Publication date: September 2014
“She’s Gone Mad!” – The Dreaming
(This is the only R&F article that was edited due to word count - this is the complete text)
It’s the 21st of March 2014, and news outlets around the world are abuzz with an extraordinary, and entirely unexpected, announcement: 35 years after her first and only live tour, Kate Bush is set to take to the stage again with a series of concerts at London’s Eventim Apollo (formerly the iconic Hammersmith Odeon, where she played her last shows in 1979). In terms of shock value, it trumps even David Bowie’s sudden reappearance last year with ‘The Next Day’, and social media is instantly lit up with religious-level outpourings of ecstatic fan worship. If anybody was ever in any doubt about the Olympus-high esteem that Bush is held in, then here’s the definitive proof. The concerts sell out in less than 15 minutes.
It’s still not clear why Bush has chosen this point in time to return or even what the ‘Before The Dawn’ shows will consist of – but that’s entirely in keeping with the air of mystique that has grown around her over the years. Suffice to say that they’re unlikely to feature her sat at a piano with an anonymous backing band just playing the hits. Bush is a genuine artist in a world of artifice, who throughout her career has consistently confounded expectations and resolutely done things her own way, in the process creating some of the most mind-blowing and spine-tingling music of the last five decades.
But it hasn’t always been plain sailing for Bush – following her ground-breaking entry into the pop world of the late 70s, her initial commercial success faltered as an insatiable appetite for sonic experimentation took her into new and uncharted territory. By 1982, critics had already started to write Bush off as her record sales slumped dramatically – the irony being that this was in response to what turned out to be perhaps the most innovative, and certainly most daring, album in her back catalogue. And that album is ‘The Dreaming’.
It’s almost impossible to convey the astonishing impression that Bush made in 1978 with her first single, “Wuthering Heights”, but I think it’s fair to say that nobody had ever heard anything quite like it before. The sweet, wraith-like piano melody of the intro is completely subverted as soon as Bush starts to sing in a voice that’s half-precocious child, half-banshee wail. It’s a startlingly strident and confident performance, and it’s what makes the dramatic storytelling of the song so utterly entrancing. But for all its hook-laden novelty, “Wuthering Heights” is full of little eddies and swirls – a foreboding piano vamp here, an unusually forceful lyric there – giving early notice that Bush had ideas and ambitions well beyond those of the average pop star.
The first significant manifestation of these ambitions came with her third album, ‘Never For Ever’, released in 1980. While the previous two years had seen her score a string of hits, Bush had expressed dissatisfaction with the sound of these records, and wanted to enrich her musical palette. Inspiration had come from her first collaboration with Peter Gabriel on his untitled third album (providing the "jeux sans frontières" backing vocal on “Games Without Frontiers”) and in particular his use of the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, an early type of digital sampler. Co-produced by Bush herself and featuring some early Fairlight experiments, ‘Never For Ever’ introduced Bush’s audience to a sound that was both harder-edged and more sensual, while the lyrical concerns of its singles alone included adultery, the death of a young soldier and nuclear war.
‘Never For Ever’ also makes clear the art rock lineage that Bush saw herself operating in. In fact, much in the same way that the dinosaurs evolved into birds, there’s an argument to be made for Bush’s music representing the commercial triumph of progressive rock by stealth. While the accepted (if erroneous) version of rock history has 70s prog collapsing under the weight of its own pretensions and being chased to ground by punk, there’s an alternate version where its theatricality and tonal drama is adapted by Bush into a pop format that flourishes in a new environment away from the traditional rock circuit. Thinking of Bush’s music in this way also helps to contextualise what happened next…
In 1982, Bush released her fourth album, ‘The Dreaming’. Before writing this article, I asked one of my friends – a Bush uber-fan – for his thoughts on the album: he described it as “preposterous, perplexing and unwilling to give the listener even the briefest respite”, but also “truly beautiful and haunting”. I’m more than happy to go along with that view – at the time, it had no real precedent, and even today, much of it still sounds powerfully alien, and above all, unique. However, it also undoubtedly presented a more challenging listening experience to a pop public that still saw Bush as a charmingly eccentric hitmaker rather than an art rock pioneer intent on pushing her aesthetic into a darker, more primal realm.
In fact, it’s tempting to view ‘The Dreaming’ as a product of the growing cognitive dissonance that Bush must have been feeling as a result of the ongoing disconnect between her public persona and her interior artistic life. Watching her TV appearances from the time, it’s striking that even during the promotional activities for this album, she’s still doing the rounds of childrens pop shows and light entertainment programmes, and is never less than unfailingly patient and polite when asked the same questions over and over again about her singing style and hair. But what’s just as striking is how we never get any real understanding of the human being behind this incredible music, as though all the psychic and emotional turbulence she was experiencing has been sublimated and channelled exclusively into her work. Bush later found herself surprised at how angry ‘The Dreaming’ often sounds, referring to it as her “She’s gone mad!” album.
