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.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    DJ Punctum on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Well, she only ever did the one tour, in 1979, and took considerable persuading to do even that.

    Her A&R man at EMI wanted to go with “James And The Cold Gun” as the first single and Kate got in a state, virtually begging him in tears that it had to be “WH” – he thought it would be way too leftfield to sell in a world filled with disco and punk but eventually he yielded, though warned her that it wouldn’t get radio play and would flop and then she’d see what he meant.

    The week it got to number one he bought her a new grand piano as a token of apology!

  2. 62
    Doctormod on 25 Jul 2008 #

    YES!!!

    10! 10! 10!

    I have long admired Kate Bush as one of the underappreciated geniuses of pop music. She is the embodiment of that precious sort of eccentricity without whom we shall eventually fall apart through our addictions to conformity. Lord knows there is a paucity of artists (pop or otherwise) who would stick so adamantly to her own vision and never pander to a business who demands constant touring and the courtship of publicity.

    As far as I’m concerned, The Dreaming is her masterpiece, the maturation of artistic depths that “Wuthering Heights” can only hint at. Nonetheless, it’s an extraordinary accomplishment in its own right.

    Though it’s been a while, I’ve certainly read–indeed taught–“Wuthering Heights” a number of times, and I’d have to say that KB clearly understood the ferocious emotionality and passion intrinsic to the Heathcliff/Catherine Earnshaw relationship, an intensity that tends to overwhelm or intimidate faint-hearted readers. I could go on and on about KB and Emily Brontë as kindred spirits (but I’ll spare you that).

    “Wuthering Heights” is evidence that “high” culture can influence popular culture, but the opposite is true in this case as well. I once heard that bookstores in the UK couldn’t keep enough copies of Brontë’s novel in stock in the year or so after the song hit the charts. I don’t have a copy of the redoubtable Penguin edition on hand–though, knowing that the song was about to come up for discussion soon, I almost snatched the GF’s old copy from her office last week–but long ago I checked the history of printings of the Penguin edition, and, yes, it’s true! An unusually high number of printings were done in 1978-80.

    Bravissima, Kate!

  3. 63
    Doctormod on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Re: Wagner and Kate:

    Kate is more somewhere between Mozart and Verdi, I would say, than Wagnerian, although a Wagnerian case could be for The Dreaming, particularly its ending in “Get Out of My House,” as a young woman’s Götterdämmerung. Tristan? Perhaps. But if I were to place KB in Wagner, I’d be inclined to cast her as Elsa in Lohengrin (a visionary girl much misunderstood) or double cast (as sometimes is the case) as Elizabeth/Venus (the two extremes of female sexuality) in Tannhäuser.

    As a side note to Lohengrin, there’s Kate’s long-ago b-side cover of Donovan’s “Lord of the Reedy River,” which suggests to me that there’s a number of girls out there who’ve been in love with a swan, Elsa and Leda among them.

  4. 64
    rosie on 25 Jul 2008 #

    Ah, Doctor Mod, since you are here – how did WH go down in the US?

  5. 65
    fivelongdays on 25 Jul 2008 #

    I actually liked the Futureheads version of Hounds of Love.

    Gah, it’s tough being into mid90s Britrock sometimes!

  6. 66
    Doctormod on 26 Jul 2008 #

    Rosie–

    WH made barely a dent on the US consciousness. My own first conscious memory of KB was an appearance on Saturday Night Live some time in the late 70s. (Yes, she really did come to the US–once.) The recollection is quite vivid as she sang two songs, “Them Heavy People” and “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” which were unlike anything in the pop music being played in the US. And, oh yes–my mother was watching, too, and she almost had a seizure when Kate when into some simulated coital writhing on top of a grand piano while singing the latter song. It was a priceless moment.

    I didn’t hear a single word about Kate Bush for at least another five years, though all her albums were released here and, as far as I can tell, she gained sort of a cult following. Then, in 1985, just after my mother had passed away and I was preparing to begin graduate school (about a decade late), one of my hip younger friends (one accumulates those, if one is lucky, as an “older” undergraduate) gave me a cassette and said I had to listen to it. It was The Hounds of Love. I was blown away.

    “Running Up That Hill” was a hit big enough to get played on alternative radio stations–I listened to KROQ in Los Angeles back in the day–and the video was shown on MTV, but I suspect it wasn’t a mega-hit, but I couldn’t say for sure as I virtually never consult the charts. (I’ve long stopped caring about how well recordings sell. I only care about their aesthetic attraction–or lack thereof–in my thoughts about them. Or, to put it more mundanely–dare I say it?–after all these years it’s a matter of whether I like them or not.)

