In 1983 Kate Bush was in need of a change in her personal and professional life. Her last album, The Dreaming, released in September the previous year, took a heavy toll and considerable amounts of energy to complete. Ensconced within the confines of a recording studio for hours on end during the many months it took to complete the record, the result was what many saw as an experimental and difficult album. Bush said of that album: “It was very dark and about pain and negativity and the way people treat each other badly. It was a sort of cry really.” While the album climbed to #3 in the UK album charts, it did not do that well in sales numbers, and the singles it produced did not fare well either. A change was in order, and it took a three-pronged approach: new house, new studio, new dance teacher. All three contributed to her next album in varied ways, and the result was the classic, fantastic and timeless album Hounds of Love.
Kate Bush experienced a period of deep fatigue after the release of The Dreaming: “I was just a complete wreck, physically and mentally. I’d wake up in the morning and find I couldn’t move.” Taking a U turn from the hustle and bustle of promotion activities, photo shoots, interviews and life in the media, she purchased a house in Kent and retired to domestic bliss in the country. Song writing became a very different experience: “The stimulus of the countryside is fantastic. I sit at my piano and watch skies moving and trees blowing and that’s far more exciting than buildings and roads and millions of people.”
Musically, the most important contribution of the new house on her next album was a newly built recording studio. Her style of work, ever experimental and in seek of unique ways of expression, was tough on the wallet when using commercial studios. At £90, the going rate for one hour of recording at Abbey Road, The Dreaming cost her and EMI an arm and a leg. Her wish to self-produce her albums and control her artistic destiny with no compromise was another reason for the new studio. In an interview at the time she talked enthusiastically and quite proficiently about her new recording space: “We have a Soundcraft mixing deck, a Studer A-80 tape machine, lots of outboard gear, and Q-lock. We normally use 48 tracks now, even if it’s for a vocal idea or something. 24 tracks doesn’t seem to go anywhere with me. And the Fairlight, of course. We have a room simulator called a Quantec, which is my favorite. It would be lovely to be able to draw the sort of room you wanted your voice to be in. I think that’s the next step.”
That Fairlight she mentioned was possibly the most important piece of gear in that studio. Developed in Sydney, Australia, the Fairlight CMI was an innovative synthesizer, sampler and a digital audio workstation that once released in 1979 was famously adopted by Peter Gabriel. Bush first used it on the album Never for Ever, making it world-famous with the sound of breaking glass on the single Babooshka. During the work on The Dreaming she used the instrument a lot more, and by 1983 she decided to purchase one of her own and make it her go-to tool for music writing: “Most of the songs were written on Fairlight and synths and not piano, which was moving away really from the earlier albums, where all my material was written on piano. And there is something about the character of a sound – you hear a sound and it has a whole quality of its own, that it can be sad or happy or… And that immediately conjures up images, which can of course help you to think of ideas that lead you on to a song.”
One of the first songs Kate Bush worked on in her studio was Deal With God, the title she intended to give that song. The lyrics propose the idea of a man and a woman swapping roles in a relationship, the result a greater understanding between them: “And really the only way I could think it could be done was either… you know, I thought a deal with the devil, you know. And I thought, ‘well, no, why not a deal with God!'” But a deal with God proved to be too daring a title, God forbid: “We were told that if we kept this title that it wouldn’t be played in any of the religious countries, Italy wouldn’t play it, France wouldn’t play it, and Australia wouldn’t play it! Ireland wouldn’t play it.” The compromise was to release it as Running Up That Hill in the single version, and Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) on the album.
The first thing you hear on the song is drummer Stuart Elliott playing a drum pattern previously programmed on a Linn drum machine by Del Palmer, followed by a classic sound from the Fairlight. Kate Bush was quite savvy with the technology. One of the shortcoming of samplers in the early 1980s was their limited memory capacity, capping the length of samples at 1 or 2 seconds. In order to enhance the note stored on one of the sound banks that came with the Fairlight, the CELLO2 patch, she applied reverb and delay effects and resampling techniques to end up with the distinct sound on the song. A classic 1980s song, written in just one evening at her house, and one of her most successful singles:
That music video demonstrates the hard work Bush spent after her return to dance, taking private lessons with Diane Grey, an American dance teacher and choreographer who used the Martha Graham technique and introduced Bush to ballet. The result can be clearly seen in the beautiful video, with the dance duet between Bush and Michael Hervieu choreographed by Grey.
