24
Jul 08

KATE BUSH – “Wuthering Heights”

FT + Popular122 comments • 12,140 views

#420, 11th March 1978

I’ve never read Wuthering Heights, though I like to imagine its heroine does a pushy-arm dance at some point. Looking it up on Wikipedia, however, I was shocked to realise that Kate Bush is singing this song as a ghost, but really that’s just another oddness on a teetering pile of them: in a really excellent article on Bush for the late Stylus magazine, Marcello Carlin (hi dere!) points out that she is “the last musician to be allowed to do what she likes, as and when she likes”, and the precocious, precious “Wuthering Heights” is both evidence and justification for this indulgence.

On a parallel Earth somewhere, though, she never did anything else that anyone bought, and this is a one-hit-wonder, another in the seventies’ cavalcade of novelties. After all, we’ve already considered a hymn played on bagpipes, a tribute to Van Gogh, a mother-and-son barrelhouse piano romp, a spoken-word treatise on cosmic annihilation, a disco vision of the future, and a three-part rock opera, at least two of which are routinely ranked among the best singles ever. So a pop adaptation of a Bronte novel is unprecedented, but only as unprecedented as anything else thrown at the wall in this oddest of eras. Its ‘weirdness’, in other words, is not exactly why “Wuthering Heights” ought to be treasured.

To understand why this record is so brilliant, it helps to understand what it is: a power ballad. Like all great power ballads, it has a stonking big guitar solo, but that’s the least of its affiliation with the genre. It also has an absolutely steely conviction in its own seriousness and worth; it stares down even the merest notion that it might be ridiculous. And it continually raises its stakes: just when you think “Wuthering Heights” has peaked it pushes up somewhere higher, grander.

It starts off playful, Bush just revelling in how scrumptious words like “temper” or “greedy” sound when she’s singing them. Then – “bad dreams in the night” – she starts pushing things on a bit, and then rolls into the chorus, showing her range and melodic skills off. And then she really starts moving – “ooh it gets dark”, whipping up more of a storm, still playful enough to throw out that pine/find almost-rhyme though. The storm breaks on the second chorus, and Bush is imperious, working the song’s newfound groove. Still only halfway through, when she takes things up another notch, no longer singing as a character but letting song and story dissolve into one another, “let me have it!” – the tingliest point in a record full of them. “You know it’s me”. It’s one of those rare, liminal moments in pop when a performer seems to be trying to will a change in reality itself, to make our world simply swap places with the one her song’s creating. The piano strains at its upper limit, and then the strings come in, the moment of crisis passes, Kate Bush retires from her song in triumph and Dave Gilmour’s solo is a meandering, heartfelt round of applause.

And that, as far as we’re concerned, is that. Better one Kate Bush number one than none, and better this one than many, but it’s still a shame. After such an introduction, it’s us she’s haunting, a face pressed at pop’s casement window, mouthing a message: be this remarkable.

10

Comments

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  1. 1
    vinylscot on 24 Jul 2008 #

    One of the most predictable 10s, I would think, although the score isn’t currently showing.

    I do think you’ve rather downplayed the weirdness somewhat. The impact of this in 1978 was staggering, probably far more than it would be to someone hearing it as an “oldie”. I’ll comment further once I’ve read some others’ views.

    Bush has suffered a lot because of her “individuality” (weirdness), but I’m with you that she certainly deserved her #1, and looking at her future singles, there are quite a few others which should have done significantly better than they did. No doubt her reticence in promoting/performing also held back her career.

  2. 2
    Tom on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Haha yes, for some reason when I saved the post the date and mark fields didn’t transfer over.

  3. 3
    katstevens on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I do like this song a lot (especially the weird rhythm – each phrase ending right back up where it started but a beat behind or infront), but it don’t half go on a bit. Chop it down to 2 minutes 30 and I’d enjoy the whole thing a lot more.

    I have read Wuthering Heights! It is awfully grim and full of people being shouty and cruel to each other, stomping out any sense of dreamy goth romance that Kate is singing about here. I prefer Jane Eyre.

