Retro Review: Kate Bush and “The Dreaming”
This celebration of Kate Bush’s album The Dreaming — arguably her masterpiece (which will be argued below) — was originally to be posted for its proper, 40th anniversary in a few months. But an unexpected development has prompted a bit of a shift in the time frame, thanks to a unique achievement receiving a great deal of attention lately. Kate’s classic song “Running Up That Hill,” from her 1985 album The Hounds of Love, has returned to the #1 spot on the charts in eight countries, including the U.K., 37 years after its release. It is the longest span of time for a song between the release and achieving #1. This feat was made possible by its inclusion in episodes of the smash Netflix series Stranger Things, of which Kate is a fan, leading her to agree to have the series use it.
And so, the program’s younger audience might well sit smug with their “discovery” of the song and its creator. While it is gratifying to see such recognition after so many years, this can also stir perhaps a touch of resentment among Kate’s longtime fans of a certain age, who have known about “Running Up That Hill,” The Hounds of Love, and indeed the rest of her work ever since her albums were first released.
Yes, children, there are quite a few of us around the world who have been celebrating the genius of Kate Bush for a good forty years or more. You haven’t discovered anything. Like the generation of yuppies who bought copies of The Big Chill soundtrack by the millions in 1983 thinking they had discovered Motown’s music, you’ve simply arrived very late to the party, awakened from your ignorance in which you’ve been wallowing, by the chance inclusion of a brilliant song in one of your favorite cult TV shows.
So be it.
If you care to appreciate more of Kate’s story, read on…
Kate was born in July 30, 1958 in the county of Kent, England. Her parents and two brothers John and Paddy were artistic and involved in music, creating a rich and supportive musical environment for her. She began playing piano and writing songs even before she reached her teens, although she has admitted to having little regard for her earliest efforts.
By the time she was 16, though, she had begun sending her rough demo tapes (including those for “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” and “The Saxophone Song”) to many a big shot in the music business, without success. Then, a family friend who knew Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour (who was scouting for new talent at the time), sent him the demos. Gilmour was suitably impressed, enough to book and pay for studio time for Kate to record proper demos with professional arrangements. EMI was also impressed enough to offer her a contract.
She released her first album, The Kick Inside, in February of 1978. At the time, punk was menacing the rock music world in the U.K., and disco held its stranglehold on the pop charts in the U.S. The petite 19-year-old Kate offered songs ranging from fairly standard love songs (albeit with a few sexually explicit lyrics, sung ever so tenderly), to others that were a bit more obscure in their meaning, and sounding rather bizarre. Kate has said that her vocal stylings at the time, producing an often trilly falsetto, were merely experimental.
The two stand-out tracks attracting the most attention were the poignant “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” (sung in her normal voice) and, of course, her first of many masterpieces, “Wuthering Heights” (sung in her higher register), which reached #1 on the U.K. charts, and shot Kate to fame.
Her follow-up album, Lionhart — released just nine months after The Kick Inside — also features a number of memorable tracks, including the beautiful melodies of “Symphony In Blue” and “Oh England, My Lionheart,” plus a few rockers and other creations of a rather quirky nature.
By the way, for you Kate newcomers…it does little good attempting to interpret any number of her songs. Many are straight-forward, others are quite odd and mysterious indeed. Her imagination is bursting with strange phrases, obscure references, musical imagery, unexpected arrangements, vocal eccentricities, and much more, whose origins are best known and explained by her, rather than by those who claim any special insight into her creative process and intentions. In addition, her work has always reflected an intellectual curiosity quite rare among modern pop/rock songwriters, resulting in references throughout her songs to works of literature, religious texts, exotic music from distant lands, influential individuals in the arts and science, and more.
And, while many have reduced their appraisals of her to something along the lines of “she’s beautiful, but just plain weird,” it takes just a click to check out her many interviews of the past 45 years, and witness an articulate, down-to-earth, soft-spoken, and quite charming woman, with the admirable patience to endure the often-asked question, “What’s this song about?”
After the release of Lionheart, and a brief U.K. tour culminating at the Hmmersmith Odeon (seen in the 1979 video release), Kate would take longer to prepare each successive album, as she began to incorporate more complex musical arangements and sounds. The subject matter for her songs also became increasingly varied, even disturbing at times. And, she became one of the first musicians to include a new musical toy, the Fairlight synthesizer, in her recordings, taking full advantage of its ability to simulate many sound effects and variations of the basic keyboard.
The album Never For Ever followed, featuring the brilliant “Babooshka” (with perhaps the cleverest set of lyrics you’re ever likely to hear), “Army Dreamers,” and “Infant Kiss.”
Now we come to the album whose 40th birthday we celebrate this year, The Dreaming. Kate began work on it shortly after the 1980 release of Never For Ever, and, for the first time, acted as sole producer.
