dave Gilmour knocking at your parent’s door asking if you were around? Then picture him asking if he can hear you play and record your performance at home. This is exactly what happened to a 14 year-old Bush.

Gilmour was blown away by the teenage chanteuse, and was perceptive enough to recognise the trembling fear she felt, but cared enough to nurture her talent. By the time she was 15 in 1973, Bush had written over 100 songs, including the celebrated Bowie-meets-Elton paean Humming, a Kick Inside outtake that was finally issued last year. 

With a three-song demo they recorded at the family home at East Wickham Farm, the guitarist, himself recording Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, offered money out of his own pocket to record a more professional demo tape he could present to a record company. Based on these demos she and her family agreed to let her sign with EMI, the same label the Floyd were contracted to, at the age of 18. Aged 43, she repaid her debt to Gilmour by guesting on a live version of Comfortably Numb at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002.

Is there anybody in there?

Rather than head off to record her first album, her family urged her to finish her school studies. With her sensible cap on, she used part of her record advance money to learn interpretive dance and miming from David Bowie’s former teacher Lindsay Kemp, as well as tutelage from choreographer Adam Darius. She loved dancing as an art form and cared enough to practice wholeheartedly, knowing full well she wanted this aspect of music into her performances. 

Although the EMI wanted her to tone down her beguiling vocals to a smooth mid-range, she bucked their advances and learned how to breathe into her rage and own its unique phrasing. Hoping to come out her shell on stage, she and brother Paddy rounded up a small band she’d call the KT Band and use it present a nascent vision of the sights and sounds she wanted to present the world at large. Playing to intimate and indifferent audiences in the unglamorous, smoke-filled pubs of London and the Kentlands, Kate would integrate smoke machines, light shows, and a very theatrical, strongly feminine style. It was a slow process but the task of winning converts had well and truly started. The band was altogether.

By the time EMI paired her with Andrew Powell, producer and arranger for Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, the label was still getting to grips with the realisation that a precocious and prodigious young artist, firmly and fully aware of what kind of career she wanted to have, had seemingly fallen into their corporate laps. Showing brains and artistry way beyond her age, she knew exactly how to control her image to portray a certain subtle sexuality steered by her own female and thoroughly English point of view.

Hyper-romantic, dripping with literate musical sophistication and pop smarts, her imagination felt “strangely out of time.” The singular outsider art of TKI sounded nothing like the disco and post-punk fodder that dominated the airwaves. While rock often dealt with the subject at the most basic levels of fumbling macho trouser trumpeting, Bush was already exploring the sensual world with intoxicatingly descriptive powers – much of the album dealt with her own sexual awakening.

This was new ground for female singer-songwriters, which wouldn’t really be appreciated until the fuss over her more obvious traits had died down. She soon intruded on British life to such a degree that she was subject to an avalanche of unkind TV parodies, not least Pamela Stephenson’s reading on Not The Nine O’Clock News.

Musically, Bush displayed an unusually feminine approach to her piano playing, avoiding ‘masculine’ sounding chord progressions almost, it would seem, at all costs – choosing softer and often unexpected chord changes, maintaining a surprisingly spontaneous yet ultimately coherent feel to the music. Her evocative stories and unique soprano voice fomented a sound that wasn’t all (that) jazz, avant-pop, or prog, it was something completely different. 

For some people, Kate’s shrieking vocal histrionics were a nails down the chalkboard turnoff (hi John Lydon’s mum, hi my mum), but with persistence (and perhaps perseverance) the unique power inherent within that voice starts to reveal itself. In concert with piercing operatic notes and impish backing vocal harmonies that give the impression she’s performing a duet with herself, The Kick Inside establishes Kate’s voice as not just a voice but also as an instrument. 

Throughout her entire career Bush hardly ever used backup singers, and instead created her own backing vocals herself by singing in different pitches, in discordant and revelatory ways. This is displayed to great effect on almost every TKI song: turn the volume way up and marvel in how the backing vocals on each song swoop upwards and swoon downwards to create a landscape seemingly independent from the main vocals. For most musicians, the voice is what they use to express words; for Kate, it’s a remarkable tool that helps contribute to unique soundscapes.

