Under the ivy and up into the sky with Kate Bush

Recently I’ve found myself wanting to write about things not immediately connected to my work. For this reason, I’ve set up this blog so I can post gloriously unprofessional thoughts (see the Before Shakespeare site for more professional things from me and my colleagues). I’m a literature and theatre scholar, so this site gives me space to think about things which are A Bit Lit, but not necessarily A Lot Lit. The literature-adjacent, if you will.

So here’s my first post, and it’s about Kate Bush. It’s about reasons to love Kate Bush. There are a lot of reasons. Here are some of them.

Quite high on the list is the fact that early on her first album she wrote a song about the sexiness of the saxophone, and even impersonated a saxophone, and then spent four decades entirely ignoring the instrument. Many years later she recorded a cover of Sexual Healing and passed by the opportunity to call it Saxual Healing. Basically Kate Bush lusted after and then ghosted the saxophone.

Kate Bush got Stephen Fry into the recording studio and then spent the entire song addressing him as ‘Joe’. This is the sort of thing I do at parties, and it is very impressive.

I love that fact that in Top of the City she declares ‘I don’t care if it’s dangerous’, then tries to think of an example of the most dangerous thing ever, and comes up with ‘I don’t care if it’s raining’. This is very British peril.

I love the fact she sang ‘Ooh, let me have it’ at Heathcliff. More people should say ‘Ooh’ to horrendous literary creeps whilst singing them a dead love song. Kate Bush is an excellent purveyor of the word ‘Ooh’ by the way – see Cloudbusting for more, for example. This ooh was so brilliant it got sampled by Utah Saints.

I love the fact that on There Goes a Tenner she decided to aim for a cockney accent (which is perhaps as close to her spoken voice as she ever gets on record), but then seems to rejoice in the waywardness of her accentual aim. This song is an absolute tour de force of imaginative speculation and creativity. I absolutely love the way her voice breaks around the line ‘When you would carry me’: her ability to be self-conscious and emotionally-invested at the same time is quite astonisting.

I love the fact that across her work she writes about dead lost dogs in want of a biscuit; washing machine eroticism; period blues; snowman sex; weather control; war, colonialism & racism; accidentally dancing with Hitler; two steps on the water; knowledge as a system of control; the importance of breathing for a foetus at risk of nuclear annihilation. She’s fascinated by gender, whether that be as a binary concept (Between a Man and a Woman) or transcends such binaries (‘He’s a woman at heart’ in Eat the Music). From the point of view of narrative, characters, points of view and theme, now that’s what I call range.

I love the fact that she invited her son to be the first vocalist on her last album and made him spend ten actual minutes describing what it feels like to be a snowflake drifting helplessly to earth.

I love the fact that across her last two albums she has become fascinated with time, rootlessness and quiet as compositional principles, even when reworking songs that were originally grounded in three-minute chorus extravaganzas.

I love the fact that alongside her more famous experimentations with songwriting, production technique and sound palette she has also experimented on record with her voice, especially accent, pitch and phrasing. This is something we maybe don’t talk about enough. Compare Michael Jackson’s experiments with anger as a vocal (as well as compositional) technique in the early 80s, Tom Waits’ experiments with voice & age, or Elizabeth Fraser’s with pitch and dynamic throughout her career. I’m hoping to pick up on these ideas in future posts.

I love the fact that, whilst still herself legally a child, she wrote The Man With A Child In His Eyes, which unexpectedly turns out to not be about an optic emergency.

I love her commitment to exploring the identities and myths of culturally prominent people. Elvis. Joan of Arc. Bigfoot. Delius. Houdini. Kathy and Heathcliff. Ophelia. Hitler. Solomon (sort of). A various assortment of angels. Peter Pan. Molly Bloom.

I love how often her work takes to the sky. Hello Earth. The Big Sky. Night of the Swallow. Top of the City. Rocket’s Tail. Kite. In Search of Peter Pan. Cloudbusting. The Fog. An Endless Sky of Honey. Snowflake. Aerial. Her lyrics and fictional spaces think through the sky.

And we’ve still not covered her full range of topics and experiments. On the first three songs on The Dreaming alone she thinks about pedagogical anxiety, bank robbery, racist grenades. She later uses the technology of an answering machine to explore romantic distance, then ends the album BRAYING LIKE A MULE. Which is but one of the many zoological karaoke acts she has pulled.

This is someone who went straight to number one with her first single, was (I think) the first woman to write and perform a number one hit, and insisted on the choice of that first single against record company advice.

She’s also someone who has been ludicrously defined by that first song despite consistently releasing material which is groundbreaking, joyfully restless, intellectually explosive, proudly emotional and as much committed to silliness and play as it is to seriousness and craft.

Because yes, this is someone who loves love, in all its forms. Her song Pi is about her love for someone who loves maths, his complete infatuation with the calculation of Pi. As she once put it, all we’re ever looking for is another open door. Her songs love love so much they list the people loved. Family on The ‘Morning Fog’. A bunch of boys on Moments of Pleasure. A troupe of angels on ‘Lily’. Lists, love and itemisation. Cf. the enumeration of Pi and fifty words for snow. And don’t forget fruit. On Eat the Music she lists fruit. Fruit. In a list. Listed fruit.

So there are some reasons to love Kate Bush. I’ve missed out so much of her craft, especially her commitment to visual performance, images and dance, because those are things I love but lack the training to think about very carefully. But the things listed above speak to my own interests as a reader, writer and listener. And it goes with saying that often when I say ‘Kate Bush’ above, I am in fact talking about the author and singer’s literary personas much more than I’m talking about her herself. Kate Bush does not have sex with a snowman, bury and forget her yo-yo, sit in the thunder under the ivy, haunt literary sexpests or fantasise about washing-machines. But she made possible the people who did do these things, giving voice to them both as writer and singer. Thank you, Kate Bush.