Tickets for Kate Bush’s first live concert in 35 years went on sale this morning and within fifteen minutes all 80,000 had gone. The fact she hasn’t toured for so long (and this isn’t really a tour as it’s just one London venue) only partly explains the frenzy. For some reason she has created a hugely loyal fan base over the years which is far out of sync with her fairly modest output (10 studio albums and one tour), including a whopping great 12-year gap in the middle.
When she first turned up on Top of the Pops in 1978 the reasons for a lot of her appeal were immediately obvious – stunning doe-eyed, big-eared teenager in a leotard gyrating in peculiar Lyndsey Kemp inspired dance routines. She had a voice that could shatter glass (Johnny Rotten’s mum called it ‘a bag of cats’) and she sang about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, that classic tale of tempestuous passion gone wrong. Gered Mankowitz’s photo of her in a skimpy top and no bra on a cold day ended up plastered on the back of London buses and added to the notion it was all about sex – fuelling the rumour that she’d posed nude for Penthouse when that magazine did a photo shoot of someone called ‘Kate’ who looked remarkably similar (the model Kate Simmons).
In the age of Lady Gaga (and before her, Madonna), Kate Bush seems less remarkable now but at the time she was part of a ground-breaking emergence of women artists taking centre stage in the rock world. Before Punk in the mid 1970s female singers in the UK tended to be winsome folk guitarists and/or Eurovision fodder like Marianne Faithful or The Nolans. Apart from Suzy Quatro, who dressed, acted and sang like a Rocker bloke, women in bands stood at the back, rattled tambourines à la Linda McCartney and looked cute. Punk changed that. On the back of the indie-based shake up of the UK record industry a group of female artists appeared in an explosion of demented music, all going for the same mad stare, letter-box mouth, Miss Haversham couture and weird jerky arm-waving dance routines – Lene Lovich, Hazel O’Connor, Nina Hagen and Kate Bush. Instead of crooning about flowers, puppets on strings and falling autumn leaves they sang about sex and death, and what a bunch of arseholes most blokes were.
Kate Bush was different from the rest. Although she appeared on the back of punk she, by rights, shouldn’t have been as successful as she was. Anything that smacked of pretentious progressive rock or hippy music was roundly sneered at, yet here she was a woman from a resolutely bohemian artist family singing songs about Gurdjieff, Peter Pan and ‘England My Lionheart’. Johnny Rotten, one of the most articulate of the punk musicians, loved her stuff, and not just because at the time her voice was a falsetto wail that took some getting used to.
So why is Kate Bush so popular? I can only articulate my own reasons for being completely in love with her but I think there are a number of things that have led to her accruing a following whose interest and loyalty continually baffles her.
1. She does her own stuff when she feels like it, full stop. Apart from the second album Lionheart which she was pressurised into bringing out on the back of her initial success, and is filled with the songs she didn’t think good enough to put on the debut LP The Kick Inside, she cheerfully follows her own interests and instincts without paying the slightest interest to any other trends. In this she’s a lot like David Bowie, who is a clear influence on her own music. For this reason she’s a role model for anyone who wants to do their own thing artistically and turn left, regardless of whether critics, listeners and the world in general think she ought to go right.
2. She’s bonkers – often producing stuff that is utterly insane, and yet she rarely misses a step. She has a magpie mind that picks out ideas and images and then bangs them together in weird and wonderful combinations. She’ll sing about sex with snowmen, failed bank robberies in the strangest faux cockney accent, incorporate Bulgarian folk wailing in a song about fireworks and write an ode to the Easy-Care cycle on a washing machine as a metaphor for something or other. She wanted to put Molly Bloom’s monologue to music but the estate of James Joyce said no, so she wrote her own version The Sensual World. They relented in 2011 and let her use the original on her album Director’s Cut, but I honestly prefer her lyrics.
3. She’s surprisingly down to earth. Like Enya her resolute refusal to engage in any self-promotion, and her 12 year disappearing act to look after her son, has led to speculation that she is a weird recluse, somewhere between Miss Haversham and Miss Whiplash as one biographer put it. Either that or she really had gone bonkers and lurked in her mansion terrified of emerging and ballooning on Snickers. In reality she comes across as totally straightforward in the rare interviews she grants (as does Enya) and talks about her own music in a completely unpretentious manner that sometimes borders on the dismissive – famously calling her film based around the album The Red Shoes ‘a load of bollocks’.
4. She simply has no comprehension of the effect she has on other people, often to an absurd degree. Perhaps it’s a symptom of distancing yourself from the music world between albums, but she comes across as genuinely shocked by the response she gets whenever she sticks her head above the parapet. She releases a song in a manner that suggests ‘here you go, let me know if you think it’s crap or not’ and then is baffled when the world goes into meltdown. “It’s all very flattering, but have you all gone completely mad?” she asked, somewhat ingenuously, in one radio interview when Director’s Cut appeared to the inevitable response. Apparently her reaction when hearing of the frenzy around the announcement of her upcoming concerts was a similar WTF?
5. She’s very English in her content and treatment – which is why she’s never really taken off in the US. Listening to her music over the ten albums is like dragging a garden rake through an old second hand bookshop with a particularly large children’s section, tucked away in some sleepy market town. One of her biggest influences is Monty Python – which explains the constant strain of comedy surrealism in her songs.
I saw Kate Bush live in 1979 at the Manchester Apollo. She spent two hours singing and dancing her way through what was then her entire catalogue, changing costume for nearly every song. It was incredible and the audience sat open-mouthed in stunned silence till the end, when they went completely berserk. She didn’t tour again, though she put in a few one-off appearances at various shows. She’s performing live again at the end of the year – by some colossal fluke I managed to get a couple of tickets so it’ll be interesting to compare the two. These days her songs run between 7 and 12 minutes and are perhaps even more deranged than before. My mind is boggling already.