‘Ooh, yeah, you’re amazing!’ The wonder of Kate Bush – and 10 tracks to delight new listeners

Thanks to Netflix’s Stranger Things, the 1985 classic Running Up That Hill is in the charts again, and a new generation are discovering the singer’s unique appeal

It tells you a great deal that when Kate Bush issued a short statement on her website, last week, about the fact that her 1985 single Running Up That Hill had re-entered the charts after its use on the soundtrack of Stranger Things, it turned into a national news story. It wasn’t that Bush had said anything particularly interesting – she apparently finds Running Up That Hill’s unexpected reappearance in the Top 10 “really exciting” and Stranger Things itself “fantastic” and “gripping”. It was that Bush had deigned to say anything at all.

The adjective frequently used to describe her is “reclusive”, which is perhaps pitching it a bit high: she can usually be prevailed upon to do a couple of interviews whenever she releases an album, although she doesn’t release albums very often. She has put out two collections of new material in the last 28 years, and the interviews are never terribly revealing. It’s more that Bush is a completely unbiddable artist. She allowed herself to be talked into some unsuitable promotional opportunities in the early years of her career – on YouTube, there’s a 1982 appearance on the TV show Looking Good, Feeling Fit, where the 24-year-old responds to questions about her skincare with the air of a woman who would happily strangle the interviewer with her bare hands. But she went on to do exactly what she wanted, when she wanted – a policy she has maintained for nearly 40 years. Her career is beholden only to her own standards and her own, occasionally imponderable, internal logic. “She must have breached her contract dozens of times,” said one executive from her longstanding record label, EMI. “But what are you going to do about it?”

It’s an approach that the music industry would have you believe would lead to a tiny cult following. But Bush remains hugely popular – in 2014, when she announced her first live shows in 35 years, all 22 dates sold out in 15 minutes; the New York Times ran a feature on fans “traversing continents” to be there – and vastly influential. Her shadow looms so large that whenever a female singer-songwriter emerges who is even remotely out of the ordinary, it’s only a matter of time before someone, fairly or otherwise, mentions Bush: it’s a comparison that has haunted everyone from Tori Amos to Fiona Apple to Björk to Florence + the Machine. Other artists line up to hymn her. Prince described her as his “favourite woman”; Lady Gaga said she covered Bush’s 1987 duet with Peter Gabriel, Don’t Give Up, “so that young people would hear and learn something about Kate Bush”; Outkast rapper Big Boi was so obsessed, he once spent a month in England trying to track Bush down. When she accepted an invitation to Elton John’s civil partnership ceremony, the singer reported, “the room was full of stars, but all the musicians there were only interested in saying, ‘You’ve got to introduce me to Kate Bush.’”

Kate Bush
Kate Bush. Photograph: Gerard Mankowitz/Iconic Images/Courtesy of EMI

It’s fair to say that hardly anyone would have predicted Bush becoming such a revered and influential artist, when she emerged in 1978. She was immediately hugely successful – her debut single Wuthering Heights went to No 1, the accompanying album The Kick Inside sold a million copies – but her public image seemed to be that of a dippy-hippy throwback who’s every other word was “wow”, and this image was burnished further by the unbridled outlandishness of her TV performances and videos. Trained in interpretative dance and mime, from the start Bush was not at home to accepted notions of cool.

In truth, The Kick Inside was packed with evidence of how extraordinary she already was. Its 13 tracks were culled from a longlist of 120, written throughout her teens, and contained songs about menstrual pains and masturbation. The title track told the story of a woman killing herself after becoming pregnant by her own brother. It should go without saying that these were not normal topics for a platinum-selling singer-songwriter 44 years ago. She claimed to be influenced by David Bowie, Elton John and Roy Harper, but you wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t said it: from the start, she sounded only like herself.

Kate Bush performing live onstage.
Performing live onstage. Photograph: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

Even at 19, there was a certain steely self-possession in her approach. Offered the seemingly unmissable opportunity to launch her career in the US with a place on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours tour, she declined: if she was going to perform live, she wanted it to be an audio-visual extravaganza – as on her 1979 Tour of Life and, again, on 2014’s Before the Dawn shows – and you couldn’t do that in a 20-minute support slot. Her American record company was so furious at the snub, it refused to release her next three albums in the country.

Then, rather than capitalise on her sudden initial burst of commercial success, her music got stranger and richer. The cover of 1980’s Never For Ever depicted a bizarre phantasmagoria billowing out from under Bush’s skirt, which seems like a pretty accurate interpretation of how listening to her music increasingly felt, and continues to feel like: a deeply weird, frequently beautiful and occasionally unsettling world that you immerse yourself in.