  4. 4
    Pete Baran on 24 Jul 2008 #

    You might be forgiven, waking up at the start of 1978, that you had entered a new golden age of girlpop. Althea & Donna, Abba and then this. Sumptuous.

  5. 5
    DJ Punctum on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to sit this one out.

    There is no real way I can write about this and not talk about people and things which are too personal for me to speak about in a public context.

    I have no quarrel with the score.

  6. 6
    lex on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Kat you are so wrong about Wuthering Heights, it is GRAND and PASSIONATE and completely ridiculous, much like the song, and by far my favourite Bronte work. Then again I have always hated on Jane Eyre, not least because C.Bronte has to resort to telepathy to resolve her long-winded, boring plot which I had ceased caring about by that point anyway. I find the drudgery and relentlessly humdrum nature of Jane Eyre far more grim than the sweeping melodrama of Wuthering Heights.

    Oh yeah, the song: classic, yes, but I think I would have given it 9, just because Kate went on to outstrip it again and again. It’s the Kate song you play at parties, but never the Kate song you want to listen to anywhere else. (Though I still think ‘Nocturn’ would be perfect to drop at 8am at some all-night techno rave just as the sun rises.) I think I actually prefer Kate’s more controlled voice of the 80s and afterwards to her schoolgirl banshee wildness of The Kick Inside; the latter isn’t a bad thing at all but it is a bit ‘novelty’ compared to her croon on eg ‘Cloudbusting’ or ‘Experiment IV’.

  7. 7
    Tom on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I think she made a few better singles than this one too, but it’s still a 10 for me – other stuff the artist’s done has no bearing on the mark (in theory anyway).

    I agree about the voice improving too, but it really works here.

  8. 8
    rosie on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Yay! Out of everything we’ve seen so far, there has been none worthier of the accolade of the maximum than this one and I doubt if there’ll be another. We can argue the toss about other 10s and I’m sure we will, but I’d be every disappointed in the whole project It’s a true original piece of art which is entirely the product of that kind of mind that is somewhat off-centre and therefore sees things from a different perspective from everybody else. Some might call it genius, and although that word is grossly abused I think there’s a strong case for applying it to our Kate. She was only nineteen at the time, after all, and had already proved her mettle as a genuinely innovative songwriter (it’s a pity we won’t be dealing with The Man With The Child In His Eyes here, written I believe at the age of 13). Like all true geniuses Kate Bush misfired sometimes, but then so did the Beatles and that, to my mind is what gives them an edge over, say, Abba in the canon of pop genius.

    This is pop’s Wagner moment; something that went where pop had never dared go before, because nobody told Kate she couldn’t and because the marketing men and beancounters hadn’t completed their total grip on the industry. It’s a complete holistic artifact; it works, just about, as a song, but what makes it perfect is the coming together of song, dance, and sheer force of personality.

    For me, the greatest number one and quite possibly the greatest pop song of them all.

    Oh, I’m a serial reader of Wuthering Heights and I love it. There’s almost nothing pleasant about it; it deals with the very worst of human nature, it is unlike anything else in nineteenth-century literature, and yet it’s so amazingly powerful and timeless. Was Wuthering Heights the first punk novel? Perhaps not – that must surely be Tristram Shandy.

  9. 9
    katstevens on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I just couldn’t deal with the relentless growling and bitching between the characters in WH. It was like reading an episode of Eastenders, the same old people having the same old arguments and being doomed to misery. Jane Eyre might rely on her psychic powerz to have her happy ending but dude that’s why I watch Ghost Whisperer and not Enders innit.

  10. 10
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 24 Jul 2008 #

    at home on the sideboard there is a photo of my mum and dad in fancy dress in the 70s, as cathy and heathcliff — IT IS AWESOME esp my dad’s authentic sidewhiskers

    sadly i think it was too early for the pushy-arm dance which i think mum could have made a major feature

  11. 11
    Martin Skidmore on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I’d probably have gone for 9, but I wouldn’t argue the point. I’m mainly just posting to say that even by your standards, this is a magnificent piece of music writing.

