Music

12 Essential Kate Bush Songs

Photo: EMI/Capitol Records publicity photo

While Kate Bush is a national treasure in the UK, American listeners don't know her as well. The following 12 songs capture her irrepressible spirit.

Last month, Kate Bush's return to the stage at London's Hammersmith Apollo for the first time in 35 years was a long-awaited event, to put it mildly. Since her first pirouette onto the music scene in 1978 when she was only 19, Bush has astonished and fascinated her listeners. She is an enigma -- a Mother Nature-like figure spinning in leotards or dancing in kaftans while singing in a voice that has made her an icon.

Bush not only has a cult-like following of dedicated fans, she is a musician's musician. Coinciding with her live show, the BBC released a documentary titled Running Up That Hill, which aired late last month. In the film, an impressive list of musicians including David Gilmore, Peter Gabriel, John Lydon, Elton John, Tricky, and Tori Amos sing Bush's accolades and discuss how she has influenced their music. Even writers chime in: Neil Gaiman calls her voice "absolutely otherworldly", and author Katherine Angle describes her style aptly when she observes that Bush not only stretches out her voice but also stretches "the pop form".

In short, Bush is unlike any other artist. Listening to her is a transformative experience. She has the ability to take her listeners and transport them to far away places, from the windy moors of Yorkshire to a bloody battlefield. Bush has taken bits of classical, traditional Celtic, prog rock, and tribal music and woven them together to make her own unique sound. Perhaps Elton John says it best when he observes: "When has the next Kate Bush come along after Kate Bush? There hasn't been one."

While she's a national treasure in the UK, many in the US have heard of Kate Bush but don't know her. In order to introduce someone to Bush, it is better to play them her music than try to describe it. The following 12 songs are meant to capture the spirit of Kate Bush, and hopefully attract new fans.

1. "Wuthering Heights" (The Kick Inside, 1978)

Bush's first hit single, "Wuthering Heights" is an ode to the famous novel of the same name by Emily Brontë. In the BBC documentary, Bush said she got the idea for the song while catching the last five minutes of the 1967 TV series based on the book, in which the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw stood outside the window of Wuthering Heights, begging to be let in. Bush then read the novel to capture the mood of the song. Her efforts, after reportedly only a few hours of writing, earned her a number one hit that stayed at the top of the British charts for almost a month during the spring of 1978. The song takes quotes directly from the novel, including "It's me, I'm so cold", and is the first Bush tune to make references to literature, which she does again on later albums. Bush's haunting vocals float over the twinkling piano and a guitar solo by Ian Bairnson (who worked with Alan Parsons), making the song a splendid example of Bush's sonic wizardry.

2. "Moving" (The Kick Inside, 1978)

The first track on 1978's The Kick Inside, "Moving" is a one of Bush's most gorgeous songs. Like many of Bush's songs, it makes use of sound samples. In this case, the song opens with a a whale song, giving it an almost cold, oceanic air. But once her voice comes in, sliding between octaves like "moving liquid", the song takes on a warmer quality. Bush penned the tune for her mime instructor, Lindsay Kemp, who also worked with David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust period.

In the BBC documentary, Kemp says he was surprised to find the record slid under his door one day and finding that the song was dedicated to him. He confesses he never knew she sang because she was so shy. He also revealed that once he was able to bring Bush out of her shell, she was a "wild thing". The song was only ever released as a single in Japan, but remains a beloved staple in the Kate Bush catalog.

3. "Wow" (Lionheart, 1978)

Nobody does drama like Kate Bush. "Wow" from her 1978 album Lionheart attests to this. The song is literally about drama and the daily grind of the acting world. In 1979, Bush told her fan club magazine the tune is about "show business in general". Bush is a bit of thespian herself, dressing up and playing her characters in her videos.

The video for "Wow" is a montage of her performances captured during her 1979 "Tour of Life", the only concert tour Bush ever headed before last month's performances. The song is self-referential, foreshadowing Bush's fear of the stage. When she sings the words "wow" and "unbelievable", it's a complete musical experience in itself, making one wish she would tour more.

