There Goes a Tenner

There Goes a Tenner
Music video
Razzamatazz 

Like the cinematic heists it pastiches, “There Goes a Tenner” is both defiant and preemptively defeated. Bush’s least successful single ever, it died on the charts, slouching at a staggering #93 in the UK, was largely ignored by radio stations and TV programs, and faded into the ether with a paucity of fanfare. Following the resounding 15-month gap between the releases of “Sat In Your Lap” and The Dreaming and the title track’s subpar chart performance, the lack of public response to Bush’s twee ballad of panto Cockney robbers is perhaps a predictable outcome. In the weeks preceding and following the release of “There Goes a Tenner,” the UK Top 10 encompassed a cadre of new wave and R&B hits from Culture Club, Tears for Fears, Marvin Gaye (with “Sexual Healing,” which we’ll talk about someday), and Kool & the Gang, an overtly goofy caper homage single seemed at best like a hard sell and total commercial folly at worst. 

Even on The Dreaming, “There Goes a Tenner” feels rudimentary and extrinsic. It’s a piano/bass/drum-based track like the majority of Bush’s earlier material, which lends it a vintage quality. The rhythm of the refrain’s first line (“MY-ex-CITE-ment,” “BOTH-my-PART-ners”) has an almost trochaic pattern that’s also present in Never for Ever’s “Egypt.” Unlike the psychological abstractions of “Sat In Your Lap” or “Suspended in Gaffa,” the song’s subject is narrative and conventional. It’s a classic heist movie channeled into pop music, wherein a neophyte crook assists in a robbery (“remember that we have just allowed/half an hour/to get in, do it, and get out,” “the sense of adventure/is turning to danger”). Parabolically, the heist fails explosively (“you blow the safe up/then all I know is I wake up/covered in rubble/one of the rabble/needs mummy”) and leaves the protagonist craving their simpler, less desperate past when “you [a vague pronoun] would carry me/pockets floating in the breeze.”

Such aesthetic, narrative quaintness is decidedly out of place in 1982 pop. Bush’s mockney shtick and the thinly-layered mix sound like the score for a Buster Keaton film. She’s functionally put out a novelty single, a damning move for a pop artist in her chart heyday. The result is an odd synthesis of her older work and her newer work. Like The Dreaming’s other singles, “Tenner” is an intensely vocal track, built around the use of the human voice and mix as an instrument, especially with its Cockney hashup (“OH-KAY-RE-MEM-BAH”). What we wind up with is a song that’s more weird than interesting. 

It would be comforting to assert that “There Goes a Tenner” is a lost classic that was ahead of its time, but such a claim would be more than a touch mendacious. “Tenner” is approximately Bush’s nadir as a singles artist, an unfocused mess with little distinctive musicality, a lack of imagination (comparatively, at least), a grating and flatly offensive Mockney dialect from Bush, and an unsatisfying production with a post-chorus meandering synth break that sounds like Bush giving up. If there’s a great unloved single from The Dreaming (spoilers: there is one; it’s “Night of the Swallow”), this is not it.

Time for an “and yet” moment, as I have a blog post to write if I want to eat next month. Alas the “and yet” still means expounding on the flaws of “There Goes a Tenner,” but its flaws at least communicate something about a certain British attitude to class. Said attitude is toxic, problematic, and only theoretically has anything to do with poverty and the working class, but Dreams of Orgonon is fundamentally not a story of leftist or progressive values. Chronicling Kate Bush’s career entails exploring the values of the stratum of civil society which informs her work. 

“There Goes a Tenner” is Bush’s most direct acknowledgement of class to date. Admittedly this isn’t saying much, since Bush adopts an offensively bad mockney accent for its duration — “OI go in/the CROIM begins.” Her evocation of a working class Londoner involves simple language, mostly descriptions of the action such as “we got the job sussed/this shop’s shut for biz-ness” and “I’m having dreams about things/not going right/let’s leave in plenty of time tonight.” A middle-class white woman equating a panto accent, simplistic articulation, and crimes with working class identity is tremendously vexed. Alongside the troubling title track and “Pull Out the Pin,” The Dreaming isn’t a great example of Bush avoiding cultural stereotypes.

Yet even with her classism, there’s some worth to her attempts here. Fundamentally, “There Goes a Tenner” channels the heist movie through a children’s panto. It treats poverty and crime with the tropes and language available to Bush through English popular culture. “Ooh, there’s a tenner/hey look, there’s a fiver” interpolates British currency onto the trope of money exploding in the middle of a robbery, as seen in such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There are some hat tips to old gangster films, like when Bush observes her partners’ conduct in the middle of their robbery: “both my partners/act like actors/you are Bogart/he is George Raft/that leaves Cagney and me.” Clumsy, to be sure, but distinct in its aesthetics, and in a better song, Bush’s dive into British class politics with crime film tropes might be enlightening.

