Strange Phenomena: Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside at 45
Looking back on the album that ascended her to the top of the charts
The executives at EMI couldn’t believe it. They were preparing for the release of Kate Bush’s debut album, The Kick Inside, in early 1978 and had selected the perfect single to launch her: “James and the Cold Gun.”
It was the most rock-oriented track on the album, and, they figured, the most accessible. And now here was Bush insisting that “Wuthering Heights” had to be the first single. A good song, sure. Artistic even, though rather eccentric (that voice!). Might be more likely to put a listener off than draw them in. And what did she know about the music industry anyway, to think that she knew better? The nerve!
She got her way in the end, of course. “Wuthering Heights” became Bush’s first single, swiftly topping the UK charts, with the album rising not far behind, peaking at #3. It was the first volley in what turned out to be a unique, idiosyncratic career. But all that lay ahead. This was 1978, and people were just trying to take in this astonishing new artist who’d seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
To put things in perspective, the UK’s other hit albums of 1978 included the soundtracks of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, greatest hits albums by Buddy Holly and Nat “King” Cole, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Placed in such company, Kate Bush might as well have come from another universe. And while her songs touched on some thorny subjects — sex, death, incest, obsession — she wasn’t a good fit for the edgier, spiky realm of punk and new wave either. The difficulty in placing her in some easily marketable box or category would impede her career to some degree, particularly in the U.S., where she never broke through to the mainstream. But that was a small price to pay. From the beginning, Kate Bush revealed herself to be an artist determined to chart the course of her career in the way she thought was best, critics and advisers be damned.
VIDEO: Kate Bush “Wuthering Heights”
In retrospect, “Wuthering Heights” is such an obvious centerpiece of the album, you wonder how anyone could think it wouldn’t be released as the first single. Inspired not by Emily Bronte’s novel but by Bush catching the end of a 1970 film version on television (Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff, Anna Calder-Marshall as Catherine). Bush sings from the perspective of Cathy’s ghost, in a keening high voice that’s as otherworldly as Cathy’s spectral presence. She’s equally striking in the accompanying video, attired in a white dress, drawing on her lessons with dancer/mime artist Lindsay Kemp (who also schooled David Bowie in the art of mime and movement) in choreographing her own dance routine (more fanciful versions have her dancing in the woods on Salisbury Plain and in a gothic horror house in the Netherlands). The white dress version in particular is a mesmerizing performance, due to its simplicity; no props, no extravagant set or storyline, it’s just Bush and the camera, pleading from the “other side” for her lost love, her large eyes hypnotically drawing you in. Irresistible.
It could’ve come across as a one-off novelty hit. But the next single, “The Man With the Child in His Eyes,” showed that Bush, and her voice, was not a gimmick. Had this been the first choice as a single, Bush would’ve been shuttled off to singer/songwriter land, a more ethereal version of Carole King, perhaps. But coming in the wake of “Wuthering Heights,” its more conventional structure (and vaguely surreal lyrics), showed that Bush was not some kooky artist reaching for her 15 minutes of fame with a self-consciously “clever” song. Her work had depth and meaning; words that offered a clear-eyed assessment of human nature matched with beautifully flowing melodies.
This is most readily seen in the Kick Inside trilogy that traces the waxing and waning of a love affair. “Feel It” (like “Man With The Child…,” it’s just Bush and her piano) is the sensual beginning, romantic but not romanticized: “Well, it could be love/Or it could just lust/But it will be fun.” “Oh to Be in Love” is the giddy morning-after, with a hint of anxiety; love compared to a trap you can’t escape. “L’amour Looks Something Like You” has a sorrowful beauty about it, as Bush contemplates, “Were you only passing through?” In other hands, these songs could’ve been overwrought, over-produced gauzy fantasies; instead, the tasteful, restrained arrangements only intensify the passions roiling underneath.
In some quarters, due to songs like “Room For the Life,” a reductive paean to the “Earth Mother” archetype, and the reggae-ish “Them Heavy People,” which namechecks spiritual gurus like George Gurdjieff, Kate was dismissed as something of a starry-eyed, modern day hippie (the tabloids liked to poke fun at her use of the words “wow” and “amazing”). “Strange Phenomena” is of similar ilk, casting a glance at the “other world” with a somewhat obvious checklist of supposedly otherworldly happenings (the power of the full moon, ESP, synchronicity), though the somber chanting of “om mani padme hum” in the fade out does add a spooky touch.
She’s far more effective working more metaphorically. The album’s first track, “Moving” (which opens with the eerie “singing” of whales) is a tribute to Lindsay Kemp. But you needn’t know the backstory to be drawn into the seductive realm embodied by the phrases “You are just as water,” “Beauty’s potency,” and especially “You crush the lily in my soul.” Further singing by the whales provides a bridge into “The Saxophone Song,” a languid, dreamy evening in a Berlin bar, with the observer too shy to reveal her inner longings to the musician (“You’ll never know the poetry you’ve stirred in me”).
“James and the Cold Gun” and “Kite” are the intriguing outliers, both musically and thematically. “James” has the rollicking piano of an Elton John song and the Wild West feel of Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, with its anti-war sentiments painting violence as spiritual damnation (“But it just ain’t right/To take away the light”). “Kite” is bright pop, but with an unsettling undertow, as the joy of being airborne slowly changes into a fear of not being able to get back down again, Bush’s voice going up and down with each turn of the breeze.
And then there’s the haunting title track, a suicide note from a woman to her brother, explaining she’s pregnant by him and so is taking her own life. Bush explained being drawn to the theme because it was new terrain for her to explore: “There are so many songs about love, but they are always on such an obvious level.” She also imbued the protagonist’s final act with a romanticism at odds with its inspiration, the folk song “Lucy Wan”; in that version, the brother murders his sister. In “The Kick Inside,” the song ends in mid-sentence, leaving the album to conclude on an unresolved note, creating a tension that would never be fulfilled.
And though probably unintentionally, that hanging-in-the-air ending also heightened anticipation for what would come next from Kate Bush. And what happened was completely unexpected. In subsequent decades, Bush defied convention every step of the way; doing but a single live tour, having little interest in cracking the U.S. market (at the time of Kick Inside’s release, she was offered an opening slot on a Fleetwood Mac tour, and a short stand at Radio City Music Hall; she declined both offers), setting up her own studio so she could produce herself, essentially disappearing for over a decade between The Red Shoes (1993) and Aerial (2005). And loyal followers stood by her every step of the way, only become more devoted.
The Kick Inside’s list of acknowledgements and thanks finds Bush writing, “And to all of you with open ears — please feel it.” Forty-five years later, we still do.
- Love Them Do: The Beatles’ Please Please Me Turns 60 - March 22, 2023
- Rocket Man: Revisiting Elton John’s Honky Château - March 20, 2023
- Strange Phenomena: Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside at 45 - February 24, 2023