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The story behind Kate Bush's first No.1 album, Never For Ever

Cropped image from Kate Bush's Never For Ever cover
(Image credit: Press)

‘I’ve been out before, but this time it’s much safer in.’ – Breathing

It was her 70s swansong, which opened up all manner of possibilities for her 80s explosion. Much as 1979’s The Tour Of Life remains legendary in the collective memory/imagination, afterwards Kate Bush avoided live concerts until her triumphant return with the Before The Dawn shows some 35 years later. She had been uncomfortable with EMI’s visual emphasis on her sexuality, and felt she’d been rushed on her previous album, Lionheart

So after the Christmas 1979 TV special, where she’d premiered some of these Never For Ever songs, she began to ease away from promotion (thus acquiring priceless mystique) and took control, with her family, of her business affairs. In the studio, she became an auteur. The success of Never For Ever was therefore a crucial confidence boost, lighting the pathways for her subsequent transcendent work. 

It was the first album by a British female solo artist to top the UK album chart (straight in at No.1), and the first by any female solo artist that wasn’t a compilation. She had a lot more up her skirt than the cats, bats and butterflies pictured on the sleeve, but here was where her swans truly took flight.

Prog

BABOOSHKA

A more bitter than sweet love story, coming from somewhere between Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Pina Colada Song). Bush told Australian TV that the wife of the tale tests her husband’s loyalty by sending him “scented letters” from a young temptress, but he becomes so besotted with the fictitious creature she’s dreamed up that their relationship is ruined. (Nowadays they’d just Snapchat each other.)

The traditional English folk song Sovay, involving a woman in disguise, was another inspiration, having fascinated Kate since childhood. In the video, she played the wife, while the double bass symbolised the man (John Giblin’s fretless bass was a key element of the track). The sound of glass breaking at the end (she smashed up crockery at Abbey Road, later apologising with chocolates to the studio’s kitchen staff) was an early use of a sample made on the spanking new Fairlight CMI synth to which Peter Gabriel had introduced her. (There were only three in the UK at the time.)

The song became a UK Top Five hit, and thus her biggest since Wuthering Heights. Kate’s admitted that she didn’t realise that ‘babushka’ is the Russian word for grandmother, and many shared her misapprehension that the word signified a series of dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. ‘Matryoshka’, the technically correct phrase for that, wouldn’t have scanned or been half as catchy. 

DELIUS (SONG OF SUMMER)

Inspired by a viewing of Ken Russell’s 1968 TV movie Song Of Summer, wherein the madcap director covered the final years of famed English composer Frederick Delius, when, sick, blind and paralysed, he suffers and bemoans Christianity. Russell claimed it was his best work, and reviews used words not commonly associated with him, like ‘subtle’ and ‘sensitive’. Similarly, the film examined the dichotomy between Delius’ monstrous ego and the delicacy of his music. “It stayed in my head,” Kate told Russell Harty, when a guest on his TV show alongside Delius’ confidante Eric Fenby (a character in the song). “It was responsible for me getting into his music as well. I can’t understand why I didn’t listen before – it’s so beautiful.” Pushed on whether Delius would’ve approved of Kate’s song, Fenby said, “Well, [he] was a great individualist. He would have accepted that as a very gracious tribute.” 

“Art is pure emotion,” added Kate, at no point looking likely to emulate Grace Jones in committing violence upon Harty’s person. 

BLOW AWAY

Subtitled For Bill, and dedicated to the memory of Bill Duffield, the lighting director tragically killed in an accident at a show in Poole on Kate’s The Tour Of Life (the first of the three London shows was repurposed as a benefit for Duffield’s family, with Peter Gabriel and Steve Harley guesting). Stars who’d passed away in recent years are also named in the song: Marc Bolan, Minnie Riperton, Keith Moon, Sid Vicious and Sandy Denny, as well as Buddy Holly. ‘Bolan and Moony are heading the show tonight’, she sings, picturing a kind of celestial great gig in the sky. There’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello, too, in ‘put out the light, then put out the light.’ In the year of release Kate said in her fan club newsletter, “It’s… a comfort for the fear of dying,” adding, “It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a great thought that if a musician dies, his soul will join all the other musicians, or a poet will join all the Dylan Thomases…” Poignantly, Bill was honoured again – ‘can you turn the lights up?’ – at the end of Moments Of Pleasure from The Red Shoes.

ALL WE EVER LOOK FOR

That new toy, the Fairlight, gets a healthy work-out here, with samples ranging from Hare Krishna followers chanting to birdsong (which would come back big time on Aerial). With allusions to the pressures placed on children by their parents, it’s, Kate wrote to her fan club, “about how we seek something, but in the wrong way or at wrong times – so it is never found”. We all quest for our own elusive butterflies, but the lyrics include references to ‘another womb’ and ‘our own tomb’, as well as ‘a drug’ and ‘a great big hug’. “It’s not about me,” Bush told the Sunday Times. “It’s about family relationships generally. Our parents got beaten physically – we get beaten psychologically. You do get faced sometimes with futile situations. But the answer’s not to kill yourself. You have to accept it, you have to cope.” Possibly the only track where a performer’s brother gets mentioned in the song and plays the koto on it. 

