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Fiction: 'To Serve Man' by Damon Knight

Thunder In Our Hearts: the Music of Kate Bush

Kate BushI’m just going to say it: Kate Bush is the Angela Carter of music.

For both, the following apply: people who have been exposed to her work are left changed and will cite her as an inspiration at every turn; a generation above or below may never know of her and the loss is entirely theirs; her fans have a cult-like love for her; she always knew exactly who she was as a creator, as an artist; no one will ever be able to work out just how she did what she did. Visceral, earthy and effortlessly charming, both Bush and Carter are iconoclasts who have informed so much music and writing that it is impossible to measure the breadth of their influence. They’re also both genre artists.

Kate Bush isn’t someone you can listen to without having your attention torn away from everything else - she’s never going to be background music. She’s never written a conventional pop song, even when she wrote a conventional pop song. She uses disruptive rhythms, changes key all over the place and sings with ferocity even when she’s whispering. You can’t not give her your ears, your eyes and probably your soul too. Even when she couldn't possibly have known who she was or who she wanted to be as an artist - at age 13, 16, 19 - she still somehow figured it out in a secret way, a way that allowed her to retain creative control over her work and win almost each battle with her recording company. It’s quite something that Kate Bush always got to do what she wanted to, that she could make a commercial label like EMI release an album as strange, as surreal and as esoteric as, say, 1984’s The Dreaming. Maybe it was the 80s. Maybe she just had better contracts drawn up for creative control than Prince did back then. But it’s a feat in itself to be able to control your career the way she did at such a young age.

In the recent BBC documentary, The Kate Bush Story, trip-hop legend Tricky talks about how much of an influence Kate Bush has had on him and of all the wonderful things said about Bush in that film, it’s something Tricky says almost in passing that defines her the best. He called her an "originator" and wonders where she came from. "I can’t hear her influences", he points out. I’d never thought of it until then, but he couldn't be more right - she's a complete original. There are barely a handful of artists or performers in that league. Certainly none who could get away singing about a washing machine, that’s for sure.

Many people thought she’d lost her way after The Dreaming, but she then spent three years setting up her own studio and entirely producing Hounds of Love. It was magnificent. For many, this remains Bush’s greatest album, a perfect example of everything Bush is capable of.

 I still dream of organon.


kate bush" cloudbusting" by miklo

1985’s Cloudbusting from Hounds of Love (along with Experiment IV which came much later), is the most obviously SF of Kate Bush’s songs. It is literally about a machine that makes rain using the obscure concept of orgone energy. Based on a 1973 memoir by a man called Peter Reich, the song is about Peter’s relationship with his father, psychoanalyst William Reich, his work on constructing a cloudbuster, and his eventual arrest. William Reich’s work with orgone energy already sounds entirely SF-nal. But it wasn't just this perplexing use of a hypothetical life-force that interested Kate Bush, it was this boy and his absolute belief in his father - a belief that is shattered when "the men in power" take his father away.

Cloudbusting is a vast stormy sky of a song. Cello-driven rhythms, sweet lilting vocals that turn into a great big chorus just so open to the future, to possibilities, to the belief that "something good is going to happen" and "just saying it could even make it happen". It’s so powerful and evocative that even all these years later, though I know it ends with the sound of a train, I’m somehow convinced the final sound effects on the song are those of crashing thunder and a heavy downpour.

As if Cloudbusting needed extra SF credit, the video was conceived by Bush with Terry Gilliam and directed by Julian Doyle, editor for Brazil and Time Bandits. The cloudbuster itself (which bears little resemblance to the machines Reich actually created) was designed and built for the video by the same people who worked on the xenomorph in Alien. Of course it was.

Do you know what I really need?


Kate Bush - Hounds of Love by bebepanda

Hounds of Love, from the same album, is the most Carter-esque of Bush’s songs. It’s straight up gothic horror - a woman runs through the night, chased by demons coming for her through the trees. She calls out for help, she doesn’t know what's good for her - it rings of everything from Jane Eyre to Wide Sargasso Sea to Frankenstein and Fall of the House of Usher. It even starts with a clip of dialogue from 1957’s The Night of the Demon - a cry of "It’s in the trees! It’s coming!".