The album’s focus on female sexuality, its use of voice as an instrument, and Bush’s unique storytelling techniques — particularly her exciting use of fluid narrative identity, in which she changes identities and narrative point of view with every song — created a new, unprecedented model for women in music. No longer content to play the role of second fiddles and demure ingénues, Kate owned up to all the power, intrigues, worries, and victories women can go through and project. And project she did.

“There are thirteen tracks on this album. When we were getting it together, one of the most important things that was on all our mind was, that because there were so many, we wanted to try and get as much variation as we could. To a certain extent, the actual songs allowed this because of the tempo changes, but there were certain songs that had to have a funky rhythm and there were others that had to be very subtle. I was very greatly helped by my producer and arranger Andrew Powell, who really is quite incredible at tuning in to my songs. We made sure that there was one of the tracks, just me and the piano, to…again, give the variation. We’ve got a rock ‘n’ roll number in there, which again was important. And all the others there are just really the moods of the songs set with instruments, which for me is the most important thing, because you can so often get a beautiful song, but the arrangements can completely spoil it – they have to really work together.” (Self Portrait, 1978)

In honour of Women’s History Month, let’s run through those thirteen. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin…

As The Kick Inside makes itself felt, a wailing, impossibly-high-pitched voice grabs (or repels) the listener as it sings that opening line “mooooooviiiiiing straaaangeeeer.” Deborah Withers, author of Adventures In Kate Bush And Theory, wrote, slightly unkindly, that the pitch of her voice is “an assault on the normal parameters of vocal modulation.”

Whichever camp you’re in, Moving is a suitably eurythmist scene-setter, and when the sounds of whalesong filter through, it sets the scene for an evocative wash of delicate piano chords that shift and drift. This affectionate tribute to her dance teacher Lindsay Kemp is so absurdly elegant and lavish that its beauty seems to move her to laughter. There is deep respect in Kate’s admiration for him, the piano and voice two separate and individual yet complementary instruments. Midway through the chorus, there is a key change of startling beauty that is well worth singling out for attention. “You crush the lily in my soul” as an awed metaphor for the timidity of girlhood gone away is unimpeachable.

In the album’s second offering, The Saxophone Song, Bush imagines herself “in a Berlin Bar” as she watches a saxophonist play and becomes a voyeur of utter obsession, a traditionally masculine position. The song itself is a polite arpeggiating ballad, finally getting into a hooky, if somewhat repetitive groove for the burn-out. Ironically, the sound of this particular saxophone is rather less remarkable than the deliciously sensitive acoustic guitar from ace sessioneer Alan Parker (David Bowie, Blue Mink, the Walker Brothers). In the battle of the Alans, Alan Skidmore’s tenor sax sounds like it came out of one of those cheap plastic jobs you used to be able to pick up in Woolworths for under a tenner.

Let’s talk about sax, baby

Strange Phenomena sees Bush celebrating the menstrual cycle as a secret lunar power and wondering what other powers might arrive if we were only attuned to them. It’s a lovely loping track showing glimmers of the modern dreamscape she’d display to fuller effect on 1982’s The Dreaming. On SP, Kate exhibits an accomplished command of using various voices to make her point, lurching from faux-operatic vocal to rough and reedy shriek, marching confidently in tandem with the strident chorus and unleashing a big, spooky “Woo!” as silly as a 19-year-old should be. Its icy piano-driven ripples mellow, while keeping it freeform until the chorus kicks in, which has a discordant singalong feel to it – but you wouldn’t add it to your bath playlist unless you were blessed with Kate’s amazing vocal prowess. Not to mention that body. Freeform. Freeform for you.

