Kate Bush's only tour: pop concert or disappearing act?

With Kate Bush having announced her first tour since 1979, we revisit this 2010 piece about the story of that remarkable jaunt around the UK – and why she stopped playing live in its wake

Kate Bush announces first shows since 1979

On 14 May 1979, Kate Bush played the final date of her first-ever tour. A six-week jaunt around Britain and mainland Europe, the Tour of Life was an extraordinary, hydra-headed beast, combining music, dance, poetry, mime, burlesque, magic and theatre. After the final show at the Hammersmith Odeon, the backstage talk among the "cast" and crew turned to America and the further, wildly inventive leaps forward Bush might make next time.

Over three decades later, "next time" has yet to arrive. Bush has not played a full concert since that night at the Odeon, and the Tour of Life has turned out to be the tour of a lifetime. "I thought we were going to go around the world," says Brian Bath, who played guitar with the KT Bush Band. "It just fizzled into doing bits and bobs for TV and songs for a new album. It was such a shame. The Americans would have loved it."

A little over a year earlier, Bush had announced her arrival with the single Wuthering Heights, as strange a song as any that has spent four weeks at No 1. With her striking looks, high vocal register and Lindsay Kemp-inspired dancing, her impact swiftly moved beyond the confines of the music press. Auberon Waugh declared himself a fan and, according to one of those immeasurable statistics by which fame is quantified, in 1978 Bush was the most photographed woman   in Britain.

She initially made her mark as a visually unique performer, but her live experience was limited to a smattering of pre-fame pub gigs with the KT Bush Band in and around London, a few original songs sprinkled among covers of the Beatles' Come Together and the Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Woman. The Tour of Life promised to be a more ambitious, more sophisticated affair. With scant regard for the stripped-down sensibilities of the post-punk era, it was to be an unashamedly theatrical enterprise.

The dance element was co-ordinated by Bush in conjunction with Anthony Van Laast – who later choreographed the Mamma Mia! movie and several West End smashes – and two young dancers, Stewart Avon Arnold and Gary Hurst. They held morning rehearsals for the tour at The Place in Euston, after which Bush spent afternoons in Greenwich drilling her band. Off stage, she was calling the shots on everything from the set design to the programme art.

In March 1979, the production moved to the Who's vast sound stage at Shepperton in the west London suburbs, and finally to the Rainbow Theatre in north London for full technical rehearsals. The set was dominated by a large ribbed screen – intended to represent an egg – on to which slides and film footage could be projected. A central ramp sloped down to the front of the stage, with the band tucked away in the shadows on either side. Bush often sang from a large three-dimensional egg, upholstered in red satin, which could be rolled on and off stage. The symbolism was intended to evoke the womb, the origins of life.

An independently creative woman in what was still a very male world, Bush battled against a widely held prejudice that she was little more than a novelty puppet whose strings were being pulled by some unseen svengali. As such, the tour came to be seen as a testing ground for her talent. It sold out well in advance and the BBC's early-evening magazine show Nationwide sent a film crew to cover the build-up to the opening show on 3 April at the Liverpool Empire.

Brian Southall, then head of artist development at EMI, was also there to "fly the flag" for the company. He recalls Bush being "terribly, terribly nervous, but the show was just extraordinary. We didn't quite know what we were letting ourselves in for, this extraordinary presentation of her music."

Few other artists had taken the pop concert into quite such daring territory; its only serious precedent was David Bowie's 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. There were 13 people on stage, 17 costume changes and 24 songs – primarily from her first two albums, The Kick Inside and Lionheart – scattered over three distinctly theatrical acts. Her brother John declaimed poetry, Simon Drake performed illusions and magic tricks, and at the centre was a barefoot Bush, still only 20 years old.

For Them Heavy People she was a trench-coated, trilby-hatted gangster. On the heartbreaking Oh England, My Lionheart, she became a dying second world war fighter pilot, a flying jacket for a shroud and a Biggles helmet for a burial crown. Every song offered something new: she moved from Lolita, winking outrageously from behind the piano, to a top-hatted magician's apprentice ; from a soul siren singing of her "pussy queen" to a leather-clad refugee from West Side Story. The erotically charged denouement of James and the Cold Gun depicted her as a murderous gunslinger, spraying gunfire – actually ribbons of red satin – over the stage. There was no room for improvisation. The band was drilled to within an inch of its life and Bush never spoke to the audience, refusing to come out of character. "She was faultless," says set designer David Jackson. "I don't remember her ever fluffing a line or hitting a bum note on the piano."

