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Egypt live at Manchester
Xmas special

While Kate Bush was staging her only tour, the 1980s were being born. The Labour government of James Callaghan collapsed, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power, a major step towards the austerity policies and neoliberalism that’s defined the last forty years.  The Camp David Accords were orchestrated by American President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin, and the Egypt-Israel Peace treaty, effectively terminating the Israeli occupation of Sinai while also seeing to it Egypt began supplying Israel with oil. Soon afterwards, Carter lost a presidential election to Ronald Reagan, the American half of neoliberalism’s early regime. CNN was established, arcade video games were becoming a viable commercial presence, and John Lennon was killed in New York. To be an artist is to be a cultural marker for a moment in history. To be one in 1980 was to witness the world falling on its head.

The massive global upheaval is noticeable in music as well. Just look at the UK’s Top 10 singles of 1980: it’s topped by Don McLean’s “Crying,” and the other songs are apprehensive titles like The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and the MASH theme song. Even a catchy disco single like Odyssey’s “Use It Up and Wear It Out” sounds tense and minimalistic compared to something like “YMCA” or “Freak Out.” Also in the top 10 is ABBA’s “Super Trouper,” their last #1, has a militaristic-sounding title (even though a super trouper is actually a spotlight and not a Heinleinesque mensch). 1980’s albums tend to abandon some of the Seventies’ utopianism as well: punk had given way to the abjection of post-punk groups like Public Image Ltd and Magazine, synthpop was rearing its head in the form of Ultravox and The Human League, and new wave was speeding up with Blondie and Talking Heads. Rock veterans were also pushing themselves, like David Bowie, who made the violent and weird Scary Monsters and its turn-of-the-decade-anxiety single “Ashes to Ashes,” and Bruce Springsteen, who went all-out with the wildly undisciplined double-LP The River. Songwriters of Bush’s generation were forging ahead: Elvis Costello released Get Happy!, one of his longer and more sprawling albums, and Prince dropped his funk-cum-erotica LP Dirty Mind. In the music of 1980, popular music is torn between sensibilities: the drive of the Seventies and the call to innovation necessitated by the new decade.

Having just completed her triumphant European tour, Kate Bush was entering her imperial phase. Instead of working with producer Andrew Powell and the band of her first two albums again, she established control of her work by appointing herself co-producer with Jon Kelly, and finally using her own band for a whole LP. The result was a more authored album than her first two, one with the mark of its creator in its every facet. Never for Ever is a weird step forward: for one thing, it’s much more in line with the synthesizer music that was beginning to surface in British pop. It’s the album where she discovers her long-term ally, the Fairlight, a classic synth which would direct much of her music. Never for Ever’s interest in soundscapes is greater than that of its predecessors, sometimes letting songwriting take a backseat to more spatial ideas of music and composition.  The technology of music takes greater import in her work as she starts composing with synths. Never for Ever is the point where Bush’s songs start sounding like their concepts. Rather than only singing about the magical forces of the universe, she’s now able to implement its sounds into her music.  Now in addition to her idiosyncratic vocals and unorthodox compositions, she has the technology to match her songs too.

Never for Ever also signals a return to the conceptual clarity of The Kick Inside, which Lionheart lacked. Each of its ten songs has a clearly outlined idea and purpose, with refined hooks and clear-cut melodies. Yet there’s much of Lionheart’s darkness and trepidation as well: this time, the sense of doubt is in regards to more worldly causes than Lionheart’s adolescent stage fright. For all that Bush doesn’t discuss politics head-on, she’s writing unmistakably political songs. Never for Ever is full of familial trauma, violence, and massive political fallout, both on and offstage. It’s a veritable Pandora’s box of ideas and fears: take a look at the classic cover, which depicts a variety of fay creatures, sprites, and eldritch monsters pouring out from under her skirt. As Bush has said, “that’s where all [her] ideas come from.” And why not release your new album by giving birth to strange creatures? That may be the only way to release albums.

Speaking of “strange creatures,” let’s talk about “Egypt” (the song more than the country, although we’ll be talking about the latter soon). Its treats the country as an enigma: it is seductress, serpent and sigil. “She’s got me with that feline guise/got me in those desert eyes,” the chorus says, “Oh, I’m in love with Egypt.” Bush’s Egypt is that of Ancient One of the Pharaohs, necropolises and the Sphinx, which Bush refers to in the best fucking lyric ever with “my pussy queen knows all my secrets.” The perception of Egypt is occidental: Bush is captivated by the myth of Egypt, the country that’s found in history books rather than the one that actually exists on the Sinai Peninsula. She’s dealing with iconography more than actual lived history once again. Falling into the pervasive Western trope of depicting Eastern landscapes minus the people (The Lion King, anyone?), she sings about an unpopulated landscape, a playground for colonizers rather than a place where people live. In his classic text Orientalism, Edward Said describes the East as “a theatrical stage affixed to Europe,” where the interests of Western imperial powers are acted out. The ever-theatrical Kate Bush operates similarly.

