Every so often in your life, you will hear a song that makes you go: “What the fuck was that?”. At the age of 9, sometime in the January of 1978, I had such a moment when I heard Kate Bush sing “Wuthering Heights” for the first time. Listening to it on the radio was like hearing some kind of otherworldly spirit communicating through a kind of human possession, especially when the chorus kicks in with the signature “wuthering-wuthering-wuthering” moment. It was a voice so utterly unlike any voice that I’d ever heard before. Astonishing. Hypnotic. It was completely unlike anything else that I heard on the radio or had ever seen on Top Of The Pops, and it was mind-blowing.
I think I may have fallen in love with Kate Bush a little, or maybe I fell in love with the idea of Kate Bush – someone who was not your typical female pop star. She was so unlike anything else at the time, or indeed unlike anything else since. I fell in love with her total originality, and have found myself a fan of original voices in music and indeed with original personalitites to this very day, and I have no intention of changing the course of my musical tastes. I don’t want idendikit churned out industry pop stars. I want orginals and mavericks like Kate Bush or Bjork or Tom Waits or Boy George. Maybe this comes down to the influence of the original chameleon of popular music on my life – thank you again David Bowie.
From the opening piano notes through to the fade out, this is perfection:
At the time, I knew that the song was related to a book of the same name (as it was mentioned in the radio in typical DJ introductions) but I had never read the book (written by Emily Bronte, who was born on the same day as Kate Bush herself, woo for cosmic symbolism) – hey I was only 9 at the same so excuse my lack of a classical education (yeah, you cultural snobs out there!). “Wuthering Heights” (the song) uses the character of Catherine Earnshaw from the book with reference to some of the quotes from the text most notably in the chorus – “Let me in! I’m so cold!” – as well as in the verses, with Catherine’s confession to her servant of “bad dreams in the night”. It was not until many years later that I was able to appreciate how she had referenced aspects of the story, using Catherine’s point of view, particularly as her ghost pleads at Heathcliff’s window to be allowed in. Romance and melancholy in one particularly British package.
I remember watching Top of the Pops and seeing the above linked video clip that featured some early video effects which just managed to emphasize the unearthly quality of both the song and the performer. It is lit in such a way to make her white dress glow with a ghostly effervescence. However, the thing that I remember most (apart from the swooping nature of her vocals that seemed operatic way before anybody had the corporate idea of creating popera!) was the way her eyes were wide and staring with a madness and intensity that reflected my later understanding of the character of Cathy. This was pop star as character actor in the same way as Bowie had inhabited the character of Ziggy Stardust earlier in the 70s. I was captivated. I was entranced. I was, even at that young age, totally aware that she was different. I love different.
What is also astounding to discover is how much she demanded things to be done to her standards even if it meant fighting record company decisions. Her record company, EMI, had originally chosen another track, “James and the Cold Gun”, as the lead single from her debut album (the equally astonishing “The Kick Inside”) but she was determined that “Wuthering Heights” should be the first release from the album. Her eventual win against the wishes of an international record company showed the sort of determination for a young female musician that Kate Bush eventually became a standard bearer for when it came to independently minded female musicians.
The release date for the single was initially scheduled to be 4 November 1977. However, Kate Bush was unhappy with the image that was planned for the single’s cover and insisted it be replaced. Some copies of the single had already been sent out to radio stations, but EMI relented and put back the single’s launch until January of the New Year. This attention to detail with regards to both the identity of the music and the visual material that accompanied each release would become a hallmark of Kate Bush’s approach to her art.
Compare that first video (that was made for the UK market) with the second video that was put together for the USA market – whilst the movement routine that Kate Bush uses is essentially the same as the UK video release, the impact of putting it into an essentially British outdoor location makes it perhaps even more quintessentially British piece of music and art that would have made more sense of potentially puzzled Americans than if they had only been presented with the music alone.
Yeah, we all know that the UK video works better, but we Brits always “get” the likes of Kate Bush and her successors (like Bjork, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga etc.) rather faster than our American cousins who seem to prefer normality to the joys of complete originality (even if it is sometimes considered weird).
Much has been made of the fact that David Gilmour (of landmark prog-rock group Pink Floyd) was instrumental in getting Kate Bush signed as a recording artist. As a result of this, I had always assumed that the hypnotic guitar solo that comes in towards the end of the song was the work of his epic guitar skills. Not so! The guitar solo is actually played by Ian Bairnson who has previously played guitar as part of The Alan Parsons Project. Well, I stand corrected. It is still a solo of great beauty, so well done to you Mr Bairnson for your marvellous fretwork.
It is one of those songs that I could listen to endlessly on repeat as it comes as close to perfection in my humble opinions as anything I can think of right now.
However, “Wuthering Heights” could easily have resulted in Kate (as we like to call her) being pidgeonholed as some kinda kooky Lene Lovich novelty hit. What Kate did next was equally as a genius masterstroke as “Wuthering Heights” had been itself. She released, as the second single from debut album “The Kick Inside”, a stunningly beautiful piano ballad with lush orchestral backing that played down the kooky Kate and presented a wonderful affecting, emotional song about love and loss.
It comes in at just under three minutes of beauty. Listen:
This ultimately cemented Kate Bush as much more than a weird voice, or a set of dance moves and facial expression ripe for comedy rip off (find the piss-take performed by Pamela Stephenson for Not The Nine O’clock News). This showed that she was able to create something of real depth and beauty, and paved the way for an entire generation of independently minded female singer-songwriters who were brave and experimental and singularly devoted to music.
I have loved just about everything that Kate Bush has released since (even the slightly rubbishy songs recorded with Prince that disappointed fans of both musicians back in the 1990s), and I look forward with anticipation to what might come next.
Thank you Kate.