Kate Bush – 1982

You know January, a month so long, a month that appears so taxing at first, whether temporal or corporally, is a month that allows for something few others do: reflection. Reflection, seems to be one of those double-edge words. As much as it it is defined as something that gives back an image, it also defines something that we infer back to its origin. History, folklore, things I’ve been trying define through England’s neo-folk music, can also apply to other traditions/sensibilities that are informed by this idea of reflection.

In my mind, none of these storytellers, especially ones as brilliant Kate Bush, ever seeks to reflect a spitting image of a past that is long forgotten. What they aim for, something the best artists do, is to take all these vivid or hazy images, and present this new story with all the best bits of the past. Some may call this embellishment and unorthodox, or even worse, unfaithful to a timeline, but its something dreadfully important. Rather than burn fields away from history, she kept tradition alive, by separating the wheat from the chaff. That could be arduous, and long work, but man is it, like the month itself, far more rewarding in the long run. Its the same artist two months in a row right? Well, not quite, in my opinion…

Kate and John

You know, something interesting happened in 2001. At the British Q Awards John Lydon (ex Rotten, PiL) was awarded an Inspiration Award for all the influential work he had done earlier in his career. This noted bloke who disregards and hates such corporate commendations, went up stage and delivered the most piss taking speech you can think off. Rightfully, there, in front of Cher, Sheryl Crow, Midge Ure, and more than a few corporate label heads, he singled out the other middle class bastards who were making bank by imitating his schtick and slagging off pushing musical boundaries. One of them including a fur-frocked Liam Gallagher seated somewhere in the front with other rude boys, who had to squirm and take it all in.

Kate and John, at the Q Awards.
Proceeding to do the proto-Scarface “You’re Cool” scene from Half-Baked he brought it all home to point out the ridiculousness of the era they were championing him for. Then out of the blue, he greeted and pointed out the only cool person seated in this whole room…one Kate Bush, who he genuinely loved and thought of as a brilliant artist. Few realizing, that just a few hours later, Kate who rarely made any live appearances had invited a tired John (plus his older ma and pa) to come upstairs and take some photos with her. In doing so, they laid bare openly a mutual admiration and respect that few listeners ever realized existed between the two.

Like long lost friends, which they were in reality, John had done the most chivalrous thing you can think of. He’d openly criticize the biz for not recognizing how inspirational the music of Kate had been, something it had been truly to him. Kate magnanimously blew kisses at him and thanked him, for doing so. Kate knew something perhaps few people knew then. In reality, John (the beast that people made him out to be) had played a big part in the transformation from Kate the classic songwriter (the award she was given), into Kate the lifetime musical inspiration.

In 1980, Kate had started a seedling of what would be her next album. Fresh off recording Never for Ever, she had been struck by what she experienced at a concert she went to. On stage she saw Stevie Wonder performing selections from Journey through the Secret Life of Plants amongst other cuts from his vast oeuvre. What struck her were how energetic his songs were. Mixing acoustic and electronic instruments (drummers real and e-versions, synths and samplers, live effects and the like), he was able to turn on a dime any song from a beautiful ballad to a rip-roaring dance jam. Almost immediately, a day later to be exact, she went into the studio and recorded a demo version of “Sat In Your Lap,” an intriguing blend of Neo-traditional classical dance music. Twisting different strains of vocal harmonics, piano melodies, and string stabs with galloping beat heavy drums it sounded like nothing else in her own past. Instantly, she knew if she wanted to take a stab at matching that energy she would have to produce her own songs all the way through. Stevie had done so to magical effect, and if she truly had a vision she had to provide the canvas and color.

Working with a few demos by herself, she sorta started to get on with it. Truth be told, she was having trouble, either dealing with getting a certain sound she was after or clearing her schedule (let alone her mindspace) to properly focus on it. She had already gotten rid of her last link to her old sound, Jon Kelly her engineer. Tasking herself to move things even further Kate tried to take her initial tapes to a new engineer, Hugh Padgham, and see if they could suss out a new tact to take. Something sounded off though, Hugh’s work with Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel was unique and heading towards the right direction. Hugh came up with the gated drum sound, most famously used in Phil’s “In the Air Tonight”, which was different then, but one that later became one of the era’s most overused and dated sounds. Rightfully, for Kate there was just something about this sound that, although brilliant, wasn’t quite what she wanted. By turning her back from that sound, she was looking for something far more timeless.

