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How Kate Bush's Never Forever changed her career... forever!

Kate Bush black and white image with leotard
(Image credit: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo)

“Change is a very important thing. On any level, I do want to change; not only as a person, but as a musician. I think it’s starting to happen a little, just slightly different.”

Kate Bush, April 1979

Released in September 1980, Never For Ever stands discrete within Kate Bush’s slender, esteemed catalogue. Boasting two of her most loved singles – Babooshka and Army DreamersNever For Ever also contained Breathing, Bush’s first real deep dive into unselfconsciously mature material. 

Like her public persona at this time, Never For Ever is an album that still has one foot in ‘old showbiz’ (EMI protégé, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop guest, a target for prime-time TV parodies); yet the other displaying her development (working with established artists such as Roy Harper and Peter Gabriel, and the album’s unsettling subject matter). Commercially, her previous long-player, Lionheart, hadn’t been a roaring success, and its singles had not set the charts ablaze. It was time to change course. 

Never For Ever was an album of firsts for Kate Bush: her first co-production; her first release after renegotiating her EMI deal; her first time recording at Abbey Road, and her first use of the (then brand new to the country) sampling synthesiser Fairlight CMI, which was so to shape her material for the next decade.

Bush’s new-found confidence and step away from the machine (something she was soon to perfect) was to inform Never For Ever – an album influenced by death, technology, relationships and a 21-year-old simply bursting with ideas. “There are 10 tracks, and if there is a main theme, it’s about human communication and its difficulties,” Bush wrote in September 1980, a few months after her 22nd birthday. Although largely stylistically different, Never For Ever fitted into the pattern of the day for art rock experimentation crossing borders and genres. It is blessed with the same spirit as Robert Fripp’s Exposure, David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Fear Of Music by Talking Heads, and Peter Gabriel’s third album. Never For Ever may not be the masterpiece that 1985’s Hounds Of Love is frequently cited as being, but, for many, it remains their favourite Kate Bush album, and one that unquestionably paved the way for future triumphs.

Never For Ever was Kate Bush’s first studio recording after her groundbreaking The Tour Of Life in spring 1979, which had turned the notion of a live concert on its head. Fully choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, the sold-out 28-date tour was a visualisation of her first two albums, The Kick Inside and Lionheart. Much was made of it costing between £200,000 and £250,000 and employing 40 people – it was just at the very cusp of the touring industry being taken seriously. There was a BBC TV Nationwide special on the tour to coincide with the opening night at Liverpool Empire. Reporter Bernard Clark asked Bush, “Do you have a problem now: what next – how are you going to follow the success?” There seemed to be a feeling that, after only a year in the spotlight, Bush had achieved her goals. “You’re now just over 21 and you’ve made it,” Clark probes. “What is there left to do now?” Bush offered her gracious smile and replied: “Everything. I haven’t really begun yet.” How right she was. 

However, the tour was overshadowed by the tragic, accidental death of Bill Duffield, her 21-year-old lighting director. On April 2, 1979, after a warm-up gig at Poole Arts Centre, Duffield was undertaking the so-called ‘idiot check’ where the final crew member present inspects the entire performance area to make sure nothing has been left behind. He fell 17 feet through an unlit open panel on the stage to a concrete floor below and died a week later in hospital from his injuries. A memorial concert for Duffield was planned at the end of Bush’s tour on May 12 at Hammersmith Odeon. The evening was to be an emotional tour de force, where Bush was joined by two artists who had previously worked closely with Duffield – Peter Gabriel and Steve Harley. They duetted with Bush on Them Heavy People and The Man With The Child In His Eyes. Bush joined Gabriel on his yet-to-be released I Don’t Remember and they all sang The Beatles’ Let It Be to close. 

If Duffield had not died, Bush and Gabriel may not have met. They hit it off immediately; Gabriel’s painstakingly free approach to his work was to inform her in a way few artists had ever done. The meeting had a profound effect on her – within months she would be singing on Gabriel’s third album, and through those recording sessions, she first encountered the Fairlight CMI synthesiser.