To Bush’s credit, she attempts to grapple with this tension. An early part of the discordant lyric — consisting of a mere two verses and two choruses, which almost entirely fail to rhyme — makes mention of how “the sands run red/in the land of the Pharaohs.” Bush’s gaze shifts from the bloodshed: the chorus begins with “I cannot stop to comfort them/I’m busy chasing up my demons.” At the very least, she tries to deal with the solipsism of Western colonialism. Fetishization of Egyptian objects becomes a sickness that distracts from the exploitation and cruelty of material history.

The problem is that while Bush does take something of a critical hammer to colonialist attitudes, she engages in those very attitudes. Presenting Egypt as hypnotic is maybe not the critique Bush thinks it is. In fact it only buys into the Orientalist trope of the East as inherently mysterious and esoteric: just look at the first edition cover of Said’s Orientalism, with its snake-charming painting. And for all that I tipped my hat to Bush for her acknowledgement of Egypt’s violent conflict, it’s a very minimal part of the song. The unpopulated landscape is still almost the entirety of “Egypt”: there are no people in it. It’s not that I want Bush to write a song about the Suez Crisis or Yom Kippur. I shudder at the thought of such a song from nearly any white artist. But “Egypt” is such a minimalistic piece of songwriting it’s hard to derive anything conclusive from it.

This is no surprise given that “Egypt” was the first new song written for Never for Ever (“Violin” was recycled from the Phoenix years). It’s oddly shaped and difficult to parse — it sounds outright unfinished, with its sparse lyric and chorus. More than likely it was written in between Lionheart and the Tour of Life, as it made its first appearance on that tour, where it was introduced as visual spectacle instead of an album track. As a result the song is more something to be seen than heard, as it was originally written for the stage. In concert, Bush strove up to the audience draped in full Cleopatra-meets-Captain-Marvel, draped in the red, blue, and gold livery, heralded by pipes and Preston Heyman’s powerful drumming. The subsequent performance is tense and distant — its frantic arrangement keeps it from getting dull, and it’s more driving and catchy than its record counterpart. The tour’s punchy and often acoustic arrangements give “Egypt” more weight than it would later have, and the song would be worse off without it.

Yet therein lies the problem of “Egypt”: in striving to dispel myths of Egypt, it imitates them. Musically it’s host to a number of caricatures found in Western imitations of “Oriental” music: the live versions of the song have this zig-zaggy four-note riff which is akin to plenty of Hollywood scores for epic movies set in Southern Asia or Northern Africa (note this was shortly before Raiders of the Lost Ark was released). It’s not just a crass idea of what European musicians think Egyptian music sounds like; it’s a tacky-sounding riff as well. Paddy Bush’s strumento de porco doesn’t help much with its ringing scrape of a sound either (“Oriental” music sounds like things been scraped on other things, didn’t you know?).

It should go without saying that Bush is far from the only singer to broach Orientalism in the burgeoning Eighties, however. There’s also Siouxsie and the Banshees with their single “Arabian Knights.” Similarly to Bush, the Banshees play what they consider Egyptian music, interlaced with reverb-heavy Goth guitar playing and drummer Budgie’s deep-hitting syncopation. Similarly to Bush, the Banshees treat “Egypt,” as a living entity, although their Egypt is more a bleeding organism that’s been leeched on by exploitative foreign entities. Siouxsie expounds on how “a tourist oasis/reflects in seedy sunshades” as the landscape is devastated by “a monstrous oil tanker/its wounds bleeding in seas” (a lyric that’s aged particularly well). The anger and disgust of “Arabian Knights” goes beyond anything “Egypt” tries, as Bush refuses to pick a culprit for global problems. Yet the Banshees’ song also has problems, as it relies on phrases like “Arabian Knights/at your primitive best.” Its fury is genuine, but Siouxsie and the band’s judgement is very much that of a white band from Bromley.

Yet like “Arabian Knights,” “Egypt” is consistently interesting. The crux of its failure is that its weaksauce anticolonialism is tainted entirely by white privilege, with its key difference from Siouxsie’s take being Bush’s characteristic lack of cynicism. Melodically it’s unusually restrained by Bush standards, another possible effect of its rushed composition. Perhaps in an attempt to write under time constraints, Bush has set Egypt almost entirely in a pentatonic scale (E minor, mostly the natural minor) rather than her preferred chromatic one. There’s the occasional break from pentatonic standards as Bush throws in a C or an F#, and the song shifts between 4/4 and 2/4 (not the “9/8 or 11/9” guitarist Brian Bath has claimed), but it’s still a more controlled song than Bush tends to write.

