Across the decades, there have been many contenders to the king of prog crown, from pioneers Robert Fripp and Keith Emerson, to contemporary luminaries Mikael Åkerfeldt and Steven Wilson. But there’s only ever been one queen: Kate Bush. To call her a precocious talent seems guilty of gross understatement – Bush wrote The Man With The Child In His Eyes when she was just 13 years old. A cassette tape caught the ear of David Gilmour, who produced the 1975 demo that landed the youthful singer-songwriter her record deal with EMI.
Bush’s progressive spirit has infused everything she’s done. She’s built a huge and devoted following across the world despite only ever undertaking a single tour, in 1979. She embraced the possibilities of sampling, not to lift melodic passages or riffs from other people’s songs, but to create sounds in her music that no one had ever heard before. She freely blended human drummers with drum machines, ignoring any thought of the two being mutually exclusive, always focused on capturing the right feel and sound to serve the music.
Her third album, Never For Ever, was the first record by a British female solo artist to top the UK albums chart and she wrote it entirely herself. She might have been a pop smash, but that only seemed to impel Bush to become ever more adventurous, creating epic concept works in the seven-part The Ninth Wave on Hounds Of Love, and the nine-part A Sky Of Honey on Aerial.
She’s influenced generations of musicians and artists, a trend that seems set to gain momentum as new listeners have been introduced to her music through Stranger Things. To celebrate the undisputed, unchallenged queen of prog, we’ve asked 40 famous fans to pick their favourite tracks from her incredible catalogue. Is yours included? Read on!
Wuthering Heights (The Kick Inside, 1978)
Every year on the singer’s birthday, July 30, fans celebrate The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever by recreating Bush’s dance routine in the iconic red dress from the music video. The song topped the charts in six countries with its gothic grandeur and sweeping drama.
Mikael Åkerfeld, Opeth: “She’s one of those magical artists – there’s not a lot of them, not of that calibre. She’s top of the pile. Everybody knows it. She was running her own thing [when] nobody else did it. She carved out her own niche in the pop scene: Wuthering Heights, what a fucking genius song. How can you write a song like that? It’s in, what, 7/4? It’s a sing-along pop song, and you don’t even notice the turn on the drums. Running Up That Hill is a beautiful fucking song, too. I get shivers just thinking about it. She’s untouchable.”
The Saxophone Song (The Kick Inside, 1978)
Damian Wilson: “Her beautiful freedom within melody and the sensuality of her work simply captured me. The uplifting bursts still never cease to remind me of the excitement I felt when I first heard it. The song has clearly been written by a young, naïve mind. The whole album is a girl waking up to womanhood. It’s callow youth mixed with accomplished musicianship, and beautifully captured.
“Kate Bush’s career is an example of the record industry getting behind youthful creativity and encouraging a raw emerging talent to produce something truly exceptional.”
The Man With The Child In His Eyes (The Kick Inside, 1978)
Steve Hogarth, Marillion: “I’m all about the lyrics, of course, and whenever I hear this song, I think of my dear departed dad tucking me in when I was small. He was in the Navy and away a lot, so it was always special when he was home to wish me goodnight with his soft, haunted eyes. I sometimes play it when I’m doing the solo H Natural shows. I love the way the chords fall tone-by-tone on the way to the chorus, like sinking out of consciousness into dreams.
“I was introduced to her once at an EMI lunch. ‘Steve, Kate; Kate, Steve.’ She was very nice – hair up, jeans on. Ten minutes after she’d gone, the penny dropped – ‘Fuck me! That was Kate Bush!’ I’d have probably said something I regretted anyway. I’m easily starstruck.”
Symphony In Blue (Lionheart, 1978)
Conrad Keely, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: “Something about the lyrics suggested an inquisitive mind describing the effects of synaesthesia, where colours evoke moods and sounds: ‘Blue, the colour of my room and my mood.’ Not to mention the ever-present erotic undertones Kate always managed to sneak in. ‘The more I think about sex the better it gets,’ kind of jumps out after a stanza about jealousy and death. At the same time, she always manages to allude to greater divine questions: ‘Go blowing my mind on God’ – the sort of vision-questing that would eventually culminate in songs like Running Up That Hill.
