Kate Bush Calls the Dreamers to Wake
Brian Dillon on the 40th anniversary of the singer’s lesser-known record, The Dreaming
Brian Dillon on the 40th anniversary of the singer’s lesser-known record, The Dreaming
A portal opens – this haughty, voracious thing has been there all along. In May of this year, the soundtrack to the nostalgic sci-fi/horror television show Stranger Things (2016–ongoing) began to feature Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’: an international hit on its release in August 1985, and a soaring, kitsch-free classic ever since, but a song that had gone relatively uncelebrated in the US. In this year’s season of Stranger Things, the track was talismanic for the traumatized, grieving Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), whose stepbrother Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) had died in the previous season. At first a diegetic presence, Walkman-bound, ‘Running Up That Hill’ literally saved Max’s life in the fourth episode, when her friends used it to summon her back from the hellish alternate dimension of the Upside Down. It then became a riotous emblem of the teen protagonists’ war with the demonic Vecna – Bush’s steely, mid-1980s digital production merging anthemically with the mannered analogue moderne of the show’s main theme. Let me steal this moment from you now.
It was not the first time this song – or Hounds of Love, the album from which it derives – had added a note of mournful heroism to a television soundtrack. In the period Ballroom-culture drama Pose (2018–21), the trans sex worker Angel (Indya Moore) makes her Donald Trump-adjacent yuppie lover Stan Bowes (Evan Peters) listen to ‘Running Up That Hill’. The album’s second single, ‘Cloudbusting’, scores a moment of lethal optimism in the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–ongoing). But Stranger Things (or more precisely the show’s music supervisor Nora Felder) managed more than an affecting match of music and image: a global surge of enthusiasm for the artist, vast sales and streaming numbers, a lot of online blather about whether the young people now discovering Bush should (but how?) have known about her to begin with. After a month of this, Bush was interviewed by Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: as a fan of Stranger Things, she’d been keenly involved in making sure her song worked in the context of the series. She declared herself sweetly bemused by the new attention. When asked if she knew about the countless witchy invocations of her work on TikTok, she said: ‘It sounds ridiculous.’
For those of us transported or translated by Hounds of Love the first time round, the Bush renaissance certainly quickened the middle-aged heart, especially if you felt these songs, this voice, this sound had genuinely kept at bay the worst sort of psychic weather. (My mother died in the summer of 1985; I bought ‘Cloudbusting’ the week it was released in October and, sometime in the winter, a schoolfriend handed me a cassette of Hounds of Love – precious emotional currency among 16-year-old boys.) But much, as always, was lost in the mainstream rush of rediscovery in 2022: something of Bush’s original strangeness – including certain cringeworthy qualities (clumsy humour, gawky theatricalism) now routinely elided – and aspects, too, of her mutable legacy as sonic innovator, queer and feminist emblem. To see her more clearly, you have to look a little to the side of ‘Running Up That Hill’ and the sleekly machined excess of 1985 – the year Bush staged her first audacious return – to three years earlier, when she lost herself in a less acclaimed but more daring record, The Dreaming (1982), which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, but went unremarked amid the Netflix-sponsored revival.
In some ways, The Dreaming – Bush’s first commercial failure following three hit albums – is very much an artefact of 1982. It was the year that avowedly primitive, if futuristic, synth pop gave way to something more lush, wild and expansive. ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, The Associates’ Sulk, Prince’s 1999: like The Dreaming, these are records on which the rigours of inherited forms – pop, funk or post-punk – are thrown to the wind and all whims indulged, whether recording in an abandoned swimming pool (Bush) or filling the drum kit with water (Associates). The new technologies of digital synthesis and (especially) sampling began to recast mainstream pop as pure aural adventure, everything suddenly vaster than it had sounded months before. Of course, some versions of this moment were more extreme than others, but the shift, which lasted until the middle of the decade, was towards a kind of digital psychedelia, distinct from the one then emerging in dance music of the same period – more sheerly strange new sounds on the radio than anyone had heard since 1967.