As “Egypt” was mixed early in the production of Never for Ever, its album version appeared on her classic 1979 Christmas special. While the acoustic instruments are largely dropped from this recording, a sense of rhythm is lost: “Egypt” meanders, Bush’s urgent “I cannot stop to comfort them!” serving as its anchor. Mike Moran’s early Prophet V synth creates interesting spatial dimensions, but it’s far from most interesting synth playing on Never for Ever. The song is not well served by Bush’s misjudged and goofy video for it, in which she wears a red silk veil and billowing robes, in addition to a black cloth wrapped around her face, which appears to be a simplified battoulah (a mask hailing from the Arab States rather than Egypt, which. Hmm. Oh dear). Miming shock at everything around as she’s superimposed over images of the Great Sphinx and stock footage of Egypt, Bush plunges the song into pure camp. Embarrassing doesn’t begin to cover it; it’s hilarious in all the wrong ways.

Thus is “Egypt,” a queasy attempt to engage with a new world. As the world rapidly organizes itself into new modes of capitalism and imperialist expansion, Bush is producing a soundtrack for its disasters. Her new music shows tradition crashing down on people who’ve followed them blindly, and sometimes she gets caught under the debris. Shortly we’re going to see how she deals with personal catastrophe as well. It forces her to look outward. Yet despite the abyss gazing also, she’s a bit too immersed in Western solipsism to see where it’s looking.

Performed live on the Tour of Life through April and May of 1979. Recorded late 1979 at London AIR Studios. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals. Preston Heyman — drums, percussion. Max Middleton — Fender Rhodes, Minimoog. Paddy Bush — backing vocals, strumento de porco. Mike Moran — Prophet V.


The Tour of Life


Tour of Life
Hammersmith Odeon
Manchester Apollo
Let It Be
I Don’t Remember
Nationwide documentary

The touring career of Kate Bush consists of 29 shows across 6 countries in roughly 6 weeks, with performances of 2 existing albums and a burgeoning third. Bush’s singular tour defines her career as much as “Wuthering Heights,” Hounds of Love, and her 12-year moratorium on new albums between The Red Shoes and Aerial. The difference between that music, that gap, and the tour, however, is accessibility. You can listen to Bush’s music pretty much whenever provided you have the physical media, or a steady Internet connection. The Tour of Life is Bush’s only tour — if you wanted to see her do a full concert outside of the UK, you could only have done so in April or May 1979. Sparseness is a key ingredient of Bush’s career, one that perhaps makes her especially suitable for a project like this blog. She builds her work piece by piece, letting it be an accumulation of important steps.

Planning for Bush’s tour (known then and during its existence just as the Kate Bush Tour) began at the end of December 1978 with a brainstorming session involving Bush and set designer David Jackson at EMI’s headquarters. Further preliminary meetings were held at East Wickham Farm in January, and shortly afterwards Bush was meeting wardrobe consultant Lisa Hayes. Rehearsals then began in earnest: Bush spent mornings at The Place performance center in Euston, preparing the tour’s dance routines with choreographer Anthony Van Laast (now of Mamma Mia! and Harry Potter fame) and dancers Stewart Avon Arnold and Gary Hurst. These sessions were as collaborative as they were instructive: Bush had worked with Van Laast before, as he’d appeared in the “Hammer Horror” music video as her masked dancing partner. They spent the mornings designing routines for the show, informed by Van Laast’s seasoned dancing skill and Bush’s mime training. It was a positive union: the resulting concerts have notable dancing which is inseparable from the songs it’s set to. As Bush had to both sing and dance onstage, she and Van Laast worked out choreography that would both work as dance and allow her to sing without losing her breath. The minimalism of “Moving” and Bush’s all-limb gesturing during it is one such careful work of planning, as is her most frenetic gun-happiness during the extended bridge of “James and the Cold Gun,” where she doesn’t sing.

Rehearsals for the tour’s music were staged initially at Wood Wharf Studios in Greenwich, before moving to Surrey’s eminent Shepperton Studios in March. The shows were precisely outlined, retaining the ideas of The Kick Inside and Lionheart while developing them further onstage. Lionheart is at its core a work of musical theater, and its stage incarnation helped it to be the best version of itself. Out was the ill-paced sequencing of the album, supplanted with a solid theatrical structure. Bush also had a different lineup of musicians than her two albums so far: she’d begun sneaking the KT Bush Band into the studio by including them on “Wow” and “Kashka from Baghdad,” but a proper reunion of the old touring group was mostly in swing onstage. It wasn’t the exact same band (drummers Charlie Morgan and Vic King declined to return), but the quartet of Bush, bassist (and her partner) Del Palmer, guitarist and bandleader Brian Bath, and stalwart polymath Paddy Bush were playing music together again. Preston Heyman, Bush’s best drummer to date, joined the group and brought a percussive explosiveness to the concerts that the albums lacked (“when he hit the cymbal Kate used to blink,” said Brian Bath). Keyboardist Ben Barson, saxophonist and pianist Kevin McAlea, and guitarist Alan Murphy were the other new additions to the group, assuring that the shows would sound as lush as Bush’s albums.