A SWF3 German TV film, Kate Bush In Concert offered great insight into her world on the cusp of Never For Ever. There’s one scene where she’s filmed with both her brothers, her mother and her father, and at once it shows the clearly loving family relationship, and also their protectiveness towards their youngest child. Intercut with footage of her onstage, Bush, sitting in between her dad, mum and brothers, looks every inch the shy, suburban teenager. “I’m her greatest fan,” her father said. It was as far away from the trappings of fame as it could possibly be.

And, by the end of The Tour Of Life, it would have been very possible for her to be seduced by these trappings. In the UK and Europe, Kate Bush was now famous: James Bond theme famous. She had been approached by Eon Productions to sing the theme to the fourth Roger Moore Bond vehicle, Moonraker. She was third in line to sing it – Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis both turning it down. Reports vary as to exactly why she declined – too busy, too exhausted after her tour or whether the song really suited her, but she was asked: that very fact alone showed how far and how fast she had travelled, considering she had been playing in pubs in south London less than 24 months earlier, and Wuthering Heights, her first record, was only released in January 1978.

It was time for Bush to do things differently. The fact was that she had come from nowhere with such an enormous single and such an alluring backstory: everyone wanted a piece of her. 

“It was very difficult, that whole stage,” Bush said in 1985, “because being so new to the whole business and straight in with such a successful song, it meant really that the next year of my life was nothing but promotion, and I think it was quite early on during that time that promotion was something that had to come secondary to the music, or I was going to spend my whole life promoting and never making another album.”

Determined to put music first, she repaired to AIR Studios to start work on Never For Ever in September 1979 with her trusted cohort, Jon Kelly, who had engineered her first two albums. “I actually decided to be brave enough to go ahead and ‘produce’ with Jon Kelly, trusting him as a friend and an extremely talented engineer,” she said a year later.

She had already established her own royalties company, Novercia, with eldest brother John Carder Bush (aka Jay) co-ordinating the business. Her family members were directors, and her new lawyer, Bernard Sheridan (who looked after artists such as Matt Monro and Pink Floyd), renegotiated her contract with EMI as a tape lease deal, meaning that she owned her recordings. Still a rarity then (as now, some would argue), the final decision on everything would be hers. 

In the studio, all the trappings were sheared away; although she was clear about who would have final say, Bush was in no doubt that she was dependent on the people in her team. And there was a cast of musicians: brother Paddy was there, as always, as well as fellow KT Bush Band alumni guitarist Brian Bath and bassist Del Palmer – who had played on Wow and on The Tour Of Life – were now in the pool of players, as were drummer Preston Hayman and guitarist Alan Murphy. Returning across the sessions from earlier albums were Ian Bairnson and Duncan Mackay. It was the first time for Peter Gabriel bassist John Giblin and keyboard player Max Middleton. It was very much a case of selecting the right player for the right song. 

Never For Ever can be divided track and feel-wise by the studios in which they were recorded. Egypt and Violin (both premiered on The Tour Of Life); The Wedding List and Blow Away were all 1979 recordings at AIR. These are the most conventional-sounding tracks, imbued with the deep-brown shagpile carpet late-70s feel of her first two albums. 

The move to Abbey Road (“the land of Beatles, tea, smiles and sticky buns,” she was to write) in January 1980 marked the quantum shift in the album and Bush’s work. “It was a very magical experience,” she told seasoned EMI publicist Brian Southall. “Being on your own in Studio 2 is fascinating… as I felt there were at least 10 other people with me; the place has tremendous presence. I don’t think it’s just the fact The Beatles recorded there, but a combination of all the people who have been there over the years and all their combined creativity.” 

“It was a real home record for Kate,” Jon Kelly told Mojo in February 2003 – her first time at the St John’s Wood complex was marked by the studio being filled with flowers and plants. 

“I was so excited,” she told Tom Doyle in 2005. “I was suddenly being let loose in a situation where I could actually get my hands on things and play around. There was this lovely feeling of creativity and freedom and fun.” Friends would drop in, with Roy Harper, who was working in Studio 3, popping by often – Bush was to duet with him on his The Unknown Soldier album.

