Ed#467: Along came Kate

12 September 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#467: Along came Kate

In 1978, Jimmy Carter was US president and Malcolm Fraser was Australia’s prime minister; Bob Hawke, who later succeeded Fraser, wasn’t even in Parliament. Martina Navratilova and Björn Borg were Wimbledon champions; Menachem Begin of Israel and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1978 there were three Popes: Paul VI, John Paul I (in office for just 34 days) and John Paul II. In 1978, Grammy Awards went to The Eagles for ‘Hotel California’ and Fleetwood Mac for Rumours. These were safe, conservative choices: punk was already overturning the musical establishment – The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones seemed to represent the future. Then along came Kate Bush.

She was 19. She looked extraordinary; her singing voice swooped and soared; she wrote her own songs, which had subjects stolen from dreams and literature. The song that introduced her to the world was ‘Wuthering Heights’, turning Emily Brontë’s 19th-century classic into music that was both remarkable and memorable. In the accompanying video, she danced in a red dress. Boys swooned; girls dug out ballet slippers from the bottom of cupboards. Into an era of gobbing and spiked hair came romance. Writing recently in The Guardian, Simon Reynolds reflected: “Bush emerged into a British music scene transformed by punk. Both her sound and her look seemed conventionally feminine when juxtaposed with ferociously confrontational performers such as Siouxsie Sioux... Bush’s fantastical lyrics, influenced by children’s literature, esoteric mystical knowledge, daydreams and the lore and legends of old Albion, seemed irrelevant, and deficient in street-cred.”

Yet what Reynolds recalls as an “odd combo of artiness and artlessness” resonated. Bush became a star. There was a succession of hit albums, some memorable collaborations (such as the beautiful ‘Don’t Give Up’, a duet with Peter Gabriel from 1986 about unemployment and struggle), but increasingly infrequent public appearances. There were whispers of stage fright. It seemed she had retired from performing. Last year, she met the Queen to be awarded a CBE for services to music; the sort of thing that can seem like a bookend to a career. Thank you and good night.

Then, last March, Bush announced a series of 22 concerts at a theatre in London: tickets sold out in 15 minutes. If she’d been gone, she certainly wasn’t forgotten. But she was still doing things her way. Before the concerts, which continue into October, she pleaded with fans not to film her shows or take pictures with their phones. Now her albums are riding high in the charts again. It has been a comeback as successful as it would have seemed improbable not long ago. In this edition we explore not only her career but also her influence on performers, especially female artists, who have come after her.

But let’s put things in context by considering a few contemporary musicians. In 1978, Kanye West turned one. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Rihanna were many years away from being born. Lorde, our cover girl of just a few editions ago, was still two decades away. Yet I’m confident that all of them will have borrowed from Bush – if nothing else, her determination to do things her own way, to create her own style rather than imitate others. There’s also something refreshing in her refusal to play the media game, which caused her to be labelled a recluse. Her music, she suggested, should speak for itself. Reynolds said only Prince rivals her for a lack of quotable quotes. But Bush did once say this to him: “That’s what all art’s about – a sense of moving away from boundaries... Like a dancer is always trying to fly, really – to do something that’s just not possible. But you try to do as much as you can within those physical boundaries.”

Suddenly, it’s 1978 again.


>> Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue

This article appears in Ed#467 of The Big Issue