What makes this more than just another goth number is that Bush is aware that sometimes what’s coming for you is what you deeply, darkly desire. Like the young bride in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, it’s as if this narrator too senses in herself "a potentiality for corruption" when she turns and insists "Here I go, don't let me go, hold me down/It’s coming for me through the trees". Why hold her down? For what’s coming from the trees? Or maybe she is the beast herself? With Kate Bush, it’s all possible. There are demons in this song, ones that echo on and on with each hearing. Perhaps they’re Bush’s demons but they’re also ours. Who hasn't been a coward, afraid of giving themselves up to what could be the greatest or more frightening love of their lives?

The video of course, isn’t Carter-esque gothic but more a sort of Hitchcock meets Orwellian dystopia, disturbing in it’s own way and, to me, always creating an odd dissonance from the song itself.

Unaware I’m tearing you asunder.


Kate Bush - Running up that Hill by scopitones

Running up That Hill (Deal with God) was the first single off the Hounds of Love album, even if it wasn’t the one EMI wanted to release right away. Again, this was a battle Bush won, even though she had to compromise by demoting the actual title of the song to parenthesis. It is hard to find the words to explain how Running Up That Hill can make you feel. You want to live it. You want to swallow it whole. Crawl inside it. It’s introspective and it’s massively forward thinking at the same time, falling just as deep and fast as it reaches high. It’s bigger than me, than you ,and it’s probably even bigger than Kate Bush.

It’s the ultimate song about gender equality, with Bush suggesting men and women would never truly understand each other or each other’s worlds unless they swapped roles entirely. Of course, that immediately leads me to think of body swaps as well as identity swaps, and it has been suggested by Bush aficionados that what this track is really about is two lovers switching bodies to know how sex feel like for the other. Regardless, it brings to mind stories of societal and gender role reversals.

Whatever the true meaning of the song may be, it is passionate, brutal, urgent and full of a sort of perfect madness. The sheer ambition of making a deal with God is amazing - Bush isn’t interested with the more common deals with the devil, oh no, she’s gone straight to the top. And it isn’t a deal God’s made with her, there is no sense of the standard "if you are good then you’ll get to heaven" thinking here - the agency is all Bush’s here. She’d get him to "swap our places".

Running Up That Hill has a fairly sparse musical arrangement compared to some of the other songs on the album, really - things are laid out quite bare though with incredible strength, something the video very much visualises too, with just Bush and another dancer smoothly performing a routine based on the movements of an archer pulling an arrow in a bow (an image made real on the physical sleeve of the single). It is unlike anything that filled the videos of the 80s: graceful and powerful and quite hypnotic.

Chips of Plutonium are twinkling in every lung.


Kate Bush - Breathing by val6210

At a time when nuclear destruction was on the mind of many artists, Kate Bush took the nuclear wasteland to another level. Yes, people were concerned with the effects of nuclear fall out on future generations, but Kate decided to question it all from the point of view of an unborn child - a foetus in the womb who is "breathing the fall out in" from her mother’s poisoned body.

It’s beautiful and frightening and fraught and so very contemporary to its time. It’s also a huge risk for a song released as a single to promote the 1980 album Never for Ever. There’s a part of the song that’s a spoken word description of a nuclear blast - it lasts for a substantial chunk of the duration and by any standards is a gamble in was essentially meant to be released as a pop song, especially when the track ends with Kate Bush desperately screaming for something to breathe, overlaid with a man’s voice telling us that we are all going to die. It’s powerful but it isn’t at all easy to hear.

These shoes do a kind of voodoo
They gonna make her dance ‘till her legs fall off.


Kate Bush - The red shoes 3 de 7 by AGA_TGB

Inspired by The Red Shoes, the 1948 film about a ballet dancer who must choose between love and dance and, in turn, the originalHans Christian Anderson story about a young dancer who, in being blessed with the ability to dance is cursed with shoes that have a life of their own. Bush’s 1993 The Red Shoes featured guest stars the likes of Prince, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Lenny Henry and was followed up by a short film starring Bush and actor Miranda Richardson, called The Line, The Cross & The Curve.