Also in January 1980, Kate Bush went across London to The Town House, where Peter Gabriel was working with Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham on his third solo album. It was here that the seismic shift in her work really began; beguiled by their new found friendship, she encountered Gabriel’s meticulous approach, working with rhythm boxes and the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument. 

Although the Fairlight was to play a cameo role on Never For Ever, it was to change her approach to working forever. Gabriel was one of the first musicians in the UK to use the Fairlight, which, within a matter of years, would completely transform the way music was made. The synthesiser, which could sample natural sounds and play them back at a variety of pitches and tones, seemed truly revolutionary. It had been invented in Australia by electronics engineer Peter Vogel and synthesiser enthusiast Kim Ryrie. As a single computer cost more than £10,000, this wasn’t a commitment that could be entered into lightly. Vogel and Ryrie spent a week at Gabriel’s recording sessions, and, as a result, Gabriel invested in the Fairlight and persuaded his cousin, Stephen Paine, to come in with him: Syco Systems was established by them, importing and distributing the instruments in the UK. 

Richard James Burgess met Bush at the Syco Systems office with Paine, and demonstrated the machine’s capabilities to her. Burgess was the ‘go-to guy’ for this new machine, being an experienced session and group drummer, as well as studying electronic music at Berklee and London’s Guildhall School Of Music & Drama. “We were super-psyched about the Fairlight,” Burgess says today. “It was an amazing thing to us and we had really done a deep dive into it so we knew it back to front at that time.”

With his partner in tech (and his bandmate in Landscape) John L Walters, Burgess would make a series of significant visits to Abbey Road with this futuristic machine in tow. “Kate needed us to go into the studio. I had a BMW at the time, so I stowed the Fairlight in the boot. I got to Abbey Road Studio 1, the really big room. Jon Kelly was great; I knew him really well because I was a studio musician, and had worked up at AIR. Because he was already an engineer, he very quickly graduated to producing.”

Burgess understood immediately why Bush and Gabriel got on so famously: “They are of a mind; they are both really forward-thinking; they grasp new ideas really quickly, which is not so common, strangely enough. People often get very stuck in their ways. She definitely does not and neither does Peter.” 

Bush and Kelly outlined what they wanted Burgess and Walters to do: “She understood what the machine could do conceptually, even before we got there,” Burgess says. “Unlike most people who wanted to go through the barking dogs and the stock library, Kate immediately wanted to start sampling stuff.” 

The first noise the team captured was the breaking glass from what would be the album’s first track, Babooshka. “We bought a paving stone into the control room and a bunch of crockery from the kitchen,” Burgess laughs. “Jon set up the mic, we broke the glass and recorded it into the Fairlight. Nobody had ever seen anything like this before. Then we’d map the sound across the keyboard, so you could have one smashing glass on middle C, another one on B, whatever; you could spread them across. You’d smash a bunch and we’d poke around and see what we liked. We kept trying until we got something that she and Jon liked, which didn’t take very long. Then, it was a question of how you played it, what rhythm, even if it is totally arhythmic, there is still a rhythm to it.” 

“She was clearly the boss in the studio, not in an aggressive way, she’s just a natural born leader,” Burgess adds. “Kate knew what she was looking for, and she knew when she heard it, and believe me, having been a studio musician at that point for more than a decade, that’s not so common either. There’s musicians who, I used to say, live in the land of the undecided. She wouldn’t accept the first thing that came, if it wasn’t right, she knew what wasn’t right about it and how to sort of guide you. She knew what she was looking for, which was really refreshing. I was so impressed with her.” 

As well as Babooshka, the Fairlight can be heard on Army Dreamers and All We Ever Look For, but it was the footnote that was later to be the whole story. As Graeme Thompson noted in Bush’s biography, Under The Ivy: “The Fairlight arrived a little too late to transform Never For Ever, but it gave her a clear vision of where she wanted to go next.”

The first the world got to hear of this new Abbey Road material was the astonishing single Breathing, released on April 14, 1980. Its subject matter – an unborn child inhaling radiation after a nuclear explosion – was controversial. This was a clear line in the sand, “From my own viewpoint that’s the best thing I’ve ever written,” Bush told ZigZag that September. “I call that my little symphony, because I think every writer, whether they admit it or not, loves the idea of writing their own symphony.” 

