The Kate Bush ARTE Documentary

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Moving and my first classes of the semester have pushed “Games Without Frontiers” to next week. In the meantime, here’s a quick rundown of ARTE’s new Kate Bush documentaryAnd as always, feel free to join my 27 other backers on Patreon.

ARTE is an excellent provider of culturally astute television. It’s well-produced documentary filmmaking with lots of programmes to choose from if you want 45 to 50 minutes of that. Admittedly other than their new and very good Kate Bush documentary, all I’ve seen is their Alan Moore film (which is fun too), so I can’t testify for the vast majority of their work, but I’d be very surprised if those two shows were anomalies in their body of work. Plus my art history major girlfriend has praised them, so I think we’re on solid ground here.

Which is to say ARTE doing a Kate Bush documentary is terribly exciting. There’s a roster of solid Kate Bush documentaries out there (I’ll vouch for the Nationwide documentary, Kate Bush In Concert, and the Kate Bush Story), but there’s a very small number of them, and over the years they’ve offered increasingly less new information.  Kate Bush, portrait de l’envoûtante icone pop isn’t exactly brimming with new facts about Bush either, but it’s nonetheless a useful bit of filmmaking. This may be a good time to bring up that as the programme is in French and lacks English subtitles, so as a non-Francophone I missed quite a bit of the dialogue. Still, even though bits are overdubbed, it’s still a visually well-presented show that’s pretty clear all the way through. Even when you lose track of the language, you’ll understand what’s happening onscreen.

The most exciting part of the documentary is the astonishing amount of new interviews with Kate Bush’s collaborators and associates. David Gilmour, Brian Bath, Andrew Powell, Stewart Avon Arnold, Gered Mankowitz, Graeme Thomson, Pat Martin, Vic King, Nick Launay, Glenys Groves, Preston Heyman, and Youth all show up in this film. And it’s kind of fucking exhilarating. Heyman tells his classic story of wanting to work with Bush after seeing her on TV and then immediately getting a phone call from her requesting him to come to the studio, but there’s neat little tidbits of info too. Stewart Avon Arnold talking about the magic of Lindsay Kemp is sweet, as is KT Bush Band mainstays Brian Bath and Vic King reminiscing about the time Bush wrote “James and the Cold Gun.” It all goes to show that Kate Bush is an artist who, four decades after her entrance into the pop charts, is still a figure who people love working with. Del Palmer is conspicuously absent, but given how many major Dreams of Orgonon players show up, that seems like a worthwhile sacrifice.

If the programme has a major flaw, it’s the habitual one of Bush documentaries, which is that they spend far too much time on The Kick Inside and the Tour of Life. About thirty minutes of its fifty-two minutes spent on Bush’s pre-Never for Ever career, which is only about 2 years out of four decades of music. Puzzlingly, it doesn’t spend nearly as much time on Hounds of Love, the other over-signified (though deservedly so) portion of Bush’s career. This is basically a delayed 40th anniversary special. You’d hope that this would mean a broader career retrospective rather than a film that mostly skips over Lionheart, Never for Ever, and The Red Shoes, but alas, we’re still dealing with the mainstream view of Kate Bush here, which is that she recorded “Wuthering Heights” and “Running Up That Hill” and nothing else ever.

Looking back at Bush’s whole career is an especially telling act now: the gap between now and the release of 50 Words for Snow is longer than that between Aerial and Director’s Cut. Bush has remastered her entire discography in what feels like a career retrospective move. It’s plausible that Bush won’t release another album in the lifetime of this blog, in which case we’ll be ending with Before the Dawn, another career retrospective. It’s not impossible Kate Bush will release another album, but I suspect we’d all be surprised as she did.

Nonetheless, ARTE has offered a fine contribution to the canon of Bush documentary filmmaking here. It doesn’t have anything quite on the level of a stoned Tori Amos talking about “Babooshka,” but it’s nonetheless very good and well worth seeing. Francophones and fans unperturbed by a lack of subtitles (heroes) should watch it immediately. Others can wait for an English-subtitled version to show up on YouTube. It’s worth the wait. You won’t be disappointed waiting for Kate Bush.

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The Empty Bullring/Warm and Soothing (The Never for Ever B-Sides)

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This blog post was supported by 27 backers on Patreon.

CORRECTION: The A-side of “The Empty Bullring” is “Army Dreamers,” not “Breathing.”