Hype around the tour was extensive, and Bush took advantage of it: she racked up a long list of interviews around the time, gave members of her burgeoning fan club free tickets, and posed for a picture with Prime Minister James Callaghan. The Winter of Discontent had passed, and Bush was a hot ticket to popularity for someone like Callaghan (the ploy didn’t work — Callaghan’s Labour government collapsed in favor of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative one). The press was all over her, if largely in the wrong ways — the Daily Mail made a fuss about her, describing her as “sensuous” (a posh synonym for “fuckable”) and vocally wondering if a husband was in her immediate plans. The Sun didn’t behave any better with their descriptions of Bush as “a seductive siren with a deadly aim,” as if sirens are sharpshooters. One of my favorite bits of golden journalism around Bush comes the Daily Star, which suggests her cats Zoodle and Pyewacket were “past lovers whom she [had] cast a spell on.” It’s not everyday a journalist tells you Kate Bush fucked her cats, but such is the beauty of tabloids. A new woman was on the scene for gross male journalists to objectify, and she was about to prove them to be inept tools.

Every tour performance began with “Moving.” Whale sounds were played for several seconds, as they were on The Kick Inside, while a transparent blue curtain cordoned off those onstage from the audience, with only a bright light in the center of the stage and the silhouette of Bush completely visible through it. Then came the vocal and the piano: “moving stranger, does it really matter/as long as you’re not afraid to feel?” called Bush to her audience as the curtain was pulled back. Her dance, made up of open arms and gestures aimed at the outline of her body, was an invitation to the audience to collaborate and be part of her music. According to every recording of these concerts, it was a steady introduction: when the first number ended, the audience cheered loudly. “The show went well and the audience was wildly appreciative,” said Lisa Bradley in the Kate Bush newsletter, “it was unfortunate that we rarely had a chance to see it as the merchandise stand had to be looked after all the time.”

Every night of the show got stark raving reviews from the British press. Mike Davies of Melody Maker admitted going to see Bush “more as a pilgrim than a critic,” John Coldstream of the Daily Telegraph praised her “balance between the vivid and the simple,” and former Bush naysayer Sandy Robertson of Sounds announced she had “seen the light.” There were a couple reviews from more negative quarters, mostly notably by Charles Shaar Murray in NME, who opined that “her songwriting hints that it means more than it says and in fact it means less” and “her shrill self-satisfied whine is unmistakable.” One could smugly grin at Murray for panning a critically praised and influential tour in 1979, but why do that when he invented every sexist whinge about Lauren Mayberry more than three decades early? It’s a break from the orthodoxy of Bush’s tour reviews, and thus in keeping with Bush’s ethos.

An oft-commented on aspect of Bush’s shows in reviews was its synthesis of theater and rock. This is a glib and useless description are there were many “extravaganzas” in rock music at the time, but even among them the Tour of Life broke rank. Bush had more planned for her debut concerts than simply playing her new album — she was producing a stage show, a colorful spectacle with extensive costuming, mime routines, dancers, act breaks, poetry, and elaborate set design. “I think the most important thing about choosing the songs is that the whole show will be sustained,” said Bush later. “…the songs must adapt well visually: a show is visual as well as audial, so there must hopefully be a good blend of the two.” As per usual, Bush’s way of proving herself was unorthodox. While there were other especially theatrical rock acts performing at the time (glam was the world’s loudest costume drama, and prog acts like Genesis and Pink Floyd thrived on massive setpieces, and disco and ABBA were more theatrical than they were credited for), they were mostly playing their songs live with different arrangements and more props. Bush was staging a long play, with dance acts, characters, and spoken word segments. The concerts were made by small flourishes: “The Kick Inside” got a spoken prelude by John Carder Bush with a foreboding call-and-response (Kate hauntingly shouts “two in one coffin!”), “Saxophone Song” has a saxophonist projected onto the stage, and mime Simon Drake appears decked out in white make-up as Charlie Daniels’ devil channeled through Iggy Pop. A classic component of the shows is, bizarrely, from the “Room for the Life” performances, in which Bush is rolled around in a velvet cylindrical egg (get it? It’s a uterus). She eventually departs the egg and frolics with her band during the song’s outro, giving way to Bush’s greatest performance ever as she enthusiastically calls “a-woom-pa-woom-pa-woom-pa-woom-pa-woom-pa!”, elevating the worst song on her debut album to a highlight of her career.

Salvaging “Room for the Life” isn’t Bush’s greatest feat at this time, however. It was unprecedented for women artists to undertake projects of this scale at the time. Bush was hopping into a steadfastly rockist tradition and putting a feminine spin on it. We have Björk, Laurie Anderson, and Florence + the Machine because of shows like this. You know those weird headset mics artists use sometimes to stay handsfree while performing? Bush was the first singer ever to use those, and she did it here. This is pretty much the Seventies equivalent of Zoo TV and The Wall Tour, and a woman got there first.