  12. 12
    Tom on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Thanks Martin, though I have to disagree: I ended it on an unstressed syllable. :(

  13. 13
    Alan on 24 Jul 2008 #

    although i had been regularly listening to the top 40 and loving pop in general for some time by this point, about now (earlyish 78) i started TAPING edited highlights. it could well be this song that made me want to listen to stuff over and over again, and i STILL wasn’t really paying attention to words.

    i am totally with the lex on WH (THE BOOK) vs jane meh-r (do you see).

  14. 14
    DJ Punctum on 24 Jul 2008 #

    It’s hardly surprising that boys don’t get Jane Eyre.

  15. 15
    mike on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Yes, yes, I take all of your points, and extremely well-made and insightful points they are too – but I’ve never properly connected with “Wuthering Heights”, either the song or the book (whose weird – and to my mind, clumsy – narrative framing device did a lot to put me off). Is it simply too feminine? Am I just too butch?

    So I can admire it, but I cannot love it. And try as I might to suppress this, there’s an irreducible part of me which is forever itching to mock. The corners of my mouth twitch. It’s like wanting to giggle during prayers. Sorry!

    (In the interest of balance, I should state that Kate went on to release at least two of my favourite singles ever. But not for quite some time yet.)

  16. 16
    SteveM on 24 Jul 2008 #

    This song gets better and better all the time to me, but then I started from indifference long ago. KB is the first woman in pop I saw on TV and thought ‘ooh she’s weird’ and that was obv before other considerations like sexiness and whatnot, tho I didn’t find her as (playfully) menacing as Grace Jones (not without delving into the albums at least, which I never did until a couple of years ago – but I probably wouldn’t have appreciated them properly before that anyway despite having time for many of the leftfield women she inspired, directly or otherwise). Like many i think she reached her peak with the fourth and fifth albums but WH is up there with them and I figured at least one of I Feel Love, Uptown Top Ranking and this (ladies be ruling the late 70s) would get the top score.

  17. 17
    Mark G on 24 Jul 2008 #

    1) Us lucky people who (used to) listen to Radio 210, Reading, heard this single about 6 months prior to release thanks to Mike Read and/or Steve Wright who were the DJs then, they played it tons then stopped as the release got put back. So, we knew this was going to be big.

    2) Spin forward many years, and our Amber (then age 3) was watching this performance on TOTP2. I asked her what she thought, and she said “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”

    Stood back in amazement.

    A few years after that, discussing with someone else on a different webpage about how KBush often popped into Sainsburys Tilehurst for her shopping incognito, and some other friends mentioned that she quite often took her kids to a local kiddie gym thing. Which was pretty damn cool of her.

    Oh yeah, nearly forgot: I was in the same TV studio as her back in the day (1979 or so), we were both ‘on camera’ features on the “Saturday Morning Show” hosted by Steve Jones. (Not that one, not even that one, but yeah, that one). I was on a ‘single review panel (highlights: The Korgis single I said was terrible (it was), and it turned out to be the ‘hidden artist’ as per Juke Box Jury) and she was being interviewed later in the same show. I’d have liked to have gotten an autograph, but we were not allowed to approach the goddess….

  18. 18
    jeff w on 24 Jul 2008 #

    On a parallel Earth somewhere, though, she never did anything else that anyone bought

    Hmmm. The World Of Popular = The World perspective can be useful. It can also be taken too far however and this might be an example of that. Kate was a Real Actual Successful Poll-Winning Pop Star for a few years. Right up until she decided she wasn’t going to stay on the treadmill any more in fact.

    No argument from me with the score, however.

  19. 19
    Tom on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I’m not saying the world of Popular = the world! I’m saying that, listening just to this, you could easily imagine it being a total one-off, like Gainsbourg only having one hit here.

    Well, I can anyway.

  20. 20
    Tom on 24 Jul 2008 #

    (and then at the end I’m saying that we’re the parallel world, for the purposes of writing more about KB, and that’s a shame)

  21. 21
    Waldo on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Weird and wonderful stuff and this exotic, sexy young woman from the even more exotic and sexy setting of the Medway scored with her own composition. The fact that this superb piece was churned out by a hitherto unknown teenager (Kate was 19) was remarkable. The only puzzle really was where to file this strange newcomer.