“Her lyrics paint a picture of someone who’s forever searching for an answer, rather than someone who’s found the answer and is trying to preach it to you. For that reason, Kate seems to encourage us to ask similar big questions: is there any practical reason to believe in a god? Are art and death, love and hatred, rejection and jealousy all inseparable aspects of the same universal experience? And can we just enjoy sex and stop being hung up about it?”
Wow (Lionheart, 1978)
‘We’re all alone on the stage tonight,’ sings Bush in her musings on the highs and lows of a life in showbusiness, as an actor dreaming of stardom endures ignominy and being used for sex, cheekily implied in the lyric about ‘hitting the Vaseline’.
Robin Armstrong, Cosmograf: “It’s super-proggy in terms of theme and modulation yet somehow manages to stick to a pop record structure. It’s a masterclass of concise epics. The lyrics are so poignant, and to me they speak of a tortured artist, underappreciated, and forced to live up to expectations as an entertainer.
“I think she’s one of the most underrated piano players ever. I’m always drawn in by her beautiful chord structures and motifs. She just has a way of laying down this beautiful carpet of piano for her vocals.”
Oh England My Lionheart (Lionheart, 1978)
It’s tempting to dismiss this as an exercise in rose-tinted nostalgia, with its references to Shakespeare and ravens in the Tower Of London, but that was evidently the goal. “Everything I do is very English and I think that’s one reason I’ve broken through to a lot of countries,” Bush told Melody Maker in 1978. “The English vibe is very appealing.”
Gregoey Spawton, Big Big Train: “The song is a sort of requiem for an England which, in the late 70s, had already disappeared (or, perhaps, had never really existed). The nostalgic imagery of the lyrics is emphasised by a soundscape of harpsichord and recorders. Most importantly though, the poignancy of the final few words of the song’s protagonist [seemingly a downed and dying Second World War fighter pilot] is utterly heart-breaking: ‘Oh England my lionheart, I don’t want to go.’”
In The Warm Room (Lionheart, 1978)
In The Warm Room finds Bush at her most seductive. ‘You’ll fall into her like a pillow, her thighs are soft as marshmallows,’ she coos. Who on earth could resist?
Tim Bowness: “I was 14 when I first heard the album and, despite the lyrics being elusive and enigmatic, there was something in the unique harmonies and emotive singing that spoke directly to me. I’ve always felt that Kate Bush’s music chimes with an adolescent state of confusion, or becoming. I used to play [Lionheart] frequently, while in the background parental arguments raged. As a result, it became something personally meaningful to me.
“It’s my favourite song on one of my favourite KB albums. In The Warm Room is perhaps the most intimate and intense piece on Lionheart, and it perfectly embodies the album’s queasy emotional quality.”
Hammer Horror (Lionheart, 1978)
While the title brings to mind the famed British horror film studio, this is the unhappy tale of an actor haunted by the ghost of the man he replaced in the role of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.
Clive Nolam, Arena: “It wasn’t the song that grabbed me first on this album, but as I listened more, it grew on me. As those scrubbing strings lead into the piano intro, followed by the plaintive vocal, it’s clear this song will be a journey in itself. As with all Kate Bush’s work, it’s wonderfully quirky, with so many flavours and atmospheres within this single track. The verses are moody and evocative and there is a lovely sense of vulnerability about the vocal delivery. The chorus is to the point, and I love that detuning gong at the end.”
Babooshka (Never For Ever, 1980)
The breaking glass sounds in the track were a pioneering use of sampling with a Fairlight CMI synthesiser. The effect was created by Bush, co-producer Jon Kelly and Fairlight programmer John Walters smashing things in the studio, then Walters fed the sounds into the Fairlight, making them playable.
Cammie Berverly, Oceans Of Slumber: “When I first heard Babooshka, I immediately recognised Kate Bush’s tremendous influence on the music world. I could see how she’d inspired musicians like FKA Twigs, Tori Amos and even Björk. It was an eye-opening experience and inspiring, as an artist, to see a woman’s authentic, free-willed and uninhibited success celebrated.
“Kate Bush is a trailblazer. Her music infuses elements of synth, performance art and unwavering ambition. She was doing it all: writing, producing and performing her own work. On top of that, she has such a commanding, powerful and passionate voice. She gives it her all, which is evident in everything she does.”
