Coffee Homeground

mahagonny

Coffee Homeground
Tour of Life

“Coffee Homeground” comes at the tail end of Lionheart, when the album’s slower and quieter tracks have all trailed off. As the album’s penultimate track, it provides Lionheart with a relatively bombastic and staunchly theatrical climax. For all that Lionheart explores stagefright and theatrics in depth, it’s a much quieter album than that description might suggest. There are few especially up-tempo songs on it, and Bush’s piano guides her backing musicians through her songs. “Coffee Homeground” almost sounds out of place on the same album which has “Oh England My Lionheart” and “In the Warm Room,” with Bush’s camp attempt at a German accent and Kurt Weillian orchestral scoring. It’s by the grace of Lionheart’s strong thread of camp that “Coffee Homeground” is allowed to work, exploding into full blown theatrics at the end of an album which previously treated them as something more to be discussed than outright embraced.

As we’ve discussed at length in this blog, Kate Bush is a consistent purveyor of camp. Her mime training, her focus on character in her songwriting, and a constant awareness of form are camp attributes of her songs thus far. When we get to the Tour of Life, we’ll see just how far she takes that. Bush’s camp instincts to come a head in “Coffee Homeground,” is one of her most unreservedly theatrical songs. It’s hard to overstate just how theatrical this song is. Bush as a singer is always expressionist; in “Homeground” she takes this camp tendency to its logical conclusion by doing a funny accent. Her play at a German accent is willfully funny, one of the silliest things on Lionheart. Bush was often mocked for her gurning and high-pitched vocals (by such comedians as Faith Brown and Pamela Stephenson), and “Homeground” suggests she’s in on the joke to some extent, or least just as capable of having fun with it. On the track she engages in Sprechgesang, a kind of singing in which a singer rapidly moves back and forth between speaking and singing. This a natural move for Bush, who’s done this sort of thing before — moving back and forth between speech and song is a stylistic norm for her. But it’s worth investigating just what brings her to it this time around.

Bush’s use of Sprechgesang, her mimed German accent, and an unusually playful orchestra make up a hat tip to the early 20th century German theater team of playwright Bertolt Brecht, composer Kurt Weill, and singer Lotte Lenya. This collective is one of the most influential in 20th century theater, and we could get a whole book out of talking about any one of them. Let’s start with Brecht, as his writing is useful for discussing Bush’s storytelling in “Homecoming.” Brecht’s great contribution to dramatic theory is “Epic Theater,” which, like glam rock, revels in its status as artifice and production. Jack Graham has written about Epic Theater as applied to Doctor Who before, so for a more thorough take on the subject you should read his post. Suffice it to say here that “producedness,” as Jack puts it, is a key aspect of both glam rock and Epic Theater. Both are conscious of form and actively embrace it, taking no care to hide the fact of their creation, as opposed to more realist modes of theater. The two forms are thus resultingly compatible on some levels.

Where the two differ is their relationship with camp. Glam rock is camp’s full realization, the excess, glamour, and love of the gaudy exploding onto radio stations and Top of the Pops broadcasts. Epic Theatre doesn’t work in quite the same way. Niki Haringsma has said to me that while Brecht also had a love of the gaudy (“the world is poor and man’s a shit and that is all there is to it,” as his The Threepenny Opera declares), he strode to avoid glamourous aspects of camp which would render his characters attractive and admirable.

This is a stridently different approach than the one Kate Bush has to characters, which is to empathize with them and use their plights to encapsulate fraught human experiences. Even the paranoid character presented in “Coffee Homeground” is allowed the subjectivity of their perception of events. Yet there’s still a sense that Bush is an unreliable narrator. “Homeground” is the story of their paranoia that their host is trying poison them. Bush speaks at length about all the different toxins she might be killed with, from bitter almonds to hemlock to arsenic. She’s in some sort of decrepit house with “torn wallpaper” and “pictures of Crippin/lipstick-smeared,” (likely referring to the allegedly uxoricidal Hawley Harvey Crippen). The song takes the form of a screed, with Bush declaring all the ways she won’t be caught (“in the pot of TEA!”), with verses taking an epiphoral structure in which nearly all of them end with the phrase “coffee homeground.” It’s an extravagant piece of songwriting, extremely conscious of form and rife with tension as it leaves all pretense of believability behind. Bush said the song was inspired by a paranoid cabbie she met, and that’s the sort of character she’s written here. Despite the song being entirely theirs, there’s a degree of separation from the audience, that the singer can’t be trusted. Bush is entirely operating on theatrics and leaving emotional realism at the door.