What makes The Dreaming such a brilliant album? With a track list of ten songs, no two songs sound even remotely alike. The variation of arrangements, musical choices, and use of instruments is not only effective, but truly astonishing. Perhaps even more impressive is the range of topics she has written about, often from the perspective of the characters in the songs, rather than from her own, first-person experiences. The overall result is an album of remarkable creativity — and from a 24-year-old — presented with moments of unnerving power, romantic longing, and even humor.
Several highlights include:
“There Goes A Tenner” — A rare bit of jaunty fun from Kate, narrating a bank robbery that goes wrong. Her character here details the plans to her fellow robbers, but warns, “I’m having dreams of things not going right/Let’s leave in plenty of time tonight…”
“Pull Out The Pin” — What could be more diametrically opposed to “There Goes A Tenner” than this song, a nightmarish account of war, as seen from the perspective of a Viet Cong warrior stalking an American soldier through the jungle, almost mocking how out-of-place and unfamiliar the American is in such an environment (seriously, who else would ever even think of such a scenario for a song?)Kate’s blood-curdling refrain, “I Love Life! (pull out the pin)” raises the tension up to an almost unbearable degree.
“The Dreaming” — Kate takes us to Australia to lament Western Civilization’s exploitation of the continent’s wildlife and indigenous population (“ ‘Bang’ goes another kanga on the bonnet of the van…”) Rolf Harris — comedian, musician, and now disgraced due to a sex scandal — plays a native didgeridoo to add atmosphere; Kate reportedly wanted to respect the Aboriginal tradition of allowing only men to play the instrument, and declined to attempt it herself in the studio.
“Night of the Swallow” — Another haunting track (and personal favorite) with a strong Celtic flavor, especially for the instrumental passage played by Irish musicians in Ireland, during an all-night recording session with Kate. The somewhat mysterious narrative involves a secret, night-time escape by plane, possibly by a smuggler on his way to his next rendezvous, with Kate pleading, “I won’t let you do it/If you go, I’ll let the law know…” The dramatic final chorus is as gorgeous as it is spine-tingling.
Other songs such as “Suspended in Gaffa” and “Houdini” can also be considered highlights of the album, and again are as different from each other in theme and overall texture as are the rest of the tracks throughout. Kate doesn’t dip into the same well twice, that’s for sure.
The Dreaming reached as high as #3 on the U.K. album charts, with five singles released, including the title track and the opening number, “Sat in Your Lap.”
The album is a triumph of imagination, songwriting, and musicianship. It shows Kate at full creative force.
And then came The Hounds of Love album, and its own array of stand-out selections, including the title song, plus “Cloudbusting,” and, of course, “Running Up That Hill.”
Kate followed this with the compilation album The Whole Story, The Sensual World, The Red Shoes, a box set titled This Woman’s Work — consisting of her albums to 1990, b-sides, and unreleased tracks — and then a twelve-year hiatus, followed by more releases (we’re unable to provide a detailed account of these here, due to constraints of space, time, and an undeniable laziness. We’ll save those for another day).
Kate Bush may not be to everyone’s taste, but her progressive, esoteric rock has, for decades, been too often dismissed, perhaps due to her moments of eccentricity, thus causing many of her truly beautiful, poignant, and thought-provoking creations to go unappreciated. Perhaps the recent attention given to “Running Up That Hill” will help bring her the admiration, outside of her loyal, established fans, she has been due for all these years — and bring well-deserved attention to her earlier works, including, of course, The Dreaming.
Kate referenced one of her songs, “Be Kind to My Mistakes,” in the notes she wrote for This Woman’s Work, and concludes with a few words that say so much about her:
“Whoever you are, thank you for listening and please be kind to my mistakes…because I’m not.”
Until next time…
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please click the “follow” button and follow me on Medium (no charge) for more articles on popular culture, music, films, television, entertainment history, and just plain old history.
My other articles related to pop/rock music include:
Retro Review: In Praise of the Bangles https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-in-praise-of-the-bangles-7110c0c79b49
Retro Review: The Cardigans https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-the-cardigans-ca1e8e5f05f1
Retro Review: Donald Fagan’s “The Nightfly” https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-donald-fagans-the-nightfly-6af34cafc87d
Two Classic Albums: “Layla” and “All Things Must Pass” at 50 https://garryberman.medium.com/two-classic-albums-layla-and-all-things-must-pass-at-50-1d4b8ef9e4c6
Retro Review: Renaissance (the band) https://garryberman.medium.com/retro-review-renaissance-the-band-b497319a84fc
You can also become a member in the Medium Partner Program for a modest fee to help support my writing. https://garryberman.medium.com/membership
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books, and order them via the links to Amazon.com.