Babooshka

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Babooshka piano demo
Babooshka beatbox demo
Babooshka
Dr. Hook performance
Music video
RockPop (Germany)
Venice
Veronica Totaal (Holland)
Collaro (France)

This essay was supported by 33 backers on Patreon. Apologies for the hiatus — December was an especially difficult month. I’m a disabled trans woman living in poverty, and blogging is one of my few sources of income. My tutoring job is out of commission for the winter break, and for mental health reasons, performing in conventional work situations ranges from highly challenging to impossible. I am also preparing for another move, and security deposits in upstate New York are brutal. If you enjoy this blog, please consider backing the Patreon, or even simply sharing the essays. Thanks so much for reading. See you next week with “Delius.”

“Babooshka” is Kate Bush’s salient hit in the UK since “Wuthering Heights.” It’ll be another five years until Bush supersedes its peak at #5 in the UK charts with “Running Up That Hill.” Afterwards, this never happens again. “Babooshka”’s popularity across Europe and Australia is significant, as it reaches the Top 10 and Top 20 in France, Italy, and Israel, to name a small handful. Its roster of TV performances is unmatched by nearly any other Kate Bush song. Bush wasn’t exactly a one-hit wonder — she’d maintained a presence in the higher echelons of the charts after “Wuthering Heights.” But this song demonstrated to the public that she could work in molds other than the precocious exuberance of “Wuthering Heights.” Why was “Babooshka” so successful?

In part, the success of “Babooshka” can be explained by its conceptual kinship with “Wuthering Heights”. Like Bush’s first single, “Babooshka” is a work of literary reverie, relating the dysfunction of a relationship through images derived from a preexisting work (in Babooshka’s case, the folk song “Sovay”). Both songs boast jealous women protagonists whose pathologies lead to a dramatic break in their romantic relationships. Yet while the two songs share DNA, they differ significantly in their songwriting and realization. “Wuthering Heights” is much poppier than “Babooshka.” It’s a deeply strange song, but it’s still a quintessential power ballad ending on a guitar solo. The instrumentation of “Babooshka” mixes a piano, a Yamaha CS-80 synth, and Paddy Bush’s balalaika. There are elements of pop in the song, such as its jazzy melody, but “Babooshka” telegraphs its weirdness from the get-go.

“Wuthering Heights” was a reunion of lovers. “Babooshka” relates the slow burn of a dysfunctional relationship, culminating in a glam psychotic break. The song’s title character acts as if Bush intended to finally write the Catherine of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: a petty, jealous hooligan ruins her relationship with her partner in a frantic bout of possessiveness.  Her plan, of course, is barmy — Babooshka tests her husband’s loyalty by catfishing him through “scented letters” (not a great plan — what happens if Babooshka’s husband finds these letters on a desk while the lady of the house makes herself some Earl Grey? Somebody make a short film about this). Babooshka uses these letters to arrange a tête-à-tête between her husband and her assumed personality — “just like/his wife/but how she was before the years flew by.” The song is unclear on whether Babooshka is recognized by her husband, merely suggesting he gives into her whims (he’s absolutely a sub). Babooshka’s self-poisoning narcissism breaks their relationship, creating a process of martial recursion in which the fear of a relationship’s ending itself ends that relationship.

But what of the relationship’s nature? The details of the emotional split between the couple is expressed vaguely. “Babooshka” is predicated on its protagonist’s desire to “test her husband,” and only supplies the occasional detail on the couple’s relationship. When the husband reads the catfish letters (someone please write a biography of me and title it The Catfish Letters), he observes that she resembles his wife “before the tears/and how she was before the years flew by.” Evidently their marriage was happy at one point, before some cataclysm ruptured it and damned them to a joyless union. Before Babooshka turned to suspicion and jealousy, she had the “capacity to give him all he needs” (we could dedicate an entire piece to the fact that the husband obviously has a mommy kink, but let’s try to keep our readership here). Her scheme to win him over is an expression of desire to return to the joy of their early married years, an act of futile nostalgia. The fantasy she enacts is not simply toxic; it’s regressive and pitiful.