‘The Dreaming’ took over a year to record, with Bush as sole producer for the first time, and it’s clear from the first track that she’s pushing the music technology available to her – the Fairlight in particular – as far as it will go. “Sat In Your Lap” was one of the first tracks completed and had already been released as a (well-received) single the previous year. When asked in interviews for the story behind it, she would talk about how she had been inspired by seeing Stevie Wonder in concert, and certainly you can hear his influence in the swing of the piano in the verse and the funky Fairlight brass that punctuates the song (and of course, just like Bush, Wonder was also a musical prodigy who went on to pioneer the use of technology in pop). But this is a classic piece of misdirection from Bush, because “Sat In Your Lap” is less a homage to another artist than a frantic onrush of angles and ideas unlike anything else that had been in the singles chart before.
Starting with a massive rumble of tribal drums (all toms, no snares, and much-sampled), then Bush’s deceptively restrained vocal, the track vibrates with the manic energy of some exotic steam-punk mechanism, every element insistent and percussive. Bush hammers on her piano in the chorus as her voice suddenly shoots up into its highest register, yet these aren’t the pure notes of “Wuthering Heights”, but a ragged cry that verges on complete derangement of the senses. All of which might be too much for the listener if it wasn’t for the skilful arrangement and the funny, prescient words riffing on the quest for self-knowledge and instant fulfilment: “I want to be a lawyer, I want to be a scholar, but I really can’t be bothered – ooh just gimme it quick, gimme gimme gimme!”
“Sat In Your Lap” also highlights the way in which many of the songs on ‘The Dreaming’ are structured as internal debates, with multiple voices interjecting and mocking each other in a schizophrenic dialogue, like a dark inversion of the call and response tradition. Bush proclaims, “I must admit just when I think I’m king,” and is answered by “I just begin”, but also a deeper intruding voice that threatens to overwhelm the song entirely. The overall effect is invigorating, exhausting and more than a little sinister – what on earth did I just hear??
“There Goes A Tenner” starts with uncertain piano and a stuttering tempo, as Bush plays the role of a slumming rich kid thief incompetently planning a robbery. Her voice is noticeably lower and more controlled throughout ‘The Dreaming’, and here she adopts a jokey Cockney accent for the verses as the song develops into a macabre show tune. But again, Bush’s narrator keeps being distracted into reverie by an opposing impulse, a high child-like voice exposing self-doubt underneath the bravado as the song slips into a woozy synth jazz refrain that recalls Vangelis’s ‘Blade Runner’ soundtrack. Whimsical but unsettling, “There Goes A Tenner” was released as the album’s third and final single (in the UK at least), and was her first not to chart.
“Pull Out The Pin” was inspired by a documentary on the Vietnam war, and Bush does a remarkable job of creating a sultry jungle atmosphere using robotic panpipes from the Fairlight and the deep growl of a double bass (courtesy of Danny Thompson, one of a number of name players on the album), with the foley sounds of helicopters and cicadas cutting across the mix. Sung from the viewpoint of a Vietcong fighter stalking an American GI, Bush poses another dichotomy in the chorus, the narrator declaring his love of life, but being required to kill someone else in order to preserve his own (or perhaps the protagonist is in fact a suicide bomber?). Over tension-ratcheting guitar, Bush becomes increasingly exercised, screaming herself raw as she vacillates over the deed while Dave Gilmour’s backing vocal urges her to “pull out the pin.” Brian Bath, one of Bush’s long-standing guitarists, plays the song out with an eerie, Fripp-esque solo that captures perfectly the track’s queasy, disturbing vibe.
After that descent into the heart of darkness, the excellently-titled “Suspended In Gaffa” is comparatively light relief, its prim and proper waltz-time piano conjuring images of both Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas and the Victoriana of her earlier albums – but its fever-pitch dynamics are entirely in keeping with ‘The Dreaming’s barely contained mania. Bush’s skittering voice dances through the song as she struggles with her lapsed Catholicism, the playful and upbeat tone repeatedly undercut by the line, “I don’t know why I’m crying.” It’s a strange gothic pop confection, and another prime example of the angel/devil sitting on Bush’s shoulder, the verses broken up by the sing-song shriek of “I want it all!” while the bridge into the chorus has a scared child whispering something we can’t quite hear.