4. "Breathing" (Never for Ever, 1980)

In her earlier years, Kate Bush tended to sing from the point of view of someone other than herself. On the first single from her 1980 album Never for Ever, she sings from the point of view of a fetus worried about the prospect of a nuclear war.

The song's message is two-fold, addressing the reliance of a baby on its mother's womb as well as how vulnerable the rest of us are against those with the power to drop a nuclear bomb. Neil Gaiman called the song "utterly political and utterly female". When Bush sings about chips of plutonium "twinkling in every lung" accompanied by the flickering sound of a triangle or synth note, it becomes apparent how lovely Bush can make something sound despite how dark the lyrics are.

In the last three quarters of the song, Bush's voice fades out and is replaced by the recording of a man describing how a mushroom cloud is created. As he describes the flash "far more dazzling than any light on earth -- brighter even than the sun itself", a group of male voices (including Roy Harper's) come in, singing: "What are we going to do without? We are all going to die without".

Soon after, all hell erupts with heavy guitar, the men singing louder, and Bush's voice erupting, "Oh, God, please leave us something to breathe!" The song ends with an abrupt whoosh that seems to swallow the whole song the way a nuclear bomb would consume the area it lands in, delivering an impeccable musical onomatopoeia.

5. "Get Out of My House" (The Dreaming, 1982)

The last song on Bush's fourth studio album, The Dreaming was partially inspired by Stephen King's The Shining according to Bush in an 1982 interview with Melody Maker. The book aside, the song is the perfect example of why we love Kate Bush so much. "Get Out of My House" is incredibly wacky and riotous, making brilliant use of Bush's vocal calisthenics. She switches from the sound of a hysterical woman locking up her house to a contemplative woman singing, "I wash the panes, I clean the stains" before she conjures a hauty concierge singing, "Honey won't let ya in for love, nor money".

This is all prior to negotiating with a male who appeals: "Woman let me in. Let me bring in the devil dreams." Eventually Bush imitates a mule braying with a robust "hee haaaw" that develops into a male sing along and then into an indecipherable chant.

Amid all the madness is nothing more than a drum machine, a slamming door, and an occasional secluded piano note, The vocals are so robust, it is hard to believe there is so little music, which just goes to show how much Bush can do with merely her voice and her madcap imagination.

6. "All the Love" (The Dreaming, 1982)

Amid the brilliant lunacy of The Dreaming, "All the Love" is a quiet treasure. The song is a reminder to stay connected to those we love, even when we are at odds with them, since we never know when tragedy may strike. The song's narrator is ignoring her own advice, waiting for her friends to contact her. The lines "So now when they ring, I get my machine to let them in" capture the disconnection between humans amid an era of modern technology.

Back when the song was written, it was the telephone that could bring people together and the answering machine that could serve as a barrier between them. Bush's own malfunctioning answering machine with a series of touching "good byes" from various friends is played near the end of the song while a choirboy sings, "We needed you to love us, too." In a time when texting has replaced the phone, becoming the foremost means of communication and alienation, the song is just as relevant and poignant today as it was in 1982.

7. "Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)" (Hounds of Love, 1985)

From the celebrated 1985 album Hounds of Love, "Running Up That Hill" is a Kate Bush classic. Not only was it the first song to give her a break in the U.S., it was also the single that saw the singer at her peak. The song is reportedly about making a pact with God in order to swap genders so that the sexes might have more empathy toward one another. Bush said that she wanted to call the song "A Deal With God", but record executives shot down her idea, worried that having "God" in the title would turn listeners off. The tension between angry battlefield drums and a morose Fairlight synthesizer give the song its fraught mood. Unsurprisingly, the video for the song is unlike other videos of the time. Bush twines with dancer Michael Hervieu in a somber and graceful performance without any lip syncing.