The Empty Bullring

An ephemeral B-side, “The Empty Bullring” tells its story in under 2-and-a-half minutes. A short tragedy, the song takes the shape of a lament by a matador’s lover. The song’s opening line, “disappears through a window/out of my mind/trying to keep him at home,” is a choppy summation of Bush’s POV, but it’s followed by an intriguing literary reference: “leaving me here/like Tam Lin in her tower,” an homage to the Scottish legend of Tam Lin. While Bush’s recollection of this story is off — Tam Lin is a male character who isn’t actually trapped in a tower — and as a result makes the allusion incoherent, it’s still a marker of the song’s cultural literacy. The matador goes “out into Rome,” rather than Spain, the world’s bullfighting capital alongside Mexico. There’s some historical accuracy here — ancient Rome was known for its bullfighting. Yet the juxtaposition of Scottish folklore and the Roman Empire makes for a weird hodgepodge of settings, making history a backdrop on which continuous cultural battles are fought rather than a linear tradition of events.

So what battle is fought in “The Empty Bullring?” Obviously there’s the song’s focal image of a bullfight, which the matador loses: “the throw of the rose/it’s all you lived for/but you’ve lost it all.” The matador has a fatal obsession with “taking [his] red cloak/to regain something,” perhaps a sense of masculine pride which he’s been deprived of all his life. Rather than finding fulfillment at home in his relationship, he’s enraptured by “glory and gore,” seeking out a destructive lifestyle that took him away from the pleasures of life. Bush ends the short song with the bullfighting tragic hero losing everything, having prioritized a momentary victory over long-term happiness.

“The Empty Bullring” is most notable for being the first non-LP Kate Bush song to back one of her singles. It’s a minimalist track, with no instrumentation apart from Bush’s piano playing and little treatment in terms of production. Compared to its despairing A-side “Army Dreamers,” the track is considerably smaller in its scope, carrying a classicist tragedy on a catchy major third-minor third riff. Constructed from bits of other songs, “The Empty Bullring” does what its protagonist never could, accepting its place as a perfectly acceptable minor work in the Bush canon.

Warm and Soothing

According to Bush, “Warm and Soothing” was recorded to see how recording at Abbey Road would work for her. “We went into Studio Two, and really the only way we could tell if it was going to sound good was if I went and did a piano vocal,” she said, before effusing about the experience (“it sounded great”). The trite-and-true model of Bush playing her piano without a backing band or further instrumentation was a solid testing ground for recording at Abbey Road. Bush sounds at ease singing a fairly standard song of hers about the warmth of her old home vanishing into past as she returns to it, poor memories returning and getting buried under unpleasant new ones. “And I’m afraid by the way we grow old, darling,” says Bush. The further away she gets from her childhood in East Wickham, the most anxious her music gets. As the world moves forward, so does she. Nostalgia is a poison, but sometimes a revelatory one.

The Wedding List

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The Wedding List (demo)
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The Wedding List
Prince’s Trust Gala (1982)

Dedicated to Rohanne, the baddest bitch ever to write about the French New Wave.

This blog post was brought to you by 28 backers on Patreon. The Patreon has been doing incredibly well lately. For as little as $1 a post, you can read Dreams of Orgonon early every week.

François Truffaut’s film La Mariée était en noir, or The Bride Wore Black, frequently juxtaposes images of marital domesticity with the unhappiness of women. Its opening sequence depicts topless photographs of a woman being mechanically laid down by a machine. She stares dispassionately at the camera, perhaps itching to get away from a lecherous photographer. This introduce’s the movie’s theme of women’s antipathy towards men who objectify them, as actress Jeanne Moreau’s character, a bride who becomes a widow when her husband is shot to death immediately after their wedding, exacts violent revenge on her husband’s killers. To do so, she often goes through degrading transactions with these men, having tedious dinner dates with bigwigs or posing for their drawn portraits. Men and women have negative relationships in The Bride Wore Black, defined as much by the absence of supportive figures as its surplus of exploitative ones.

The films of the Nouvelle Vague, or the 1960s French New Wave which includes The Bride Wore Black, are walks through the zeitgeist of 1960s France, storming through the decade’s cultural and sociopolitical changes and exploring them with fluidly montage-centric and social realist filmmaking. Many New Wave movies tell stories of women trapped by misogynistic social dynamics. Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie showcases the misfortunes of an abused-housewife-turned-sex-worker at upsetting length, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 is about the terror of a woman faced with the possibility of imminent death, and François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim follows the dick-waving battle of two men over a woman. The New Wave is where the misogyny of male intellectuals clashes with burgeoning new modes of feminism, and finds itself both caving to women’s liberation and exposing the weaknesses of its own gender politics.