Phil Sutcliffe, writing in Sounds, echoed her sentiment, calling it her “triumph. Its sensuality so intense it becomes sense, a higher meaning than moral or political analysis.”

Recording for Never For Ever was completed on May 10, 1980. It was readied for release in June, but EMI held it back until September to avoid other key releases of that summer, McCartney II and The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue. In late June, another taster was offered as Babooshka was released as a single. A much more conventionally commercial song, it had a killer chorus, and was based on the traditional English folk tune Sovay. Its tale of intrigue with John Giblin’s fretless bass, and the breaking glass solo so gleefully arrived at Abbey Road, propelled the record to No.5 in the UK charts. It was Bush’s highest single placing since Wuthering Heights, and 11 places higher than Breathing.

Lionheart had the inscription ‘hope you like it’ etched into its run-out groove; almost underlining late teenage anxiety wondering if lightning would be able to strike twice. There was no such concern with Never For Ever. Emboldened by her tour, maturing with new friends, technology and allies, from Nick Price’s memorable cover illustration inward, Never For Ever was a grown-up record. Its sleeve notes and thanks were telling: to “all the musicians who have worked patiently and understandingly on this album to make it the way I always wanted it to be.” 

“Kate was a joy to work with,” Larry Fast, who played the Prophet synth on Breathing, recalls. “I have the highest regard for her artistry and she was one of the nicest people that I’ve had the pleasure to be invited to work with.” 

Peter Gabriel was recognised for “opening the windows” (“Yes, I thought that was for washing them,” he quipped to journalist Armando Gallo in 1986); Roy Harper was mentioned for “holding onto the poet in his music.” Richard Burgess and John L Walters were credited for their “warmth and enthusiasm”. “She really made us feel good and I think there was a real cerebral connection because she was so forward thinking and incredibly creative, and we immediately responded to that,” Burgess says today. “I would categorise her as a very strong woman, at a time when women were not that well respected in our business, they were generally regarded as throw away, which is disgusting. She always commanded her own respect. On the other hand, she would ask you if you wanted a cup of tea and then she would go and make it. So it was impossible not to be warm and enthusiastic around her. I would give her all the credit for that honestly. The warmth and enthusiasm really came from her.”

After Babooshka mapped out this new territory, the album continues with Delius (Song Of Summer) – which could have been directly from Peter Gabriel III – and is probably the freshest number on the album, with its various voices and the putter of ‘Roland’ on percussion. Fredric Delius was “an extraordinary man both in body and spirit,” Bush wrote in 1980. It captured the tale of Delius’ relationship with his amanuensis, Eric Fenby. 

“Who, prior to 1980, put a song on a pop album about a classical composer?” asked David Mitchell in his introduction to How To Be Invisible. It certainly wasn’t Roll Over Beethoven. The ‘Taa-taa-taa-taa’ was how Delius – then blind and paralysed – would try and convey his thoughts to Fenby. 

Bush recalled seeing the Ken Russell film on the relationship in 1968 when it was screened as part of BBC1’s Omnibus season. “Delius would have applauded you for doing your own thing your own way. He would have accepted it as a very gracious tribute,” Eric Fenby told Bush later that year.  

Her tribute to Bill Duffield, Blow Away, has been dismissed – but in many respects it’s a very powerful song, a simple early-20s response to loss; a diary page in bubble handwriting, displaying again the power and intimacy that had made her debut album so warmly received. At this age, loss is grieving for pets or grandparents; for someone of a similar age to die seems so alien. The potentially gauche roll call of names of the departed (‘Minnie, Moony, Vicious… Buddy Holly, Sandy Denny’) have a sincerity absolutely absent from many other records that pay tribute to those that have passed. Referencing Shakespeare’s Othello (‘Put out the light, put out the light’), it has that electric Fender Rhodes led-warmth of the 70s. Blow Away was the last record Kate Bush ever made like that – Duffield’s passing seemed to herald her own sign-off from the 70s and her old self. 