The Infant Kiss (Never For Ever, 1980)
This haunting track was inspired by the 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, about a governess who suspects her charges may be possessed. The young boy flirts with the governess as Bush sings, ‘What is this? An infant kiss that sends my body tingling?’
Alice Lowe: “Kate Bush is such a consummate storyteller; her songs draw you in and take you on an emotional journey. The vulnerability is just astonishing, something about the glass tone of her voice and the unashamed femininity. The subject matter certainly had me fascinated, even scandalised – [it’s] one of her most controversial songs because many thought the lyrics were about paedophilia. But even as a child I was struck by how she was one of the few artists singing about children, childbirth, a child’s perspective, a mother’s perspective.”
Army Dreamers (Never For Ever, 1980)
Bush’s first two albums were rich in romance and literary references, but with Army Dreamers she began to tackle political subjects with an anti-war message about a mother mourning her soldier son.
Eivør Pálsdóttir: “I was in my teenage years when I first heard this song and it moved me in so many ways. What makes it very special are the big contrasts, I guess: the sad and tragic lyrics about a mother who grieves for her son against the waltzy and playful arrangement. This combination creates some extra depth and dimension to it and makes the whole picture very powerful.
“Kate Bush is such an extraordinary and unique artist. There is no one like her, and never will be.”
Breathing (Never For Ever, 1980)
A startling reaction to the prospect of nuclear war, told from the perspective of an unborn baby that doesn’t want to leave the safety of the womb to face the horrors of the world outside.
Marjana Semkina, Iamthemorning: “It’s heartachingly beautiful, fragile and dark at the same time, which is a juxtaposition I very much appreciate and always try to achieve in my music. The subject of the song is especially dark and resonates with me in the light of the political events of the past months, since it’s a song about a foetus experiencing the world outside during the nuclear fallout.
“Kate Bush calls us to turn to the most basic of all human needs: breathing, for no matter how bad things get, you need to breathe. The studio version also features some spoken word about what a flash from a nuclear bomb looks like, and listening to it now has a very strange effect on me – it’s almost too scary to keep listening. But it’s also absolutely beautiful how the song shifts from being ominous and dark to light and hopeful, telling us that not all is lost yet, as long as you only keep breathing.”
December Will Be Magic Again (UK single, 1980)
This seasonal tune made its debut in December 1979 when Bush performed it on Kate, the BBC’s Kate Bush Christmas special.
That Joe Payne: “Like much of Kate’s stuff from that era, it’s a real fusion of classical and contemporary and I just adore the lyrics [to this single]: ‘Jumping down in my parachute; the white city, she is so beautiful/Upon the black-soot icicled roofs, see how I fall, like the snow…’
“Wow, what imagery! She was already a huge influence on me way before hearing this song, but I have to say that it’s the theatrical sensibilities that always draw me in. She sets a great example to anyone who wonders where the line is between art and entertainment and reminds me that there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to both.”
Sat In Your Lap (The Dreaming, 1982)
Bush started writing Sat In Your Lap after seeing Stevie Wonder at Wembley, coming away from his show inspired by the sheer energy of his performance. The track gallops along thanks to Preston Heyman’s thunderous drumming and Bush’s daredevil vocal acrobatics.
Jem Godfrey, Frost*: “I’d never really heard anything like this before. It didn’t hurt, either, that the video for the song was of Kate being chased by blokes dressed as centaurs and everyone’s on roller skates, naturally!
“Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was one of the very early appearances of sampling in popular music via the Fairlight CMI, which was programmed by JJ Jeczalik, later of The Art Of Noise, and played by Geoff Downes, who needs no introduction here [Downes is credited as playing the CMI trumpet section].
“The world really hadn’t heard these kinds of sounds before. Sat In Your Lap was actually some ground-breaking stuff.”
Pull Out The Pin (The Dreaming, 1982)
Written from the perspective of a Viet Cong soldier, Pull Out The Pin was inspired by a documentary about the Vietnam War, with lyrics referencing the Vietnamese silver Buddha pendants, worn for good luck.
