2009 Kate Bush Documentary Dubs Her “Queen of British Pop”

Find­ing this short doc­u­men­tary on “Queen of British Pop” Kate Bush was a treat for me, I must con­fess, not least because of the always enter­tain­ing pres­ence of John Lydon (John­ny Rot­ten from the Sex Pis­tols). Hav­ing nur­tured a deep love for Bush’s music in my youth as a sort of guilty plea­sure, it’s only in my adult­hood that I decid­ed it’s ok to say, dammit, I think Kate Bush is just absolute­ly bril­liant and I don’t care who knows it. It’s prob­a­bly the case that with age, all guilty plea­sures just become plea­sures (or should, any­way). Alright, she may have sin­gle-hand­ed­ly inspired every melo­dra­mat­ic 80s teenag­er in a the­ater club to put on gauzy, home­made dress­es and twirl around war­bling and swoon­ing, but what, I ask, is wrong with that? There are worse things birthed by pop trends, that’s for sure, and it’s arguable, real­ly, how much of Bush’s music can be called “pop,” any­way, since she includes so many British and inter­na­tion­al folk influ­ences in her reper­toire.  And yes, it’s true, some peo­ple, like Lydon’s moth­er (whom he quotes above), think her singing sounds less pop star and more like “a bag of cats”–a reac­tion that seems to thrill him–but she cer­tain­ly made an impres­sion on David Gilmour, who passed her demo on to EMI and helped launch her career. In addi­tion to Lydon, Kate Bush: Queen of British Pop includes inter­views with Lily Allen, her ear­ly pro­duc­ers, and her broth­er, John Carder Bush, dis­cussing her song­writ­ing process as a young teenag­er.

It wasn’t long after her ear­li­est writ­ing efforts that Bush was signed to EMI at the age of 16 and set about record­ing her first album The Kick Inside. While she’s typ­i­cal­ly remem­bered for hits from her 1985 Hounds of Love—includ­ing “Cloud­bust­ing” and “Run­ning up that Hill” (and their incor­po­ra­tion into sev­er­al dance­floor hits of the 90s)—Bush’s first sin­gle “Wuther­ing Heights,” released when she was just nine­teen, hit num­ber one on the UK and Aus­tralian charts in 1978. Bush insist­ed that this be the first sin­gle from her album, despite the fact that, well, it’s an incred­i­bly bizarre song for a pop release, in its arrange­ment and its sub­ject matter—Emily Bronte’s 1847 goth­ic nov­el. But it works in a way that only Bush could get away with (cov­ers of the song are gen­er­al­ly ris­i­ble and uncon­vinc­ing). She some­how man­ages to per­fect­ly encap­su­late the novel’s chill and its poignan­cy, alter­nate­ly plead­ing and threat­en­ing in the voice of Cathy’s ghost, implor­ing the haunt­ed Heath­cliff to let her in again. (For a tru­ly haunt­ing expe­ri­ence, see this video of the track slowed down to an ethe­re­al 36-minute crawl). No one else could pull off this almost-pre­ten­tious bal­ance between the sub­lime and the ridicu­lous, com­bined with her inter­pre­tive dance and rolling eyes, with­out get­ting labeled as some sort of a nov­el­ty act, but as Lydon puts it, her “shrieks and war­bles are beau­ty beyond belief” to many ears, and she was tak­en seri­ous­ly and award­ed an icon­ic sta­tus. Or, in anoth­er one of Lydon’s lit­tle gems: “Kate Bush and her grand piano… that’s like John Wayne and his sad­dle.” I already warned you I’m a fan. You may just hear a bag of cats.

After the release of The Kick Inside, Bush embarked on her first and only tour in 1979. The video below is a per­for­mance of “Wuther­ing Heights” from a Ger­man appear­ance:

For a vari­ety of rea­sons, she would nev­er tour again and only per­form live spo­rad­i­cal­ly. This is in part due to her desire to con­trol every part of her career, from writ­ing and pro­duc­ing, to per­form­ing and pro­mo­tion. In “Queen of British Pop,” her broth­er describes her frus­tra­tion with the world of talk shows and mag­a­zine inter­views, which tend­ed to triv­i­al­ize her music and ask con­de­scend­ing ques­tions about her love life and hair styling. Any pop sen­sa­tion should expect this, I sup­pose, but Bush resent­ed the way she was objec­ti­fied by her label and the press. She con­sid­ered her­self a seri­ous artist and set out to prove it by focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on her work, not her­self, as the prod­uct, a deci­sion that earned her a rep­u­ta­tion (not entire­ly unde­served) as a “weirdo recluse,” but also enabled her to retain com­plete cre­ative con­trol, make a series of remark­ably eclec­tic and per­son­al records, and become a pio­neer and a pos­i­tive fig­ure for dozens of female artists after her. She did make the occa­sion­al for­ay onto tele­vi­sion and film after her retreat from the lime­light. A mem­o­rable exam­ple is this sil­ly duet with Rowan Atkin­son (in char­ac­ter as a sleazy Amer­i­can lounge singer) for a 1986 Com­ic Relief con­cert.

Bush won high praise from crit­ics and peers last year for her return to “sub­lime and ridicu­lous” ter­ri­to­ry with lat­est album 50 Words for Snow. A 1993 doc­u­men­tary called “This Wom­an’s Work,” avail­able free here, presents a longer explo­ration of her work, with sev­er­al inter­views with Bush.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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