Rather than feeding on nostalgia (a hard feat for a recent artist to pull off), Bush used her existing work as a diving board for her live shows. For all the strengths of The Kick Inside and Lionheart as albums, the live versions of a few of their songs are superior: the revamped band bring the songs a power the original recordings sometimes lacked. “Coffee Homeground” sounds tighter, and even the unimpeachable “Wuthering Heights” improves slightly when Alan Murphy improvises bits of the track’s guitar solo. There are plenty of odd musical choices throughout the shows: there’s an electronica-inflected rendition of Satie’s Gymnopedies leading into “Feel It,” and “James and the Cold Gun” becomes the 10-minute prog jam its album counterpart was itching to be. This doesn’t suggest that Bush has been constrained by the studio — in fact, it’s likely she works better outside of the traditional rock band format. But in many ways she’s liberated by her chance to do musical theater, showing off what her songs look like and pushing some aspects of their sound a bit further.

In theory Bush was doing the Lionheart Tour, as it was her most recent album. Yet in practice, it was equally the Kick Inside Tour. All the songs from both albums were performed barring “Oh To Be In Love” (perhaps justifiably — it’s the Bush album track which most feels like a holdover from the Phoenix years), plus a couple of new songs called “Violin” and “Egypt,” the latter of which we’ll return to next week. It’s a well-organized setlist, as Kick and Lionheart are both preoccupied with the sort of adolescent world-storming the tour is. Bush’s concert setlists show off this interplay of albums well: Act One is constructed around the lighter songs of The Kick Inside like “Them Heavy People” and “L’Amour Looks Something Like You” with the two new songs, while Act Two centers the anxiety-ridden bulk of Lionheart plus “Strange Phenomena,” and Act Three provides the show with a theatrical climax of “Coffee Homeground” and “Kite” before the encore of “Oh England My Lionheart,” and finally “Wuthering Heights.” Setlists can be unruly things: while touring for albums, you’ll want to intersperse the newer material with the hits. Bush keeps this in mind while also remembering she’s doing a stage show with act breaks and thematic resonances. It’s a strong act, one that’s bolstered by its setlist.

The artistic precision of the concert belies what occurred behind the scenes. Bush was exhausted by the shows and the preparation for them, with her essentially all-day rehearsal schedule giving her little-to-no time off. The scale of the shows and the extensive travel involved (Bush is famously afraid of traveling by plane) are likely a contributing factor to Bush’s decision to never tour again. A likely further cause is the tragic first night of the tour. During a warm-up concert at Poole, lighting director Bill Duffield fell through an open panel around the stage and landed on a concrete floor 17 feet below. After a week on life support, Duffield died. It was a traumatic moment for everyone involved in the tour, and gave the group pause about whether to continue. When they inevitably did, it was as much as because of the effort put into the shows as it was for Bill himself.

Bush didn’t forget Duffield, keeping tabs as she did on everyone she worked with. The first date of the final London stretch of the tour was a benefit concert for Duffield’s family. The night saw a drastic departure from Bush’s other concerts in many respects: the setlist was significantly different, as Bush wasn’t the only singer performing that night. Two other artists who’d worked with Duffield were present: Steve Harley and Peter Gabriel. Bush had previously worked with established names (e.g. Geoff Emerick), but appearing onstage with established British rock stars was a step forward for her. Harley had scored a #1 single with his glam band Cockney Rebel in 1975 when they released “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me),” and didn’t fall out of the albums charts for the next few years. While in 1979 he was hardly the big name he had previously been, with his attempt to go solo beginning with a critically savaged and commercially disappointing album, he had hardly been forgotten by listeners of British pop. Peter Gabriel, however, was at the top of his game. Unlike Harley, Gabriel was confidently traversing through the early years of his post-Genesis career, with the first two of a quartet of self-titled albums under his belt, both of which had made the top 10, and a major solo tour under his belt. The classic “Solsbury Hill” had climbed to #13, and Gabriel was good to go. At the Duffield concert he performed the effervescent “I Don’t Remember,” a wild ballad of the kind of formalist mountain-climbing and despair Gabriel had made his bread and butter while in Genesis. A wailing Kate Bush joins him on backing vocals, and sounds like her larynx is about to combust under the weight of the song’s Frippertonics. Much easier on Bush is a traditional cover of “Let It Be,” a song she’d sung before but still hadn’t made her way into (this would change — wait until this blog hits the late Eighties). Conversely, Gabriel seems to struggle with the song, as Paul McCartney’s gentler songwriting chafed with the new modes of composition he’d been exploring on his own albums and tour. A duo was established, however: Bush and Gabriel would sing together again.