Bush pulls out her deepest darkest fairy tale gothic again for the title track of this album, which, though it has a deceptively bouncy beat to it, is a horrific tale of the possessed red ballet shoes that just won’t stop dancing: "Oh the minute I put them on/ I knew I had done something wrong" sings Kate, all smiley and manic. Like all wishes made true by dark cosmic forces, her desire to dance like a diva comes with a heavy price.

The film based on the album is a quirky, campy little beastie that almost feels like Bush’s take on carny lit. Bush has called it a "load of bollocks" since then, but it has its moments. She plays a dancer who makes a wish and in a literal Lacanian ‘ideal ego’ mirror image, a woman runs through the mirror offers Kate her ballet shoes in exchange for help. Of course, the shoes have a life of their own. And here starts the campiest music video you’ve seen since The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Featuring Kate’s dance teacher and early performance guru Lindsey Kemp as a sort of spirit guide, the video is full of terrible stage effects, plastic skulls and prancing, dancing red ballet shoes. It’s funny and awful but it still can’t take away from the great frenetic vocal leaps Bush creates in the song itself.

The best and most grotesque part of this film is probably the scene in which the unnamed dancer played by Bush begs for her feet to be cut off. We see her on the floor, legs splayed, feet wildly pounding at nothing in the air like some sort of monstrous butterfly, her mind and soul having given up before her feet have. It’s obvious the legs are of a whole other person and not Kate’s because of the strange angle at which the are meant to be "connected". This, of course, makes image of the legs flapping relentlessly as Kate begs even more bizarre and frightening.

It could feel like falling in love
It could feel so bad.


Kate Bush - Experiment IV by KiwiJapanese

The 1986 single Experiment IV was released to promote The Whole Story, a greatest hits compilation released by EMI just a year after Hounds of Love, presumably to cash in on Bush’s success with what everyone had quickly realised was her magnum opus. Experiment IV was the only previously unreleased song on the album and is, again, a weird, frightening song about a militarised invention. Scientists working for the military who know "only in theory" that they are trying to create music for pleasure are told to create a sound "that could kill someone from a distance". They record the worst sounds they can find - a terrified scream, the "painful cries of mothers", horrific sounds of brutality and fear only to find there is a "mistake in the making" .

As if the idea of recording the sounds of extreme human pain and using this to kill people isn’t frightening enough, the video took things to a whole other level. Kate Bush plays a sort of golden magical mermaid, a living embodiment of the sound created - a siren who turns into a banshee and kills everyone in the facility and in the vicinity, (including Dawn French and a very young Hugh Laurie). The concept itself is an SF-nal one, but it is also a bold political statement on torture and war. It may even be a reference to the Nazi operation "Action T4", in which thousands of people were killed if they were judged "incurably sick", including any children with disabilities. Bush of course has written about Hitler in other songs very explicitly - the 1989 song Heads Were Dancing is narrated by a woman who dances with a "charming man" one night, only to find in the morning that he was Adolf Hitler himself. 

Why should I love you?

There are so many more tracks that showcase Kate Bush’s love for genre narratives, be they horror, SF or ghost stories. The track Hammer Horror from 1978’s Lionheart is about an actor haunted by the ghost of the man whose role of Quasimodo he’s taken over in a movie after the original actor is killed in an accident. Bush moves between soprano lilts and low register growls easily, camp, self aware and a delight.

Deeper Understanding from 1989’s The Sensual World (rereleased as a single from 2011’s The Directors Cut) is about a computer programme that understands and eases the loneliness of it’s user. Haven’t there been movies made about that recently? Bush wrote "I turn to my computer like a friend" in 1989, making her seem almost prescient in her abilities to gauge where society was headed.

Get Out of My House from The Dreaming is inspired by Stephen King’s The Shining and it bursting with fear: "this house is full of my-ness…the house is full of madness", she sings before breaking out into the most harrowing sounds of a mule’s bray.

Why does she "turn into the mule"? What is she thinking, how does she make all this madness work so well? Who knows? It’s Kate Bush and of all the people in the world, she’s always known something we don’t.

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