A spot of slight relief, the funky eccentrica of the reggae-lite Kite lightens the mood and unravels like a children’s story: First, she wants to fly up high, away from cruel period pains (“Beelzebub is aching in my belly-o”) and spotty teenage self-consciousness (“all these mirror windows”) but no sooner is she up, up and away than she wants to return to real life. It’s a wacky, cheesy hormone bomb of a song, prancing along on enervating rat-a-tat-tat energy that sustained parodies of Bush’s uninhibited style; still, more fool anyone who sneers instead of revelling in the pure, piercing sensation of her crowing, doggy “dia-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-ia-mond!” as if giving every facet its own gleaming syllable.

A haunting, handsome showcase for Kate’s melodic invention, the mysterious Man with the Child in His Eyes follows with its beautiful cinematic tribute to his father, and how he as a man has to see his daughter as an adult who can make her own decisions… all said in the most endearing way possible, and appeasing his own inner child. The simple piano melody is ornamented with a string quartet and a pretty ethereal vocal, and isn’t the way Kate sings that little “No No” phrase she inserts in the verse just the cutest thing ever. Quite at odds, like so much of her music, with the pop mainstream, it stands out all the more evoking as much as anything an olde-worlde courtly medieval ballad penned by a Carole King type songwriter. The subtle and delicate use of orchestra serves to highlight little details in the music and lyrics – note particularly the early use of the cello, and later use of woodwind and horns. Short, sweet and utterly spellbinding. A bit like Dusty Springfield then.

Of course, it goes without saying that Bush uses her four-octave range as an instrument most famously and strikingly in Wuthering Heights, one of the audacious debut singles ever made, and in this context a randy, metaphysical torch song that ends the first side of the album on a bewitching note. She sings in an almost dog-whistle-like pitch to embody the character of Catherine Earnshaw’s ghost in Emily Brontë’s novel, recording the vocals in a single take to use the strains of her voice to expose the strains of Catherine’s sad unfulfilled love.

Is it any wonder that when Kate appears in the two videos she made for the song, she dives wholeheartedly into demonstrating its purpose. Undulating and drawing you in with song, hands, voice, and appearance, she wants you as the listener to let her into your home. In an era where punk bands and rock bands were demanding you kept away, or stay, here was someone who wanted an invitation to come into your world. It makes perfect sense why the Dutch invited Kate to make a television special flailing her lovely limbs all around Efteling, a theme park in Holland that boasts the world’s largest haunted house (and an hour’s drive from where I lived in Den Haag, fact fans). We know there’s trickery, sleight of hand, and the odd bit of lip-synching involved, but no one can deny the majesty of her vision.

James And The Cold Gun could almost be a title nicked from one of Ian Fleming’s 007 short stories. Was it a mere coincidence Kate was asked to sing the theme tune for 1979’s James Bond in space folly, Moonraker? Either way, the song’s a hard-hitting romp that borrows masterfully from Pink Floyd’s psychedelic turmoil, James is an unashamed rocker, and provides a nice contrast to the variety of ballads with a brief foray into rock, though perhaps due to the more grounded instrumentation, James feels like he’s having trouble fitting in. Roger Moore never had that problem. Watch and wonder at the Sam Peckinpah-like “gunslinger routine” featuring Bush mock-shooting the crowd; a undisputed highlight her Tour of Life shows the same year.

Feel It. Oh yes, “feel it, my love.” Bush demanded pleasure, grew impatient when she had to wait for it, and ignored the issue of male climax—rock’s founding pleasure principle—to focus on how sex might transform her, as a figure of womanly intent but the one in the dominant position. “I won’t pull away,” she sings almost as a threat, alone with the piano. “My passion always wins.” With some imaginative jazz-inspired chord progressions, the song is all the better for its intuitive punctuation and decoration, moulding the music effortlessly into frilly, smoky silhouettes. Rather than think of the temporal thought of lust, sex, intrigue…you start to realise much of this album is about a higher calling; a deep and meaningful, I think they call it.

Oh To Be In Love is a baroque harpsichord romp about a glittering romance that brightens the colours and defeats time. Musically, it can come across as a little meandering, and the session men, as expert as they are, seem unsure of the overall pattern, with Kate’s choruses somewhat non-descript. More complex desires tended to elicit her more inherently sensual and accomplished writing. 

