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volume 3
november 2000

Kate Bush

Index of the journal Tracking  

  Enigmatic chanteuse as pop pioneer
by Holly Kruse Spring, 1988
  University of Illinois, Urbana, Champaign

In the early 1970s record industry executives noticed that adventurous musicians could actually make money. Kate Bush was one of the artists to profit. In 1974 EMI made an unusual move and gave Bush some money "to grow up with," and she spent three years continuing her dance studies, honing her vocal skills, and developing a more mature songwriting style. In 1977 she recorded her first album, The Kick Inside, and the first single, "Wuthering Heights", reached the number one spot on the British pop chart just one month after its release in early 1978. However, though Kate Bush has been a best-selling artist in the U.K. for almost ten years, she stayed virtually unknown in the U.S.

1 In the American musical mainstream, the most innovative performers are often among the least commercially successful. This seems to be somewhat less true in Great Britain, where avant-garde artists such as Laurie Anderson have reached the number one position on the pop singles chart, and where the most commercially successful female recording artist is Kate Bush. Kate Bush's music integrates intellectually challenging subject matter into complex and often experimental instrumental arrangements. Bush's conquest of the British pop music charts leads one to wonder how such an artist has been able to succeed within the constraints of the music industry, and what effect a pioneer like Bush has on mainstream popular music.
2 Kate Bush's entrance into the music business was unusual in itself. She began writing songs while still in her early teens, and by the time Bush was in her mid-teens she and her family had produced a demo tape which contained fifty of her compositions. Though every record label to which the tape was circulated turned it down, it was not long after this that friends of the Bush family brought Kate's music to the attention of Pink Floyd's guitarist David Gilmour. Gilmour was impressed by Bush's songwriting skill and four octave vocal range; and thus, in 1974 he financed a three song demo for Bush, made with Pink Floyd's producer Andrew Powell. The tape was sent to EMI, Pink Floyd's record company, where it was heard by Terry Slater, the executive who signed the Sex Pistols to a major label contract. Slater was quite impressed with the demo and signed Bush, even though she was only sixteen years old at the time. In recognition of her relative youth, EMI made an unusual move and gave Bush some money "to grow up with," and Bush spent three years continuing her dance studies, honing her vocal skills, and developing a more mature songwriting style (Vermorel, 1983: 86-87). In 1977 she recorded her first album, The Kick Inside, and the first single, "Wuthering Heights", reached the number one spot on the British pop chart just one month after its release in early 1978.
3 Kate Bush did not prove to be a one shot wonder. Her next album, 1979's Lionheart, was a critical disappointment, but it did produce a top twenty single in the U.K. With 1980's Never For Ever Bush debuted as coproducer, and by the time The Dreaming was released in 1982, Bush was the sole producer. She not only produced her 1985 album Hounds of Love, she recorded it in her own studio. Each album, with the exception of Lionheart, spawned more than one British top twenty hit. EMI is certainly thrilled with Kate Bush's success, yet it seems unlikely that the company could have predicted Bush's profitability at the time of her signing. Indeed, even her earliest recorded material dealt with unusual topics such as supernatural phenomena, incest, and poisoning, and Bush's vocal phrasing has always been somewhat bizarre, to say the least. Certainly then, Kate Bush's contract with EMI is the result of several conspiring factors. Though the relative importance of each element can only be guessed, EMI's market position and the nature of the recording industry in the 1970s provide clues into the conglomerate's motives for signing Kate Bush.
4 I do not think too much emphasis can be placed on the fact that it was David Gilmour who brought Kate Bush to the attention of EMI. At that point in time Pink Floyd was a very important act to the company. The progressive band had just released its eternally-selling Dark Side of the Moon on EMI's Harvest label in 1973, and Pink Floyd were respected and successful veterans of the art rock scene. Other members of Pink Floyd were seeking out fresh talent at the time, and EMI management would have surely thought it in the company's best interests to cater to the band members' whims.
5 The importance of Pink Floyd to EMI was symptomatic of a larger development in the British music industry in the early 1970s. A number of progressive artists were selling substantial quantities of records in both Great Britain and the United States. The acid rock of the late 1960s had evolved into the art rock of the 1970s, with bands like Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Traffic, and Genesis becoming industry mainstays. These artists experimented with synthesizers and other newly developed technologies in order to create fresh sound experiences. Once the commercial viability of these musicians was proved, record companies were eager to jump on the progressive bandwagon. One study of the musical tastes of British teenagers done in 1972 found that almost half of the middle class teens surveyed favored "progressive" music over mainstream pop (Murdock and Phelps, 1972: 150). Undoubtedly the middle class teen market was one that record companies desired to tap. EMI had already shown its commitment to progressive rock by launching the Harvest label, and by the early 1970s it was clear to industry executives that adventurous musicians could actually make money for a company. Thus, in 1974 EMI may have been more likely to believe that an experimental performance artist like Kate Bush could sell records than it might have later in the decade.