Things turn darker still on “Leave It Open”, perhaps the most mysterious and intense track on the album (and that’s saying something). Over a stark, broken-down beat, Bush intones a litany of abstract, vaguely sadistic lyrics – “I kept it in a cage, watched it weeping, but I made it stay” – in a multitude of different voices, like being trapped inside an agitated hive mind. The effect is genuinely unnerving, particularly as the song is clearly building to a big finish – and boy, does it deliver. The drums suddenly explode into life (rivalling Phil Collins’ famous gated reverb on “In The Air Tonight” for sheer percussive heaviness) and Bush goes completely crazy over the top, hollering the battle cry of a warrior queen. Then the noise subsides, leaving only a skin-crawlingly spooky loop of backwards vocal – even now, the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck…
“The Dreaming” itself pushes at the very limits of what a pop song can be – while its dense assembly of droning digeridu, wordless chanting, animal calls and thumping rhythm track seemed utterly bizarre in 1982, it now sounds visionary and years ahead of its time (though it also features the Fairlight’s orchestral crash setting, soon to become a signifier of lesser 80s pop music). Against this restless, shifting soundscape, Bush sings the entire song in the persona and accent of an Australian Aborigine, which should be ridiculous but actually works brilliantly, particularly in tandem with some of her most poetically complex lyrics: “Erase the race that claim the place and say we dig for ore, or dangle devils in a bottle and push them from the pull of the bush.” Given the repetitive pile-up of violent imagery and complete disregard for traditional song structure, it seems wilful in the extreme that “The Dreaming” was released as the album’s second single, and its failure to reach the UK top 40 marked the point at which Bush’s position as a mainstream pop star seriously began to wane.
(At this point, it’s worth saying something about Bush’s early experiments with video. As a preternaturally attractive young woman, Bush had complained about feeling like “an artist trapped inside a body”, and the promo clips for her first few singles certainly did little to dispel this image of Bush as winsome hippie/proto-goth eye candy. But by the time of ‘The Dreaming’, her videos had become much more impressionistic and often quite disturbing. “Sat In Your Lap” has rollerskating dunces, jesters and minotaurs (like a vision of prog rock hell), while “There Goes A Tenner” is an Ealing comedy pastiche. But “The Dreaming” video is particularly odd, a naïve but compelling mash-up of ‘Walkabout’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, Bush being a fan of director of both films Nicholas Roeg. The visual representation of her music would become increasingly important and more sophisticated as her career progressed.)
After the unrelenting onslaught of ‘The Dreaming’s previous tracks, Bush gives the listener a trio of slightly less brain-twisting songs, but which are no less powerful for that. There’s a great extended segue between “The Dreaming” and “Night Of The Swallow”, where a passage of keening Irish folk music (courtesy of Planxty and The Chieftains) plays over the digeridu. The pace dips to ballad-speed for Bush’s grand entrance – but even here, her voice is cracked and raw, the words yearning and conflicted. It’s the first song on the album with a relatively direct delivery and builds to a strong ascending chorus as the Celtic fiddle and pipes return.
“All The Love” is deceptively laid-back for a song about alienation, its lugubrious fretless bass anticipating the stylish cocktail jazz of artists such as Sade. But the temperature drops to freezing as soon as the icy voice of a choirboy sings, “We needed you to love us too”, like the unquiet spirit of a dead child, while the chorus is claustrophobic and aching with regret. “Houdini” provides the answer to the puzzle of the album sleeve’s picture, with Bush playing the role of the great escapologist’s wife and passing with a kiss a golden key to her husband to unlock his chains. Despite its lovely sweeping chorus, Bush seems to sabotage its commercial potential as a single with her desperate, wrenching cry of, “With your spit still on my lip, you hit the water”, and the song builds to a haunting, string-driven climax.
The pounding drums and chiming, Floydian guitar of final track “Get Out Of My House” signals a return to the confrontational art rock of before, and inspired by a reading of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, is literally a horror film in song form. And again, it’s another interior battle, Bush pursued by the stalker of her own imagination, gibbering and shouting like a fizzing ball of angst. In a final duet between her ego and her id, she calmly announces, "I will not let you in… I change into the mule”, before hee-hawing for all she’s worth. It’s a fittingly “what the hell??” ending to a brilliantly confounding album.
Despite reaching number three in the UK album charts, ‘The Dreaming’ sold far less than Bush’s previous albums, and may well have been the reason why she hasn’t played live again until now – at the time, she had strongly indicated that she intended to tour ‘Never For Ever’ and ‘The Dreaming’, but without the necessary financial backing and/or moral support, the idea was shelved. Instead, she opted to build her own studio, and when she returned triumphantly with ‘Hounds Of Love’ in 1985, she’d become convinced that the medium of video was a better way of reaching her audience rather than playing live.
Yet in the years since its release, ‘The Dreaming’ has grown significantly in influence and stature, and is regarded by many fans as her finest work – the leap into the unknown that she took with this album is pivotal to the position she holds today as one of rock’s most revered musical iconoclasts and as a trail-blazing heroine for the generations of female artists who’ve followed in her wake.