“As far as I know, it was mainly Andrew Powell who chose the musicians, he’d worked with them before and they were all sort of tied in with Alan Parsons. There was Stuart Elliot on drums, Ian Bairnson on guitar, David Paton on bass, and Duncan Mackay on electric keyboards. And, on that first album, I had no say, so I was very lucky really to be given such good musicians to start with. And they were lovely, ’cause they were all very concerned about what I thought of the treatment of each of the songs. And if I was unhappy with anything, they were more than willing to re-do their parts. So they were very concerned about what I thought, which was very nice. And they were really nice guys, eager to know what the songs were about and all that sort of thing. I don’t honestly see how anyone can play with feeling unless you know what the song is about. You know, you might be feeling this really positive vibe, yet the song might be something weird and heavy and sad. So I think that’s always been very important for me, to sit down and tell the musicians what the song is about.” (Musician, 1985)

The raw and risqué L’Amour Looks Something Like You treads more brazen territory, revealing an astonishingly mature attitude to sex in a smoky, sensuous haze. As with Feel It, these are Kate’s explorations of sexual experience in song, the earliest manifestations of her life as the Bush of the bedroom which would culminate with Hounds of Love. In an admittedly cringeworthy lyric, she fantasises about “that feeling of sticky love inside” as if anticipating a syrup sponge, and there’s an unctuous gloop to the arrangement and a slightly naff electric piano sound that makes L’Amour one of the album’s least distinctive songs. Oh.

Another ode to her teachers, Them Heavy People is a song about religion, and in particular the philosophical teachings of Jesus and the Greek-Armenian mystic Gurdjieff. With its toybox pseudo-reggae lilt, the track expresses an insistent desire to learn as much as possible, while she is still young. There’s a Woolf-like interiority (“I must work on my mind”) and a distinctly un-Woolf-like exuberance, capering along like a pink elephant on parade. “You don’t need no crystal ball,” she concludes, “Don’t fall for a magic wand/We humans got it all/We perform the miracles.”

THP was was released a single in Japan, where it made third place, and a 1979 live recording was the lead track on Kate’s On Stage EP which reached number 10 in the UK later that year, benefitting from a perkier production and wilder vocals than the studio version.

“I always felt that Heavy People should be a single, but I just had a feeling that it shouldn’t be a second single, although a lot of people wanted that. Maybe that’s why I had the feeling – because it was to happen a little later, and in fact I never really liked the album version much because it should be quite loose, you know. It’s a very human song.” (Kate Bush Newsletter, 1979)

Room For The Life’s sweet calypso reverie is die hard pretty, and good relief from the brawnier, propulsive arrangements that stood staunchly alongside Queen or Steely Dan. Kate almost fails to make a virtue of her naivety, where she scolds a weeping woman for thinking any man would care about her tears. But the author shifts inconsistently between reminding the woman that she can have babies and insisting, more effectively, that changing one’s life is up to you alone. The latter is clearly where her own sensibilities lie.

Inspired by a traditional ballad, The Kick Inside’s title track could almost be subtitled Them Heavy Siblings, concerning as it does an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, sung from the point of view of the guilt-stricken pregnant girl before she commits suicide. There’s disharmony in the musical structure too, with an unsettled nature to the modal chord progressions, occasionally substituting minor and major thirds for effective and momentary harmonic base confusion, with deliberate shifts between major and unrelated minors. 

These clever devices are all well and good, but Kate’s such a natural musician she manages to do it without even thinking about it. On the whole, this is a record underpinned by some fairly conventional song structures and of-its-time muso embroidery, but Kate Bush’s debut album boasted enough of her unique personality and vision to set it apart. Forget about 1978. In this and in any era, it would be special. The Kick Inside was just the start. And what a start.

Steve Pafford 

Perfect 10: Kate Bush on 45 is here

Humming: Kate Bush’s Tribute to David Bowie is finally released here

Live non-review: Kate Bush, Before the Dawn is here


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