6 Another factor that cannot be overlooked is EMI's dominant position in the British record business during the early 1970s. Since 1950 the record industry in the U.K. had been dominated by two giants, EMI and British Decca, and EMI's position was strengthened substantially in the early 1960s when the label had the foresight to sign the Beatles to its Capitol division for American distribution of Beatles' records. Although increasing competition from American labels and the defection of the Beatles hurt EMI as the decade passed, the company mustered enough resources to form Harvest, its own progressive subsidiary, in 1968. By 1969 the corporation controlled an array of interests that gave EMI both horizontal and vertical control over numerous aspects of the music business. Therefore, it is not surprising that the conglomerate entered the 1970s in a strong position. By the middle of the decade, EMI was manufacturing one-fourth and distributing one-third of all records sold in England (Frith, 1981: 140-142).
7 Financial success clearly gave EMI the economic means to invest in the development of new talent. Moreover, it is in the long-term best interest of a large company to continually recruit new talent, because "nobody wants to depend on a small number of acts" (Records, 1980: 326). Labels lose artists to other companies, lifestyle alterations, and death. Record companies depend on a constant influx of new talent to ensure that the organization will survive, and, in the words of one observer, "the larger the company, the greater its need for new 'product'" (Stratton, 1982: 91).
8 The mid-1970s were definitely a key time for labels to be on the lookout for new talent. The British record industry was reaching a stagnation point, and Artist and Repertoire (A&R) people were searching for anything that might prove to be "a 'Next Big Thing', the new Beatles phenomenon," that would invigorate the industry (Laing, 1985: 7). After all, one reason behind the continuous search for new talent is the recognition by industry executives that they are working in a "taste" business. The commercial success of a particular artist or musical genre is often difficult to predict; therefore, the record industry must produce sounds which appeal to a variety of musical tastes. If, for example, Kate Bush or a Kate Bush clone became the "Next Big Thing," a label would not want to miss out financially on the trend. Thus, record companies see that it is wise to invest in a wide range of talent just in case something outside of the musical status quo captures the public's attention and wallets. EMI may have been gambling when it signed Kate Bush, but it was a gamble that paid. When "Wuthering Heights" reached the top of the British chart only EMI had a Kate Bush, and the idiosyncratic nature of Bush's music made the construction of a Kate Bush clone an accomplishment almost beyond the powers of imagination.
9 In addition, one should not forget that EMI signed Kate Bush at a time when visually-oriented rock performers were growing in popularity. Kate Bush's early career was aided by her training in mime and dance and her striking good looks. The visual presentation has always been an important component of Bush's music, and her single "Wuthering Heights" was released with a video at a time when such promotional clips were rather rare. By the time the video explosion reached Britain in the 1980s, old hands like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Peter Gabriel, and Kate Bush found themselves in advantageous positions from which to exploit the medium.
10 EMI's position in the British music industry, Kate Bush's undeniable talent, the musical climate of the 1970s, the involvement of David Gilmour as a "gatekeeper", and a number of other factors conspired at that specific point in time to make the addition of Kate Bush to EMI's stable of musical talent seem a wise maneuver. Once Bush proved a profitable artist for EMI, the company probably thought it best not to tamper with a successful formula and allowed Bush a great deal of artistic freedom.
11 However, though Kate Bush has been a best-selling artist in the U.K. for almost ten years, she is virtually unknown in the U.S. It was only with her 1985 album, Hounds of Love, that Bush received any significant recognition in the U.S. Hounds of Love reached the 30th position on the Billboard album chart, largely on the strength of the single "Running Up That Hill", which peaked at 31 in November of 1985. However, Bush has yet to attain the kind of success in this country that she enjoys in her native England and Europe; and though "Running Up That Hill" brought Kate Bush new fans in the dance clubs, Bush seems destined to remain a strangely British and European phenomenon.
12 Indeed, the fact that Bush's music is popular on a mass level anywhere in the world seems unlikely, considering the lyric content of her songs and her odd vocal style. For example, in Bush's 1981 British hit "Sat In Your Lap", Bush sings of her crisis of spirituality in the chorus:
  Some say that knowledge is something that you never have.
Some say that knowledge is something sat in your lap.
Some say that heaven is hell.
Some say that hell is heaven.
  However, Hounds of Love has been Bush's most lyrically complex album. The second side, titled "The Ninth Wave", consists of seven songs which cohere around the concept of a drowning victim's harrowing journey through the collective unconscious.
13 Though critics and interviewers now seem obsessed with the unusual nature of Bush's lyrics and sound, her popularity in non-English speaking countries suggests that other factors have allowed her to succeed in addition to, or perhaps despite, the unusual subject matter of her songs. Yet these factors have not been sufficient to ensure her success in the American market. Perhaps one reason that Bush's popularity in England has not been duplicated in the U.S. is because she is a very English singer. Throughout most of the history of rock music in Britain, singers have used accents imported from America (Laing, 1985: 26). This began to change in the early 1970s when singers like David Bowie and Bryan Ferry employed English accents, and Bush herself acknowledges their importance in the formation of her own vocal style, stating:
  "I think most of the stuff I have liked has been English. With the majority of other people — well, they were listening to Elvis and people like that and most of their heroes were American. The artists I liked, such as Roxy Music and David Bowie, were all singing in English accents and, in fact, were among the few in England who were actually doing so at that time. I mean, Elton John, Robert Palmer and Robert Plant sound American when they sing" (Swales, 1986: 2-3).
14 Moreover, Bush's Englishness is not merely confined to her accent. As Terry Slater of EMI puts it:
  "Kate is a real English girl, she's from the roots of Great Britain. It's not a gimmick or produced. She's the first really English girl singer for a long time" (Vermorel, 1983: 92).
  Bush has even celebrated her native land in songs like "Oh England My Lionheart". The essential English quality of Bush's music and image has certainly had a profound impact on her popularity in the U.K. and perhaps on her inability to achieve widespread recognition in the U.S.
15 Bush appeared at a moment in the history of British rock in which a great deal of space for a singer like her had just opened up. In One Chord Wonders, Dave Laing notes one of the victories won by female singers in the punk era of the mid-1970s was the opportunity to experiment with a wider range of vocal sounds. Certainly Bush, who gained popularity in post-punk England with a repertoire of unearthly shrieks and guttural whispers, took advantage of this space to convey a disturbing breadth of emotion. Yet Bush's music was also a reaction against the one-dimensional angst and unorchestrated discord of punk, using melody and often frail vocals to create a surreal world of affect.
16 Which ultimately brings us back to the idea of image. Described by Laing as "poetically enigmatic," Kate Bush transcends more voyeuristic objectification (Laing, 1985: 89). In her videos and live performances, Bush presents a series of dramatic personas that distance the viewer, even as her lyrics invite him/her into the most recessed enclaves of Kate Bush's soul. The Kate Bush the viewer sees is merely a projection. Bush herself affirms this: "When I perform, I'm definitely someone else. She's a lot stronger and I wouldn't be as daring as her" (Vermorel, 1983: 83). On stage, she becomes Catherine of "Wuthering Heights", the outlaw of "James and the Cold Gun", the child-woman of "Feel It". Bush's enigmatic image has been important to her success in non-English speaking countries, as well as in the faddish, often image- oriented British Isles. However, those British listeners who were hooked by the novelty of "Wuthering Heights" discovered that there was a profound intelligence behind the image, an intelligence that allowed Bush to pass from the realm of mere image into the world of respected musicians.
17 The relatively small size of the British and other European pop music markets makes them more susceptible to the influence of images and fads than their American counterpart, and this fact undoubtedly accounts in part for Kate Bush's inability to achieve anything more than a cult following in the U.S. prior to the mid-1980s. Rather than focusing on her sexuality and striking physical appearance, American critics have tended to praise Bush for her skill and artistic vision; and the complex nature of these elements have generally limited Bush's American following to a handful of devoted fans. However, with "Running Up That Hill", Kate Bush gained devotees in American dance clubs, while the album Hounds of Love received considerable airplay on AOR radio. Thus, Bush was at once occupying the seemingly contradictory roles of progressive rock heroine and dance-funk queen, neither of which converged in any significant way with the American pop mainstream. Furthermore, few Americans were exceedingly aware of Bush's image. Although MTV gave substantial airplay to one of the two videos for "Running Up That Hill", visual exposure to Kate Bush has been quite limited in the United States. Her only tour, which occurred in 1979, was confined to England, and her controversial performance on Saturday Night Live in that year did not create a lasting impression in this country.
18 Yet even though Kate Bush herself has not been a significant presence in the American pop mainstream, her influence has been felt. Perhaps more than any other female artist, Kate Bush legitimized the use of the rather eccentric vocal ranges and phrasings that one can now find in the music of artists like Cyndi Lauper. Bush also helped to revolutionize the world of rock and pop instrumentation through her pioneering use of the Fairlight synthesizer, especially on Never For Ever and The Dreaming. By moving beyond pre-set and artificial synthesizer sounds, Bush discovered new ways to sample a variety of natural resonances in order to deepen the structure of her music. Only now are mainstream artists catching up with experimenters like Bush in their uses of synthesizer technology.
19 In spite of her importance in these two areas, Kate Bush has probably had the greatest impact in her role as a performance artist. To Bush, the visual presentation of the music and the music itself cannot be divorced, and thus, it is not surprising that she was the first female pop star to combine her music with classical and modern dance training. Bush's idea that the combination of music and movement allows the artist to express a more complex range of emotion has been translated, though in a simplified form, into the work of current American music video superstars like Madonna and Janet Jackson. What was once novelty has now become the norm.
20 While Kate Bush will probably never attain the level of popularity in the U.S. that she enjoys in the U.K. and Europe, she certainly has not been without influence in the world of mainstream pop music. Despite the unlikely nature of her British success, Kate Bush has persevered and used that success to gain greater artistic freedom, thus continuing to grow in her role as a pop music pioneer.
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  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1988)
  1997 © IASPM / USA