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Observe the extraordinary video Bush produced for “Babooshka.” Simply staged, with Bush performing against a black background, the video relies on its costuming and lighting to provide spectacle. As Bush sings the verses, she is clad in a black bodysuit and veil as she dances with a double bass. She meticulously poses with it, making short, clipped motions, like a prim aristocrat at a royal ball. Placing her hands up and down the bass and spinning it, one gets the impression that this bass is her partner, a sexualized personification of her music. The bass guitar also plays a significant part in the song — Peter Gabriel’s collaborator John Giblin provides the song’s marvelous bassline, the song’s low-mixed backbone. The double bass is as much a part of the dance as her balalaika is — a sturdy, inexpressive partner. She frequently throttles it, ending some performances with a crazed gurn as she strangles its neck. The verse is the restrained part of the song, where Babooshka quietly schemes beneath her veil and lashes out at the bass with small cruel gestures. As Bush screams “ALL YOURS/ BABOOSHKA/ BABOOSHKA/ BABOOSHKA/ YA-YA” while swinging a sword and wearing the tight golden garb of a warrior princess from a fantasy novel (a few Bush aficionados will know that the source of the costume is illustrator Chris Achilleos’ cover for a 1978 sword-and-sorcery novel called Raven: Swordmistress of Chaos, and yes, we’re going down the rabbit hole of kinks for this song), she’s moved into an entirely new dimension from “Wuthering Heights” and The Kick Inside, one where the depravity and glory of the human imagination can do its best and worst. It’s a spectacle of fantastical madness, engaging glam and punk’s raging excess while taking it in oddly classicist directions. It’s almost like Babooshka’s costume is an expression of her true self: a raving madwoman better suited to pulp cover-art than a human relationship.

That Babooshka is something of a madwoman is expressed by the song, and particularly its video. Certainly Kate Bush considers Babooshka a pathetic (if pitiful and tragic) villain who hurts her husband. In an interview, she described Babooshka’s motivations as “paranoia [and] suspicions,” and ascribes the husband’s desire to meet his pen pal to her similarity to “his wife, the one that he loves.” Her perspective of the song is damning of Babooshka and de facto absolves her husband. The story is ultimately one of Babooshka’s downfall, where her preoccupation with retaining control of her life costs her the marriage.

Dreams of Orgonon often takes positions on Kate Bush’s songs contrary to Bush’s own. Later this year, I’m going to argue that “The Dreaming” is a hundred miles from the anti-imperialist parable Bush intends it to be. Similarly, “Babooshka” covers more than its titular character’s vanity. I think Bush writes the couple as equal offenders, and that “Babooshka” is two songs at once: it’s a covertly traditionalist song about how women’s preoccupation with their looks hurts their male partners, and it’s a subversive feminist tract about how gender norms destroy relationships.

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Let’s walk back to the beginning of Babooshka’s narrative genealogy, the traditional English folk song “Sovay, the Female Highwayman.” The song (which Bush could have heard from A. L. Lloyd or her social circle of musicians) tells of a maiden who “dressed herself in man’s array,” pretends to be a highwayman, and holds her lover at gunpoint, demanding his treasures. The man gives Sovay his pocket watch but refuses to part with his precious engagement ring. Having seen her fiancé’s loyalty in practice, Sovay departs from him. The next day, Sovay’s fiancé sees her with his pocketwatch and learns the truth. Sovay explains that she only disguised herself “for to know/whether you were a man or no,” darkly adding “if you had given me that ring,’/ she said, ‘I’d have pulled the trigger/I’d pulled the trigger and shot you dead.’” It’s a morbidly funny song that creates a radically subversive woman protagonist (Blackadder the Third arguably homages it,) in a tradition of stories about women who break under the pressure of their partners. Sovay takes a socially unacceptable mode of agency, testing her partner’s dedication to her by literally threatening to rob and kill him. She undergoes a pleasant psychotic break, staging a rebellion against the norms of class society achieved by settling into one of its most despised professions.

Kate Bush is relatively at home in class society. She’s exactly the kind of creative white woman Virginia Woolf writes about in A Room of One’s Own, which posits the ideal writing situation for women as containing an excess of leisure time and a private room. While Bush has written songs about working class people, she’s done so from a skewed theatrical perspective rather than a social realist one. Class dynamics in her stories tend to include heavily exaggerated behaviors and tropes, although they can be accompanied by a subversion of the established social order. In “Babooshka,” Bush switches out Sovay’s bandit for its middle-class equivalent — an adulteress. In her version of the story, the man is complicit in the hoodwinking, as he chooses to go along with this strange woman writing him letters (a bourgeois medium of communication). Rather than simply being outmaneuvered by his lady, he betrays her (in doing exactly what she wanted him to do). There’s a fundamental power imbalance here that, while arranged by one gaslighting partner, relies on unethical predilections from both parties, rather than a straightforward narrative of a gentleman being manipulated by his lady love. Neither “Sovay” nor “Babooshka” reveal the aftermath of their seminal betrayals, but both songs present clear cases of boundaries being crossed.

Now let’s turn to Babooshka’s husband. Bush is largely right when she says Babooshka is responsible for ruining their relationship. She manipulates her husband, lies to him, and connives the situation that undoes their marriage. The song is positioned around her failure to treasure the love and support she has. There are even hints that she turned on her husband long before she conjured up her catfish, particularly in her husband’s observation that the catfish resembles “his wife before she freezed on him/just life his wife when she was beau-ti-ful.” There’s a distressing suggestion that Babooshka is simply no longer attractive to her husband and stopped being beautiful when she stopped paying attention to him. However, Bush fails to account for the fact that Babooshka’s husband cheats on his wife. It can hardly be said this isn’t an emotional affair — he has a correspondence with a woman who reminds him of his wife when she was young (which. Ew) and goes to meet her behind his wife’s back. These activities match any coherent definition of adultery. That the song doesn’t take him to task for this is odd, and suggests Bush’s leniency towards her male protagonists is a tad blinkered (and vindicates Graeme Thomson’s self-assured observation of Bush’s tendency to obviate masculinity’s faults). As major as Babooshka’s transgressions are, the precise nature of them speaks to the complexity of Bush’s gender politics.