The second big hit from the album was one Bush conceived after reading A Book of Dreams by Peter Reich. The author’s father, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, was the discoverer of the controversial orgone energy, who in 1957 was arrested by the FBI and died in jail shortly after. Prior to that, in 1951, he came up with a new invention called a cloudbuster made out of aluminum pipes. When pointed towards the sky and turned on, it was said to induce clouds to start raining.
Kate Bush on the book: “One of the things that features in the book is how he used to go with his father cloudbusting. And the book is just extraordinary. It’s so sad, but it’s also got this beautiful kind of happy innocence that goes with childhood. And as the guy grows up in the book, in does get sadder and sadder as you can feel him hanging onto his childhood. And the book really touched me, and the song is really trying to tell that story.”
The song is Cloudbusting, depicting the story from the son’s point of view, growing up in the family’s farm in Maine called Orgonon:
I still dream of Orgonon
I wake up crying
You’re making rain
And you’re just in reach
When you and sleep escape me
Keen observers of this wonderful video will notice at 1:50 the son (Kate Bush) pulling the book out of the father’s (Donald Sutherland) coat pocket. Kate Bush talked about the story-telling aspect of her videos: “When I did the first couple of videos, I had spent quite a bit of time working in dance, so that was very dominant in my day-to-day world. I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing again and again, so I moved away from the influence of dance, and more into filmic imagery. As the tracks became more story-like, Cloudbusting was something you could really treat like a short film.”
The excellent string arrangement is by Dave Lawson, a member of the progressive group Greenslade in the 1970s.
Side one of The Hounds of Love album produced four singles, including the two top ten songs discussed above, plus the title track and The Big Sky, both entering the UK Top 40 chart. The only song on that side that was not released as a single is one of my favorites from the album, one with a disturbing subject matter only Kate Bush could wrap with such a lyrical arrangement. This is how she described the song, Mother Stands for Comfort: “There are many different kinds of love and the track’s really talking about the love of a mother, and in this case she’s the mother of a murderer, in that she’s basically prepared to protect her son against anything. Because in a way it’s also suggesting that the son is using the mother, as much as the mother is protecting him.”
The tasteful bass accompaniment on this song and its distinct sound are courtesy of German bass player Eberhard Weber. It is an odd collaboration, given the very different circles in which the two artists orbit. Weber comes from the European jazz and classical community, and by the time of this recording played with many European and American jazz artists. From the mid-1970 and on he dedicated much of his time to releasing albums on the German ECM label, a collection of modern jazz and classical-influenced chamber music for small ensembles. Bush talked about Weber: “There’s a German label called ECM that has a lot of jazz-rock music. One of my favorite artists there is Eberhard Weber. He’s fantastic.” Weber first collaborated with Kate Bush on the track Houdini from The Dreaming, and he contributes his fantastic sound, produced with his self-built electro-acoustic bass, on a number of tunes on The Hounds of Love. Bush recalls a funny anecdote from the recording sessions: “Don’t ask me why, but I just thought, wouldn’t it be great if he did some whistling? He was out there for a couple of hours whistling. I remember somebody saying, ‘God, you’ve brought this huge star bass-player over and you’re making him whistle…’”
The Ninth Wave
And we come to the second side of the LP, comprised of a song cycle called The Ninth Wave. In my book that side is one of the most interesting pieces of music produced in the 1980s. In an interview with Richard Skinner for BBC Radio 1 in 1992, Kate Bush discussed the song suite: “The Ninth Wave was a film, that’s how I thought of it. It’s the idea of this person being in the water, how they’ve got there, we don’t know. But the idea is that they’ve been on a ship and they’ve been washed over the side so they’re alone in this water. And I find that horrific imagery, the thought of being completely alone in all this water. And they’ve got a life jacket with a little light so that if anyone should be traveling at night they’ll see the light and know they’re there.”
The first song, And Dream Of Sheep, is a wonderful musical opener for this tale. Bush created a music video for the song almost 30 years after the album was released, as part of her Before The Dawn shows in London. Here it is, with Bush singing live immersed in a water tank:
The floating person falls asleep in the water and starts dreaming nightmarish sequences, the first depicted in the song Under Ice. Kate Bush always knew how to conjure all manners of feelings and emotions in her songs, and this here is one of her eeriest: “It’s very lonely, it’s terribly lonely, they’re all alone on like this frozen lake. And at the end of it, it’s the idea of seeing themselves under the ice in the river, so I mean we’re talking real nightmare stuff here. And at this point, when they say, you know, ‘my god, it’s me,’ you know, ‘it’s me under the ice.’”
