Sunday 27 May 2018

Progressively Kate

It's almost 40 years since a tenacious teen called Kate Bush topped the Irish charts with 'Wuthering Heights', the debut single she fought with her record company to release

John Meagher

John Meagher

A cursory glance at the Irish singles chart of 1978 demonstrates the global appeal of disco. The Bee Gees, Boney M and John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John all enjoyed number ones. Abba had a couple of chart-toppers and fellow Eurovision winners Brotherhood of Man also reached the top spot.

It would have been impossible to escape the distinctly Irish take on Kris Kristofferson's gospel tune 'One Day at a Time' and Gloria's version - in the charts for a record 90 weeks - occupied the top spot on two separate occasions in 1978.

But that year also boasted one of the strangest and most extraordinary songs to ever top the chart. Forty years ago next weekend, the debut single from Kate Bush, 'Wuthering Heights', was the most popular release in Ireland. It replaced Danny Doyle's take on Pete St John's 'The Rare Ould Times' on St Patrick's weekend and stayed for three weeks until the arrival of Brian and Michael and their one-hit wonder, 'Matchstick Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs'.

It sounded quite unlikely anything else and four decades on, it still stands out as a gloriously different pop song.

It had already topped the UK chart and in early 1978, Kate Bush was in serious demand. Remarkably, it marked the first time that a female artist had got a UK number one with a self-penned song. At a time when men dominated songwriting, it was a refreshing breaking down of barriers.

Bush was just 19 when both the song and debut album The Kick Inside were released, but it felt like the work of a much more mature artist. It's intriguing, then, to realise that she had signposted her singular talent while in her early teens. Some of the songs had their genesis when she was just 13 and her fledgling songs had come to the attention of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour when she was 14. It was he who encouraged EMI to sign her, which they did when she turned 16 and, rather than rush out music, they gave Bush the time she needed to develop her songs.

It was a wise call from an industry that hasn't always factored in development time, but their new signing wasn't just any preciously talented teenager. Even at such an early age, Bush had a feel for her own gifts and her determination to do things her way was evident from the off.

When it came to releasing a lead single, EMI plumped for the album's most commercially minded - and least interesting - track, 'James and the Cold Gun'. But Bush was having none of it. She thought 'Wuthering Heights' was the track that best captured who she was and insisted that it be the first song released.

The record company relented and decided to release it in November 1977, but the singer was unhappy with the picture they'd chosen for the cover. She dug her heels in and, even though copies had already been pressed, EMI acquiesced again and the song was eventually released in late January.

It would turn out to be a fortuitous decision because had it been released when originally planned, it would have had to contend with Wings' all-conquering 'Mull of Kintyre'. Paul McCartney's song would become the bestselling single of the decade in the UK.

As was often the case with the charts back then, 'Wuthering Heights' success built slowly. On its first week of release it failed to dent the top 50, but increased radio-play and word-of-mouth ensured more buoyant sales and, eventually, a performance on Top of the Pops. The following week, the song was at number one - a week before it finally topped the charts here.

Few songs as special have been inspired as clearly by one of the great works of literature. Bush was honest enough to admit that she had initially been turned on by a TV film version of Emily Brontë's only novel, but when she knuckled down to write a song from the point of view of the heroine, Cathy Earnshaw, she read the book for "research purposes".

If 'Wuthering Heights' and the pair of esoteric videos she made for it demonstrated how different she was from her peers, the album itself didn't disappoint either.

It would be a brave decision for any musician to open an album with 20 seconds of whale sounds, but that's what Bush did on opening track 'Moving'. Inspired by her dance teacher Lindsay Kemp - also a key figure in David Bowie's early career - it's one of her wonderful early songs and yet wasn't among the five songs that enjoyed singles status.

The Kick Inside was produced by one of David Gilmour's trusted lieutenants, Andrew Powell, and many of the session players had cut their teeth in progressive rock. And there's certainly a significant dollop of prog in her thrillingly theatrical songs.

Cocteau Twins founder Bob Stanley, in his peerless history of pop, Yeah Yeah Yeah, noted that the young Bush was keeping prog's flame alight. "Her best work combined the theatre of Genesis, the folk melodies of Tubular Bells, Jon Anderson's search for 'meaning', even King Crimson's ultra-tricksy rhythms.

"Where Bush's work differed from pretty much all progressive rock is that so much of it was about sex. What 'Wuthering Heights' gave to rock's progressive quarter was a woman's perspective and sensuality in what was a very male, insular music."

Bush promoted the single on The Late Late Show towards the end of March 1978. As was customary for live music on television at the time, she lip-synced her way though the performance - and not always convincingly.

But her short interview with Gay Byrne afterwards revealed her to be a thoughtful, sensitive individual who looked uncomfortable in the public gaze. Famously, she would retire from touring completely the following year and would not return to the stage until those rapturously received dates at London's Hammersmith Apollo in 2014.

Refusing to tour at the very height of a fledgling career was another sign of Bush's dogged determination to dictate the terms of her own destiny. It's a single-mindedness that was there from the very start - and those who delight in her marvellously distinct music are very grateful for it.

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