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Of course, the song’s moral ambiguity is its most interesting aspect. While there’s an almost reactionary slant to the way “Babooshka” perceives relationships, particularly in the way it treats gender along binary and determinist lines, Bush does push against the grain. She often demonstrates a willingness to interrogate the internal experiences of her characters, particularly women characters. Exploring the ramifications of jealousy is crucial to imbuing her characters with interiority. Bush has Babooshka’s husband failing similarly, even if she doesn’t realize it. Most texts are buzzing with suggestions their authors haven’t considered. In the case of “Babooshka,” Bush enacts a complex meditation on how gendered expectations can poison relationships. Babooshka lets her suspicions and preoccupation with re-becoming young and glamorous overcome her life, and her husband lets his treacherous predilections towards young beauty lead him astray. No party comes out morally in the clear, and yet neither is entirely unsympathetic. They’re trapped in an ugly binary where people are programmed to perform in ways incompatible with human psychology. If there’s a way to use the framework of folklore in a thoughtful and modern way, this is it.

As such, “Babooshka” makes the case that Kate Bush’s songwriting can be multiple things at once and create a conflicting hive of meaning, and that Bush’s love for the archaic is hardly blinded by a nostalgic haze. She demonstrates a consistent willingness to interrogate how stories like these work, how human beings act when plugged into myth and folklore, and the ways in which these situations are incompatible with humanity. Some of the most complex women in fiction are characters in Kate Bush songs. Never for Ever’s status as the first studio album by a female artist to reach #1 in the UK remains significant for a number of reasons. If Dreams of Orgonon has a thesis, it’s that Kate Bush is a traditionally-minded person who can’t stop herself from writing feminist songs. Break the glass. Howl “Babooshka, ya-ya!” The 1980s are here, and there’s a new swordmistress of chaos to herald them.

Demoed in late 1979; recorded at Abbey Road Studio Two in January-June 1980. Issued as a single on 27 June 1980 with “Ran Tan Waltz” as a B-side; subsequently included as a track on Never for Ever. Performed on several TV programmes. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Stuart Elliott — drums. John Giblin — electric bass. Max Middleton — Fender Rhodes. Paddy Bush — balalaika, backing vocals. Gary Hurst — backing vocals. Brian Bath, Alan Murphy — electric guitars. Pictures: Bush in Keef Macmillan’s classic “Babooshka” video, cover ofRaven: Swordmistress of Chaos (Chris Achilleos), Sovay, and the single art for “Babooshka” (John Carder Bush). 

All We Ever Look For

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All We Ever Look For

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Upon the arrival of “All We Ever Look For,” everything changes once again. With its opening hook, a synthesized whistle overlaid upon an atypically minimal piano part, it immediately becomes clear that Kate Bush’s style of songwriting and composing has changed. Not only has her ubiquitous piano been relegated to a supporting role, the song sounds like it’s been built from its rhythm, which works like a frequently pausing, creaky wheel that thuds on every downbeat. Bush’s piano and an acoustic guitar are present in the mix, but the relationship of “All We Ever Look for” to conventional rock instrumentation ends there, with its menagerie of synthesizers and classical instruments. The world of Kate Bush has undergone another metamorphosis — the old world has gotten considerably stranger.

Bush’s churning vocal begins with a sermon on the nature of families: “just look at your father/and you’ll see how you took after him/me, I’m just another like my brother/of my mother’s genes.” She places emphasis on the downbeat of each bar, singing the lines as “just LOOK at your FA-ther/and you’ll SEE how you took after him.” Bush’s interest in the institution of the family is omnipresent in her work — the fate of the narrator in “The Kick Inside” ends her relationship with her brother and potential motherhood, “Wuthering Heights” is a couple’s reunion, and the second half of Never for Ever is a meditation on the limits of family under the stress of social collapse. The family is the central unit of Bush’s mythology, the central cell from which life and art spring. One could read this as an extension of Bush’s Catholic upbringing, as it aligns with the traditionalist Catholic positioning of the family as the fundamental unit of civilization. Certainly this favorability towards the family extends from Bush’s well-adjusted family life. A staple of her early interviews is her enthusiasm and gratefulness towards her family, especially her father and brothers, the latter of whom are frequently involved in her music (especially Paddy, whose role in this song we’ll cover later). Given this background, a worldview that positions family as its wellspring is hardly a surprise from Bush.

