I’ve been meaning for some time to write on the subject of British singer-songwriter Kate Bush. She may not be familiar to all visitors to this site. In the UK she has long since attained the status of a musical legend and was recently awarded a CBE for services to British popular music.
Born in 1958, she signed to EMI in the mid-70s when in her mid-teens. The label provided money and time to develop her music before she went into a studio. Her first single ‘Wuthering Heights’ drew lyrically on Emily Bronte’s famous novel and went straight to no.1 in the UK. She was about 20 years old. The single caught people’s attention with its dramatic and often stratospheric vocal and English orchestral backing, and her striking beauty and ability to act out her songs made her TV appearances instantly memorable.
The single (and a follow-up hit ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’) featured on her debut LP The Kick Inside (1978). A second album Lionheart was released not long after. Both drew on a pool of songs written before her public career. The songs on these albums are charming, innocent, and colourful in a number of ways, with above average melodies and harmonic progressions.
A third album Never For Ever (1980) showed her music in transition and with increasing ambition. She was now involved in the production and the arrangements became more adventurous. It seemed she wanted her songs to have an extra-musical dimension, so there is greater use of sound-effects, and she changes her vocal style / accent to fit the subject and / or the persona of a given song. This album included an impressive anti-nuclear song ‘Breathing’.
These trends continued on the darker, more troubled The Dreaming (1982) which has tracks that feature folk instruments and more aggressive use of drums and percussion. By this point Bush had abandoned the usual routines of the pop career, retreating into the studio to concentrate on her music, and shunning live gigs, fame and celebrity. Each of the songs has an arrangement which is like a soundscape for that lyric. The emotional content of the songs is deepening all the time, to the point where by now she is outstripping most of her contemporaries, male or female. Neither the emotion nor the music is ever formulaic.
A decline in her commercial fortunes was remedied by her fifth album Hounds of Love (1985) which yielded several hit singles including ‘Running Up That Hill’. The album was divided between a suite of five songs on side 1 and a concept song-sequence called ‘The Ninth Wave’ on side 2 which showed something of the influence that Pink Floyd had had on her youthful imagination. It doesn’t sound like them, but it is as if she had internalized a feeling that a group of songs could be more expansive and imaginative. Some of the songs on the album were written with a drum machine, as Bush hoped to increase the rhythmic assertiveness of her music.
A more delicate ‘yin’ strength dominates The Sensual World (1989) which is possibly her greatest album. Some of the songs on this album have a truly searing emotional intensity, with guest musicians such as Breton harpist Alan Stivell and violinist Nigel Kennedy playing on ‘Between A Man And A Woman’ and ‘Never Be Mine’, and the plangent harmonies of the Trio Bulgarka appearing on other tracks.
It was another four years before her sixth record The Red Shoes was released. Although this has some great moments, the album is over-long. It can be thought of as Bush’s Blood on the Tracks, a relationship break-up album where there is a slight sense of life experience out-stripping the ability to turn it into the best art at that moment.
Bush did not make another album until 2005, when the double Aerial appeared. This combines a miscellany of songs with another conceptual song-sequence. It has been hailed as her masterpiece, but I personally find some of the musical material uninspired and predictable in a way that the songs on her first album were not. I feel this more strongly with her most recent album 50 Words For Snow where a great idea for a set of songs (snow / night) is doing too much of the work the music should be doing. In these songs musical content is stretched to a point where the uneventfulness is painful. The album lasts around an hour. Debussy’s piano piece ‘Des pas sur la neige’ (Footprints in the snow’ from the Preludes) achieves more in two minutes.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kate Bush is one of the most significant singer-songwriters the UK has produced in the modern era. I see no reason why she should not have more great music in her. Given the importance of her childhood at East Wickham farm and the memories attached to that sense of belonging and inner adventure she could write one of the great albums about the lost domains of childhood. But I think that when she next finds a framework or concept that excites her imagination she needs to find someone who whilst respecting her musical identity can encourage her to re-discover her gift for memorable melody and harmonic progression.
And of course if no-one else is willing I’m happy to volunteer …! 🙂
The other night I was talking to a guitar student about my experience of trying to get certain sounds on the guitar without the right technology, and how useful things came out of this lack. I thought this would make a useful post here.
Several examples came to mind. One was trying to play both parts of a twin lead guitar line. For anyone who doesn’t know what this means, ‘twin lead guitar’ is where two guitarists take a note each and play parallel melodic phrases, usually based on thirds and sixths. With each holding only one note these are generally easy to play and the notes can be subject to typical techniques of bending and vibrato. This arrangement style was characteristic of British bands such as Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash, and there are elements of it in Queen’s studio records (where Brian May would overdub such lines himself) and The Darkness. Providing the lines are not too quick, it can be possible to play both at once. This effort taught me some things about how thirds and sixths work on the guitar. To make the lines sound a little different from each other I discovered that playing the lower note with a pick and the higher note with a finger helped. And trying to do a double-trill was certainly a challenge.
Another example occurred when I tried to emulate Mark Knopfler’s playing on some of the early Dire Straits tracks. The crucial technology for his sound was a Fender Strat, often with the single-coil pick-ups in positions 2 and 4, and played with thumb and fingers. I only had a guitar with double-coil pickups, which wasn’t ideal. I found that by winding the tone down a bit, using thumb and fingers and being careful with the touch, and also playing nearer the fingerboard helped get a little closer to the sound.
A third example arouse when I wanted to emulate the sound of a 12-string on a 6-string. In some accompaniment figures which are based on simple chords it is possible to look for octaves above the notes which are in reach. That goes a little way to imitating the sound of a picked 12-string.
None of these things could replace the original thing. But they all helped my technique in terms of extending what I could get out of the guitar I had and learning more about the fingerboard and how much guitar technique is in the sense of touch.
I recently mentioned Vaughan Williams’ Symphony 8 as great music for this time of year. I could add to it Ravel’s Mother Goose suite (Ma Mere l’Oye), Prokoviev’s Lieutenant Kije (with the famous Troika that featured in Woody Allen’s Love and Death film), Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, Arnold Bax’s Christmas Eve, Peter Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’, Steeleye Span’s ‘Gaudete’, and Kate Bush’s ‘December Will Be Magic Again’.