Yet there’s an element of Epic Theater which Bush neglects altogether: its strident anti-capitalism. Brecht was a Marxist who used the theater to shatter an audience’s preconceptions of how a capitalist society works. Bush has never been very interested in subverting the established social order. Even when she’s an actively subversive songwriter, she’s still essentially being one in the position of a well-to-do middle-class heterosexual white woman. This lack of political intent makes “Coffee Homeground” feel like it’s missing a key ingredient (and I’m not talking about hemlock). It’s not clear why this song has to be a Brechtian homage — it makes the song more striking, but it’s not clear what Bush is trying to say.

Resultingly, Bush’s engagement with Epic Theater is a purely audible one. “Homeground” owes more to Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya than it does to Brecht, as it’s their sound Bush pillages. Bush’s trill becomes a half-spoken warble as she strives to sound like Lenya for a track. It’s not a bad impression — sure, it sounds nothing like Lenya’s voice, but Bush doesn’t do the worst job of imitating her speech patterns. Musically, the strongest resemblance to Brecht and Weill’s work here is the morbid subject matter applied to carnivalesque scoring. The melody contains huge leaps and never sounds quite the same, as the intro and bridge repeat essentially the same phrase in a different key every time they appear. There are little discordant details such as the use of the non existent #VII chord of B flat (A), which doesn’t appear in B flat major or B flat minor. The pre-chorus will make a play at being in A before transforming into some mode of B (possibly mixolydian, or anything with a flattened seventh). Even if “Homeground” lacks conceptual clarity, it’s far from banal.

The decrepit house of “Homeground” is as much a stage for the song itself as it is for Bush. In a period where she’s torn between the obligations of touring and her desire to give her songs the time they need, “Coffee Homeground” is the sort of song Kate Bush is bound to produce. Her shortcomings and her ambition clash violently, and the result is as fascinating and vexed as anything she’s ever made. This has been a challenging period for Bush, and as we’ll see in the next two weeks, it’s about to climax.

Recorded July-September 1978 at Super Bear Studios in Nice. Released as B-side of “Hammer Horror” on 27 October 1978 and on Lionheart on 12 November 1978. Performed live on Tour of Life in 1979. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Stuart Elliott — drums, percussion. Ian Bairnson — rhythm guitar. Duncan Mackay — synthesizer. David Paton — bass.

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Symphony in Blue

jarman

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Symphony in Blue
Xmas special
Tour of Life

The premiere track of Lionheart is a synecdoche of the entire album. “Symphony in Blue” is introspective, troubled, and, most importantly, aestheticist. Throughout these essays, we’ve hit on how despite the constraints of its production, Lionheart manages to says some intriguing things about stagefright, aesthetic and music as both a mode of survival and an abstract horror in its own right. Lionheart’s answers are more complex than the ones The Kick Inside offered, and adjusts the trajectory of future Bush albums.

“Symphony in Blue” is almost essayistic in its structure: it has two verses, two choruses, and a brief outro. Additionally, each verse is separated into two halves, each with a distinct focus. Each verse starts with a section about a color, and ends with a thesis on a sensation or emotion. The songs forms a series of propositions on the relationship between interior experience and aesthetic expression.

There’s been a strong visual component to Bush’s work in general work — she’s almost as famous for her music videos as she is for her songs. It’s impossible to imagine “Wuthering Heights” without its music videos. Her songwriting is frequently centered on visual concepts, and cinema is as big an influence on Bush as music is. This focus on performance and theatricality is key to Lionheart, as the predominant image in its music is that of the stage (“Hammer Horror” and “Wow” are particularly theatrical. Lionheart is the soundtrack of an unwritten Broadway musical). The dilemmas on the album are primarily visual. Bush envisions not just how inner collapse feels but how it looks.