As the tour rolled out around the UK the reviews were euphoric: Melody Maker called the Birmingham show "the most magnificent spectacle ever encountered in the world of rock", and most critics broadly concurred. Only NME remained sceptical, dismissing Bush as "condescending" and, with the kind of proud and rather wonderful perversity that once defined the British rock press, praising only the magician.

However, the mood of the tour had been struck a terrible blow early on, after a low-key warm-up concert on 2 April at Poole Arts Centre in Dorset. While scouring the darkened venue to ensure nothing had been forgotten, the lighting engineer Bill Duffield fell 20 feet through a cavity to his death. He was just 21. Bush was shattered, and contemplated cancelling the tour. "It was terrible for her," says Brian Bath. "Kate knew everyone by name, right down to the cleaner, she was so like that, she'd speak to everyone. It's something you wouldn't forget, but we just carried through it."

Owing to demand, the tour ended with three additional London concerts at Hammersmith Odeon, following 10 shows in mainland Europe. The first night became a fundraising benefit for Duffield's family and featured Peter Gabriel and Steve Harley, for whom Duffield had also worked. They joined Bush on several songs, ending with a spirited, if rather ramshackle rendition of the Beatles' Let It Be. The second night was filmed for the Live at Hammersmith Odeon video release, which most involved agree never quite captured the essence of the Tour of Life, and the way in which it rejected the orthodoxy of the typical rock concert while simultaneously suggesting a template for its future.

Looking back, the most striking aspect is how ahead of its time the Tour of Life seemed. With its projections, its pioneering use of the head-mic, its multimedia leanings and its creation of a narrative beyond the immediate context of the songs, it was a significant step forward in the evolution of live performance. On Hammer Horror, Bush even performed to playback, an unheard-of conceit at the time but nowadays almost the norm for any show with significant visual stimuli.

Bush seemed born to play live, but the third night at Hammersmith Odeon now appears to have been a final curtain call. Despite the very occasional cameo – her last live appearance was in 2002 with David Gilmour at the Royal Festival Hall, singing the part of the "Evil Doctor" on a version of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb – she hasn't toured or played a headline concert since. She came closest in the early 1990s, announcing at a fan convention her intention to play gigs in 1991; Bush is a longtime fan of The Muppet Show, and there were rumours she had contacted Jim Henson's company to discuss working with her on a new stage show.

However, the plans came to naught. Instead, her innate gift for performing was channelled into lavish videos and one patchy short film, The Line, the Cross and the Curve.

The draining experience of conceiving, organising, rehearsing, performing and overseeing the Tour of Life may have outweighed any desire Bush had to repeat the experience. "I think it was just too hard," said the late Bob Mercer, the man who signed her to EMI in 1976. "I think she liked it but the equation didn't work. These are not conversations I recall ever having with her, but I went to a lot of the shows in Britain and in Europe and I could see at the end of the show that she was completely wiped out."

The mechanics of touring certainly didn't appeal. Bush's dislike of flying has been an active ingredient in her decision not to perform on a global stage, and having endured a promotional whirlwind throughout 1978 and 1979 she found that the lifestyle – airports, hotels, press calls, itineraries, entourages and precious little solitude – sabotaged the way she wanted to live her life and conduct her career.

Others suggest that Duffield's death weighed heavily; or that the tour, which was largely self-financed, was too expensive; or that, having shown her hand so impressively, she felt no need to do it again. "People said I couldn't gig, and I proved them wrong," she said. And as Brian Southall points out, "It did pose the problem: follow that."

They are all plausible theories, but at its heart the tour exposed an aesthetic conundrum. Bush is essentially a child of the studio, preferring to work over time at her creative impulses in silence and solitude. Like an author, the connections with her audience occur privately, conducted as a conversation rather than a mass declaration. The results have frequently been bewitching and yet, in a career with an abundance of creative peaks and critical praise, her reluctance to perform live remains a source of deep regret, particularly following the extraordinary promise shown on the Tour of Life.

"It's a tragedy she didn't go back out touring, an absolute tragedy," says Jon Kelly, who co-produced Bush's first three records. "A huge loss to the world. Like a star dying early."

Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush, by Graeme Thomson, is published by Omnibus Press


Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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