In 1982, nobody expected Bush to be at or near the hard edge of a new aesthetic. From her first hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978), onwards, the combustion was all in her melodies and skyrocketing voice. By contrast, the instrumental texture of her records sometimes sounded as if confected by the house orchestra of a 1970s chat show. But Bush had lately become fascinated by the potential of the Fairlight CMI: a digital synthesizer, workstation and sampler she’d employed sporadically on her 1980 album Never for Ever. And she was impressed by the huge, gated-reverb drum sounds attained on recent albums by Peter Gabriel and Public Image Ltd. Bush engaged the recording engineers Hugh Padgham and Nick Launay, who’d worked on those records, but produced The Dreaming herself; the result, as Richard Cook wrote at the time in New Musical Express (1957–2018), is an album on which ‘at any one moment, everything is going on’.
Consider ‘Sat in Your Lap’, the opening song on the album, released as an early single in the summer of 1981. The recording process for the massive, live-but-unreal drum sound could not accommodate cymbals, so an overdubbed sibilant hi-hat seems to come out of nowhere, or from the seedy aural universe of a Throbbing Gristle record. Bamboo sticks are wielded to provide whip noises, a cooing vocal sample adds a further layer of percussive stabs, and Bush’s piano barges around inside the verse. Over this staggering, uncentred backing, she essays a vision of knowledge or creation hovering just out of reach, then a raging, stentorian passage that sounds like David Bowie at his most histrionic. Just when I think I’m king – lyrically this section is very close to Japan’s 1981 single ‘Ghosts’, from a few months earlier: another of this peculiarly accelerated year’s more wildly emotional experiments with cold technology.
Elsewhere on The Dreaming, Bush invented, perfected and seemingly, for the moment, threw away the epic and enveloping style she would re-employ on the first side of Hounds of Love. ‘Suspended in Gaffa’ is her great lost hit, released as a single in selected territories only. The Brecht & Weill lurch of this song’s verse gives way to a pulsing, melancholy chorus: I don’t know why I’m crying. Here, Bush tries out a confusing array of registers, accents and personae. At one moment, she’s a whispering child: Mother, where are the angels? I’m scared of the changes. At another, in the verses, a mysteriously Irish (or is it Cornish?) character. Listeners were used (sometimes averse) to her vocal acrobatics, the sense that there were several versions of her at work inside a single song. But she seemed to be getting further away from herself. For ‘Houdini’, sung from the perspective of the illusionist’s wife, Bush drank a pint of milk and ate two chocolate bars to give her voice the right impure, mucous texture. The album’s final track, ‘Get Out of My House’ – a paranoid cacophony inspired by her reading of Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) – closes with her braying like a donkey.
Not everything on The Dreaming is startling in the way you might want from a masterpiece. The title track is sonically extraordinary, featuring car doors slamming, corrugated-iron percussion and an early use (just a few months after Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’) of the Fairlight’s orchestra sample – taken from Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1910) – which was soon to be a cliché in multiple genres of mid-1980s pop. But ‘The Dreaming’ is also a somewhat misconceived song about the displacement, abuse and murder of First Nations peoples, delivered in Bush’s absurd approximation of an Australian accent, and including didgeridoo and bleating sheep. Musical experiment aside, the best one can say is that the song was well intentioned.
On its release in the US, Robert Christgau reviewed the album in The Village Voice: ‘The most impressive Fripp/Gabriel-style, art-rock album of the post-punk refulgence’. Such insight was rare in the autumn of 1982. According to an EMI staffer quoted by her biographer Graeme Thomson, The Dreaming was the first album in years that Bush’s label seriously considered sending back to the artist and refusing to release. Sales were about one tenth those of her previous albums. Though, in retrospect, The Dreaming sits easily alongside contemporary releases by the likes of Laurie Anderson, Grace Jones and Siouxsie and the Banshees, critics placed it nowhere in their end-of-year polls. A mainstream novelty verging on family entertainment, a wide-eyed remnant of hippyish affect, Bush simply couldn’t be seen to have sped into the future, while at the same time, as Ian Penman put it in ‘Sonic Foam: On Kate Bush’ (2014), ‘obeying the pulse of a very personal ceremony’.
