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.