Yet “All We Ever Look For” is far from a Humanae Vitae-esque of family’s primacy. The chorus (and brief insert that serves as a cursory pre-chorus) raises the question of family’s shortcomings: “all they ever want for you/are the things they didn’t do.” It weighs family’s position at the forefront of life at the ways in which that can fuck someone up. One generation lives vicariously through the next. They lost their childhood, and their attempt to impose one on their kids was detrimental to their own development. Bush is sympathetic enough to not frame the problem quite that way, preferring to frame the struggles of the two generations as intertwined. The two groups are fellow travelers, not combatants. The details of the battle may be hazy, but “All We Ever Look For” has empathy for all levels of family.

Bush doesn’t explicitly refer to specific generations so much as a generalized sense of the hereditary, but there are context clues sprinkled throughout the song. The second verse provides a particularly useful one in “the whims that we’re weeping for/our parents would be beaten for.” There are two kinds of desire on display here: one that is close enough to be agonizingly realized, and another that’s buried under mountains of repression. One can safely assume that Bush is referring to her own generation, the Baby Boomers, and that of her parents, the Silent Generation. We could go on at length about the consumptive tendencies of Boomers — recently there’s been an exhausting controversy over whether the online slang “OK, boomer,” a phrase quietly mocking Boomers, should be phased out of existence. The Boomers are the generation of hippies, psychedelia, and the Vietnam War. They’re the dominant generational group in our era, the closest to an “epochal” generation. And their markers are largely about desire and success — achieving one’s goals through the hedonism of enterprise. By comparison, the Silent Generation (as implied by its nomenclature) is subdued. It’s the era of people who grew up during World War II, the most devastating military conflict in human history. As such the Silent Generation consists of classical RAF types, the stiff upper lip military conquerors biting back years of trauma and suppressed violence. Bush is dealing with a generation who had a different struggle, an internal one where certain desires are within reach but difficult to navigate. If Bush has an M.O., it’s to integrate her British cultural traditions into contemporary music.

This is where the title comes in: the chorus of “All We Ever Look For” is a search for meaning in a world defined by possibility. In the first chorus, Bush lists what the previous generation has looked for: “a little clue,” “the truth,” and “a little bit of you,” fairly abstract expressions of a need for grounding. Meanwhile, the second and third choruses tell the listener what “we,” Bush’s generation, desires: “another womb,” “our own tomb,” “a drug,” and (my favorite) “a great big hug” among others. Sex, psychological gratification, Freudian solace, spiritual awakening, and getting high as fuck are all options. Bush makes her choruses into anaphoric lists of things to look for — yet every avenue is a dead end. The first chorus ends with “but they never did get,” while the second and third conclude on “but we never do score.” The difference is clear: one generation fails to attain things they could barely conceptualize, while the other sees the entire world and discovers that their search is futile. Burying one’s head in pleasures fails as wish fulfilment: one learns all about the world, but still arrives at a dead end.

And this world is massively dense. Let’s look at the cover art of Never for Ever, which seems tailor-made for this song. A contender for Bush’s best album cover ever, it is a penciled illustration by artist Nick Price which depicts a barefooted Bush standing on a hill and wearing a billowing dress that is endowed with patterns of clouds (evocative of Price’s work on the Tour of Life’s promotional poster). The billow of Bush’s dress unleashes a spiraling flood of monsters and fay creatures, from bats to doves to swans to the tenuously unnamable. The album’s cover art perfectly executes what a great cover does: suggests the epoch of an album without expressing it too literally. The sexual positioning of Bush is neither exploitative nor gross: she’s barefooted, has a facial expression that can be described as “longing,” and has a flood of monsters pouring from her nether regions. She’s perfectly in control, gazing at the viewer as if to say “I am quite literally Pandora’s box and I’m okay with this.” With the unleashing of strange wonders comes a great deal of fear and apprehension, but Bush is willing to be a medium.

Kate Bush is equally willing to find new musical ways of being a medium. “All We Ever Look For” is one of Bush’s first songs to be extensively constructed using a CMI Fairlight. For those unfamiliar with the machine, it’s an early sampler and synthesizer. Its user can use preprogrammed sounds or record their own sounds into the machine and play them on the Fairlight as a melody. For example, if you recorded yourself breaking a wine bottle, you could then play that sound as a series of notes. It’s the one situation where you can open a bottle of Château Latour in C major. In “All We Ever Look For,” the Fairlight is used to build the song’s hook: a sampled line of whistling. According to the website Reverb Machine’s phenomenal article on Kate Bush and synthesizers, the whistle sample comes from the Fairlight’s sound library, which suggests that Bush was still getting accustomed to the instrument after being introduced to it by Peter Gabriel and leaning into its databanks. The sample is layered with accompaniment by piano and a Yamaha CS-80 synth, so it’s distinctive while supported by instruments Bush is familiar with.