So the influence The Bride Wore Black had on “The Wedding List” is traceable, as the song preserves the gist of Truffaut’s themes without performing as a purist adaptation. As in The Bride Wore Black, the setup of “The Wedding List” is the vengeful killing spree of a woman whose husband was shot dead on her wedding day. It’s a pretty straightforward lift — while there’s no mention of the film or its characters, the premise is exactly the same. Bush trades in striking images, so copping such a vivid plot from a film was standard practice for her. Yet “The Wedding List” signals a break from the norm for Bush — unlike “Wuthering Heights,” it’s clearly written by someone who’s familiar with the source material. The image of a bride widowed as her husband is struck down in the church is a striking one on aesthetic and ideological levels. Getting to write such lyrics as “you’ve made a wake of our honeymoon” is only one major reason to write about it.

 

Of the aforementioned New Wave movies, two are directed by men. More Nouvelle Vague is male-directed than not. For all that these movies display an awareness of women’s issues, they’re largely from a masculine point of view that deprives their female characters of interiority. Women remain objects of desire who can’t function when unaccompanied by men. The Bride Wore Black is a good example of this: while Jeanne Moreau’s character is taking revenge on the male world, her motivations are pretty much exclusively “welp, I don’t have a man anymore so I’d better become a murderous vigilante.” While this reversal of traditional revenge plots is clever (Quentin Tarantino clearly thought so, since he stole the film’s plot for Kill Bill), and its gender politics are at least complex, it’s still fundamentally a narrative of how women fail to function without men in their lives.

Kate Bush is no stranger to this idea. A good number of her classic songs are about pining for an enigmatic male figure. It’s as much a part of being a female songwriter in the Seventies as pianos, getting stalked by gross music journalists, and getting compared to other women artists with no similarities beyond their gender. Kate Bush’s men are bastions of strength, and to be fair, she has a reason to believe that. The majority of her steadiest collaborators and supporters — her partner Del Palmer, her brothers, and nearly every musician she worked with — have been men. It’s easy to adopt a positive view of masculinity with that background. As Graeme Thomson likes to remind us, masculinity to Bush is a desirable companion to femininity. For all that Bush has often proven to be a feminist in denial, her music showcases a conservative fantasy.

Never for Ever is pervaded by images of familial breakdown. From “Babooshka” and its adulterous façade to the wartime despair of “Army Dreamers” and “Breathing,” traditional concepts of familial domesticity collapse in the face of violent modernity. Each song on the LP conveys some shattering of youthful preconceptions under the weight of adult burdens. Midwifed by the prodigy’s anxiety of Lionheart, the youthful dream of The Kick Inside has morphed into a darker vision of a strange world that, while allowing the hopes of the young to break into it, warps them beyond recognition: “maybe fate wants you dead too.” This kind of pessimism is found throughout Never for Ever and The Dreaming, and is only somewhat alleviated by Hounds of Love. It’s expressed in “The Wedding List” through the death of Bush’s husband. There is no male hero to save the day: Bush is well and truly alone, left to fend for herself.

In this way, Bush kills her positive vision of masculinity and replaces it with a bloodier one. She essentially takes the role of the vigilante usually played by men. When men stop playing a part in this story, women take their roles. It’s a kind of reverse fridging, the moment fridging stops being a misogynistic trope and becomes kind of good and queer. This is a traditionally male role being occupied by one of the most popular young singers in England. This break with gender norms is exemplified by Bush’s Christmas special performance of the song, where she dons a wedding dress while shooting her husband’s assassin to death. It’s terribly fun and extra, but it gets to a key truth about wedding stories: they usually don’t have a lot of women protagonists with guns. To be fair, this is a problem a lot of stories have even now, but in Truffaut and Bush it’s a nice departure from the cultural norms of the Sixties and Seventies.

Yet for all the fun subversion Kate Bush as a shooter in a wedding dress entails, it still brings us back to the fundamental problem of The Bride Wore Black. This is still a story of a woman failing to function as a member of society because there’s no longer a man in her life. It’s a compellingly told one that understands the trauma of these women, but neither The Bride Wore Black nor “The Wedding List” seeks to be empowering. Telling disempowering stories isn’t a problem in its own right. I live for pessimistic works of art. But Bush is still copying a narrative from the director of Jules et Jim, even if Truffaut is more willing to explore a woman’s side of the story than some of his contemporaries.