Bush must have really loved that Fairlight cello patch. Here it is again at the forefront of the song:
Characters appear out of nowhere in the song, trying to keep the poor soul awake and prevent them from drowning during sleep. Bush recorded her family members, friends, people working in the studio, Robbie Coltrane and others, uttering sentences such as “Wake up, man!”, “Wake up, child! Pay attention!”, “Come on, wake up!”, “Wake up, love!”. But the nightmares continue, and the next one is a witch hunt: “This woman is being persecuted by the witch-hunter and the whole jury, although she’s committed no crime, and they’re trying to push her under the water to see if she’ll sink or float.”
If the helicopter sound effect sounds familiar, you may have heard it on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It is the same one.
In the next track, Watching You Without Me, imagination takes the drifting person into their beloved ones’ homes, watching them worried about their loved-one whereabouts. A horrible vision, given that they cannot communicate with them. The end of the song includes the lyrics
Listen, baby! listen to me, baby! help me, help me, baby
Talk to me! talk to me! please, baby, talk to me
(You can’t hear me)
If you can’t make up these words when you listen to the song, you have been tricked by Kate Bush: “I had the idea for these backing vocals. And I thought that maybe to disguise them so that, you know, you couldn’t actually hear what the backing vocals were saying.”
Double bass accompaniment by the legendary Danny Thompson.
The grim story takes a slight positive turn by offering hope in the form of the floater’s future self, asking them not to give up. After all, to paraphrase what Dizzie Gillespie said about Louis Armstrong: no you, no me. But it goes farther to explain that the future holds a family, kids, something to live for.
The song was written in Ireland, the clear influence of the country manifested in the arrangement: “It was a tremendous sort of elemental dose I was getting, you know, all this beautiful countryside. Spending a lot of time outside and walking, so it had this tremendous sort of stimulus from the outside.” A multitude of Irish folk instruments are played by John Sheahan (Fiddles, whistles), Donal Lunny (Bouzouki, Bodhran) and Liam O’Flynn (Uillean pipes). As in another Irish-influenced tune, Night of the Swallow from The Dreaming, Bill Whelan is responsible for the arrangement.
The sequence follows with another album highlight, Hello Earth. The visual idea here is that if you are immersed in water at night and looking at the sky, you have the same view as a being on some star looking at the ocean, seeing the stars reflected in the immense body of water. Sitting on that star they see things like big storms who can cause harm, but warning the people on Earth is fruitless.
An interesting part of the song is the use of a choir, the Richard Hickox Singers, with voices arranged by Michael Berkeley. Kate Bush: “We had the whole song, it was all there, but these huge, great holes in the choruses. And I knew I wanted to put something in there, and I’d had this idea to put a vocal piece in there, that was like this traditional tune I’d heard used in the film Nosferatu. And really everything I came up with was rubbish compared to what this piece was saying. So we did some research to find out if it was possible to use it. And it was, so that’s what we did, we re-recorded the piece.”
Eberhard Weber makes another appearance on this track.
We reach the last piece of music in the song cycle and the album closer, The Morning Fog. Kate Bush is not one to leave an audience with an all doom and gloom feeling at the end of an album, and this song is upbeat and uplifting. While no rescue is mentioned in the song, it is about the hopeful feeling you get with the first ray of sunshine in the morning.
There was also a more practical reason to close the album like that: “It was also meant to be one of those kind of ‘thank you and goodnight’ songs. You know, the little finale where everyone does a little dance and then the bow and then they leave the stage.” It took Kate Bush nearly 30 years to realize that plan. In 2014 the full suite was performed live for the first time during her comeback shows, later released as the live album Before The Dawn.
Summarizing her take on The Ninth Wave, one of her crown achievements as a musician, Kate Bush said: “It’s a bit like… my first novelette. I enjoyed doing that. It was really hard work. But I thought it was the beginning of something really interesting. It’s just the idea of taking a piece of music on a journey, which was what opera and classical music used to do all the time.”
Hounds of Love became Kate Bush’s best-selling album, one of those rare moments in music history when an artistic peak is also a commercial one. It topped the UK album chart for three weeks in September and October 1985, ousting from that position another album by a female artist, albeit miles away in style (see no. 2 in the chart below). A quick look at that chart reveals Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, Songs From The Big Chair by Tears For Fears and Misplaced Childhood by Marillion. As an ambitious yet popular album, Hounds of Love was in good company.
The following sources were used during the research for this article:
The Kate Bush Encyclopedia, a great online resource for all things Kate Bush
Classic Albums interview: Hounds Of Love with Richard Skinner, aired January 26, 1992
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