All We Ever Look For is absolutely fascinating, especially given the apparent closeness of Bush and her family. Plump with Burgess and Walters’ Fairlight played by Duncan Mackay, this ostensibly whimsical ditty, as time passes seems almost a savaging of the expectations placed on her by her family – “All they ever want for you are the things they didn’t do.” Bush explained at the time that it was “about how we seek something, but in the wrong way, or at wrong times, so it is never found.”

Egypt – the first of the two songs from The Tour Of Life to make the album, is like a travelogue on PBS of a country that was simply forbidden to even a progressive child such as Bush in the late 70s. ‘I drift with dunes, I whisper of the tombs, they offer me Egyptian delight,’ she sung. It was, according to Bush in 1980, “an attempted audial animation of the romantic and realistic visions of a country.” She elaborated further to Kris Needs: “The song is very much about someone who has not gone there thinking about Egypt, going: ‘Oh, Egypt! It’s so romantic, the pyramids!’ Then in the breaks, there’s meant to be the reality of Egypt, the conflict. It’s meant to be how blindly we see some things – ‘Oh, what a beautiful world,’ you know, when there’s shit and sewers all around you.”

The Wedding List is another that has its roots in her earlier work; a lovely mid-tempo groove hints towards Hammer Horror, and the tale is somewhat horrific; an exploration of revenge: a bride who seeks retribution after her husband has accidentally been shot. “Violin is for all the mad fiddlers from Paganini to Old Nick himself,” Bush said in the fan club newsletter that accompanied the album. In the call for ‘the Banshees’ to support her on backing vocals, there was a tacit nod to Siouxsie, another artistic visionary from the Kent-facing suburbs of London. Kevin Burke of The Bothy Band – who had been to school with Paddy Bush – added its wild fiddle. 

The Infant Kiss was a controversial interlude and showed quite how guileless Bush was at this juncture. Inspired by Jack Clayton’s 1960 film, The Innocents, which was adapted from Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, it also features early music players Adam and Joseph Skeaping on viola and lirone. Bush explained it was: “about a governess. She is torn between the love of an adult man and a child, who are within the same body.” Her explanation of the song in Sounds later in the year is interesting: “I was imagining that moment of the nanny giving him a little peck goodnight and he gives her a great big adult kiss back. The emotional tearing inside her. There’s a psychotic man inside this innocent child, a demon, and that’s who this straight woman is feeling attracted to. It’s such a horrific, distorted idea, it’s really quite beautiful.”

The 51-second interlude vocal Night Scented Stock puts the listener into the cool cloisters of a church, preparing them for the two standout numbers that close it at almost 38 minutes. The waltz of Army Dreamers, at just under three minutes, is an incredibly poignant song dressed up in a pretty melody. The first song she had written in the studio, it takes the perspective of a grieving mother whose son ‘didn’t even make it into his 20s’. It also featured a memorable use of the Fairlight, capturing rifles cocking. 

“The guns were really fun because Paddy had an armoury,” Richard Burgess recalls. “I guess they were country people, so he bought all his guns in. That was a proper sample, because he would cock the guns, and we would record it, and then we would map it across the keyboard. The rhythm in the end was probably a combination of four different samples. It was exciting because trying to record
a gun cocking in time was not easy. Once you got it on the keyboard, being a drummer, I could run it down and play it the whole way through.”

Never For Ever closes with the album version of Breathing, around a minute longer than the single. It is the tour de force, all grown-up John Giblin bass and author’s message; its end with Roy Harper on backing vocals, and Alan Murphy’s attacking lead guitar. If Bush’s growth is displayed in terms of her vocals, we still have the first album quirks and tics on Violin, contrasted with the feral growl of abandonment at the end of Breathing.

Never For Ever had taken six months to record, and EMI ramped up the promotional appearances and advertising. The reviews were largely positive, aside from reviewer provocateur Ronnie Gurr in Record Mirror, who said, “You don’t have to be a neurotic, well-to-do airy-fairy dreamer to like Kate Bush but it probably helps,” and it went downhill from there. Melody Maker was more enthusiastic: “Any doubts that this is the best Bush album yet are finally obliterated by the inspired unorthodoxy of the production.”