EGYPT

As premiered, rather startlingly, on that Christmas 1979 TV special, Egypt is a naïve but effusive love letter to an idea of a country, rather than an accurate travelogue. Bush saw it as “an attempted audial animation of the romantic and realistic visions of a country”. With its by rote, hacky mentions of the pyramids, the Nile and feline gods (‘my pussy queen knows all my secrets’), it’s a classic example of the way Bush’s unapologetic, wide-eyed sense of wonder can sometimes elevate what would be cheese in a less gifted artist’s hands into a piece of no little power. “Each song has a very different personality,” she mused. 

THE WEDDING LIST

In François Truffaut’s 1968 film The Bride Wore Black, based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, Jeanne Moreau played a widow who hunts down the five men who killed her husband on her wedding day. Critics panned it at first, and even Truffaut said they were right. Kate begged to differ. ‘I’ll get him and I will not miss!’ she shrieks, almost gleefully, relishing the thrill of gun-toting vengeance. “(It’s) about the powerful force of revenge,” she said in her newsletter. “An unhealthy energy, which in this song proves to be a ‘killer’.” Despite that evidence that her comedy skills were sub-par, the listener can, given her committed performance, totally believe in her hitting ‘headlines’ with a ‘passion crime’. In the TV special, Kate’s crazed, blood-stained performance, in (white) wedding dress, was half bonkers ballet, half Hammer Horror

VIOLIN

Often cited as Bush’s “punk” track, though in truth its raunch is rather mild, akin perhaps to Don’t Push Your Foot On The Heartbrake from Lionheart. Its theatrical rock elements were portrayed during that TV special, Bush wearing black bat wings and red headdress, accompanied by two backing dancers dressed as, um, cellos. It was, like most of this album’s songs, the last time she performed it. It was “for all the mad fiddlers from Paganini to Old Nick himself” she said, taking the tactile instrument love of The Saxophone Song from The Kick Inside even further. As if gripped by synaesthesia, she’s carried away by the violin, which fills her up ‘with the shivers and quivers’. She enjoys the bow screaming to her, so much so that she asks old Nicky (Satan, presumably) to ‘whack that devil into my fiddlestick!’ You didn’t get that kind of sauce with Vera Lynn. Irish master fiddler Kevin Burke guests. 

THE INFANT KISS

Another clinch with gothic horror brought on by late night movie viewing, this was inspired by evergreen spooky classic The Innocents, the 1961 Jack Clayton film starring Deborah Kerr, itself based on Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn Of The Screw. Therein, a governess comes to suspect the two children she’s watching over,
in a potentially haunted house, are possessed (there’s a fan-made video for the song online using scenes from the film, which Kate has approved). “The governess,” she penned in a 1980 newsletter, “is torn between the love of an adult man and child who are within the same body” (it’s creepy in so many ways). Bush recorded a French version, Un Baiser D’Enfant, two years later.   

NIGHT SCENTED STOCK

Named after an ornamental plant, this is a sub-minute interlude created entirely from layered vocals, serving as a prelude to Army Dreamers. A then-novel experiment that others would run with. It was sampled in 1990 by German DJ Loopzone on Les Enfants Du Paradis. 

ARMY DREAMERS

This insistent waltz decries the effects of war, centring on a mother, rattled
by guilt as she grieves for the loss of her son who was killed on military duty. She wonders if he could’ve been a rock star or a politician, if she’d been able to afford him a guitar or ‘a proper education’. Weirdly, the single was longer than the album track (which fades). Insanely, it was banned by the BBC during the 1991 Gulf War. Bush rocked camouflage gear in the video. The song’s been covered in numerous languages, from Hebrew to Finnish.

“I wanted the mother to be a very simple woman who’s obviously got a lot of work to do,” she told Flexipop! at the time. “She’s full of remorse but has to carry on, living in a dream. Most of us live in a dream.” She also told interviewers that it wasn’t “specifically” about Ireland. “I’m not slagging off the Army,” she said to ZigZag’s Kris Needs. “It’s just so sad that there are kids who have no O-levels and nothing to do but become soldiers, and it’s not really what they want. That’s what frightens me.” 

BREATHING

An eerie, thoroughly prog trip back to the womb was a curious choice as the first single and teaser for a new project (it stalled at No.16), but uncompromisingly confirmed that Bush was now taking a firmer hand in decision making. Again her telly watching played a part as she cited a documentary she’d seen on the perils of nuclear fallout (fragments of spoken word describing the flash from a nuclear bomb can be heard). It’s interwoven with fears that the mother’s smoking may also damage the foetus (as if the kid didn’t have enough to worry about, with the apocalypse and all). No wonder Kate, in the video, wants to get out of that rather low-budget plastic bubble. ‘We’re all going to die!’ cries a background voice. 

Upon release, in the fan club letter, she called it “a warning and plea from a future spirit to try and save mankind and his planet from irretrievable destruction”. She told ZigZag it was “the best thing I’ve ever written, the best thing I’ve ever produced – my little symphony”, while Smash Hits elicited the quote, “We’re all innocent. None of us deserve to be blown up.” 

Roy Harper had a backing vocals credit. Talking to Melody Maker’s Colin Irwin, Bush said, “When I heard Pink Floyd’s The Wall I thought there’s no point in writing songs any more because they had said it all. When something really gets you, hits your creative centre, it stops you creating… After a couple of weeks I realised that [they] hadn’t done everything […] Breathing was definitely inspired by the whole vibe I got from hearing that album, especially the third side. There’s something about Floyd that’s pretty atomic anyway.”  

This article originally appeared in Prog 114.

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.