James and the Cold Gun

kate

James and the Cold Gun
Hammersmith Odeon

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A ragtag group of session musicians is enveloped in an infernal red backlight, which makes good on its promise to swallow the entire stage. A cowgirl from some dark dimension swaggers onstage, posing in a black and gold robe for the presumably dumbfounded audience. For close to nine minutes, the cowgirl sweeps across the stage, wailing over the cacophony of her band and illustrating her lyrics with suitably on-the-nose gestures. It culminates, as any Chekov-honoring song featuring “gun” in the title does, with a murder, as the cowgirl blasts the life out of an adversary, each gunshot met beat-for-beat by accompanying drums. Contorting her body in a freakish victory dance, the cowgirl ends the song lifting a rifle above her head in triumph, as her audience roars its approval.

“James and the Cold Gun” is The Kick Inside’s showstopping number, Bush’s rockiest song. It features American western imagery at length (“it’s not there in the GIN/that makes you laugh long and loud”), guitars dominating the band, and Duncan Mackay’s organ weeping like it’s in the mix on a Dylan record. This potential international crossover appeal is probably why it was EMI’s original pick for Bush’s debut single until Bush vetoed these plans. It’s easy to see the pop promise EMI found in “James”: it’s closer to the rock that was in the charts. The song was popular among the pub-frequenting audiences of the KT Bush Band. Energetically, it’s closer to chart-topping hard rock acts like Queen than Bush’s courtship of more intricately formalist rock such as Genesis.

We may as well talk about Genesis, who were accustomed to giving the sort of performances Bush would stage for “James and the Cold Gun.” Prog rock’s affinity for jams and playing a single track at great length would manifest in astonishingly long improvs onstage. Peter Gabriel would don make-up and extravagant costumes and give a literary voice to the mirage of sound. It comes as no surprise this approach bears similarities to Bush’s stageshow. While not directly name-checked as an influence on Bush’s tour, Gabriel would come to play a part in her career soon enough.

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There is another distinctive element of Genesis that Bush’s work inherits: Englishness. While the predominant trend in British rock was to pluck from American music to make it big, Genesis came from a school of art that looked to its homeland for its stories. There’s a pastoral quality to much of their music that’s more at home in a tradition with As You Like It than The Great Gatsby. English land and politics come into Gabriel-era Genesis songs quite often, and Bush’s nurturing relationship with British mythos bears similarities to this approach (which will come to a crescendo in “O England My Lionheart”).

Furthermore, the Englishness of Bush’s vocals is also similar to Genesis. In a 1985 interview, Bush distinguishes between British artists who sang in English accents (David Bowie and Roxy Music) and those who sang with American voices (she cites Elton John, Robert Palmer, and Robert Plant). Bush expresses a preference for the former tradition, perhaps liking the familiarity of it. Peter Gabriel fits into this tradition well enough, articulating syllable endings that Mick Jagger would spit across the vocal booth. When Bush works in disparate genres, she brings her own English vision to them (Bush’s vision of Englishness is of course deeply middle class and white. There’s a conspicuous absence of working class people in most of her music, although we’ll get to the exceptions soon enough).

This keeps “James” from being a white R&B track. Bush half-sings/half-speaks the lyrics, offering commentary and chewing the scenery like a lecturer in a pub: “they’re only lonely for the life that they led.” Her vocals just aren’t very American: there’s a focus on vocally bending words that you won’t find in the libidinous lyric-swinging of most rock bands. Bush’s vocals sound off in a way that could have made EMI’s plans for the song counterintuitive in practice.

The song itself is a rollicking ballad, staying in B flat minor for its entirety. “James” is one of the sillier Kick Inside tracks, and ostentatiously lacks depth. This isn’t a flaw as such — it’s a perfectly serviceable explosive number. Bush sings a Western pastiche, telling of “Genie, from the casino,” who’s “still a-waiting in her big brass bed.” The song is jokey in tone, with Bush urgently warning the hero James “you’re running away from humanity/you’re running out on reality!” She describes a Western that’s been abandoned by its hero. Her strategy of putting self-awareness into genre characters has been lightly subverted. In “James and the Cold Gun” she presents a genre that’s fallen apart in the absence of a protagonist. In his absence, Bush comes to both use his genre as a playground and mourn his departure.

So Bush has effectively co-opted a Western movie. What would have happened if she’d kowtowed to EMI and let “James and the Cold Gun” be her debut single? Perhaps she would have placed somewhere in the top 40: critics might have been ambivalent and not been pressured into seeing her as a force to be reckoned with like she was upon the release of “Wuthering Heights.” That song might have lost some of its inaugural power too, becoming a second single without months of buildup as a promo record. Alternatively, “James” might have had some minor popularity in the states. Bush might be a more successful American figure. We don’t know. But that’s one of the intrigues of Kate Bush: she makes her own way and will give any aesthetic territory a chance.

