24
Jul 08

KATE BUSH – “Wuthering Heights”

FT + Popular122 comments • 12,682 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.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    LondonLee on 24 Jul 2008 #

    “I was struck, as I was at the time, by how large Kate’s hands were”

    Too…many…jokes…can’t process…them… all

  2. 32
    CarsmileSteve on 24 Jul 2008 #

    @mark g 17. dere lord, i knew exactly which steve jones you meant, that’s marginally depressing…

  3. 33
    Mark G on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Imagine how he feels!

    (The Pyramid Game (UK), for others who may be lost)

  4. 34
    Andy on 24 Jul 2008 #

    That’s 2 number ones in a row that’ve had the Alan Partridge treatment (and the next has a bit of a Coogan connection as well).

    DON’T SING Susan, it sounds BAD.

  5. 35
    rosie on 24 Jul 2008 #

    It’s true, the actual mechanics of the song are not Wagnerian. But the concept, in which words and music and dance are fused together, is, and the way it came out of nowhere owing little or nothing to anybody’s fad or any recognised conventions, and the way it wass so outrageously and magnificently over the top (and gets away with it), all were pure Wagner. Also, both book and song reflect Wagner’s rather unhealthy but indubitably Romantic (with a capital R) obsession with love-in-death.

  6. 36
    Billy Smart on 24 Jul 2008 #

    It undulates. It breathes. It shimmies. It must be one of the most tactile things that we’ve come across on Popular.

    When it comes on the radio it sounds like the most magical thing imaginable, but when I put it on to play, I tend to start thinking of other Kate Bush songs that I’d like to hear more.

    I think Kate Bush may be the first pop star that I can remember. The leotard, the leaping and flowing sort of dance, the wobbling singing, the wide eyes… all of this was very attractive to me as a child, and not how grown-ups usually deported themselves.

    The first time that I ever asked for a record was for my sixth birthday in 1978 – “Kate Bush” – because my sister was working in a record shop (a slightly dubious profession, I got the impression). She gave me ‘Smurfing Beer’ instead, which I rather suspect she must have got out of a bargain bin, though it was certainly the sort of single which my parents thought much more suitable for a small child. I’m from Blackheath, so she was also one of those pop stars who people thought of as being local (like Squeeze or Carter USM)

    Move forward twenty years and my career as a library assistant for Greenwich Council, and one of my colleagues was Brian Barth, Kate Bush’s guitarist for most of her golden years, working as a porter! It wasn’t perhaps the role in life to which he was best suited, but asking him about how he created the solo on ‘Pull Out The Pin’at Abbey Road, or almost joined The Pretenders, added a note of otherness to the working day.

  7. 37
    Waldo on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I thought Kate was a bit of an Angie Baby personally.

    Jonathan King as Heathcliff? That’s almost as laughable as that other guy who quite recently took it upon himself to compare himself with Bronte’s brooding hero instead of relying on Polly Toynbee to do it for him.

  8. 38
    lonepilgrim on 24 Jul 2008 #

    this song has always been for me a guilty displeasure – although I’ve liked other stuff KB has done. For me it conjures up associations of adolescent drama queens smelling of patchouli oil which I don’t seem able to shake.

  9. 39
    Billy Smart on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Nobody has yet mentioned the rival musical treatment of the story: “Cliff Richard in ‘Heathcliff’. It climaxes with the aged knight revealing himself, in a moving ballad, to be a ‘Misunderstood Man’

    One of the many moments on the definitive Cliff Richard box set that I’ll never listen to again…

  10. 40
    Billy Smart on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Number 2 watch: Three weeks of ‘Denis’ by Blondie. Do you suppose that we might hear more of them?

  11. 41
    Dan R on 24 Jul 2008 #

    And of course we can add Sir Cliff to that esteemed band of Heathcliff wannabes.

  12. 42
    Waldo on 24 Jul 2008 #

    # 39 – “It climaxes with the aged knight revealing himself…” Christ! Small wonder nobody’s mentioned it.

    Yes, my own link with Wagner was all about WH’s intensity too. We’re not discussing chamber music here.

  13. 43
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 24 Jul 2008 #

    i’m siding with championship tagteam k.russell and t.w.adorno on this: wagner is all knock-off liszt and the totality of the gesamtkunstwerk is a bogus sham until it’s divided against itself! kate is expressionist rather than romantic, bcz it’s spoken out of the mouth of a ghost!

    “horses are the survivors of the age of heroes” — k.bush

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 24 Jul 2008 #

    TOTP Watch: Kate’s TOTP debut was on the edition transmitted on the 2nd of March 1978, hosted by Noel Edmonds, which does make the late seventies seem like a pop golden age. Also in the studio that week were; Darts, The Tom Robinson Band, Nick Lowe and Andy Williams, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Fantasy’

  15. 45
    lex on 24 Jul 2008 #

    no not wagner — way too compressed, and the singing is modernist not romantic! more like pierrot lunaire!

    yeah I don’t get the Wagner thing at all, everything about Wagner is grandiose and overwhelming and more-is-more, megalomaniac-insane rather than Kate’s eccentric-insane. Kate is too gentle, and genteel, even in these mad banshee days, to be properly Wagnerian; a better example of that spirit in pop is the new Ciara single where she sings opera over crunk, ft. lines like “I should be in Iraq, shawty cuz I am the bomb/I got a million dollar house on my earlobe” (cue Valkyries).

  16. 46
    rosie on 24 Jul 2008 #

    And I’m quite sure that T W Adorno would have some colourful things to say about Popular if only he were alive to do so!