    I know Pat Benatar did a cover version of WH that, I think, might have been a hit of sorts, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. And, by now, why would I want to having heard the original? I mean, I can’t imagine PB, a girl from Long Island, as Catherine Earnshaw on Yorkshire moors.

    About ten years ago–strange to think that WH was thirty years ago–I was teaching a course in feminist/gender theory in the humanities at a rather well-known West Coast university. I had the students critique everything from opera and Virginia Woolf to rock videos and just about every sort of art form in between. I gave them all the freedom in the world to pick any work or any artist to whom to apply the theoretical readings for their final project. I had so many young girls bringing in Tori Amos CDs for my benefit–to the point that I brought in my own copies of The Dreaming and The Hounds of Love. “Perhaps you’d be interested in hearing this,” I’d tell them, and they’d swear I had some rare disc by their idol. No, I would tell them, my CD was about fifteen years old and, with all respect to Tori, the original is still the greatest. One young woman got extremely emotional about it. I asked her why. She said, “Because everything we try to do the British do better.”

    Well, what could I say to that?

  7. 67
    Doctormod on 26 Jul 2008 #

    #45–Lex quotes someone as saying:

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

    (Sorry, I’m jet-lagged after the adventure Down Under, have some pretty bad eyestrain, and need to get back to work on my proposal if I’m going to go back to Oz on a fellowship next year, so forgive my laziness.)

    The point is well taken. Yes, yes, yes. Don’t get me going on this. Kate Bush is a Modernist. At least a neo-Modernist. I came to that conclusion back in 1986 while undergoing the grueling “Readings in British Modernism” curriculum for the first level PhD exams. I was listening to HoL side two and reading T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets at the same time while my brain was on overload. The two have been fused in my mind ever since, even to the point that when someone mentions “Dry Salvages,” I automatically think, “All you sailors, get out of the wind, water / All you fishermen, head for home/ Go to sleep little earth.”

    Or am I thinking of Phlebas the Phoenician Sailor?

    “Fear death by water.”

    Now as to musical Modernism . . . I’m going to think about Schoenberg and Pierrot Lunaire. Someone is on to something . . . .

    Ask me again when I’m not so tired and stressed out.

  8. 68
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 26 Jul 2008 #

    pierrot lunaire was me — i actually more associate PL (and expressionism) with siouxsie (giraud’s original poem is like bad banshees lyrics), but i also always associate siouxsie with kate… both of them do the suburban-girl-playing-crazy-lady-dressup dance, different flavours of same

    people are stressing the lushness to get this back to wagnerlike, but it’s the siren-like wildness of the wail — the way it just cuts through everything and says here i am, you can’t pretend this isn’t here and isn’t me — that’s unwagnerlike: his characters are all doomed robots in the opulent machinery of the vast masterwork (haha the version of die walkure i saw in strasbourg a coupla months back actually togged the valkyries as girl-cybermen which was very awesome); the expressionists as a generation were all teen wagner-fans going yes yes i love opulence too but what about ME and my emo-goth passions; so klimt has this suffocating richness AND these hard knotty muscle-lines; kate’s a dancer — i think that’s pretty important

  9. 69

    […] “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[5], 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.” –Tom Ewing at Freaky Trigger[6] […]

  10. 70
    Doctormod on 26 Jul 2008 #

    #68 – alias p^nk

    Sorry I didn’t catch the attribution last time around.

    [Wagner’s] characters are all doomed robots in the opulent machinery of the vast masterwork

    Well, that’s spot on–and what’s most infuriating about them and often makes them seem as if they’re completely empty-headed (e.g., Siegfried–can’t stand that part of the Ring). Perhaps Brünnhilde is the exception, but a lot of good it did her. I like the Rheinmaidens–they don’t care, so they’re the only ones in the whole bloody cycle to escape unscathed. And they get the gold back in the end.

    Weialala leia
    Wallala leialala

    Kate, who creates an interesting array of personae (if not exactly characters), isn’t at all Wagnerian in that sense. Hers almost always struggle against the “machinery” (or fate, if you will), particularly in the songs in Never Forever,The Dreaming, andHounds of Love.

    I would have to take all three albums if I were bound for a desert island–but first I was struggle against going in the first place.

    Addendum: The pic sleeve shown for this thread was, as I recall, banned in the US as the cover for The Kick Inside because of the crucifixion motif–a photo of Kate, in red boots and posed in a “crotch shot” position, was deemed more suitable.

  11. 71
    rosie on 26 Jul 2008 #

    Quoth Doctor Mod

    Weialala leia
    Wallala leialala

    Well there’s a link between Wagner and Modernism!

    As, of course, would be

    Frisch weht der Wind
    Der Heimat zu
    Mein Irisch Kind
    Wo weilest du?

    I’m much more a Tristan fan than I am a Ring fan.