The decisive way in which Bush differs from Truffaut, who ends his movie with Jeanne Moreau in prison but having killed all of her husband’s murderers, is that “The Wedding List” ends with… well… “after she shot the guy/she committed suicide.” “I’m coming, Rudy,” she howls desperately. It gets worse from there: her autopsy uncovers that she “had a little one inside/it must have been Rudy’s child.” This is a song where a pregnant woman commits suicide. And it’s not even the first time that’s happened in a Kate Bush song! If this was bleak for 1980, it is perhaps more so in our historical moment when shootings are a pestilence (and not just in America — the UK has seen the assassination of Jo Cox in the last three years). Violence wins in Never for Ever — the potentially happy wife and mother is never granted domestic happiness.

In addition to the clash of women’s lib and the desire for domestic peace, there are plenty of additional dissonances on the track. “The Wedding List” hails from the first, pre-Fairlight period of Never for Ever’s recording sessions, and is the most straightforward rock song of the bunch. The melody is, unusually for Bush, largely guitar-led, carried on its four-note guitar hook. It lent itself well to being sung live, as Bush sang it for Prince’s Trust Gala concert in 1982. The performance was hilariously almost derailed by Bush’s dress nearly falling off as its straps popped off. Bush carried on, holding her dress on with one arm throughout the song (while continuing to sing), finishing it, and rushing offstage. Onstage with her was Pete Townshend, who proceeded to march up to the front of the stage and offer a schoolboyish “whoops.”

And for all its fraughtness, “The Wedding List” is a compelling and fun tragedy. Any Bush fans who claim they don’t occasionally strut while playing the music video and imitating Bush’s performance in it has either never seen the video or is a pathological liar. Bush’s stories of familial destruction are useful for many reasons, but one vital component is this: societal collapse must be danceable.

December Will Be Magic Again

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December Will Be Magic Again (single)

With “December Will Be Magic Again,” we’re in considerably less serious territory. A one-off Christmas single with no attachment to an album, it dallies in its own winter wonderland, cordoning itself off from Kate Bush’s more serious contemporary work. When pop singers do Christmas songs, they’re usually partaking in a tradition of cheerful odes to Yuletide (with some notable exceptions). “December Will Be Magic Again” is one of these songs, abdicating its status as a contemporary of Never for Ever in favor of filling the Christmas single slot. Yet Bush couldn’t settle for even her Christmas fluff being drab traditionalism, and fucked around with it a bit.

You see, a lot of Christmas standards hail from the 70s and 80s and are created by artists such as Paul McCartney and Wham! These songs are often little more than lists of Christmas activities and odes to sitting around trees with your family. It’s a saccharine tradition that buys into capitalist notions of Christmas and giving corporations lots of money. To be sure, Christmas activities are often fun — no form of leisure is free of capitalist maleficence. But at its core, modern Christmas is as much a commercial enterprise as it is a global family tradition.

Bush doesn’t completely break from this pattern, as “December” is straightforwardly nostalgic. From the longing for the past implied by its title to its dwelling on childhood images, the song spends it runtime on a reconstruction of Christmas childhood memories. Bush settles into the falsetto end of her vocal range, singing lots of high notes with a wonder usually only prepubescents can manage. Bush has exactly the sort of voice which makes lyrics like “take a husky to the ice/while Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas”/he makes you feel nice” sound cutely intuitive in a way we’re not prone to seeing in things like “Wonderful Christmastime.”

Yet for its exercise in nostalgia, it separates itself from the mainstream of Christmas music by being a little too eccentric to be quite marketable (the song did pretty well in the charts, but was far from one of Bush’s bestselling singles). Bush’s own East Wickham childhood makes its way into the song. She has a refreshing tendency to lean on her own interests in her songwriting, which liberates “December” from feeling too commercial. There are the obvious references to staples of Christmastime like “old Saint Nicholas) (who is grossly maligned by the entire UK as “Father Christmas”) and romantic traditions (“kiss under mistletoe”), but they’re balanced by images of Oscar Wilde showing up: “light the candle lights/to conjure Mr. Wilde/ooh, it’s quiet inside/here in Oscar’s mind.” The reference is clunky, with two uses of “light” in a single clause accompanied by some strange stuff about dwelling in Wilde’s head (“it’s quiet in here/inside Oscar’s mind”). Yet it’s an oddly poignant choice of creative minds to dive into: Wilde’s idiosyncratic wit often responded to darkness in his personal life. As a queer man in Victorian England, Wilde’s status as popular author was diminished by his demotion to subhumanity for his sexual orientation. In some ways, true recognition for him came later when millions of people read his work and celebrated him as both a great creator of the fantastical and a queer icon, including a little The Happy Prince fan called Catherine Bush.

