|Kate Bush with her Fairlight CMI Sampler.|
The 80’s presented a perfect turning point for neo-folk music. More so, it signalled a turning point for truly one of the eras pioneers. Fresh off her wildly successful first tour, she was experiencing for once great tumult with how to go onwards with her career. Now known as her first and only tour, The Tour of Life introduced the world to this bigger than life artist who had a gigantic light show, entourage, and set design that aided her in bringing to life all the songs audiences only heard of in The Kick Inside and on the rightfully less critically acclaimed Lionheart. Although fans loved this interaction, Kate was feeling that all its distractions were making her lose sight of the bigger picture: making music.
Its hard for us to relate now, but in her era the pressure to succeed (especially as a woman) was that much different than our era. Things current artists take for granted like managing their own career, finding time to come up with performance ideas, set designs, promo materials, doing publicity tours, and remaining solvent while trying to pay for all these things and people that add up to fan service, or record label assurance, start to take a toll on an artist. Near the end of the tour, what finally solidified for her that some change was needed was the death of her lighting engineer Bill Duffield that occurred while he was tending to her stage. The rock lifestyle which forced her to spend so much emotional and physical capital was not worth it. She pioneered performance art on that tour, but the album it was supporting Lionheart suffered from her rush to prove her chops.
In 1979, Kate happened upon a tool that would change her career like never before. One of the first commercially available samplers, the Fairlight CMI, allowed anyone to take any natural sound in the world, record it, and perform it as a new instrument. Whole banks of sampled sounds could be accessed via floppy disk, be graphically viewed on screen as a waves of sound, and be transformed as a new other thing via a light pen that allowed any musician to manipulate its form. This was revolutionary not just for musicians, but for music as a whole. Coming off her first and only world tour, this keyboard allowed her the freedom to finally come to grips with something that had been gestating in her mind:
“And really as soon as I met the Fairlight, I realized that it was something I really couldn’t do without because it was just so integral to what I wanted to do with my music. I think I’ve always enjoyed synthesizers…I found them very interesting, but I never really enjoyed all the sounds. And what really gets me about the Fairlight is that any sound becomes musical. You can actually control any sound you want by sampling it in, and then being able to play it. I mean obviously, it doesn’t always sound great, but the amount of potential exploration you have there with sounds is never-ending, and it’s fabulous.”
— As told to Keyboard Magazine in 1985.
|Never for Ever album cover.|
Likewise, for the recordings of Never for Ever this renewed interest in musicality spurred forward arguably her most creative run of form. Spurred on by her friend Peter Gabriel’s use of the keyboard as a writing tool, something she must have gleaned when helping him round out his own creations like “Games Without Frontiers“, she started to use it in lieu of her piano to compose new songs. Rather than wait to go into a studio to and have a full band flesh out her piano melodies, she’d methodically set up sequenced arrangements that were far less conventional than anything in her past and record them on the spot. In the past, she’d purposely make the music work around her voice, now she understood more than importance of having her voice flow with the music.
Imagine her fans hearing two of the first songs (debuted at Dr. Hooks’s show no less…) a few weeks before the album was launched. “Babooshka” rightfully, became the huge mega-hit which showed the new combinations of electronic and acoustic sounds that Kate was after. Sexy, yet weirdly sinister, this single, which later became the opening track, had swagger that few expected to come from the maker of “Wuthering Heights”. However, the next track signalled something far more prophetic.
“Delius (Song of Summer)” the drum machine, piano, and Fairlight fantasia ode to composer Frederick Delius‘s tone poem “Song of Summer” was something unheard of. Words are there, but they’re highly affected rendering them almost foreign, the music itself taking a sparser more open tone than before, in effect letting you take in all these new pastoral sonics Kate was managing to conjure up. Then to kiss off fans unwillingly fans that didn’t want to continue with her on this new journey, she whisks them away in her elegiac jazz-electro pop song “Blow Away (For Bill)” dedicated to living in the now. That song itself serving as a proper send off to all her idols that left the world already like Minnie Riperton, Marc Bolan, Sandy Danny, Buddy Holly, and close friends that simply lived for music like her friend Bill. In order, to keep their dreams alive she had to work diligently to stay for the fans that would follow her somewhere untravelled.
|Army Dreamers single.|
From “All We Ever Look For” onwards you get the makings Kate’s new electro-folk sound. Sampled sounds might take the form of harpsichords, harpsichords might be stretched into sounds resembling violins, and Kate’s voice could get multi-tracked in various pitches but at the heart of it all something resembling music more adept for our times start to take shape. Her groundbreaking videos released during its release giving you glimpse of the nearly impossible bits of layering that could not be replicated live with technology then. When you hear a track like “Army Dreamers” that uses the rhythm created by the sound of gun cocking itself to create a dark waltz you start to hear the implications this meant for Kate. That track featuring backing by members from Planxty, wisely amplified by the music video medium, something she’d pour more of her vision into now as well.
I’ll leave you to discover the rest of the brilliant tracks on this album and let you ponder how transitional of an album this served for the sound of England. Few if any artists, were discovering the potential of new drum machines and samplers, or how to serve them up in a human way. Beyond original then and now, rightfully when it was released it became the first album composed and released by a solo female singer to reach the top of the chart in England. Songs like “Breathing” and “The Wedding List” all far darker, complex, and more mature than many had thought she was possible of, only pointed at some future peak she was swiftly ascending to. That brilliant album cover, that owes a debt to the dynamic blend of fairytale and realism that Flemish Primitive artists, wisely depicts all the pretties and beasties Kate had hidden underneath her skirt. Rather than keep them trapped inside, she’s giving them free wind to display more of what makes her, her. By gaining more control of herself, and the sound she’s making, she was finally able to cut loose. Other English folk artists will soon figure out how to significantly use this new era to cut certain ends from the past…