  12. 72
    intothefireuk on 27 Jul 2008 #

    Let me be completely honest about this – I fell in love with Kate Bush. Having said that, it wasn’t an immediate moment for me when I initially heard Wuthering Heights on the radio and somehow I managed to miss her early TOTP performance instead catching her performing WH seated at the piano, which, although still entrancing, didn’t hit the heights of her dance routine. My generally rockist agenda at the time, prevented me from fully embracing it but I was charmed by the simple beauty of ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’, it’s follow up, and I was finally able to dive in fully clothed with the slightly more rocky (but still weird & wonderful)’Hammer Horror’. From there it was swiftly onto ‘The Kick Inside’ & ‘Lionheart’ and beyond. Wuthering Heights, though, finally unleashed it’s full fronted emotional rollercoaster on me when I was lucky enough to see Kate in a one off show on her Tour Of Life in 1979, when she appeared with Peter Gabriel & Steve Harley. WH was the final song before the encore and ended with Kate, standing atop a bed of dry ice, ecstatically waving to the audience whilst flowers and gifts were thrown onstage from her adoring fans. The whole performance had been extraordinary and the climactic ending brought a large lump to my throat and a tear to the eye. She was at once gorgeous, incredibly sweet and outrageously talented and I fell heavily. I met her a few times but was never able to utter anything more than polite drivel and get a couple of autographs. I am still a fan of her early work which I find more eclectic, varied and emotionlly raw than the later more refined albums. Although, obviously, I am horribly biased, WH gets one better than a 10 from me. An amazing 11.

  13. 73
    DJ Punctum on 27 Jul 2008 #

    Was this actually the first Popular entry to be written and performed by a woman?

  14. 74
    rosie on 27 Jul 2008 #

    Marcello @ 73: It depends how rigorous you are in your definitions. Jackie Trent had a hand in writing Where are you now but had help from hubby Tony. Kate was the first to do it unassisted.

    What a shame nothing of Carole King’s from Tapestry or elsewhere made the cut (but then everybody had the album.) Popular is even more depressingly short of women writers than it is of women performers.

  15. 75
    DJ Punctum on 27 Jul 2008 #

    yeah I should have specified “solely.”

  16. 76
    Doctormod on 27 Jul 2008 #

    Thus Spake Rosie:

    Well there’s a link between Wagner and Modernism!

    Indeed–and quite an extraordinary one! Most of the major Modernists eventually found it necessary to deal with W eventually.

    I could suggest an interesting book on the topic. (And, no–I didn’t write it.)

  17. 77
    Doctormod on 27 Jul 2008 #

    intothefreak:

    Let me be completely honest about this – I fell in love with Kate Bush.

    No need to be embarrassed about that! (So did I!)

  18. 78
    rosie on 27 Jul 2008 #

    Well, didn’t we all! And in my case, got unbelievably jealous as well.

  19. 79
    Jim T. on 28 Jul 2008 #

    Just a complete answer to a question asked earlier (64)about its chart status: According to Wiki this went #1 in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia and was a top 10 in four other European countries. In the U.S.? It peaked at #108. Also: on a mostly British site, I’m stunned nobody has yet brought up the seminal version of “Wuthering Heights,” the one done in flag semafore….

  20. 80
    lex on 28 Jul 2008 #

    doctormod @ 66:

    I entry to Kate Bush was via Tori, too – as a teenager I was a Tori obsessive, probably much along the lines of your students, and I think in around 1997 someone nudged me towards the Kate back catalogue – but I’ve never thought their aesthetics overlapped all that much, bar their similar vocal range. To be slightly reductive, I’ve always felt that Kate’s work is situated more in the realm of the imagination (not a million miles from the fantasy genre) whereas Tori focuses on personal experience and catharsis, albeit viewed through a very fractured prism at times. Plus, the work of both is really heavily informed by their nationalities.

    (I think Tori’s gone on the record as saying she’d never heard Kate Bush until after she’d written most of Little Earthquakes, as KB never really hit big in the US.)

  21. 81
    Matthew H on 28 Jul 2008 #

    Wonderful record, even though we all did “hilarious” Kate Bush impressions in the playground for weeks (years?) afterwards. Loved ‘The Man With The Child I His Eyes’ too, obv, and not just because six-year-old me thought she was naked in the video. For me, as a kid, she dropped off the radar completely (save, maybe, more terrifying stuff on ‘Babooshka’) so when she reentered my sphere in 1985 as an NME darling, I was somewhat surprised. I suppose she’d always been a heroine of the inkies, but was still a figure of fun (fear?) among my peer group.

    I’ve been proper hooked since Hounds Of Love, of course.