To Bush, blue is “the color of my room and my mood.” It’s a ubiquitous color for her, present on the walls, in the sky, “out of my mouth” (a possible pun), and “the sort of blue in those eyes you get hung up about,” perhaps an allusion to the ever-growing canon of songs about blue eyes. Bush is making a world of blue, one where external hue, metaphor, and internal state collide in a musical act of mise-en-scène. “Symphony in Blue” is a dive into introspection wherein the act of introspection becomes the entirety of Bush’s world. Bush’s fixation on blue largely rises from dissatisfaction, remaining in a state where all you can grasp is the banal details of your immediate environment.

The second half of the first verse fixates on the thoughts that arise when “that feeling of meaninglessness sets in,” ones that pertain to “blowing my mind on God.” This part of the verse is mostly a list of idioms describing God, from the basically metaphorical (“the light in the dark”) to the scriptural (“the meek He seeks/the beast He calms”) to the bureaucratic (“the head of the good soul department”). Bush’s God always occupies the role of the enigmatic man in Bush’s songs, more an amalgam of resonances and qualities than an identifiable person. He is a presence, but a largely offstage one used by Bush to hurl her anxieties at.

In its second verse, “Symphony” explores red, a more fatal, dramatic, and alarming color than blue. “I associate love with red/the color of my heart when she’s dead.” Bush invokes a sense of viscera, with thoughts of death coming to mind as she ruminates in her room. For a second it looks like she might not survive the song. The rest of the verse is more straightforwardly physical, with Bush delivering the astonishing line “the more I think about sex, the better it gets.” As the song navigates its way out of emotional traps by listing potentials ways out, sex is inevitably going to come up.

The best way for Bush to articulate her ennui is visually: she will compare her mood to something visible. Blue is of course the color of many songs — in many ways, it’s the most musical color. One of the foundational genres of popular music is the blues. Blue is used as a synonym for sadness, a catalyst for innumerable amounts of music. Lord knows there’s no shortage of songs about blue — an even slightly comprehensive list would take up several blog posts. “Symphony in Blue” obviously apes its title from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” yet kicks things up a notch by moving the color up from a mere rhapsody to a whole symphony. Perhaps the most relevant song to “Symphony in Blue” for our purposes is David Bowie’s contemporaneous and relatively similar “Sound and Vision.” From its title to its repetition of “blue, blue, electric blue,” the songs are similar in a way that’s difficult to nail down as a total coincidence (although it is entirely possible Bowie’s influence on Bush in this case was subconscious). Both use the surroundings of blue rooms as reflections of internal dissatisfaction. Crucially, both songs unify sight and sound into a single phenomenon. Bush’s chorus begins with “I see myself suddenly on the piano as a melody,” wherein melody is both a reflection of self and a visual reflection. Bush’s favorite theme of music’s tangibility has reached its apotheosis. Lionheart is paying off a debt to The Kick Inside via one of its fullest realizations of its ideas.

Musically, “Symphony in Blue” references more artists than just 20th century ones such as Gershwin and Bowie. The song deliberately gestures at 19th century French composer Erik Satie’s most famous piano compositions, the Gymnopédies. Like “Symphony in Blue,” Gymnopédie No. 1 is in ¾ and begins with a G major 7th chord. Both pieces are airy and chromatic (a trend in 19th century music to be found in the work of, for example, Debussy, another favorite composer of Bush’s), and Bush’s drifts slowly through G major, often falling onto 7th chords or flattening 6ths. There’s a jazz-influenced airiness to “Symphony” which is also inherited from the Gymnopédies and is clearly evidenced by its use of F7sus4, a true mind-fuck of a chord. The resemblance is intentional — “Symphony in Blue” is a pop song, as its reliance on Iain Bairnson’s electric guitar demonstrates, but it’s outright smuggling classical music into the charts. In Bush’s Christmas special, she begins “Symphony in Blue” by playing Gymnopédie No. 1, dutifully playing the song in G before pivoting on a D minor chord to “Symphony.” Bush is playing the cultural creator, collecting influences and displaying them for posterity. When she draws on tradition, it’s not merely to recreate visions of the past, but to find new directions for preexisting ideas. Bush spends a lot of her time looking at blue, so there was no chance she’d blue it.

Recorded July-September 1978 at Super Bear Studios in Nice. Released as lead track of Lionheart on 12 November 1978; released as third single of said album on 1 June 1979. Played live on Tour of Life. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Stuart Elliott — drums. Iain Bairnson — electric guitars. David Paton — bass. Duncan Mackay — Fender Rhodes.