It was a wild time for Bush. “It’s like I’m seeing God, man!” she said enthusiastically. When she’s onstage in a black-and-gold bodysuit and blasting her bandmates with a golden, it’s easy to believe she made that comment while looking in a mirror. It takes a shot of the divine (or perhaps a deal with it?) to stage a tour of this magnitude and success while dealing with such severe drama behind the scenes? It’s no wonder Bush stayed in the studio after this, recording closer to home all the time until she set up a studio in her backyard. Even when she finally returned to the stage thirty-five years later, she made sure her venue was in nearby London. 1979 was a different time. A Labour government was feasible, and Kate Bush was regularly on TV. She plays things close to the chest now, never retiring from music but often looking infuriatingly close to it. In a way, she retired in 1979. Kate Bush the media sensation was a spectacle of the Seventies. She cordoned herself off afterwards, becoming Kate Bush the Artist. Next week we’ll look at Never for Ever, the first post-tour Kate Bush album where she unleashes a flood of ideas into the world. What does one do after the Tour of Life? In Bush’s words: “everything.”




A good landmark of an artist’s prestige is when they start doing music for films. A new star will show up on the scene and filmmakers will take advantage of their star power to grab a young, hip audience for their movies. There was a period a few years ago where young bands like Florence + the Machine and Paramore gained traction by recording songs for the Twilight Saga. Of course the inverse is also true, as long-established stars are also likely to help a film earn more press. The UK’s bestselling single of 1979, Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes,” is inextricable from its haunting appearance in Watership Down. Just as a song can mark a film, a film can mark a song.

Of course, this is in no way an assurance of a song or movie’s quality. A song and a movie can both be deservedly forgotten. Such is the case with “Magician,” which, while a footnote in Kate Bush’s wider career, still marks the beginning of a trend for her.

“The Magician,” or “Magician” as it’s usually called, was written by lyricist Paul Webster and composer Maurice Jarre for the virtually unseen film The Magician of Lublin. An adaptation of Nobel-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish novel of the same name, it was such a critical and commercial bomb that it’s nearly impossible to see now unless you find either the world’s best torrent site or fork over $226 USD for the VHS. Its near-unseeability causes the near-unlistenability of Bush’s song for it, as “Magician” has never been commercially released either. “Magician” exists as a low-quality audio clip from the movie, with static and diegetic noises all over it (someone says “cow” or a similar-sounding word at one point). It’s easier to hear than, say, the Phoenix demos, as it’s a professional recording rather than a home demo, but it’s possibly even more obscure than them.

If we’re being honest, the lack of HQ ways to listen to “Magician” is no great loss. This isn’t a lost gem, just a mediocre film track that happens to set a precedent for Bush. Webster and Jarre give Bush a slog of a track to sing through, a bogstandard piece of carnival music set in a minor key like a particularly manic depressive Dresden Dolls song, with lyrics strung together by tedious aphorisms and hackneyed couplets. How did someone read Webster’s lyrics and decide that “When you reach for a star/only angels are there/and it’s not very far/just to step on a stair” wasn’t a laughable opening? The rest of the song is a series of banal vignettes about whimsical creatures and individuals having downbeat times in “the circus of life,” where “life is bitter and gay.” It’s hard to imagine any vocalist making this work, and Bush doesn’t do much to elevate it, opting for a Shirley Bassey impression that she only utilizes in her worst work. The whole thing sounds like a parody of itself, and what’s more, it’s a boring one.

But while “Magician” isn’t good, but it has some significance for Bush. This is the first time Bush has been the original singer of someone else’s song. She’s done covers before (as we’ve seen), but previously those covers have been just that: tributes to artists or fillers in setlists. “Magician” marks the first occasion someone has trusted Bush to sing a song of their own. In the Never for Ever chapter we’re going to see a lot more of this, albeit with more established collaborators and vastly better songwriters. For all that “Magician” fails, it’s not quite the most worthless failure of this era.

The nature of The Magician of Lublin is also worth noting for our purposes. The film tracks a Jewish stage magician in the 20th century, who tours the Russian Empire and wreaks havoc in the lives of his loved ones with his many affairs. Unlike the book, which is fairly lacking in mysticism, the film of Lublin has some light esoteric aspects, with a prophetic vision from the movie’s protagonist Yasha and his transformation into a goose at the end (really). Yet these contrivances, however absurd, can both be considered aberrations in the movie. It’s not a straight fantasy movie on the whole, as its source material is a work of literary realism. The esoterica is confined to individual plot beats rather than a running theme.

This sort of lightly esoteric non-fantasy is a consistent aspect of Bush’s work. A lot of movies she’s consciously influenced by are ghost stories, lightly fantastical without quite throwing a real spectre at the audience. Don’t Look Now, Man of a Thousand Faces, and The Innocents all have elements of the supernatural, but they don’t tip into outright fantasy. Instead, horror is a largely internal phenomenon, caused by the psychological demons of their protagonists. The supernatural elements are avenues to explore that.