    I think it’s more Tristan Wagner than Ring Wagner. There’s a lot of gentle tenderness in T&I as well as intense passion. I think of WH as pop’s Liebestod rather than Brunnhilde riding into the flames.

  17. 47
    Tom on 24 Jul 2008 #

    I can think of another billowing-dress power ballad which we’ll be getting to at the other end of the New Pop era that feels more “Wagnerian” (though I’ve not seen any Wagner since I was 10!).

  18. 48
    Dan R on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Do we think Theodore would have been won over to the popular cause by the magic of ABBA and Kate Bush?

  19. 49
    Dan R on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Incidentally, does anyone know the reason for all that chinoiserie in the single sleeve design? I know it is carried over on the album but it looks highly peculiar to see the words Wuthering Heights in that lettering…

  20. 50
    jeff w on 24 Jul 2008 #

    It might be connected to the song ‘Kite’ (which is on the B-side of ‘Wuthering’ and on the album). Google throws up a rather, um, fanatical series of posts on a KB discussion forum expanding on this theory….

  21. 51
    Waldo on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Of course Dudley Moore did have Wagner in the back of his cab once but had to turf “Richie” out after the composer, who had previously been whistling snatches of “Tristan and Isolde”, told him (in English) to “Fuck off, c**t”. Surely no further proof of the similarity to WH is needed.

    Game, set and match, Rosie und Waldo!

  22. 52
    fivelongdays on 24 Jul 2008 #

    Would necessarily agree with the mark, but I wouldn’t necessarily argue with it either.

    And check out the China Drum version for 90s Brit-Rock (as in yer actual rock that rocks, not rock that mimbles) goodness.

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=OBviQXfuu3c

  23. 53
    The Intl on 25 Jul 2008 #

    I never got her…

  24. 54
    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Yes, I was trying to remember who did that fucking godawful Steve Lamacq pseudo-indie rock totally missing the point cover version and it was MVE favourites China Drum. Almost as bad as the Futureheads’ slaughter of “Hounds Of Love.”

  25. 55
    Alan on 25 Jul 2008 #

    are you some sort of lex-ist?

    i heard china drum do their cover at a gig. it was really really awful. i can’t believe they actually liked the song.

  26. 56
    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Number Two Watch: “Denis” by Blondie, with Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” in third place. Them wuz the days, eh?

  27. 57
    vinylscot on 25 Jul 2008 #

    ..ah, yes, back in the days when you actually liked the sax on “Baker Street”, before years of constant repetition made you wish the instrument had never been invented!

  28. 58
    lex on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Almost as bad as the Futureheads’ slaughter of “Hounds Of Love.”

    Oh god don’t remind me – this is down there with the very worst covers ever, sitting alongside the Stereophonics doing ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Truly vile. Except no one defended the latter, and…far too many people defend the Futureheads :/

  29. 59
    SteveM on 25 Jul 2008 #

    KB covers are thin on the ground. I guess most people know not to, ahem, “try it”.

    I am not a fan of the recent Chromatics version of ‘Running Up That Hill’ tho. it just seemed a rather pointless, desolate rework.

  30. 60
    Erithian on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Waldo #21 – you’re a bit off geographically with the Medway! She was from within the M25, my present home town of Bexleyheath to be precise – also the birthplace of that well-known Irishman Andy Townsend a few years later. And Mark G #25 – the definitive impression was surely Pamela Stephenson on Not the Nine O’Clock News: “They’re really trying hard to get inside my leotard…”

    It was Dave Broddle in our class who was raving about this one when nobody else had heard it. “Kate who??” Eventually he sneaked a transistor radio into the class during a free period and let us hear it, and we were pretty underwhelmed given that the sound reproduction wasn’t quite what was needed to reveal its full magnificence. But yes, it wasn’t long before we all knew and loved it (or perhaps merely “admired it” in a few cases) and it stands as an essential part of the late 70s pop-fan experience.

    I’m going to come up with a pretty odd analogy here, that came to mind when watching DJ Pattinson make his England debut last week (!) Anyone know the story of “Spedegue’s Dropper”, by Arthur Conan Doyle? It’s about an asthmatic schoolmaster who practised in the New Forest by lobbing a cricket ball over a cord slung between two 50-foot-high trees directly onto the wicket. He was plucked from obscurity to win the deciding game of an Ashes series. At a crucial point in the story he sends his first ball wider than Harmison, such is his nervous state about performing this extraordinary delivery.

    It’s this (by a roundabout route we’re back to Kate) that set me thinking, what must Kate Bush’s state of mind have been when this extraordinary piece of work was about to be unleashed? Imagine coming out to perform it live to an audience for the first time. Many would have quailed, but no doubt she knew what she was doing after years of preparation. As Tom says, it’s one of a number of novelties in the 70s roll-call (I hear what you say about “power ballad”, but isn’t that a bit anachronistic?) – but few novelties were as great as this

    As I recall, the record was well on its way up the chart before we saw any pictures of her – remember that photo of her in the leotard, showing a very impressive cleavage, which reputedly caused road accidents when it featured on buses? Hence these reactions:
    Jeff Green: “Kate Bush was like all five Spice Girls rolled into one with a Flake on the top”.
    Letter writer in Record Mirror: “You – yes you reading this letter – buy Kate Bush’s single. God she’s ace. I’d crawl a hundred miles over broken glass to gargle with her bath water…”

    And yes, personally I preferred “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” or the later singles off “Hounds of Love”, but as a signature tune it’s hard to beat this.

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