Fullhouse

car

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Fullhouse
Tour of Life

As Kate Bush is thrust onto the world stage, she’s faced with the anxiety of hoisting the burden of fame and its consequential large audiences. Her long-lasting fear of being seen is finally vindicated as the pop charts latch their claws into her. Bush’s schedule was wildly different after a series of promotional appearances overtook her life and live performance became her major mode of getting music to the public. One of the most valuable relics of this era is a 1979 episode of the BBC programme Nationwide, which covers Bush’s rehearsals and opening night of her Tour of Life. It’s still the best documentary ever made about as it showcases Bush at her most frantic. For the duration of the programme, coordinates her music, dancing, and budget for the shows. It’s a short documentary, capping off at under thirty minutes, yet it feels busier than any other filmmaking about Bush. The most striking thing about the episode is how unflappable Bush appears as she moves from music rehearsals to dance lessons to business meetings. This Bush’s hour and she is adamant that fucking it up is not an option. It’s an inspiring watch, and viewing between plays of Lionheart and Never for Ever is crucial for understanding the arc of Bush’s career.

At the end of the Nationwide documentary, an interviewer asks 20-year-old Bush what’s next for her. Beaming with the elated hubris and optimism of youth, Bush quickly answers “everything!” An emblematic moment, this quote could retroactively be applied to The Kick Inside and used as its ethos, summing up the album’s precocious pursuit of the universe’s magic. Lionheart also fields the “everything” question, but with more alarm: “shit, what does one do with everything?”

Alan Moore has coined a concept called ideaspace, which can be roughly summed up as the events and concepts which exist solely in the human head (e.g. the idea of a chair as separate as a physical chair). In Moore’s view, these ideas have the same validity that external events do. The human mind is capable of holding entire worlds and constellations. This theory strikes me as evocative of “Fullhouse,” which is equally about events that occur in the human head. “Fullhouse” is Bush left alone with her thoughts and being forced to furiously mow them down in her car. This is expressed rather literally: as Bush careens down the road in her car, she sees her old self in the road and plows her over. It’s a starkly violent bit of metaphor, turning internal anxiety into an visceral external attack. This viscera continues throughout the song — in the second verse, Bush sings “my silly pride/digging the knife in/she loves to come for her ride.” The singer is reduced to a host for their anxieties, where they’re reduced to vessels for their most complex emotions. Trotting onto stages in front of massive audiences for the first time certainly feeds anxieties like this. It’s not difficult to imagine why Bush was singing about it.

In one of my favorite episodes of Cecilee Linke’s marvelous podcast Strange Phenomena, guest and therapist Zoey P unpacks the mental health dimensions of this song in depth (actually, go listen to that now). Zoey points out that this song is aptly describing the experience of anxiety and dissociation. This feeling of being outside of yourself is pervasive for those dissociate. Zoey also points out the pertinence of Bush’s tense changes: her switch from the second person of “suddenly there in the road is your old self” to the first person of “I am my enemy/mowing me over.” Crucial to anxiety is the way in which one can become one’s own combatant, taking oneself to task for something or other. For all that Bush appears to have her shit figured out, she clearly understands the nuances of mental health. It’s not hard to see why Bush once considered a career in psychiatry. Her sense of empathy provides an abundance of storytelling opportunities.

Also intriguing is the song’s central metaphor (and lord, does this song love metaphor) of one’s head as a “full house.” Eventually we’ll get to Bush’s other take on this subject, but in addition to its obvious theatrical meaning, Bush seems intent on analogizing a building with a mind. Both are spaces where massive events happen. If Lionheart has one conceit that Bush’s mindset of the time, it’s that all the world is a stage. “Fullhouse” may not get the attention it deserves, but neither does its subject matter.

“Fullhouse” is also a clear sign towards the next major step in Bush’s career: a proper major tour, the only one she ever did. If sporadic performances across Europe inspire a song like “Fullhouse,” a tour will test the limits of her endurance. The results will be decisively mixed. While Bush proves that she can make an audience enraptured for a couple hours, live performance is not her preferred mode of transmitting music. Because of this Lionheart is transitory: it’s the first and only album that showcases Bush as a touring artist. When we get to Never for Ever, we’ll see Bush turn into a fundamentally different artist. As of now, she’s something else: a clearly talented performer for whom regular, large personal audiences is anathema.