Recorded 1977 at London AIR Studios. Performed live on the Tour of Life in 1979. Personnel: Kate Bush — piano, vocals. Stuart Elliott — drums. David Paton — bass. Ian Bairnson — guitars. Duncan Mackay — organ.

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L’Amour Looks Something Like You

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Demo
Album version
Tour of Life (Paris)

1978 was the year of Kate Bush both in terms of her career narrative and the press’s fixation on her. The fansite Gaffaweb records no less than 34 print interviews with Bush from that year alone. It was Bush’s most prolific year for press coverage: the press latched onto every detail they could find about her, as it does, and what couldn’t be directly evidenced was inferred. So Bush was treated like any other “eccentric” media sensation: an object of spectacle having more to do with her perceived ostentatiousness than her actual work.

There are strongly gendered dynamics at play in this. Read Bush’s press around the time and you’ll find all the standard tropes in journalism about women: comparisons to other female artists (Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and Lyndsey de Paul are frequent points of nonsensical comparison), calling Bush a “hippie girl,” and the inevitable objectification of Bush herself (there’s more than one article in which Bush is made the target of a journalist’s foot fetish). The nadir of this fixation came when a promotional photo of Bush taken by rock photographer Gered Mankowitz achieved ubiquity. The infamous picture stages Kate Bush in a pink leotard, hands on hips and gazing soulfully into the camera. It’s a striking image. It also clearly shows one of Bush’s nipples. PR latched onto it, prioritizing it in Bush’s promotional campaign. The Mankowitz photo swiftly became an iconic Kate Bush image, appearing on billboards and public transport across London.

It’s far from a stretch to say nipples were the reason this picture showed up everywhere (the Super Bowl has certainly shown women’s nipples are more of a cultural obsession than men’s nipples). Bush was aware of this, and she was characteristically dismissive of the public’s voyeurism: “I suppose the poster is reasonably sexy just ‘cos you can see my tits, but I think the vibe from my face is there… I think that poster projects a mood.”

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Bush’s music has a relationship with sexuality not fought on terms of the media. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to operate on any terms except her own. During her popular heyday, Bush separated herself from women’s lib movements, dismissing feminism as an unappealing “concept” which conjured up images of “butch lesbians” (she hasn’t apologized for this comment, although in recent years she’s finally accepted the feminist label with grace). It’s rare for Bush to explicitly address most arenas of politics in her songs: when she does, it’s either in the form of well-meaning but ultimately colonialist attempts at egalitarianism such as “The Dreaming” and “Pull Out the Pin,” or vapid joke songs like “Ken.” On the other hand, outings with gender politics abound in her songs, in both style and content.

“L’Amour Looks Something Like You” is more useful as an example of Bush’s tendencies in the early part of her career than a particularly good song in its own right. It’s an early song from the Kick Inside sessions which is closer to a standard love ballad than something like “Wuthering Heights” or “The Man with the Child in His Eyes.” “L’Amour” is The Kick Inside’s preoccupation with sexual consumption expressed as a list of reasons to love thee, and as such doesn’t stand out compared to other TKI tracks. Yet what it lacks in conceptual innovation and catchiness “L’Amour” almost makes up for with its sprawling lyrics.

Bush’s songwriting entirely lacks discipline in “L’Amour,” and its maximalism isn’t limited to its title’s self-indulgence. It reads like a Burroughsian cut-up, maneuvering from line to line with awkwardly metered lines such as “my eyes were shining on the wine and your aura/all in order, we move into the boudoir.” There are moments of outright brilliance, such as the chorus line “you look like an angel/sleeping it off at a station/were you only passing through?” There’s also the eccentric use of the indigenous American phrase “Goose moon” (which seems to come from Tlingit and Haida traditions), but beyond that the song’s lyrics are largely remarkable for their sheer horniness. Male rock stars are known for winking at the camera as they belt out lyrics about being told to come when they’re already there, but such moments lack the earnest lustfulness of “L’Amour Looks Something Like You.” It aches for the object of its desires, body and soul, every inch of it filled with need (“I’m dying for you just to touch-A MEEE/feel all the energy rushing right uppa me,” croons Bush). The entire song is a messy sexual rush, and Bush sings it as such — she intones her lyrics more than sings them here, communicating instincts rather than propositions. Sex in Kate Bush songs isn’t a spectacle suitable for billboards: it’s an exercise in hedonism.

Recorded 1977 at London AIR Studios. Personnel: Kate Bush — piano, vocals. Stuart Elliot — drums. David Paton — bass. Ian Bairnson — guitars. Duncan Mackay — organs. Andrew Powell — productions. Pictures: Bush posing, the infamous Mankowitz photo.