    WH was simply a brilliant debut and nothing quite like it had turned up before. If originality is beauty, this was it. I really couldn’t imagine anyone trying to cover it, lest it was an attempt to take the piss. Indeed Emily Bronte’s characters of Heathcliff and Cathy had long since been targets for humour anyway before finally becoming at least partly legitimised by young Miss Bush. I feel that this was one of those records which just came out of nowhere without any prior warning, went straight to the top and would never be forgotten (I would bracket “Whiter Shade Of Pale” and “Spirit In The Sky” in this category). I can’t even remember the Punk firmament having anything bad to say about this. A truly classic and exciting piece. And Kate was quite bonkers, which is always very nice with a pretty girl.

    Oh, and Rosie linking it as “pop’s Wagner moment” is so spot on.

  22. 22
    vinylscot on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Although David Gilmour was heavily involved with Kate’s development, it wasn’t him playing the solo on this song; it was former Pilot and Alan Parsons Project chappie Ian Bairnson. His own website confirms this.

    Watching the video again, purely for research purposes, I was struck, as I was at the time, by how large Kate’s hands were. Did anyone else notice this, or am I just a little odd? (or both)

    Waldo mentions covers, and there have been a few – Pat Benatar certainly covered it, badly, and Hayley Westenra has certainly performed it on TV. Kate Bush herself covered it, re-recording the vocals for inclusion on her compilation album “The Whole Story” in 1986. It wasn’t a good idea, and comes over as just a bit insipid; although technically it may be a better vocal performance than the original, it lost a lot of its power, and no doubt left many purchasers of the album rather disappointed and frustrated.

    Maybe I’ll post a little more on the “weirdness” later. I’m surprised more of the comments haven’t been about just how far out of left-field this was.

  23. 23
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 24 Jul 2008 #

    no not wagner — way too compressed, and the singing is modernist not romantic! more like pierrot lunaire! (kate has to be a better wordsmith than the siouxsie-sioux knock-off who did lunaire’s goth-as-in-rubbish lyrics, but i can only ever hear them as “out on the whiny weeny woo woo woowoo woo”)

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Jonathan King also recorded a cover version sung from Heathcliff’s perspective.

    That’s all I’m saying about that.

  25. 25
    Mark G on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Well, it was certainly fodder for the likes of Eddie Large, Faith Brown and around (Results 1 – 10 of about 983,000 for kate bush impressions. (0.29 seconds) ) others that also did Frank Spencer.

  26. 26
    Tom on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Thanks for the correction re. the guitar solo vinylscot – I’ve gone 20 years or so believing it was Gilmour!

    He will get his moment of course (back, bunny, back!).

  27. 27
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 24 Jul 2008 #

    actually to be honest that’s how i hear most lyrics — ie i don’t know them after the first half of the first line

  28. 28
    vinylscot on 24 Jul 2008 #

    No bother Tom – I was actually prepared to find out I had been wrong in thinking it had been Ian Bairnson, for equally as long. It’s odd how these little things get stuck in your head.

  29. 29
    LondonLee on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I did a blog post on Kate a while ago and said that when I first heard this that high screechy vocal made me picture her as some witchy old woman who spent too much time indoors with her cats. Then of course I saw some pictures of her and, well, how wrong can you be? As Waldo said, bonkers and pretty, what a dangerous combo for a young man! Though she is the sort of girl I can only take in small, single-size doses.

    Great of course, and startling at the time (and she was so young!), everyone I knew was talking about it, but I have to say I do prefer the more conventionally pretty ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’

    I loved Michael Bracewell’s description of her as “pop’s equivalent of the mad girl in the attic…covering the territory of Angela Carter’s A Company of Wolves in the guise of a pre-Raphaelite raised on Jackie”

  30. 30
    jeff w on 24 Jul 2008 #

    #19 – OK, in that case the words “that anyone bought” are redundant. I’m quibbling, but this bit of the piece is a bit fuzzy. (I like the rest of it.)

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