Probably the most important and influential British female singer-writer-musician bar none, Kate Bush was ‘discovered’ aged 15 when a demo tape found its way to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. He thought the songs “idiosyncratic… yet I was convinced from the beginning that this girl had remarkable talent”.
Pretty soon EMI had signed her, but wisely put her on a retainer for two years. During that time she honed her craft, practised piano and her dance moves, and became increasingly prolific.
Just as the label were ready to launch their protégée, punk came along. EMI kept the faith, intent on releasing James And The Cold Gun as her first single, until she convinced them to go with Wuthering Heights by bursting into tears. It became the first UK chart-topper self-written by a female.
Her debut album The Kick Inside raced to No.3 in February 1978. EMI, who had nurtured young Kate’s genius with great care, now realised they had an eye-catching, theatrical superstar and pin-up on their hands, and rushed her into the follow-up album, Lionheart, with undue haste.
Her first and only live tour was a highly visual triumph, but the emphasis on her looks distressed Bush, who subsequently shied away from all forms of promotion – except for videos, at which she excelled. With her family, she took greater control of her business affairs, and 1980’s Never For Ever certainly didn’t suffer – it was her first No.1 album.
The more she avoided the glare of publicity, the more we all grew intrigued by this unique voice. The Dreaming marked a move away from commercial pop (although even her hits up until now had displayed gorgeous eccentricity) towards wilder experimentation. Hounds Of Love, from 85, is generally regarded as her masterpiece, marrying prog-art suites about death and God with extraordinary, riveting hit singles like Running Up That Hill.
Over the next decade, she broke cover less frequently but her charisma grew, as The Sensual World and The Red Shoes – despite limp attempts by some at a backlash – yielded some of her greatest tracks. Twelve years passed before she released the double album Aerial, a paean to middle age and motherhood.
Then, implausibly, 2011 saw not one but two albums: one of peculiar remoulds, one all about snow. They reaffirmed that Kate Bush stands – or floats – apart from the norm and the everyday, and that for all her many mimics, nobody makes music like she does.
The Kick Inside (EMI, 1978) (opens in new tab)
One of the unforgettable debuts, this multi-million-seller was from a 19-year-old who’d written most of its songs years earlier. From the opening Moving (introduced by whale song) to the brittle yet euphoric title track, the album revelled in its literary and cinematic influences (most obviously Emily Bronte), while introducing a fresh, candid voice, fearless in expressing lust and eroticism from a female perspective.
The Man With The Child In His Eyes was the follow-up hit to Wuthering Heights. Its sweet, sighing romanticism was matched by L’Amour Looks Something Like You and Feel It. Unfettered and rhapsodic; a new voice.
Hounds Of Love (EMI, 1985) (opens in new tab)
Her fifth album and her best seller remains the antithesis of all you think you know about 80s pop. Having built her own studio in the barn behind the family home to facilitate her now slow, meticulous recording techniques, and using everything from samplers to traditional Irish instruments, she emerged with something unparalleled.
The first half was five odd yet accessible songs, from crossover hit Running Up That Hill to the giddy exhilaration of The Big Sky and the haunting hooks of Cloudbusting. The second was a prog-tastic suite taking in King Arthur, drowning and countless shifts. She thinks of it as “two separate albums”. Both are breathtaking.
The Dreaming (EMI, 1982) (opens in new tab)
Liberation. Her first self-produced album, and the one where some started to think she’d gone bonkers. Not big on hits – though the staccato rhythms of Sat In Your Lap disturbed the charts – it saw her relinquishing dainty, pretty chord structures to write over-skewed soundscapes.
Encouraged by Peter Gabriel (opens in new tab), she explored diverse, dark themes, from Vietnam to Houdini, from crime thrillers to the plight of indigenous Australians. More than ever before, she used multiple voices and aspects of her personality to inhabit characters. And it still dented the US chart – her first album to do so – while going top three in the UK.
The Sensual World (EMI, 1989) (opens in new tab)
Received wisdom declares that this album tails off after its sumptuous title track. Yet there are dazzling moments: the arrival of the Trio Bulgarka in the soaring Rocket’s Tail; the simple, sorrowful insights of This Woman’s Work; the underrated surges of Love And Anger and Heads We’re Dancing.
There are prescient studies of relationships, and a constant sense of, to borrow from John Martyn (opens in new tab), grace and danger. That title track, inspired by Ulysses, oozes Joycean abandon, culminating in a delirious, orgasmic ‘Yes’. As flushed and loaded with desire as Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.
The Red Shoes (EMI, 1993) (opens in new tab)
It’s baffling, even infuriating, that some supposed Bush aficionados, even biographers, write this off as her weakest album. It may leap from dizzying optimism (Rubberband Girl, Eat The Music) to melodrama (her long-term relationship had ended), but every emotion crackles with naked intensity.
The music hops between genres with conviction and playfulness. In Moments Of Pleasure, Top Of The City and You’re The One, Bush conjured up confessional ballads that could move a statue to tears, while the zing of the likes of Why Should I Love You? is irresistible. All this, plus guest spots from Eric Clapton, (opens in new tab) Prince (opens in new tab) and Gary Brooker (opens in new tab).
Aerial (EMI, 2005) (opens in new tab)
The comeback that melted a thousand doubts. Presented as two discs – A Sea Of Honey and A Sky Of Honey – this followed the Hounds Of Love strategy of offering first a set of songs (which perhaps lapsed a little too eagerly into cutesiness concerning offspring and washing machines), then a linked concept piece.
Birdsong dots the latter before it climaxes in an astonishing kind of chillout/rave hybrid (Nocturn/Aerial) which shouldn’t work (on paper) but does gloriously. The reviews were going to welcome back the long-lost legend whatever, but this made it clean and easy. She still had it.
Lionheart (EMI, 1978) (opens in new tab)
Kate Bush has always said she was hurried into this – EMI seeking to capitalise on their new star – and wasn’t happy with her vocals. Nonetheless, it reached No.6, had the hit Wow, and offered a stream of fey, slightly camp tales of showbiz (Hammer Horror), travel (Kashka From Baghdad), off-kilter patriotism and, yes, sex.
For sceptics who reckoned she was all a bit jazz-hands and drama school, this was the one to attack – her one tour ‘visualised’ the narratives – but that fearless voice and fluid piano work woo all but the hardest heart. With its bucolic feel and quests for Peter Pan, its sunlit languor has endured surprisingly well.
Never For Ever (EMI, 1980) (opens in new tab)
Now with her own management and publishing companies, co-producer Kate wielded greater control over the decision making, though this album still wound up with a cover featuring swans, cats and whales flying out of her skirt.
She thus began the 80s with her first No.1 album – the first by a British female, and the first by any solo female to go straight in at the top. With lyrics influenced by Henry James and François Truffaut, its styles ranged from heated rockers like Violin to the alluring waltz Army Dreamers. Babooshka proved insanely catchy, while the other bookend, Breathing, was an eerie, experimental glimpse of what inspired weirdness was to come.
50 Words For Snow (Fish People, 2011) (opens in new tab)
This was universally hailed as another masterpiece. However, her 10th album’s long songs seem to have a lack of focus and a jazzy tendency to take forever to make their points. The atmosphere is wintry, gothic and achingly melancholy.
There are few frills on the sparse, sad ballads, but the duet with an incongruous, trying-too-hard Elton John (opens in new tab) on Snowed In At Wheeler Street rewrites Top Of The City from The Red Shoes winningly. Then there’s Stephen Fry reciting the titular list of synonyms for snow on the centrepiece. Most positively, 2011 saw her back, still uncategorisable, still way out there.