Running Up that Hill by Tom Doyle review – Kate Bush in pieces

A fragmentary guide to the musical genius offers fresh insights to the creative process – but the personal remains private

“Those shrieks and warbles are beauty beyond belief to me,” said John Lydon in 2009, recalling the day he came home with Kate Bush’s debut single, Wuthering Heights, and played it for his mother. She thought it sounded like “a bag of cats”, but Lydon, who had just left the Sex Pistols, heard a fellow renegade. Bush’s singularity makes fans feel like members of the biggest secret society in music, though it’s one they now share with the Gen Z-ers who discovered her last spring, when the 1985 single Running Up That Hill was featured on the Netflix series Stranger Things.

So, how to tackle Bush’s story in the year of her big return? The challenge for rock journalist and fan Tom Doyle is that his subject is a secret society in her own right. Bush’s infrequent interviews rarely reveal her thoughts about anything but music, as Doyle found when he spent four hours with her for a Mojo magazine feature in 2005, from which he quotes extensively. She chatted at length about her creative process – how she sang “through the decimal places of a mathematical constant” to concoct the song Pi, and such – but divulged nothing personal other than irritation that she was viewed by the public as “some kind of weirdo recluse”.

A swish photo book would be one way around it – two have been published this year alone. Doyle’s idea, though, was to create a join-the-dots outline of Bush by looking at 50 scattered slices of her career. Along with her own 2005 comments, 50 Visions recounts her life through the opinions and experiences of others. Interviewees include her brother John, writer Ian Rankin (“You can read her the way you would a poet or a novelist”), Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who funded her early demos, and – well, why not? – the founders of The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever, a gathering of people who wear Bush-style red dresses and dance to the song.

It’s also a scrapbook of lists: chapter 48 reveals where to look on each album cover for a “KT” symbol – one has been hidden on every sleeve since her debut, The Kick Inside. Chapter 24 reproduces her September/October 1982 media diary while she was promoting The Dreaming: she gamely did her bit on kids’ shows Razzmatazz and Saturday Superstore and told French radio she was “very flattered” to be considered sexy as long as her music was taken seriously. There’s a short chapter of Wuthering Heights media reviews (Record Mirror: “B-O-R-I-N-G”), and a longer one on cover versions of her songs.

What keeps 50 Visions from being a cheery, dip-in-at-will Bushopedia is the exhausting, overly detailed sections on her music-making process. Certain albums, videos and tours have been selected for deep dives into how they were made, which will be of interest mainly to Bush-heads – probably the only readers who could get lost in arcana such as her struggle to write the 2005 double album Aerial. (There were problems explaining her vision to her band, she was unsure whether the record company would accept a double LP and much more along these lines. There are also notes on how each song was written).

She was one of the first musicians to use the revolutionary Fairlight synthesiser, which emboldened her to begin producing her own albums, starting with 1980’s Never for Ever – a leap forward for her, but deeply dry in the telling. One astonishing sentence pings out of the Fairlight chapter: Bush was so unsure of her production skills that she wrote in her fan club newsletter: “After all, I am only little, a female and an unlikely producer!”

Doyle’s attempt to present Bush in a fresh way is praiseworthy and will open new fans’ eyes to her peerlessness, but the impenetrable Bush mystique? For now, it remains intact.

• Running Up That Hill by Tom Doyle is published by Bonnier (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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