Yet despite touching on a complex character like Wilde, “December Will Be Magic Again” doesn’t have a lot of meat on its bones. With the exception of bits like the Wilde cameo, what Bush has to say here mostly boils down to “isn’t Christmas neat?” The song expresses this in an offbeat way in how it splits the focus between Christmassy bits and more generic moments about December’s atmosphere and snow “com[ing] to cover the dark up,” but it’s still just a reasonably fun Christmas song. Bush seems to think more of it, however, as she recorded a number of different versions of the song. “December” made its debut in, of course, a 1979 BBC program embarrassingly called The Christmas Snowtime Special, featuring performances from ABBA, Boney M, and Bonnie Tyler. This version of the song proves counterintuitive, as in addition to its standard Christmas bells it has drummer Preston Heyman playing bongos. It’s a conga-inflected recording like “Room for the Life,” which is… not what you’d expect a song boasting lyrics about Bing Crosby and Oscar Wilde. Even stranger is the song’s accompanying video, with an obviously stoned Bush wearing red pajamas whirling around in a red armchair and relishing whatever strain Santa has brought for her. By far the most extravagant video of the song, it’s an underrated classic of Bush’s videography that should be taught in every film studies class.

The next TV performance of the song appeared in the “Kate” special, and is by far its more minimalist production. There’s a simple setup of Bush at the piano with Kevin McAlea playing keyboards behind her, while Preston Heyman rings small bells during the chorus. Stripped of its artifice, “December” is a pleasantly quiet little tune, placing Bush’s vocals and melody at its center. Admittedly this was the “December Will Be Magic Again” I knew before writing this blog post, and its unobtrusiveness makes it the preferable recording for me. Bush’s strengths often lie in maximalism (wait until we get to “Breathing” or “Waking the Witch”), but working as an acoustic artist lets her shine as a singer-pianist as well.

Finally there’s the single version of the song that made it to #29 in the UK (it fared better in Ireland, a consistent supporter of Bush, where it reached #13) and it gets the final say on how this song gets read. Released two months after Never for Ever, it’s a standalone single that clearly wants to fill the “Wuthering Heights” and “Wow” archetype. Never for Ever is decidedly less a pop record than its predecessors, and pointedly lacks a sweeping dramatic single about the power of youthful precocity. Releasing a nostalgic paean like “December Will Be Magic Again” in its wake is an odd move, one that feels like Bush is pushing against the current trajectory of her songwriting in order to revive a song that debuted before “Babooshka.” That’s understandable — serious artists get to do silly holiday anthems as well. The problem with the single recording of “December Will Be Magic Again” is that it’s convinced the song merits the same seriousness as “Wuthering Heights” and “Wow.” It’s overproduced to hell, sounding more like a Phil Collins track than a Christmas ballad with its slow, powerful drumming, soaring guitar solos, and agonizingly overstated backing vocals from Bush. It’s hard to figure out why Bush recorded this song so many times — perhaps her perfectionism took over for a while. Whatever the case, it’s much easier to imagine this song working as a quiet piano-driven B-side for, say, “Army Dreamers,” which already had “Passing Through Air” for backmatter. The single is mistimed, needing to be set back a year or so for it to work.

Yet with “December Will Be Magic Again,” we see the end of a certain kind of Bush song. It’s her last track that can be feasibly reimagined as hailing from her pre-Kick Inside years, with its relish for childhood delights and simple attributes of a domestic environment. That approach has reached a breaking point. From now on her quiet songs will be more adult and introspective. She’s going to do silly songs in the future, of course — but even the silly stuff often carries plenty of weight. Bush’s earlier work is an ambitious testament to what youthful artistry can accomplish. Few songwriters are particularly mature early in their career. With Bush, a lot of her recurring themes from across her career are already in place on her first couple albums. For all its shortcomings, “December Will Be Magic Again” signals the end of Bush as prodigy as she moves into the era of the Fairlight, global conflict, and becoming a masterful singer to rival Peter Gabriel. Farewell, last of the Phoenix tradition. You’ve carried us far.

Recorded at London AIR Studios in 1979. Performed on 22 December for BBC Snowtime Special and 28 December for “Kate” special. Released as a single on 17 November 1980.