Kate Bush has an especially impressive singles catalog. Here we are in the Top 20 and already I’m splitting hairs.
And now check out:
20. The Red Shoes
“The Red Shoes,” the title track of her 1993 album, was based on a film titled The Red Shoes
which was, in turn, inspired by the Hans Christen Anderson fairy tale of the same name. As we’ve established elsewhere, Bush is a trained dancer in addition to be a musician and composer. She took a lengthy break from recording and performing after releasing this album and I can’t help but wonder if this song partially explains why she wanted to take a break. In essence, it sounds to me like Bush is using the fairy tale as a metaphor for how she felt about performing at the time – “we’re going to make you dance ‘til your legs fall off.” Of course, this song also falls into Bush’s tradition of taking inspiration from stories while writing songs so its possible that that’s actually all that’s going on here. The song itself takes the form of a bit of a rollicking, relentless folk song that one can imagine dancing to forever.
19. Running Up That Hill
Inexplicably, “Running up that Hill” from 1985’s Hounds of Love was Bush’s biggest American Billboard Hot 100 hit. It reached #30. I’m going to attribute this at least in part to the big 80’s production (part of why I think she went down that production path on her next couple of albums). I’m looking at Side 1 of Hounds and noting that – of five songs – this is my fourth favorite – and I like all of Side 2 better than this track. Its indisputably a well crafted prog-pop song and was better than most of what was being played on the radio back in ‘85. I have very fond memories of driving around and hearing Kate Bush on AM radio in New England. Mind-blowing. The song has been praised up and down for its depth and poignancy, but I’ve always found the lyrics to be a little light-weight for Kate Bush (though I also think that’s the point). While I’ve been critical of this style of production (typified here by the booming drums, the vocal that is recorded just a little too “live” and that so-80’s fairlight hook) I think it genuinely works on this song. This is that 80’s sound at its best. On the other hand, I also don’t think its typical of the rest of the album. What do I know?
18. Hammer Horror
“Hammer Horror,” the first single from 1979’s Lionheart, was (significantly) not a hit. Bush followed it up with “Wow” and returned to the charts. I kind of like “Hammer Horror” better. Its another story song (An actor dies and the actor who replaces him is haunted by the first actor’s ghost) with a great 70’s rock chorus. Hammer Films was a British film company that made some great (and some cheesy… and some great, cheesy) horror films. I love Bush rocking out here – especially when she echos the word “soul” in the chorus. The backing vocals (also provided by Bush) provide a counter melody at times. There’s also a great switch from verse to pre-chorus to chorus – its almost like there’s three songs going on here. And then there’s some great little electric guitar parts buried in the chorus that push the song just a little bit more towards classic rock. I feel like – properly promoted – this could have been a huge US hit. Its close enough in the vein of same-era Pat Benatar or Linda Ronstadt that it would have sounded right at home on the rock stations. I imagine its failure in the UK influenced the decision not to push it here (plus, perhaps, a feeling that references to Hammer films were too British for dainty American ears) but they should have gone for it.
17. Sat in Your Lap
Kate Bush released “Sat in Your Lap” as the first single from 1982’s The Dreaming almost a year before that album was released. I sort of have always heard “Sat In Your Lap,” “The Dreaming” and the song “Hounds of Love” to be sort of cut from the same awesome cloth. This is at least in part because of how Bush employs percussion in each of the songs. Like her earlier song “Them Heavy People,” “Sat In Your Lap” is about the quest for knowledge and enlightenment. As others have pointed out, the title suggests that this enlightenment might be sexual in nature. I tend to think Bush is aware that there’s a double meaning in the title but is perhaps alluding to the more innocent idea that knowledge is passed from parent to child. There’s so much going on in this song – I was put off by it the first time I heard it (probably shortly after I acquired The Whole Story greatest hits package) but quickly came around to liking it a whole lot.