  22. 82
    Doctormod on 28 Jul 2008 #

    Lex #80:

    I quite agree that KB and TA are the products of their respective nationalities, but I think there’s greater aesthetic overlap, particularly musically, than you would suggest. (By the way, most of the students to whom I presented KB thought them kindred spirits.) Kate can be ferociously cathartic in some of her work, and I think it valid to say that she employs the “fractured prism” technique to great effect, particularly in her “concept albums” (if one chooses to see them as such) The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. (I’ve actually lectured on this topic–so I can go on and on. But I’ll spare everyone the long-winded discourse.)

    I think what you’re implying is that KB’s subject matter lies more in her imagination and TA’s more in her personal experience. Yes and no. I grant you that KB has never done anything as unnervingly personal as “Me and a Gun,” but there’s no shortage of violence and grittiness in her work, even if it is presented in a more–what?–metaphorical manner. (This, too, could be a US vs UK thing).

    This is not to disparage TA by any means. Like KB, she is a genuine eccentric gifted with the extraordinary sort of vision few others possess. But I do think it’s a bit disingenuous to say that there’s no influence there. (TA’s disavowal notwithstanding, KB wasn’t completely unknown in the US–she actually had some chart presence in the 80s.)

    It’s interesting to note, though, that when VH1 did their “100 Most Important Women in Rock” programme (or something to that effect) back in the late 1990s), KB placed somewhere in the middle range of the list, despite this being a US-based project. And what artist do you think they interviewed about the significance of her work? TA!

    BTW, TA nowadays occasionally sings “Running Up That Hill” in her live shows.

  23. 83
    Mark G on 29 Jul 2008 #

    now, that’s gonna confuse some of the audience..

  24. 84
    lex on 29 Jul 2008 #

    I can’t really imagine it – I knew she was doing it, but it’s a v recent development and my days of obsessively downloading every live cover TA did are at least 5 years in the past. She’s a lot better at covers these days tbh, though her last album wasn’t bad at all.

    KB has always struck me as a lot more…performative, I guess, than TA, and far less prone to being inappropriate or crude; thematically, TA is a lot more confrontational, the violence in KB’s work seems to occur most when she’s being overtly theatrical, playing roles and characters which are not her (‘Get Out Of My House’, ‘Houdini’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ too I guess!), and her most cathartic, traditionally confessional tracks are some of her most gentle (‘This Woman’s Work’, ‘Man With The Child In His Eyes’, ‘Moments Of Pleasure’). Whereas TA’s catharsis is often this raging, angry thing (‘Precious Things’, ‘Crucify’, Blood Roses’) which often seems like it’ll spiral out of control, were it not for TA’s songcrafting talents and technical chops; it was actually when I first heard Fleetwood Mac that I thought “oh so that’s where Tori got her inspiration from.

    I look forward to discussing Tori in her own right in approx. 20 years’ time!

  25. 85
    Pete on 29 Jul 2008 #

    Yes, its as if the spoiler bunny was scared off by the confrontational Kate.

  26. 86
    Waldo on 30 Jul 2008 #

    Bun scared no.

  27. 87
    poohugh on 30 Jul 2008 #

    I think you’ve missed the point with this one, although i certainly agree with the mark. The strength of the song lies with its naive narrative pushed up against her most incredible voice and arrangement. That’s its beauty: her childish song about a book, the sort of lyrics you write when you’re at school getting in to Hardy or something. It tells a story so blatantly like few other decent songs. Telling this story is the most pure, unheralded voice which understands which words to emphasise or wail. Oh it’s so good i’m thinking about it now!
    So in conclusion: the naivety of a silly song about a Secondary School Novel combined with astonishing vocals and arrangements make this 10/10.

  28. 88
    Snif on 31 Jul 2008 #

    And she turns 50 today!

  29. 89
    Chris Brown on 10 Aug 2008 #

    Where’s the stork when you need it?

    Naturally, I’m pleased that it’s such a momentous record, even though I obviously can’t claim any credit – it is indeed the first self-penned Number One by a solo female. Technically speaking, we will eventually hit a song from Tapestry, but let’s say no more for the nonce. Oh, and apparently ‘Running Up That Hill’ was Number 30 in the US.
    As regards this one, I do feel a bit of distance from it just because I’m a bloke, but I wouldn’t give it less than maybe 9.5 – I deduct half a mark for that guitar solo which never feels like part of the song to me. Mind you, I don’t actually own the proper version of the track, which seems a bit of an omission on my part.

    Oh, and I like the Futureheads, who found their own point even if it wasn’t the one originally intended. That China Drum cover is terrible though – meatheaded “Oooh look there’s a slow song let’s play it fast” rubbish.

  30. 90
    Cahon on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Just a small point – the guitar solo in WH is played by Ian Bairnson, not Dave Gilmour..

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