8. "Under the Ivy" ("Running Up That Hill" single, 1985)

This b-side from the "Running Up That Hill" single is an example of how beautiful just Bush's voice and a piano can be. The song is a melancholy petition from one person to another to meet at a clandestine place in a garden. When she sings desperately "I sit here in the thunder, the green on the grey, I feel it all around me", she evokes such longing, it's impossible not to be transported to the garden she sings of. In an interview she gave with a fan, Doug Alan, she revealed that "Under the Ivy" is about meeting with someone secretly to do "something they used to do and won't be able to do again. It's about a nostalgic, revisited moment." In only two minutes and seven seconds, the wistfulness Bush aimed for comes through clearly in the lonely piano and the pained quality of her vocals.

9. "Hello Earth" (Hounds of Love, 1985)

The second side of Hounds of Love is titled The Ninth Wave, a cluster of seven dreamy songs that are speculated to be inspired by Lord Tennyson's 'The Coming of Arthur", quoted on the record sleeve. It is also said to have been inspired by Ivan Aivazovsky's 1850 painting, The Ninth Wave, which depicts a group of people stranded on a stormy sea. In "Hello Earth", the penultimate song on the album, Bush sings "All you sailors get out of the waves, get out of the water", which reinforces the ocean concept. However, the song begins with recorded footage of a Columbia space shuttle mission. Bush addresses the earth from a Godlike point of view as she sings, "With just one hand held up high I can blot you out, out of sight. Peek-a-boo, Peek-a-boo, little Earth."

Bush's vocals along with piano and bouzouki are intersected with an eerie chorale harmonization, which is a reproduction of a traditional Georgian song titled "Tsintskaro". The effect is eerie and primal, as if Bush has captured the beginnings of all life on tape. The song closes with the sound of dripping water and Bush's chilling whisper, "Go to sleep, little Earth". The six minutes that make up the song are some of the most awe-inspiring music Bush has ever recorded.

10. "This Woman's Work" (The Sensual World, 1989)

Originally featured on the soundtrack of the 1988 John Hughes film She's Having a Baby, "This Woman's Work" was fortunately later released on The Sensual World. Bush originally wrote the song for the movie, particularly the scene in which Jake (played by Kevin Bacon) learns that his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) is having complications giving birth. The song is sung from the man's point of view to show the helplessness he feels in being unable to help his partner with her "woman's work". Bush later released a video starring herself and Tim McInnery (of Blackadder fame), reenacting a similar scenario.

The song, however, is bigger than the film or the video, prompting its listeners to remember time is fleeting and there are things to say to loved ones before it is too late (a theme similar to the one in the aforementioned "All the Love"). With its wistful piano and vocals steeped in grief, the song is a true tearjerker. As she delivers the final lines: "Oh, darling, make it go. Just make it go away now", it's hard not to run for the Kleenex.

11. "Moments of Pleasure" (The Red Shoes, 1993)

Released as the second single from The Red Shoes in 1993, "Moments of Pleasure" was written by Bush as an ode to those she loved who have passed away. Her mother was ill at the time of recording and died soon after the album was released, making the line, "and I can hear my mother saying 'Every old sock meets an old shoe'" particularly moving. Propelled by piano and lavish strings, it is one of Bush's most intimate ballads, referring to Bush's deceased friends by name. The single peaked on the UK charts at number 26. Although it wasn't a big hit for her, it is memorable for its rare look into Bush's personal life.

12. "Among Angels" (50 Words for Snow, 2011)

After making The Red Shoes in 1993, Bush didn't record again until 2005's Ariel, which showcases her quiet, domestic existence. It wasn't until 2011 that she broke another silence with 50 Words for Snow, which, according to its press release, is "set against a background of falling snow". The last track on the album, "Among Angels" is a serene jewel that not only evokes snow, but reflects the low-key-yet-inspired space Bush sings from after many years of recording and performing.

Bush proves it's okay slow down; her music hasn't lost a bit of its beauty or credibility, and this song is verification. With just a piano to accompany her, Bush returns to her roots, harkening the girl who sat at the piano singing The Man with the Child in His Eyes when David Gilmore helped her get signed to EMI at just 16 years old. Her voice is still radiant. As she sings, "I can see angels around you. They shimmer like mirrors in summer", you can clearly hear why Bush is so beloved.

* * *

This article originally published on 17 September 2014.



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