There’s an odd comfort to the Fairlight. It shows that anything can be music. If a sound can be recorded, it can plugged into the Fairlight and played as a note. It gives new dimensions to “Symphony in Blue,” where Bush envisioned herself “on the piano, as a melody” (it raises the question of if “Symphony in Blue” is better suited to Never for Ever than to Lionheart). All the sounds and temptations of the world can be translated into song. Bush’s world of desire and chances can only be accessed via music.

This is realized quite literally in the song’s utterly bizarre bridge. The song’s melody line is mixed to the background, while a pair of feet walk down a hall and open some doors. The doors play a mix of different sounds, with the first opening to a sample of Sanskrit-singing worshippers proclaiming the Maha Mantra, the next offering some chirpy bird song, and the final opening to thunderous applause. The singer closes all three doors. It’s a strange detour, if quite literal-minded — the three samples can be read as instantiations of the chorus’ searches. Yet the incarnations of Bush’s ideas are all onstage and capable of being represented by sound. The Fairlight CMI has made Bush’s music sound like her writing: a menagerie of strange and magical ideas animating the universe.

The choice to close all these doors is also significant. Particularly interesting is Bush’s choice to avoid prayer, in the form of Hare Krishna. There’s no consistent incarnation of God in Bush’s work — Bush’s god is an offstage demiurge, present and conniving but impossible to reach. Bush is certainly welcoming to faith. Like me, she’s a recovering Catholic who never quite got over search for God. But God is such a huge, alienating idea that some of us feel like we’re doomed to be separated from him forever. And some run, like Bush does in “All We Ever Look For.” Someday she’ll confront God and hold him to account for his cosmic negligence. For now, the search is more important than the results. She can’t stick around for them just yet. She has to do some more searching before she can have that battle.

This lack of concrete answers is fruitful for the song’s compelling ambiguity. The Fairlight is set against antiquated instruments, such as Paddy Bush’s koto and Morris Pert’s timpani. The result is a song that is both modern yet oddly Renaissance in its leanings, both forward-looking and faintly Orientalist. There’s no single way forward, merely a host of paths. Perhaps Bush will choose all of them, but she may equally well follow none. Family is helpful to her, but Bush will walk her greatest paths with other players. Wherever Bush is going, it’s a fundamentally different territory than the songs we’ve explored so far. When Kate Bush gives God as much attention as she gives her elders, there will be a whole new set of desires to accompany it.

Recorded in spring of 1980 at Abbey Road. Released as a Never for Ever track on 7 September 1980. Never played live or on television. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, Yamaha CS-80, production. Jon Kelly — production. Paddy Bush — koto, backing vocals. Alan Murphy & Brian Bath — acoustic guitars. Duncan Mackay — Fairlight CMI. Morris Pert — timpani. Preston Heyman, Gary Hurst, & Andrew Bryant — backing vocals. Picture: Hannah, Paddy, Kate, and John Carder Bush (Chris Moorhouse).

You (The Game Part II)

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CW: some discussion of child sexual abuse. Readers who found “Another Day” triggering are welcome to skip the blog this week and wait for “All We Ever Look For”, when we’ll finally return to our discussion of Never for Ever.

Additionally, my 30 patrons got to read this blog post before it went public.

You (The Game Part II)

This has to start by addressing my previous blog post on Roy Harper, “Another Day” , which was my most contentious essay to date. That essay attracted the ire of a fair number of Roy Harper fans for taking seriously the accusations of sexual abuse against Harper, and was variously described as “libelous” and “sanctimonious.” Personally, I think the essay was successful, and one of my best to date. I believe the majority of sexual assault allegations are true and that a culture of skepticism about victims is a toxic stain on society. The fact that Harper’s victims had their trauma dismissed when Harper was cleared in court is equally troubling — lots of predators are not convicted for their crimes. Two women have risked their safety and privacy by coming forward to tell the public what he did to them. Ignoring these allegations because Harper worked with Kate Bush and Pink Floyd would be grossly immoral. If the moral purity of your favorite musicians matters more to you than the trauma of survivors, read another goddamn Kate Bush blog. Maybe you’d prefer the one whose admin has a racial slur in their username.

This is just the kind of blog Dreams of Orgonon is. It’s an angry and political blog on which I’ll hold public figures accountable for the harm they’ve done. If that’s sanctimonious… well, it’s not, because the idea that sexual violence is bad is only controversial among people who listen to lots of Roy Harper or Jimmy Page, but regardless, I’m going to land hard on the side of the victims. The story of Kate Bush has some unpleasant bigotry in it, some of which is addressed head-on by Bush, and bits of which involve Islamophobe who’s been twice accused of historical sexual abuse. If I have to grit my teeth through parts of this blog, at least I’m going to tell the truth while I do it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that artists who collaborated with Roy Harper in 1980 are culpable. Harper’s abuse was revealed to the public in 2013, and there’s no evidence of third parties knowing about prior to then. Certainly Kate Bush has remained blissfully silent on the matter (part of me wishes she’d cut Harper’s B.V. from “Breathing” like she removed Rolf Harris’ vocal on Aerial, but that she didn’t says as much about the prominence of the two singers’ contributions as about Harris’ greater notoriety), as has David Gilmour. To discuss their older work with Harper is not to pass judgement on them, but to provide a complete picture that addresses all three artists’ bodies of work as well as Harper’s predation.