16. The Sensual World
The title track from 1989’s The Sensual World has a fascinating history. Originally, Bush wanted the lyrics to this song to be Molly Bloom’s speech from the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses but she was unable to secure the rights in time (she did eventually get the rights and rerecorded this song with Joyce’s words under the title “Flower of the Mountain” for 2011’s Director’s Cut). Bush was thus forced to write her own lyrics for the song (leaning heavily on a sensually sung “mmmm yes,” which echos Molly Bloom’s repetition of the word “yes” in the Joyce text). There was apparently some commentary at the time about how this song was more overtly sexual than Bush’s earlier songs to which I can only reply “did you listen to her earlier songs?” Bush’s vocal delivery is so spot on that you might miss the terrific instrumentation that supports the song – including a bouzouki, a whip and uilleann pipes. This anchors the song (at least to my ear) in a more natural aural world than more modern instruments might.
15. The Dreaming
The title track from 1982’s The Dreaming features a didgeridoo. Like “Sat in Your Lap,” it is built around a more complex rhythm than some of Bush’s earlier songs. The lyrics are about the destruction of Aboriginal lands in Australia by whites looking for Uranium. Like many songs in the early 80’s, this tune is tied in with fear of nuclear war. Just like now! Hey, the more things change, right! I’m certain I first encountered it while listening to the greatest hits album, The Whole Story.
14. Wild Man
Bush’s most recent album was 2011’s 50 Words for Snow. Since then, she performed a series of concerts in 2014 in London that sold out in 15 minutes and led to all of her albums returning the British charts at the same time. I’ve no idea what’s up next for her musically. 50 Words for Snow was a very different album even for Bush. It consisted of only 7 songs and all of them have a very strong wintery feel to them (hence the title). Most of the pieces emphasize Bush’s piano and voice. This song is the closest thing to a pop single from the album (and it was, indeed, the only single from the album). Its about a group of explorers who meet the fabled abominable snowman and then do what they can to cover up its existence so its not killed by other humans. Its a bit of a mid-tempo song with a hushed Bush lead vocal and some great backing vocals. Highly recommended, especially if you’ve not listened to the parent album.
13. Hounds of Love
Lots of title tracks in the 11-20 range, this one from her 1985 album. I recall reading that “hounds of love” was a response to the phrase “hounds of war.” Like “The Dreaming” and “Sat In Your Lap,” “Hounds of Love” is built around a powerful drum track. Its a little more streamlined than the earlier tracks, but I think its the most successful of the three. Bush’s vocals (which always sound excellent) rarely sounded better and she really kicks out the jams when she reaches the “here I go” choruses. This is her great rock vocal right here – if she’d wanted to follow a different path, she could have conquered the charts with some hair metal at this point in her career.
As I mentioned earlier, nuclear paranoia figured heavily into the music of the early 80’s (The Fixx’s first two semi-hits were pretty much completely about nuclear war – that’s what we were thinking about back then). Bush released “Breathing” as the first single from her 1980 album “Never For Ever” and its terrifying and brilliant. Sung from the perspective of a fetus still in womb, the lyrics establish how the fetus relies on its mother for survival and then shifts to the idea that nuclear bombs have fallen and she’s, thus, breathing the fallout in (out in out in) with her mother. Bush employs some spoken dialogue to communicate the salient details about the bombs – a very prog-rock thing, but done in a very compact and smart way. The climax of the song – Bush practically scream-singing “give me something to breath” – is both powerful and horrifying. Its really one of her strongest performances. Also, great bass guitar work here.
11. Lake Tahoe
“Lake Tahoe” was released as a promotional video but not really as a purchasable single from 2011’s 50 words For Snow. The song is 11 minutes long on the album (and I feel a little ripped off by this edit) but about 6 minutes long in this edit. Its based on a story Bush heard about a ghost that haunts Lake Tahoe. Bush built a story around it about how the reason the ghost appears is that she’s looking for her old dog. I find the ending of the song – where the dog and ghost are reunited – to be particularly moving. Shut up. I’m not crying, you’re crying. Like most of the songs on 50 Words for Snow, this one is built primarily around Bush’s voice and piano but she’s also working with this remarkable jazz drummer named Steve Gadd. His contributions to this song make it one of my favorites on the record (and also one of my favorites from Bush’s whole catalog)
Coming Next: More ghosts, more babies, more songs inspired by books.