Released in September 1980, Never For Ever entered the UK album charts at No.1 on September 14, in between Gary Numan’s Telekon and Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). She became the first British female solo artist to have a No.1 album, and it was the first new studio record by any female performer to reach the summit as Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand and Connie Francis had only achieved this via compilations. “I can’t believe it,” Bush told Kris Needs at ZigZag. “Every time I tell someone I feel like I’m lying. I couldn’t have asked more for such an important step in what I’m doing, because I feel that this album is a new step for me. The other two albums are so far away that they’re not true. They really aren’t me anymore. I think this is something the public could try and open up about. When you stereotype artists you always expect a certain kind of sound.” It was vindication for her hard work and vision.

Never For Ever is the album on which Kate Bush grew up. The naïveté of her first albums was being replaced with a conscience, new wonders, and a hint of despair. The inexorable pull of art rock was intoxicating – there was something in the air – the rush of available, and in time, affordable technology, the freedom to discuss art in a way that seemed less pretentious than a decade earlier – it was like punk had shooed away the pixies and goblins and now one could talk of existentialism without fear of being attacked. Never For Ever proved that Kate Bush was a serious artist. It opened the Pandora’s box of the studio to her, and technology and sound became the vehicle in which she could best present her work.

Richard Burgess saw how she thrived in this environment and recalls his role in altering her sound with great affection: “I love being in the room with people who are more creative than me; the ideas start flowing and it just bounces back and forth: when a creative spiral starts to happen and you just start to take off. Definitely with Kate it was like that. There’s no barriers; no ego. If someone has a better idea, you are on it. Five minutes later you can’t even remember whose idea it was because it was all so seamless. It’s exhilarating in itself to be in that kind of environment, never mind the actual end result that you create.”

Graeme Thomson writes in the illuminating Under The Ivy that Never For Ever is “a fascinating record, divided as it is exactly down the middle, torn between capturing where Bush had been and where she was heading.” It undoubtedly opened up the possibilities for her future. No longer would she be the ‘Wuthering Heights hitmaker’. “I’d really like to be able to leave myself open to any form of music, so if I wanted to, I could do funk tracks on the next album, I could do classical, I could do bossa novas,” she said in late 1980. “I think it’s best to stay as open as you can. As a person I’m changing all the time, and the first album is very much like a diary of me at that time – I was into a very high range. The same with the second album, and I feel this is perhaps why this one is like starting again. It’s like the first album on a new level. It’s much more under control.” 

David Mitchell retrospectively calls Never For Ever “a cabinet of curiosities housing some highly desirable items.” It’s her transitional album and it benefits greatly from that; in fact, the recording spanned two studios and two decades, it was as if she was putting old diaries away and starting afresh. 

Kate Bush’s unique, special blend of high- and low-brow was captured on November 25, 1980: she was happy to play up ‘the old showbiz’ to BBC 2 TV chat show host Russell Harty when she appeared on his television show, the week after Grace Jones had, notoriously, punched him. Bush happily took part in a skit at the front of the show agreeing not to punch kick or bite Harty, while hiding a mallet behind her back. Twenty minutes later, her increasing development was underlined, as she was back talking about Delius with Julian Lloyd Webber and Eric Fenby. By now, she was working on a track she had written quickly after seeing Stevie Wonder at Wembley Arena in early September. If Breathing and Never For Ever had been the trailer, Sat In Your Lap and The Dreaming would soon be the main feature. 

This article originally appeared in Prog 114.

Daryl Easlea has contributed to Prog since its first edition, and has written cover features on Pink Floyd, Genesis, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Gentle Giant. After 20 years in music retail, when Daryl worked full-time at Record Collector, his broad tastes and knowledge led to him being deemed a ‘generalist.’ DJ, compere, and consultant to record companies, his books explore prog, populist African-American music and pop eccentrics. Currently writing Whatever Happened To Slade?, Daryl broadcasts Easlea Like A Sunday Morning on Ship Full Of Bombs, can be seen on Channel 5 talking about pop and hosts the M Means Music podcast.