After The Dreaming, Bush retreated, built her own studio, went deeper with her machines and returned on Hounds of Love with a sleeker sound for the album’s four singles, while also establishing a simple division between these and the record’s eerie, conceptual second side, titled The Ninth Wave. Suddenly, she was perceived as a mature artist, an avant-gardist of the hit parade, a pioneer of a modern, studio-bound version of female independence in the music business. All of which is in play now when we speak of her legacy among artists since: Björk, Fever Ray, FKA Twigs, Lorde, Joanna Newsom, Caroline Polachek, SOPHIE and Tricky. Such lists, and regular interview namechecks, can feel dutiful and obvious, pointing to superficial resemblances. Whereas the actual influence (if that is at all the word) of a work like The Dreaming is more fleeting, submerged, a matter of textural spectre or unlocatable atmosphere.
We might say something similar about Bush’s current status as inspiring imago, caught somewhere between a cartoonish #WitchTok reference point and a genuinely consoling or metamorphic presence. Except: is there really such polarity between the two? There has always been an element of travesty, camp and pantomime in Bush’s music and self-presentation. Hounds of Love was the first of her records to escape into a more tasteful adult realm, to smother the embarrassing aspects of her adolescent appeal. Bush as mascot or totem for trans or non-binary lives online, as exaggeratedly occult discovery in a parent’s record collection, as cosy reassurance for 50-somethings that ‘real’ music still matters, The Dreaming as eccentric riposte to post-Stranger Things piety – what happens if, as at least one TikTok user has done, you soundtrack Max Mayfield’s apotheosis (entranced and levitating in real life, while battling Vecna in the other world) with Bush’s donkey voice instead of ‘Running Up That Hill’? None of this is exactly wrong or right, because behind it all may lurk the most unmastering private or collective moments of listening. What was the line that, in 1985, sounded most like a reminder of Bush-as-hippy and, at the same time, hinted at unfathomed adulthood? Let’s exchange the experience.
There’s some of this perplex of the sublime and bathetic in a recent, ingenious addition to the canon of contemporary commentary on Bush. Artist Paul Becker’s novella-of-sorts, How We Made ‘The Kick Inside’ (2022), proposes itself as an account of the making of Bush’s first album in 1978. Here is a Bush who quotes Ukrainian-Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, wants to record floorboards and the insides of studio walls, and gets lost inside a huge model of herself, built for a video shoot. A Bush who comments, all considerations of process and technology aside, on the essence of her art: ‘Nestling right at the core, at the beating heart of that record, is something wholly illusive, intangible, fugitive that I am still completely unable to tie any kind of defining label on. I just knew it was right. I knew I was right.’ This imaginary reflection suits all of her work, but I’d submit it fits The Dreaming more exactly than most of her records.
In the same month that album was released, the British novelist and essayist Angela Carter – to whose magical-feminist writing Bush’s music has often been compared – wrote about the fiction of Christina Stead in The London Review of Books. Carter was interested in the Australian novelist’s mid-career reinvention as a more awkward writer: ‘Fine writing must have come easily to her; roughness, ungainliness, ferocity were qualities for which she had to strive.’ It sounds like a description of what Bush achieved on The Dreaming: the transmutation of her sweet (if ‘kooky’) aesthetic into something rambunctious and resistant. But a description, too, of how we ought to behave as belated adepts of such a creation. The icon, no matter how loved or venerated, is not the artist – let alone a substitute for the waywardness of the work. Before and after The Dreaming, and likely for different reasons, Bush shied from her wildest instincts, or directed them to more melodic or commercial ends. But here, for a moment, all is suspended, all is possible. Am I doing it? Can I have it all?
This article first appeared in frieze issue 230 with the headline ‘All the Dreamers Are Waking’.
Main image: ‘Suspended in Gaffa’, 1982, from Kate: Inside the Rainbow. Courtesy: John Carder Bush and Little Brown Book Group