And to be clear, Harper’s music is rather good. A couple months ago, I made it clear that “Another Day” is an excellent song. The strength of Harper’s songwriting is his marriage of the rustic and the literate, two ostensibly polarized aesthetics that he synthesizes well. Flat Baroque and Berserk, the album which birthed “Another Day”, makes for a strong hour of folk rock. But his next LP to feature Kate Bush isn’t on the same level. 1980’s The Unknown Soldier lacks the refreshing crispness of Harper’s earlier album. It has its moments, but for the most part it’s a serviceable helping of the morass of that year’s soft rock albums by post-peak rock stars (there’s a reason David Bowie’s Scary Monsters is pointed to as a musical touchstone of 1980 and Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass generally isn’t).

One of The Unknown Soldier’s better efforts is “You (The Game Part II),” a song largely noteworthy for its guest-roster of David Gilmour and Kate Bush. Let’s talk about Gilmour first: since we last heard from him, he had recorded Pink Floyd’s biggest quartet of consecutive major albums Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall, bestsellers in Britain and absolute smash hits in America (Animals, the least-selling of the bunch, sold 4 million US  units). He was one of the world’s premiere guitarists, composing some of the most revered melodies for the instrument in rock music. Gilmour’s eponymous debut LP, recorded at Nice’s Super Bear Studios shortly before Kate Bush arrived there, performed solidly both domestically and abroad, but it was a decidedly minor effort on his part. While a celebrity, he was still able to quietly slip into other artists’ projects.

As a musician who was happy to work with lesser-known artists, Gilmour comfortably settled into the position of second-in-command on Harper’s team. Playing guitar on most of the album’s tracks and co-writing half of them, Gilmour provided a sturdy rock hand to push Harper’s folk instincts towards radio hits. It was a collaboration that worked well, and they’d worked together before: Harper’s lead vocal on “Have a Cigar” was their most notable moment of partnership (and Harper’s greatest claim to fame), and Gilmour performed in “The Game (Parts 1-5)” on Harper’s album HQ. The titling of this song and “You” suggests that “You” is a sequel to this other Gilmour-featuring track. “The Game” is a sprawling and astonishingly long track, clocking in nearly at 14 minutes with its rant against fruitless artistic attempts to subvert authoritarianism (“while propaganda spreads the same old theme/you is me and we can change the game, bullshit”). “The Game” is adversarial, not just holding civilization accountable for its failures but punishing it with prog rock’s length and propensity for songs with multiple chapters.

“You” is a slow, Mellotron-addled postscript to “The Game,” with Gilmour’s slow arpeggios underlining Harper’s epistle to the accused. The song is largely anaphoristic, with Kate Bush listing descriptions of someone in a premonitory yet almost nonchalant tone of voice: “you, my daring time traveler/you, love dwelling discoverer.” Harper’s plaintive vocal in the second verse is almost confessional as the singer seems to thank those present for partaking in his crimes, as he thanks “you, my deep secret accomplices/you, who endure my injustices” (with the use of “endure” rather than “endures” suggesting a host of accomplices). It’s as if Harper has had time to gestate over five years, preparing a statement for those who abetted him in “The Game.”

The statement is of course made in a chorus with a booming David Gilmour guitar solo. As anyone who’s heard “Comfortably Numb” knows, Gilmour is a paragon of soaring and melodramatic guitar solos constructed to lay stadiums low. He can design far-reaching soundscapes, but his bombast is especially well-suited to elation. Harper and Bush’s duetted vocal is just the icing on the track as they escape from the stasis they spent the first two verses in (“to new dimensions in the zoo/helpless lovers follow you/ONLY YOU”). A seemingly paranoid song, its obsessiveness is belied by the bombast Gilmour brings to the track.

The second verse is more possessive, with bits like “you, always gently in front of me/you, you’re so deep inside of me” suggesting a need to subsume everything in Harper’s path. He becomes something like a rock face with an eldritch hand reaching out for company, a creature who’s always been there and is now starved for companionship.

