When I was a boy, possibly about 8 years old, my mum used to watch a certain VHS semi-regularly on a Sunday afternoon when my dad would usually doze off in his armchair. Little did she know how much impact that one videotape would have on my life and developing tastes. That video was Kate Bush’s The Whole Story.
The Whole Story was a video compilation of all Kate’s singles to the point of the video’s release. I was mesmerised. Not only because Kate Bush was beautiful (she might have been the first crush I ever had), but she was making extremely beautiful, artistic videos and songs that used to draw me in right in ways that the pop songs of the time (mid-nineties) didn’t do in that way. These songs and their videos were like mini-enigmas, just begging to be cracked by me; songs like “The Man With The Child in His Eyes”, “Breathing”, “Experiment IV” and “Cloudbusting”.
Of course, as I got older, the songs became much less inexplicable but also no less magical. Kate Bush is a kind of artistic avatar for a particular kind of English mystic romanticism. She was proudly and defiantly feminine, not submitting to stereotyped versions of her gender, but demonstrating instead the strength and desires that women have and should be allowed to express.
No doubt if she was around then she would have been marched straight to Pendle Hill, but thankfully she was born to us, and her music and art is a gift that still inspires and replenishes us.
Here, then, is my Perfect 10 songs of Kate Bush.
Honourable Mentions: The Saxophone Song, James and the Cold Gun, Symphony in Blue, Wow, Oh England My Lionheart, Pull Out the Pin, Hounds of Love, And Dream of Sheep, The Sensual World, This Woman’s Work, Rubberband Girl, The Song of Solomon, Pi, Somewhere In Between.
The first song on her first album, this song bore the weight and the honour of being the first Kate Bush song to reach people’s ears, on Long-Player anyway. As such, you’d expect the song to function as an introduction to the lyrical and musical themes that will identify and perhaps define the artist. And boy, does “Moving” deliver.
Opening with a burst of whale song (“whales are pure movement and pure sound, calling for something, so lonely and sad, said Bush), the song features Bush’s delicate piano work and sensual lyricism evoking female sexual desire (“touch me, hold me/How my open arms ache”), something that her lyricism romanticised without making it trivial or submissive to male fantasies.
Rather, she celebrates and insists upon the naturalness and empowering quality of female sexuality, and the chorus swells here, with bass and drums making her desires solid and a chorus of high-pitched seraphim Kates’s singing a magical, mysterious dawn chorus, whilst Kate sings about the positive side of innocence giving way to experience, the violent transformation within (“you crush the lily in my soul”).
Recorded in part as a tribute to her mime teacher, the legendary Lindsey Kemp, the song is an evocation of the sensuality of movement. The magic starts here.
The Man with the Child in His Eyes
This song used to fascinate me as a child. I just couldn’t comprehend what Kate was singing about. There was such a dreamy, slightly obscured quality to it. I had no real understanding of adult desires and relationships, of course. I used to think that the ‘Man’ in question was a ghost or a shadow. Later, as a teen, I assumed the song was about a man who was the lover of Bush’s protagonist but was distant with her because he wanted a child and she didn’t. Hence, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes”.
Turns out the real story is a lot simpler:
“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. I, myself, am attracted to older men, I guess, but I think that’s the same with every female. I think it’s a very natural, basic instinct that you look continually for your father for the rest of your life, as do men continually look for their mother in the women that they meet”.
What makes this all the more extraordinary is that Kate is said to have written the song at 13 years old! It’s such a mature lyrical and musical accomplishment considering her age. The arrangement is subtle, allowing for intimacy between voice and piano, with only minor orchestral embellishments as needed. The song sounds confessional and is all the more beautiful for it.
And I defy you not to get a lump in the throat at the sound of Kate’s voice as she sings “and here I am again, my girl/Wondering what on Earth I’m doing here.” It’s a masterclass in delivery.
Here it is, the first UK number-one single to have been written AND performed by a female artist. And if that wasn’t achievement enough, this was a song that really at the time sounded like no other.
Like a wisp of shimmering white cloud in a bright blue sunny sky, the song unfurls like a gentle breeze, the song somehow contradicts and complements its subject matter: the ghostly character of Catherine from the novel of Wuthering Heights, rapping on Heathcliffe’s window and imploring passionately to be let in from beyond the grave.
Nothing like Bush’s ethereal, dramatic wail, like a banshee prowling those very moors she sang about, had been heard in pop before. And the guitar solo at the end, in all its Dave Gilmour-esque beauty, is one of the most lyrical, uplifting things I can ever recall hearing.
And the most astonishing thing about this song? It was apparently written in the space of a few hours! Now there’s a proof of talent if I ever heard one.
It’s funny looking back how much Kate Bush made me think. I wasn’t really an intellectual child–that was something I grew into–but in hindsight, Kate Bush really got the cogs whirring for eight-year-old me.