Recorded at Super Bear Studios in Nice from July-September 1978. Performed live on the Tour of Life in 1979. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Stuart Elliott — drummer. David Paton — bass. Ian Bairnson — electric guitar. Francis Monkman — hamond.

In the Warm Room

billie

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In the Warm Room
Tour of Life

For all that Lionheart is positioned in the shadow of The Kick Inside, it diverges from its predecessor in significant ways. The Kick Inside is more or less an art rock album — a much quirkier art rock album than something like The Wall or Low, but nonetheless in a tradition that houses Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, and Genesis. There are certainly strands of art rock in Lionheart (which are most prominent in “Wow,” “Hammer Horror,” and “Symphony in Blue,” all the singles), but it’s frayed at the edges and beginning to pull away from its obvious tradition. There’s an edge of darkness to Lionheart, which wasn’t as prominent in Bush’s debut. It’s almost a Gothic album with a healthy dose of the pastoral thrown in. There’s also a folk touch to it, with its increased use of acoustic instruments (down to the influence of Paddy Bush). Lionheart is lonely, and its singer is left in France to ruminate on cultural fragments of England.

One of the quietest songs on the album is “In the Warm Room,” also one of the album’s acoustic songs. It fills the “Feel It” spot on the album, the one exclusively-piano song. “Feel It” used its slot on the album to explore sexual desire and seeking pleasure in ambiguous circumstances. “In the Warm Room” is just a dead end — a treacly, inept dirge of a love song. It actually is what male rock critics (a tautology if ever there was one) said her other songs were. It’s the nadir of the album, and a self-evident career low for Bush.

“In the Warm Room” is that ever so ubiquitous and banal staple of popular music, a song where a man is encouraged to think about an offstage woman dying to sleep with him. The woman is typically voluptuous and seductive, a femme fatale of the highest pedigree: “she’ll tell you that she’ll stay/so you’d better barricade the way out,” “she’ll touch you with your mama’s hand” (which… ew). Women become a way to keep score, and the lady in the warm room is the ultimate conquest. It’s creepy and an indulgence of Bush’s most obsequious catering to misogyny.

If this song sounds male gazey, that is intentional. Bush claimed she often wrote songs for men, giving them what they want, specifically citing “In the Warm Room.” Such a decision is backwards for Bush, who’s always been a tad conservative in her outlook but manages to hides it behind radically conceptual songwriting (she’s stronger at navigating aesthetics than politics). And it’s just banal here — it’s depressing to see someone who once wrote a musical suicide note for an incestuous woman settling for writing a song about a dude who likes to get laid with spooky dames.

Bush plays it with such po-facedness too: the song crawls, shapelessly wandering in various modes of A (switching between major and minor) as Bush croons the lyrics in a warmed over Billie Holiday impression. It’s terribly lumpy too — it’s difficult to outline a verse-and-chorus structure for this because there’s no tension or reward. “In the Warm Room” is trying incredibly hard to do nothing at all, while coming across as extremely self-serious.

This is what tips it over into the sublimely ridiculous. I mean, who can sing these lyrics with a straight face? How can you make “you’ll fall into her like a pillow/her thighs as soft as marshmallows/say hello to the warm musk of her hollows” work? This is a patently awful lyric and the best singer in the world couldn’t (and indeed can’t) make it work. It doesn’t help that the rest of the lyrics are nonsense like “but when you do/it’ll feel like kicking a habit.” “In the Warm Room” crawls, but it’s gobsmackingly silly.

The most spot-on diagnosis of the song’s failure comes from a friend of mine who’s described the essential problem with “In the Warm Room” as being that Kate Bush is so straight she has no idea what it’s like to desire a woman. So, what we have here is a woman trying to recreate the male gaze. Is that better or worse than a man doing it? Hard to say. But it’s not enough to salvage “In the Warm Room,” which is more fun to mock than listen to. This is a rough patch on the album, and thank god we’re going to see better fare from Bush before this album is over.

Recorded July-September 1978 at Super Bear Studios in Nice. Performed live on the Tour of Life in 1979. Personnel: Kate Bush — piano, vocals.