Bush also largely utilizes the mysterious as a mirror, providing reflections of a character’s soul. There’s rarely outright magical entities in her work, but her characters dwell in mystical worlds. Bush rode into the charts on the back of a ghost story, and she just ended her sophomore album with a Gothic horror song. She lives in a world of spectres, often created by paranoia. Does this make Bush a magician, a conjurer who summons spirits from the deeps of the human soul? It’s not impossible.

Bush has often acted as a sort of curator of her favorite niches of taste, often integrating her favorite books and films into her music. This is not dissimilar to how “Magician” walks through different ways of life, strange individuals and entities going about their business miserably. “Magician” doesn’t especially forward Bush’s key themes, but does it fit with the ideas she’s explored across her first two albums? Sure. It’s compatible. It’s just the dullest iteration of her most interesting ideas.

Recorded in February 1979. Heard by the public in The Magician of Lublin, premiering October 1979. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals. Paul Webster — lyrics. Maurice Jarre — score. London Symphony Orchestra — all instruments.



Wow (album version)
Video 1 (Keith Macmillan)
Video 2 (The Whole Story)
San Remo
French TV
Tour of Life

It begins with the sound of an orchestra warming up, strings humming in anticipation of an incoming trobairitz. Then, a four-note synth loop, which is played for nearly the entire first minute of the song, when it gives way to the song’s rhythm section. Twenty-nine seconds in, the wail of a processed guitar ushers in the vocal of Kate Bush, who delivers the opening line. “We’re all alone on the stage tonight,” she sings with equal trepidation and excitement. “We’ve been told we’re not afraid of you.” With that, the audience is hoisted onto the stage, and “Wow” commences.

The similarities between “Wow” and “Wuthering Heights” are largely structural. Both songs have arpeggiated hooks (“Wow” opens with the notes of a C major chord), followed by tense, melodically wrought verses, before breaking into the song’s triumphant chorus. “Wow” is shorter, its album version capping off at four minutes, compared to the four-and-a-half minutes of “Wuthering Heights,” with its intro which is built into the verse, keeping the song moving after its chorus. The chorus and verse of “Wow” are repeated twice each, with the intro and outro essentially built into the verses, letting the song flow smoothly while also breaking it into distinguishable segments.

This clarity is something some other songs on Lionheart lack, like “In the Warm Room” and “Fullhouse” (and if you recall, I quite liked “Fullhouse”). Bush wasn’t given adequate time to flesh her compositions out, and as a result Lionheart is a victim of second album syndrome. Just as, say, Give Em Enough Rope or Every Open Eye needed more oxygen and room to push themselves and make their songs come along, Lionheart needed more time than it had to bring its songs to life. There’s brilliance and innovation in it, and some of Bush’s finest songs, but too often there’s mere hints of what these songs could be (if Bush was going to give the Director’s Cut treatment to any of her albums, it should have been Lionheart).

As the one single from Lionheart to reach the top 20, peaking at #14, (“Hammer Horror” just barely made it into the top 40), “Wow” was a not-insignificant success for Bush. It’s tempting to ask why. “Hammer Horror” has all the theatricality of “Wuthering Heights,” if not more. Why didn’t it speed to the top of the charts like “Wuthering” and “The Man with the Child in His Eyes?” Maybe “Hammer Horror” was just too odd for the charts, with its sprawling shape and gothic paranoia. More crucially, it’s not tender, and if the charts are anything to go by, listeners like Bush when she’s tender. The three highest-charting singles of the first three years of Bush’s career, “Wuthering,” “Child,” and “Babooshka,” all lean into the mystery, sweetness, and tragedy of domestic life. “Wow,” meanwhile, isn’t domestic at all, taking place entirely on the stage. Yet the transference of setting means only another place for Bush to explore her favorite themes, as the chorus of “Wow” has a childlike sensibility matched only by “The Man with the Child in His Eyes.” It sounds innocent and, more importantly, earnest. “Wow” is tongue-in-cheek in regards to showbiz, but it’s happy to fly through it flaws and all.

Noticing these flaws comes from a basic awareness of how theater works. As we’ve noted, Bush’s approach to performance at this time is largely negative, focusing on the anxieties which come with it. Every song from “Symphony in Blue” to “Hammer Horror” has dealt with mortal terror of being seen (even “In the Warm Room” can be read as an audience member waiting to see a star). Lionheart’s stage is a place where the soul of the performer is laid bare. Each of the album’s songs can be read as a kind of horror story where a character loses their mind in the spotlight. This is straightforward in “Hammer Horror,” which uses gothic aesthetics as a framing device for the horrors of performance, and “Fullhouse,” which is a sustained howl of mental anguish. “Wow” isn’t necessarily less down on the stage than the rest of the album — instead of taking the voice of the performer, “Wow” seems to be from the audience’s perspective. “We’re all alone on the stage tonight/we’ve been told we’re not afraid of you” and “we know all our lines so well” suggest an audience well versed in how to respond to stars and performances.