“Army Dreamers” is a case in point. I’d had little toy soldier sets as a kid, like most boys, and I’d played ‘army’ in the playground. Hell, I used to watch the A-Team repeats on a Saturday afternoon! But I never considered the army in real-life terms. Until this song.
“What could he do?/Should have been a rock star/But he didn’t have the money for a guitar/What could he do?/Should have been a politician/But he never had a proper education/What could he do?/Should have been a father/But he never even made it to his twenties/What a waste/Army dreamers”.
Such waste of youth, life and potential I have never heard be so succinctly and concisely summed up. That line about not even making it to your twenties really stuck with me: twenty seemed a long way away to eight-year-old me and yet I somehow understood that this was still chillingly young. I didn’t know if fighting was right or wrong but I knew I didn’t want to die young.
Interestingly, Bush has said about this song that she wasn’t trying to make a statement about the army itself, rather than the inequality in society sadly drives young people with no other prospects into a profession they’re not suited for and ultimately kills them. It’s a more nuanced, complex take on the subject than you find in songs about the army, which is very much to Bush’s credit.
Add to this a lovely, wistful waltzing tune with a lyrical, Irish feel and you have simply a phenomenal work of art.
Before punk, if you wanted an avant-garde, art-rocking female artist, the only real option you had was Yoko Ono, with her gloriously unhinged banshee wail and noise/found sound elements layered over the top of tough rock and roll grooves and surprisingly well-written songs.
I mention this because, again outside of punk, this song is the closest by a female artist of the time to get close to Ono’s experimental insanity.
A celebration of pushing instruments to their squealing, wailing limit, in particular the titular violin, Bush pushes her own voice to the occasion, attacking the lyric with an intensity and frenzy not heard before and taking her voice to the furthest reaches of her range, suggesting a kind of hysteria, and the excitement that can be found in the midst of such a maelstrom.
This was perhaps the most ‘rock’ Bush had gone in her career to this point, the band laying down a storming accompaniment, with a killer guitar solo to boot. People who dismiss Bush’s work as being too ornate and mannered might want to check this one out.
December Will Be Magic Again
Sometimes I hear things in Kate Bush’s music that I can only describe as ‘magical’ in the theosophical sense. Something in her melodies and chord structures occasionally breaks through and taps into an ancient time, a vibe, a feeling of otherness that is familiar yet distant. The very notes sound like lessons learned from our collected national unconsciousness, conjurings that could bring the sublime and the eerie equally into our lives.
For me, “December Will Be Magic Again” is one of those songs. This is a song of contrasts and tension. The general warmth of the lyrics and the opening melody, which iterate the song title, quickly find themselves on shaky ground, giving way to a series of constantly rising minor chords that suggest a peculiar unease and give the listener the impression of being on unstable land. It plateaus at the bridge, which gives the listener a moment of breathing space but doesn’t let them off the hook completely, still setting its stall between a set of minor chords, like a traditional ghost story at Christmas.
But before the unease can give way to terror, Bush announces that we should see how she falls “like the snow/come to cover the lovers/come to sparkle the dark up”, the pace falls, and all that tension is released in a slow tumble of bright major chords as if the clouds had suddenly burst and the snow that Bush had been invoking has suddenly been unleashed gloriously upon the Earth. It’s stunning.
In fact, you could argue the whole song is an invocation for an older, better time when Christmas really was magical in a mystic sense. The invocation may not have been entirely successful, but the song certainly is.
Sat In Your Lap
Possibly my favourite Kate Bush song ever, it also happens to be one of her most audacious, eccentric singles, which endears me to it even more, and I love the thought of people listening to the radio, being lulled into a false of security by Michael Jackson and Adam & The Ants, then being blasted with this fabulous attack on the nerves! I wish more modern pop would take these kinds of risks, but there we are.
Famous for its “BOM BOM—BOM BOM!” rhythm, Bush began building up the song on a Roland drum machine and a Fairlight synthesiser, a technique that, only a few years later, would help her regain her critical and commercial success. A synthesized brass section, a chorus of shamanic voices, a middle eight with a voice booming like it’s coming from “high on a hill on a windy day”, a bass-heavy chorus that feels like a sinking in your stomach: all combine with that tribal rhythm to delirious effect.
Kate, meanwhile, essays a vocal that runs the gauntlet of enlightened, lost, grasping, impatient and demanding, all the while singing of those who seek knowledge but lack the discipline to apply the effort needed to attain such knowledge. The path to enlightenment is steep, whilst pleasure is fleeting yet accessible. Here lies the human dilemma, written about in thousands of books over time. Kate nailed it in one song.
The Big Sky
The final single released from Kate’s triumphant Hounds of Love album, “The Big Sky” is a soaring tribute to the simple pleasures we take for granted as children but don’t make time for as adults, such as making shapes out of the clouds in the sky.