Jon Ivar Kollbotn, Major Parkinson: “The first time I heard the song was
in a small-town record store in the mid-90s. There I was, in a dark listening booth, stepping into this ethereal psychosis filled to the brim with poetic imagery. It totally blew my mind. My initial impression of the song was the overshadowing murkiness and unpredictability of the song structure. The unconventional use of instruments; it felt like trying to penetrate a thick jungle in a dark humid night. The lyrics were so unconventional, and in this case, she plays the part of a Viet Cong soldier hunting for Americans. She’s pulling out a pin from a hand grenade as she chokes on a silver Buddha. The lack of spirit among the American troops, the waste of human life. Still relevant to this day, I suppose.”
Suspended In Gaffa (The Dreaming, 1982)
Ripe with religious imagery, Suspended In Gaffa concerns struggling for personal fulfilment. ‘I want it all,’ sings Bush, reaching for her dreams.
Rosalie Cunningham: “It wasn’t until I got into my 20s that I began to appreciate the talent and artistry behind this strange music. I found The Dreaming to be her most mesmerising piece of work, not knowing its reputation as her most ‘underrated’ album, and became addicted to Suspended In Gaffa, which seemed designed for my ears. I’m a sucker for a baroque wonky waltz! The relentless metre of the verses is something I can detect the influence of in my own writing style, and the lyrical theme of glimpsing the divine is something I flirt with regularly.”
The Dreaming (The Dreaming, 1982)
Lynsey Ward, Exploring Birdsong: “The Dreaming is so special because it is so important. This song is about how large areas of traditional land belonging to Aboriginal Australians were destroyed. You, the listener, are confronted by the direct result of British colonialism, and the attempted erasure of native culture.
“One thing that stands out is the use of an orchestral hit sample. Kate Bush is a pioneer in implementing sampling technology into pop music, so it’s always a pleasure to hear what came out of her experimentation with this groundbreaking songwriting tool. Using traditional Australian musical instruments and animal sounds really immerse you into the song; you hang on her every word.”
All The Love (The Dreaming, 1982)
This musing on loneliness and isolation was partly inspired by a faulty answerphone that cut short messages to leave family and friends just saying goodbye, snippets that appear in the song’s outro.
Jakko Jakszyk, King Crimson: “It’s a creative milestone and turning point both for her and anyone listening to it. Kate Bush had taken control and run with it. It was sonically amazing, the instrumentation and arranging totally unique.
“Kate’s voice is experimenting with the dynamics of drama. Soft, close-mic’d and intimate one moment, screaming and shouting the next. She’s acting her way through this and ending with a collage of answerphone messages which is strangely emotional. Kate is unique. She has no peers when it comes to writing, performing and producing.”
Houdini (The Dreaming, 1982)
Catherine Anne Davies, The Anchoress: “Kate herself has spoken about how ‘emotionally demanding’ Houdini was to write, and it really manages to capture that beautiful and strange relationship of Houdini and his wife. It’s like a small novel, unwrapped over the course of a single song. I find it so beautiful and epic in its range
and depth trying to convey that relationship from beyond the grave.
“Kate’s voice on this stands out for me in terms of its emotional and tonal range: to go from the fragile tenderness of the verses, really conveying the emotion of the story she’s stepping into, and then the utter power of that almost death metal scream/cry in her voice: ‘With your spit still on my lip, you hit the water.’ Just devastating. The way that the fretless bass interweaves with her top line in verse two is stunning. I’m obsessed with the whole arrangement. It’s just perfection.”
Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) (Hounds Of Love, 1985)
A hit three times: first in 1985, as a remix in 2012 – played during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London – before hitting No.1 in the UK in 2022 after it was featured in Netflix’s Stranger Things.
John Mitchell, Lonely Robot, Kino, Frost*: “You’d be hard pushed to find a more memorable chorus top line or indeed lyric than in this song. It’s almost a perfect and yet odd pop song. The verse-vocal phrasing is quite odd in measure but the dynamic shift when the chorus hits is a perfect rush. The breathy nature of the chords in the background also makes for a strange etherealness, which you don’t hear in much contemporary music. The lyrical theme is about swapping gender roles after ‘making a deal with God’, which is pretty forward thinking for the time.
“She inhabits a small world to my mind, one only occupied by very few. Peter Gabriel, Tears For Fears and Neil Hannon also live there. It’s called Planet Genius.”