“You” is a compelling case for the retainment of Harper’s canon. It certainly demonstrates that he’s a talented songwriter. I’ve never claimed anyone’s enjoyment of Harper’s music was immoral — such a statement would be actually moralistic and false. But enjoyment of his work must be tempered with the predatory reality of the man. While he’s recorded a body of notable music, he has also done toxic, unforgiveable things on a human level. Deciding if the latter renders the former worthless is down to the individual. Certainly I’ve loved the work of writers with toxic views, such as H. P. Lovecraft, Dorothy Day, Frank Miller, and Luigi Russolo. I even still love The Smiths, as I learned about Morrissey’s racist nationalism while I was getting into the band’s music and thus achieved a degree of separation there. Separating art from the artist is a futile and impossible act. An artist can’t be separated from their art, and vice versa — they contextualize and define each other. Equally, they don’t necessarily ruin each other either. John Lennon’s abuse of his family doesn’t cancel out the significance of The Beatles. Similarly, Roy Harper’s work hasn’t been inexorably destroyed by his evil acts. But we must temper our critical observation of art with a moral conscience. Observing art is not an amoral act. Prioritizing certain figures, narratives, and aesthetics is an ethical choice. In listening to Roy Harper, we are appreciating some literate and compelling songwriting. We are also absorbing narratives from a predator. Something can always be learned from hearing evil, but a vigilant audience member must remember their position. Enjoying art isn’t a mere pastime — it’s a determination of our cultural loyalties.

Recorded in February 1980, presumably at Abbey Road. Personnel: Roy Harper — vocals. Kate Bush — vocals. Dave Gilmour — guitar. It is unclear which session musicians contributed to this particular track, so here’s a full list of The Unknown Soldier’s personnel. Picture: Timoclea by Elisabetta Sirani.

No Self Control

Kate-Bush-PG-at-Townhouse-639x511

Reading, 1979 (w/ Phil Collins)
No Self Control (demo)
No Self Control
Top of the Pops
Athens, 1987
London, 2013

Apologies for the impromptu hiatus. October was unexpectedly rough. I’ve utilized the break from posting to write more vigorously. Speaking of which, 31 Dreams of Orgonon supporters on Patreon can’t be wrong! Why not join them and read next week’s post on “You” right away?

“No Self Control” is as much a test pilot for Kate Bush’s future albums as it is for Peter Gabriel. Melt utilizes a number of tricks that Bush and Gabriel would both use in subsequent albums. It marks the first time Gabriel used the Fairlight CMI, which was a central building block of his followup LP Security and as crucial an instrument for Kate Bush as her Steinway piano. The songs of Melt were constructed rhythm-first, differing from rock music’s standard focus on building a song from its melody, a practice Kate Bush adopted shortly afterwards. Try listening to Gabriel and Bush’s albums of the early 80s in chronological order: the parallels are brazen and fascinating.

Last week’s diversion into this temporarily being a Peter Gabriel blog was mostly a signal for where Bush’s music would go. So far, Never for Ever’s songs have been a slight evolution of The Kick Inside and Lionheart. It’s had two piano rock songs, a chintzy Orientalist number copped from Bush’s only tour, and an outtake from Bush’s prodigy demo-maker years. Overall they’re quite good songs, but Never for Ever is the classic it is because the old-style songs are included alongside songs with newer composition techniques and bits of stylistic flair.

After Bush took a break from recording Never for Ever to cut “Games Without Frontiers” and “No Self Control” with Gabriel, her songwriting underwent noticeable stylistic changes. The post-Gabriel tracks of Never for Ever make use of rhythm boxes and the Fairlight CMI, which Bush was introduced to by Gabriel. The album’s remaining songs click differently, relying on atypical rhythm patterns and building melodies with sampled sounds (with a more disjointed vocal style that’ll flourish on The Dreaming especially). We’ll cover the Fairlight synth in more depth when we talk about those songs, but suffice it to say that as one of the first digital samplers, it’s an incredibly important piece of music history. Gabriel was the first British artist to own a Fairlight CMI, integrating this weird new technology into his work and setting trends that would last beyond the 80s, encompassing artists like Stevie Wonder, Duran Duran, Yes, and Hans Zimmer. Equally crucial for Melt’s sound is its newfound investment in rhythm, which, as mentioned previously, is a change from the melody-centric state of affairs of rock. Gabriel uses his experience as a drummer to write songs from the rhythm up, saying “I think the rhythm track is always the spine of a piece of music, and if you change the rhythm track you change the spine, and hence the body that falls around that.” Thus the album shows Gabriel turning towards musical instincts nurtured by African drumming and minimalist compositions, with his strong pop songwriting skills brushing against challenging musical circumstances.

Melt’s major test engine for Gabriel’s new approach to rhythm is “No Self Control,” an astonishing song and a career highlight for the singer. It’s a song where the lyrics follow the music, which defines itself by its rhythm and musical idiosyncrasies before its verbal contents. “This song was written around that insistent rhythm,” said Gabriel, “and its gave me the idea of this inability to stop…. I think it’s partly a modern state of mind, this continual need for stimulation.” The song’s sense of movement is continuous: it begins with a synth line that starts and stops consistently, then a funky sounding melody line that sounds like the horn-led opening of a funk song (indeed, the demo uses brass in this part), followed by Robert Fripp’s always-individual guitar contributions, and finally a simultaneous marimba part (possibly synthesized) and a single-note backing vocal by Kate Bush (“ah-ah-ah-ah”). Soon the morass of sounds subsides, save for the first synth part and the marimbas, giving way to Peter Gabriel’s trepidatious vocal: “got to get some food/I’m so hungry all the time,” which sounds like a scared boy who’s afraid his search for nourishment will get him shot, is immediately followed by Gabriel’s tormented cry of “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO STOP/I DON’T KNOW HOW TO STOP.”