Over the course of this blog we haven’t touched often on Kate Bush’s relationship with fandom. One exists, of course: there are fanzines dedicated to her, she’s made convention appearances, and as long as the Internet has existed there’s been groups dedicated to figuring out Bush’s location. Such a fandom was nascent in this period — being a Kate Bush fan mostly just meant buying her records. Being a fan of Bush’s music was a private exercise. Public speculation about her was done by voyeuristic journalists, who wrote such scintillating headlines and phrases as “Kate Bush Is A Sex Kitten,” “her flesh, her bones, her erogenous zones,” and this fucking travesty of the printed word (surely an article that begins by declaring that Kate Bush is a girl is going to be a Pulitzer Prize winner. Talk about her having “the breasts of a Victorian princess” and you have an all-time classic on your hands). It’s easy to why Bush would be resentful of this sort of treatment, especially when it manifested itself as a media furor over a photo of her wearing a pink top.

The truth is, of course, that this isn’t fandom. It’s media sensationalism. Bush understands true fandom, where someone gets to enjoy the beauty of a creator’s work in private. It also pertains to going out and seeing them in concert, having your favorite singer onstage in front of you and hearing your favorite songs live. This is the kind of invigoration that’s present in a number of Bush’s songs of the period: allowing yourself to be a swooning fangirl.

“Wow” is the paragon of Bush’s sometimes loopy and adolescent enthusiasm, in the vein of “Violin.” Its chorus of “wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, WOW! UnbelIEVable!” sounds like scribblings on an asylum wall, bolstered by the singing of a dame who’s had a bit too much MDMA. It’s almost like Bush is asking to be made fun of, with her play at wide-eyed innocence at the wonders of showbiz. Yet Bush is clearly winking at the audience, as her all-too-knowing performance in the song’s music video makes clear. In this era, Bush has a habit in videos of staring directly into the camera like she expects to shatter the lens with the sheer power of her gaze (she later supplants this strategy by staring past the camera longingly). As memorable as her early videos are, a lot of their longevity comes from Bush’s goofy miming. This may be why the “Wow” video has the reputation it has, with Bush flailing her arms around in circles while repeatedly crying “wow” like a maniac. The song is sheer mad giddiness, sounding like Nina Hagen let loose in the Hammersmith Odeon.

The elation of the chorus is belied by the knowing facetiousness of the verses, with the shit-eating grin they flash at showbiz. Bush’s sweet-natured delivery of “we think you’re amazing!” efficiently hides the fact those lines are probably written with gritted teeth. It’s not that “Wow” is bitter, but it’s taking a few potshots as it falls through showbiz. The first verse is rife with tension, laden as it is with the song’s intro, acting as something of a rehearsal for the chorus. There’s a clash of the rehearsed tendencies of the song with Bush’s more communal ones. To her, creativity is a collaborative act, where the audience and artist unite to move each other. “We’re all alone on the stage tonight” sounds like Bush’s invitation to the audience, as if the stage is an arena for both player and spectator. She has a number of songs about music itself. In something like “Saxophone Song,” music is a way of tapping into the beauty of the universe. Back at the beginning of her pirated discography, Bush ascribes musicality to a beautiful figure in “Something Like a Song.” To her, music is a sixth sense, something humans do in the same way we breathe. It’s like John Cage’s mantra “everything we do is music,” except it makes music both catalyst and end result.

The first verse treats spectatorship as a kind of prepared act in itself: “we know all our lines so well/we’ve said them so many times/time and time again.” The star is one half of the act, how their work is received is another. The character of the audience is as rehearsed as Bush is herself. In a theatrical act, both player and spectator are expected to demonstrate certain behaviors. The spectator is supposed to laugh at the right moments, break into applause at the end of the show, and tell their friends to go do the same. Verse two shows what happens when this process breaks down, with the actor onstage failing to reach his goals. He “dies too soon/to fast to save himself.” It’s not a great outcome for him. As Bush raises fingerguns to her head, she delivers the killing blow: “we’d give you a part, my love/but you’d have to play the fool.”

Overall, this is just a fun song. More than on any other song here, Bush is having a ball. She pulls off horror, Britishness (“he’ll never make the Sweeney”), and more importantly, naughtiness. “He’s too busy hitting the Vaseline” accentuated by Bush tapping her bum is a shoe-in for the best moment in any Kate Bush video ever. There are nice little details to the song, such as Paddy Bush’s mandolins in the chorus, and the ecstatic return of the KT Bush Band in guitarist Brian Bath and rhythm section Del Palmer and Charlie Morgan. Was there ever such an honest and thoughtful reunion on record? It’s hard to think of many.

Recorded July-September 1978 at Super Bear Studios in Nice. Released on Lionheart 12 November 1978 and as a single on 9 March, 1979. Performed on the Tour of Life. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Charlie Morgan — drums. Brian Bath — guitars. Del Palmer — bass. Ian Bairnson — electric guitars. Paddy Bush — mandolin. Duncan Mackay — synthesizer. Andrew Powell — production.