The song generally runs on a two-chord groove, which gives the first signs of Kate’s emerging interest in 80s dance-pop (something that became more prominent on 1993’s The Red Shoes). There’s also a little bit of an African feel to the rhythm, to my ears anyway. World music had become a big thing in western pop in the mid-eighties, hitting its peak with Paul Simon’s astonishing Graceland in 1986. African music, of course, is often jubilant in its rhythms and melodies, so it makes sense for “The Big Sky” to carry a little bit of that on its sleeve.
It starts bright and brash and only gets bigger from there, building up to a massive chorus of voices celebrating the sky. In fact, the video clearly shows it as a celebration, as Kate in her aviator gear leads a mass of singers in joyful dancing and clapping as they sing. You can’t help but get swept up in it all.
There’s also a little bit of wistfulness there, with lyrics like “you never understood me/you never really tried” hinting at a sadness—was it aimed at the critics who had derided her, the fans who had decided only a few years before that she was out of fashion, or someone in her personal life?
Whatever the case, the healing begins here. Sometimes, as adults, we need someone to remind us of the simple things and how often they are the most important things. Kate nails that message here.
Another song that completely gripped me as a child and yet I couldn’t comprehend. Who were the men taking the father away? Why were they bursting clouds and making rain? Why would that offend people enough to want to take the father away? Listening to the song and watching that wonderful video all those years ago, I couldn’t comprehend but I could sense the song’s purpose; I could feel that overwhelming wave of joy and heartbreak that the song communicated. “And I know that something good is going to happen“, Bush sang, and I believed her. But in the meantime, here was the rain…
Based on Peter Reich’s autobiography, 1973’s A Book of Dreams, Kate embodies the persona of the young Peter, revisiting the great love he had for his father, who was indeed taken away by government officials and imprisoned, and reflecting on how this person, who was the centre of his world, was supposedly so dangerous to others, and yet this was not Peter’s experience of his father. Bush contrasts this with a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo Peter had that was dangerous due to the material it was made out of to make it glow, and that Peter buried to hide from his father, who ordered him to throw it away. He could retrieve the toy, but this became trivial in the face of the knowledge that he couldn’t retrieve his father. Heartbreaking.
Musically, the song creates a wall of sound out of actually very little: a martial drumbeat, a stirring yet incredibly wistful string section and a chorus of backing vocals like the ghosts of the surrounding hills crying at the separation. And yet the song seems to inflate and increase as it goes along, getting bigger, louder, more intricate, like lungs filling with air and a heart filling with love until it overflows and overwhelms. Like a cloudburst, actually. Like a lonely adult remembering the great platonic love of his childhood.
Perfect, in other words.
Moments of Pleasure
Everyone has at least one song that triggers tears every time they listen to it. This is mine. And I do mean every time.
It’s not that I associate it with a particular person or a particular loss, because I don’t. It’s not even that Kate Bush had intended it to be associated with a particular person: her mother was sick during the recording but did not die then, as is often misreported, but sadly passed away a short time after.
What really grabs my heart is that, whether intentional or not, the song plays out as the quiet, sad evening of the heart when we face those memories, once so sweet, that have become unbearably upsetting because of the loss we now associate with them, so that when we do finally turn our hearts to face these memories, the complex mixture of grief and love is overwhelming, washing over us in an anxious dam burst. But I would argue, when we come out the other side, we are better for it. We are glad to love and to have been loved. Would we rather be without?
What makes the song so authentic and so moving is the level of intimacy Bush invests it with. Her vocal is that of a real mater of the game: by this point she was most definitely at the top of her singing game. She knew how to convey real emotion in her voice, but how to shape it and use it too to make her singing be at its most effective.
Just listen to the little shiver she puts into the line “like Douglas Fairbanks”, or the nervous worry of “this sense of humour of mine/it isn’t funny at all”, to the intimate song-speak at the end as she talks to those lost and reminds them of little moments they shared together, moments of pleasure that might obscure to us because they are personal to Bush, but they touch us because of the warmth they are imbued with. Case in point: “the case of George the Wipe/oh god, I can’t stop laughing”. I don’t know who George the Wipe is, but the lyric says so much in two lines, the economy and heart are incredible.
And with the chorus, as Kate’s voice rises and declaims over an ascending line of major chords, as if trying to establish some sort of reconciliation with her feelings, she gives us perhaps one of the most eloquent and important ideas that she ever wrote:
Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive
Life, in the grand scheme of things, is short. So, we must make the most of what we’ve got and who we’ve got, always remembering to give. Giving is the most important thing.
What do you think? Did I get this Perfect 10 for Kate Bush right? Or are you furious at the lack of Wow, Hounds of Love and This Woman’s Work? Don’t be shy, let me know in the comments!