When she heard Public Image Limited’s Flowers of Romance that’s when she was walloped. That was the sound she was after. John’s combination of acoustic and electronic drums, joined with traditional instruments and sonic ambiance played through effects or reimagined through them, shared a kindred spirit with the new type of music she was after. Those booming Pagan and neo-traditional drums dancing around John’s carousel-like vocals sounded like nothing else out there. Almost instantly, hearing this, she took Hugh off the project and hired Flowers of Romance’s engineer Nick Launay (who admittedly was openly surprised about this) to take over as her engineer. In a matter of days, the new sound was coming into fruition, with John Lydon coming over to help program and trade some Fairlight CMI sounds with her. 
Kate in the studio

Before heading off to Abbey Road Studios, she completed and released a video for “Sat in Your Lap” intending it to be the first single off this album. The single, with a b-side being her shockingly prescient cover of Donovan’s “Lord of the Reedy River” was released to great success, and the album was widely expected. What was recorded next would set the tone for the rest of the album.

Enlisting her brother Jack’s help, they rounded up a motley crew of musicians from the likes of folk-rock bands like The Bothy Band, Planxty, Pentangle, and Prog bands like Greenslade, ASIA, and the Alan Parsons Project ending with the help of David Gilmour on key tracks. Throughout the album she’d tackle themes of war, racism, crime, and darker, more personal themes in truly vanguard ways through a cast of characters more than ready to present how essential their now frequently derided music was.

“Night of the Swallow” single
Working with her brother Paddy and members from The Bothy Band and Planxtys, they created “Night of the Swallow”, a haunting Irish torch ballad mixing Uilleann pipes, penny whistles, bouzoukis and fiddles, with strings (real and affected) and that booming percussion and voice work of hers. Multi-layered in composition and theme, this ballad on the face is about a woman trying to convince her significant other not to do something, as the songs progresses you sense the something is far more senseless, in a high sense its Irish terrorism, in a higher sense its many things we do senselessly to react against someone else’s perceived control. The sonics of the song itself (check out those drums), revealing to the listener upon further visitation each and every sort of jaw-dropping layer of its revelation.

The Dreaming album cover.
In 1983, when that song was eventually released as an Ireland-only single, with a b-side the track “Houdini” also from The Dreaming, Kate was in a way letting her beloved musical homeland have insight on the multi-layered theme of the album. The various things we do for love…That gorgeous track, one of my revolving favorites at this moment, “Houdini”, which also informs that glorious album cover, deals with this topic head on. “With a kiss, I pass the key” the lyrics say, relating the story of how Houdini’s wife Bess would hide a key in her mouth that she could pass onto Houdini every time before one of his escape routines, to routinely use when escaping it. In effect, her kiss meant his life.

Now, we all know Houdini didn’t die from his magic tricks, but by a sucker punch to the gut. In their age of Spiritualism, although Houdini was dead all Bess had to do was strike up a seance and will him back. Many people believed that if Houdini could escape death, surely he would do so by coming back, kissing Bess, and leaving her a signal, perhaps of her favorite song “Rosabelle” letting her know that he’s back. Few people remember though, like Bess did, that no amount of wishing, kissing or dreaming would bring her back in the arms of her beloved Houdini. 
In life, Houdini and Bess had worked tirelessly to promote illusion but not delusion, frequently and passionately disproving mediums who stole money from grieving customers. They both knew that no matter how long she waited for Houdini, now in his death, he wasn’t going to come back. To prove this, every so often Bess would hold a seance, light a candle, and wait with both magicians and mediums in tow, to see if Houdini would appear to her with the light of the candle fading signalling the end of the seance. Without fail he never did. Finally, after waiting ten years for a specific candle she lit to go out, she went and turned it off herself stating: “ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Rather than keeping a hopeless delusion alive, she accepted his death and resolved to live her life, using his memory for substance.
When you hear “Rosabelle believe” amongst all the real and imagined sounds, somewhere around two minute mark, all I hear is Kate Bush asking us to forget about the delusion of how this album got made, and buy into her dream: the magic of it all. More than a few people have tried to unravel the illusion, and came about perplexed trying to explain it away, but those who enjoyed it, rightfully, bought in to its entirely unique world. Would you believe that a donkey braying might be the most hair-raising moment you’ll hear today? Would you believe that Kate could transform an ogre into a visionary? Aren’t always the best stories to tell the ones that embellish the little things? In the end that’s folklore. So, rather than spend one more minute reading about the making of The Dreaming, how’s about you listen to it yourself and take in a true masterpiece of folk music. A lot of the clues are there to unravel the mystery of it all and beckon you to keep coming back again and again to peel back all sorts of layers, but like Stevie said: “if it’s magic, then why can’t it be ever lasting?” Don’t say never forever, some day you’ve got to turn that page, open that door, and hear what’s inside…
Listen to The Dreaming at Spotify.

Bonus tracks some interesting videos from this period:

How about some great info on her dance training and fitness regime from the “Get Fit, Stay Fit” programme:

a quite interesting video of her discussing the visual aspect of her music, at Razzamataz, a child’s programme which actually asked enlightening questions other interviewers failed to ask:

A brilliant performance of “The Wedding List” for Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1982, backed by Phil Collins, Pete Townshend, Mick Karn from Japan, and Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, all of whom she managed to upstage someway…