Moving

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Moving (demo)
Moving
BBC Saturday Nights at the Mill
Efteling
Tokyo Music Festival
Hammersmith Odeon

In our last two entries, we touched on Kate Bush’s affinity for dance. “Wuthering Heights” sports a video with choreography every Bush fan in the world has attempted to emulate, and “Kite” has its own aerial hyperdance. “Moving” foregrounds the act of dancing. If Bush had previously treated dance as a companion to her music, “Moving,” as its name implies, canonizes it as an integral part of how her songs work. “[Dancers are] beautiful, they’re so free and they’re just purely stating what they’re feeling and it’s so delightful…” said Bush in 1980. “And I think that’s what dance is about, the enjoyment of that feeling of movement and freedom, it’s like suddenly breaking through a barrier.”

From its opening moments, “Moving” has a sense of weight and motion, commencing with a fifteen-second sample of whale song from environmentalist Roger S. Payne’s LP Songs of the Humpback Whale (“whales say everything about ‘moving’…it weighs a ton and yet it’s so light it floats”). Then Bush’s vocals and piano greet the listener with “moving stranger, does it really matter?/ as long as you’re not afraid to feel.” Bush requests a stranger’s partnership in a no-string-attached arrangement — the ability to dance together is an adequately precious union. Dance a mediator, like a precisely choreographed one-night stand.

Bush has credited multiple instructors in the development of her dancing skills, including jazz-influenced instructor Robin Kovac and American mime Adam Darius. But her most influential teacher is one of the world’s most famous mimes, Lindsay Kemp. Kemp’s legacy is enormous, boasting experience teaching and working with David Bowie, maintaining a status as a gay icon, and his extravagant theatrical performances. One of these stage shows is particularly crucial for Kate Bush. In 1975, she saw Kemp for the first time in a performance in Bloomsbury. Flowers, an adaptation of Jean Genet’s proto-Beat debut novel Our Lady of the Flowers, is an astonishing vision of decadence, material brutality, and bodily liberation. Presenting everything from masturbating prison inmates to literal angels onstage, Flowers is Kemp’s magnum opus, an outrageous exhibition of maximalism and sex. Flowers has command of several aesthetics at once, from ragtime to classical music to Luigi Russoli-an proto-noise music. It’s totally outrageous and works precisely because it has the flourishing courage of its convictions.

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Naturally, Kate Bush was utterly compelled by Flowers. Its lack of restraint in aesthetics and public displays of sexuality are visible influences on huge swaths of Bush’s work. She was subsequently instructed by Kemp in his dance classes, and he’s remained an influence on her work. Years later, Bush was still praising Kemp in interviews, and of course she paid her respects upon Kemp’s death last year. It’s easy to feel she never really got over that first performance of Flowers. This display of eroticism, veneration of physical beauty, and dedication to surrealism would remain useful to Bush, staying visible all the way from The Kick Inside to 50 Words for Snow.

“Moving” is explicitly Bush paying her debt to Kemp, applying his lessons to her work in the same way she’s channeled the songwriting of Bowie or Ferry into her music. Bush’s anti-gnosticism in particular is inherited from Kemp, viewing dance as an art form that can be radical, liberating, and innovative. “You give me life/please don’t let me go,” says the hedonistic Bush, “you crush the lily in my soul.”

Salient in “Moving” is a use of aqueous language. From its whale sample onwards, it fixates upon water as a metaphor for dance. “Moving liquid/yes, you are just as water,” Bush realizes about her partner, as if she’s realized he has the face of a genius. She invests greatly in malleability, letting motion transform her — Bush has explained the “moving liquid” lyric by explaining it as “what the Chinese say about being the cup the water turns into” (this also touches on George Gurdijeff’s Fourth Way, in which an essence is governed by the form is takes. We’ll get there soon). For “Moving,” form is as crucial as substance.

Bush gives “Moving” a tricky melody, as she typically does with her songs: the eccentricities are in the details. The track is in D minor, starting with an interesting progression of i-VII-VI-III (D-C-B flat-F), with a digression into chords like E major (a chord raised a 6th above D minor’s ii chord, E diminished) and D major (not found in D minor). The chorus drifts through i-v-iv-III (D-A-G-F), with an A7 and G major thrown in to satisfy Bush’s obligation to out-of-key chord selections, while the post-chorus hits upon the root chord of C sharp and drifts into the A of D harmonic and melodic minor. “Moving” chooses chords conservatively at times but will throw a pebble into the midst of the song at an instant, causing musical ripples.

Like “Wuthering Heights,” “Moving” is a thesis statement: it’s the inaugural track of Kate Bush’s debut album, the opening song of every concert on her only tour, and was released as a single exclusively in Japan, where it hit #1. Clearly Bush considered the track a tone setter, the beginning of the duet of music, sex, camaraderie, and motion that shapes much of her work. Her subsequent music doesn’t always sound like “Moving,” but Bush clung to its sensibilities for a long time.

Recorded July-August 1977 at London AIR Studios. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Stuart Elliott — drums. David Paton — bass. Ian Bairnson — guitar. Duncan Mackay — electric piano. Andrew Powell — production.