A couple similar verses follow Gabriel’s hunger, showing that the singer’s need to do things extends to sleep and communication (“got to pick up the phone/I will call any number/I WILL TALK TO ANYONE”), with the latter breaking into a sort of pre-chorus, building into the explosive chorus joined by the signature melodramatic drumming of Phil Collins, John Giblin’s sturdy bass playing, and Fripp tearing ass on his guitar. What follows is one of the best choruses ever, with that explosive lineup underlining Gabriel uttering a series of paranoid declarations: “there are always hidden silences/waiting behind the chair,” “lights go out/stars come down/like a SWARM of bees.” If there’s an accurate summation of severe anxiety and mental health catastrophes in music, it’s that.

The song’s polyrhythms are as signature to its power as Gabriel’s lyrics. While being a tightly constructed track, “No Self Control” works precisely because of its musical elements working against each other: the synth parts are distinct from the marimbas, and Gabriel’s vocal melody doesn’t obviously extend from any instrumental part. The song is an amalgam of different approaches, creating a sense of distracted upset that manages listenability with a harmonious pop sensibility. Being stressed can be like this: a number of problems keeping one active at all times of the day and blending into a menagerie of stress.

“No Self Control” was Gabriel’s attempt to integrate the style of minimalist composer Steve Reich into his own work. This was a high-brow choice of artistry to take inspiration from — Steve Reich is one of the late 20th century’s most famous composers and one of the key figures of minimalist music. As much a theorist as a composer (in the way minimalists are), Reich’s musical response to the complexity of classical music was to pare it down, spinning whole sections of a composition out of a single chord and evolving music via incremental changes. Influenced as much by music technology as African drumming and Balinese gamelan music, Reich’s early work innovated such incremental rhythms via tape loops, utilizing a track’s mix as part of its instrumentation. Reich’s best-known work, Music for 18 Musicians, is a lengthy piece that cycles its way through 11 chords with varying instrumentalists playing different parts. There’s some use of polyrhythms in the composition — different instruments are often playing different patterns — making its slow, unified trajectory a monolithic achievement.

One of the marvels of “No Self Control” is its integration of Reich’s techniques into a 4-minute rock track. Part of that is in the details of the song — the debt to African drumming and use of marimbas contribute to the track’s Reichishness. There’s a distinctive lack of normality to “No Self Control” — it’s filled with echoes of Reich. The song’s intro, particularly in the department of Kate Bush’s backing vocal, absolutely screams Music for 18 Musicians with its single-note call. The song’s polyrhythms are equally crucial to evoking Reich certainly add to the overall sense of “Gabriel has listened to and understood Music for 18 Musicians” the track possesses. What results is a track that, while obviously not an immediately obvious tribute to Steve Reich nor a rip-off of his work (what 4-minute song could be?), is radically different from basically anything on a bestselling 1980 rock album.

The constant motion of “No Self Control” builds up to a gloriously dismal crescendo in the song’s bridge. The anxiety of modernity caves in as Gabriel ceases to threaten consumption at every turn. In the bridge, which is one of the most gloriously fucked up bridges in popular music, Gabriel simply howls “NO self control” like he’s become possessed by some malign robotic drive, a trainwreck of unconscious actions culminating in the obliteration of Gabriel’s selfhood. Many horror writers would kill to write something as good as “No Self Control” — its foreboding is not just packed on but built up from the protagonist’s selfhood.

And that’s why Melt is so good. It’s a disturbed and paranoid LP that’s listenable and gorgeous. Few records nail down the stress of the early 1980s so powerfully. Gabriel does little to diagnose the epoch causing such stress, but his understanding of the psychological effects of the neoliberal age is something theorists and musicians can learn from. Gabriel creates the future as much as he fears it. It’s little wonder Kate Bush deigned him a worthy fellow traveler. If one uses music technology right, they might draw the ghosts right out of them.

Recorded in the spring and summer of 1979 at Townhouse Studios in London and Gabriel’s home studios at Ashcombe House near Bath. Frequently played live by Peter Gabriel and screened for Top of the Pops in May 1980. Photo: Gabriel and Bush at Townhouse Studios (Larry Fast). Personnel: Peter Gabriel — lead vocals. Robert Fripp — guitar. Kate Bush — backing vocals. David Rhodes — guitar. John Giblin — bass. Larry Fast — synthesizers, processing. Phil Collins — drums. Morris Pert — percussion.