Her videos and TV appearances, meanwhile, became more elaborate and idiosyncratic: it would be lovely if Running Up That Hill’s fresh success leads people to her amazing performance of the song on the chatshow Wogan, Bush singing behind a lectern, as if delivering a speech or a sermon, while her band, clad in dark robes, slowly advance from the rear of the stage. She produced more huge hits – 1985’s Hounds of Love was her biggest-selling album, despite its second side containing some of the most abstruse music of her career; her lengthy 2005 “comeback” Aerial shifted over a million copies – alongside stuff that was more coolly received, most notably 1982’s dense and demanding The Dreaming (its artistic reputation has nevertheless rocketed over subsequent decades). Occasionally, the most critical voice about Kate Bush’s work has belonged to Kate Bush. She “never liked” her rushed second album, Lionheart, and memorably described her short musical film The Line, the Cross and the Curve as “a load of old bollocks”. Her 2011 album Directors’ Cut consisted entirely of reworked songs from 1989’s The Sensual World and 1993’s The Red Shoes, complete with the implicit suggestion that she wasn’t happy with the original versions.

Bush performing Before The Dawn live at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London in 2014.
Bush performing Before The Dawn live at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London in 2014. Photograph: Ken McKay/REX

From the moment that Wuthering Heights appeared – a swooning, swooping ballad sung in a keening soprano, at the height of punk – Bush has always seemed entirely apart from whatever else is going on in the charts. In the long term, that has meant her music has never dated. Running Up That Hill feels completely different from everything else in the Top 10 in 2022, but it felt completely different from everything else in the Top 10 in 1985 as well. In the interim, it hasn’t taken on any patina of age; it resolutely doesn’t sound of its era.

The joy of its reappearance in the charts is that Stranger Things is a TV show with a vast audience of tween- and teenagers. You suspect it’s they – rather than anyone old enough to remember its first appearance in the charts, or even the remix that became a hit after appearing in the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony – who are driving the surge in sales. The standard belief is that young 21st-century music consumers are interested in individual tracks rather than artists – we live in a streaming age, dominated by playlists rather than albums – but you have to hope that at least some of them choose to investigate its author’s back catalogue further. If they do, they are in for an incredible journey. Here are 10 other jumping-off points along the way.

The Man With the Child in His Eyes (1978)

Bush wrote The Man With the Child in His Eyes when she was 13, which frankly beggars belief: eerie, sexually charged and astonishingly beautiful, it would be an incredible achievement for an adult. As it was, it offered the first sign that Bush wasn’t merely a prodigiously talented writer, but an actual genius.

Breathing (1980)

A rare moment when Bush’s writing intersected with the zeitgeist: there were a lot of songs about nuclear war in the early 80s, but none of them as strange and haunting as Breathing, written from the point of view of an unborn baby, slowly dying of radiation poisoning in the womb.

Army Dreamers (1980)

Sung in a bizarre accent – is it Irish? West Country? – and performed on German TV with Bush dressed as a mop-wielding cleaner, Army Dreamers has a folk-ish melody and sparse instrumentation: the click of a reloading rifle stands in for percussion. It’s both beguilingly pretty and profoundly creepy.

Sat in Your Lap (1982)

The charts in 1982 played host to some unlikely music – the Associates’ lavishly odd Party Fears Two was a Top 10 hit – but the public seemed to draw the line at Sat in Your Lap’s thundering rhythms, guttural vocals and wild collage of noises (Bush was an early adopter of sampling). It still sounds completely nuts, in the best possible way.

Cloudbusting (1985)

The second of three big hits from Hounds of Love – Running Up That Hill and the title track are the others – Cloudbusting retells the story of the rogue scientist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich through the eyes of his son. The dramatic string arrangement matches the song’s emotional twists from tension to euphoria.

Waking the Witch (1985)

To experience how far out Bush was prepared to go on Hounds of Love’s second-side-long song-suite The Ninth Wave, listen to Waking the Witch’s attempt to capture the mindset of a drowning woman via disquieting shifts in sound and texture: from lambent piano to punishing electronics and atonal vocals.

This Woman’s Work (1989)

You can take your pick from the original version on The Sensual World or the sparse rerecording on Director’s Cut – both are completely devastating. Improbably, this meditation on loss, regret, female strength and male frailty, was written for the Kevin Bacon romcom, She’s Having a Baby.

Moments of Pleasure (1993)

Another winding emotional sucker-punch, Moments of Pleasure (from the underrated The Red Shoes) deals with memory, her mother’s illness (her mother died before the song was released) and the deaths of a succession of friends. Its emotional temperature plunges from warm recollection to desperate sadness: “Just being alive can really hurt.”

Top of the City (1993)

Also from The Red Shoes, Top of the City is both one of Kate Bush’s more straightforward songs and the kind of song only Kate Bush would write. The melody is direct and charming; the music surges thrillingly. The lyrics, meanwhile, entwine the unlikely topics of what London looks like viewed from a great height, and sexual jealousy.

Somewhere in Between (2005)

In contrast to the dark and unsettling The Ninth Wave, Bush’s second great song-cycle, Aerial’s A Sky of Honey, is glowing and blissful: a summer’s day condensed into 42 minutes of music. It includes the utterly gorgeous and, it has to be said, profoundly stoned-sounding Somewhere in Between, which perfectly captures dusk slowly settling.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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