There’s something more going on here though. Bush asserted that her robbers were incompetents with limited experience: “It’s about amateur robbers who have only done small things, and this is quite a big robbery that they’ve been planning for months, and when it actually starts happening, they start freaking out.” She goes on to cite Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as an example of hypercompetence in cinematic criminals, objecting to the composure of the genre’s heroes, observing “the crooks have always been incredibly in control and calm, and I always thought that if I ever did a robbery, I’d be really scared.” 

Certainly the heist genre is populated by “chill” paragons of masculinity. It’s how you get lead actors like Paul Newman, Al Pacino, or George Clooney as top notch criminals. The genre offers the pleasures of breaking with the decorum of civil society while still keeping a layer of masculine authority in the mix, and its films tend to conclude with major punitive measures for the culprits (see Bonnie & Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon, etc). 

Bush’s resulting bemusement at this is almost quaintly middle-class. “But don’t people who’ve robbed hundreds of banks get scared when they rob a bank” is the sort of question your childhood friend who’s horrified by shoplifting would pose. The pantheon of confident men in her early work is broadly absent from The Dreaming, which abounds with self-destructive masculinity. Moving beyond the bourgeois fantasy of domestic bliss between a man and a woman shakes up Bush’s faith in men. Femininity and masculinity become fluctuant, throttled by patriarchy, colonialism, trauma, and poverty. Bush could feasibly be writing a character of any gender here, but to have a woman’s voice leading the charge and vocalizing the anxiety that might pervade a robbery is canny. 

Bush also taps into a tradition of British comedy which pivots on woefully incompetent characters issued a societal role or occupation completely unsuited to them. The likes of Python or Fawlty Towers spring to mind, and doubtless Bush saw some Ealing comedies. The children’s panto delivery of “There Goes a Tenner” infers a stylistic awareness of Bush’s debt to this tradition. The music video certainly tips the viewer off to what kind of song this is, with its frankly adorable deployment of Bush and Gary Hurst in black jumpsuits and soot on their faces, its dutch angles depicting the Very Scary robbery, and the explosion of a safe full of money. Its stars are the major aberration among these cliches; a woman and people of color aren’t supposed to be the daring stars of a heist film. This isn’t the heroic act of white men showing up the rest of the world; it’s women and minorities acting out of desperation.

For its vexed class dynamics, “There Goes a Tenner” does acknowledge poverty as a motivation for its characters. “Pockets floating in the breeze” indicates impoverishment, and the final line of the song “there’s a ten-shilling note/remember them?/that’s when we used to vote for him” is a weirdly subtle political critique for “Tenner.” When the single dropped in 1982, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was enjoying a 51% approval rating in the wake of the Falklands War and Thatcher’s craven sinking of the retreating Argentinian battleship the ARA General Belgrano, killing 323 people. By the 22nd of September, 9 days after the release of The Dreaming, 14% of the United Kingdom’s workforce was reported to be unemployed. As the Tory government waged a war on inflation in its slow establishment of neoliberalism, it caused a glut of unemployment that lost 1,500,000 people their jobs. “When we used to vote for him” is an odd phrase — but clearly the robbers have turned to crime because alternatives are unavailable (one merely has to point out that poverty is a major contributor to crime). 

“There Goes a Tenner’s” death on the charts was not a tragedy. Bush’s decision to release it as a single is one of her oddest choices as a public figure. Yet even if by accident, she’s tapped into the zeitgeist of early neoliberalism and Thatcherite austerity. How come we’re not getting paid any more? Because Margaret fucking Thatcher ruined everything.

(Bush.) Bush — vocals, piano, Fairlight, CS80. Elliott — drums. Palmer — bass. Lawson — synclavier. Launay — engineer (backing tracks). Hardiman — engineer (overdubs). Backing tracks recorded at Townhouse Studios May – Jun ’81. Overdubs at Odyssey Aug – Dec ’81, Jan – Mar ’82. Mixed Mar – May ’82. Issued 2 November 1982 w/ B-side “Ne t’enfuis pas.” Performed on Razzmatazz 21 September 1982. Shown on Pebble Mill at One 8 October 1982. Image: Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda (1988, dir. Charles Crichton).

All the Love

All the Love

A mostly unloved dirge on The Dreaming’s tails-side, “All the Love” exists as a buffer between the uxorial laments of “Night of the Swallow” and “Houdini.” Little distinguishes it from its fellow LP tracks — its lyrics scan like an embryonic “Houdini” or “Suspended in Gaffa,” presaging future such Bush songs as “Hello Earth” or “Never Be Mine.” Admittedly the song’s points of intrigue are mostly limited to what comes after it, with “All the Love” mostly existing to get The Dreaming to ten songs. 

Sonically, “All the Love” sounds like a callback to Never for Ever, to the point one wonders if the song is a holdover. The song’s centering of melody over rhythm is an aberration on the rhythm-preoccupied Dreaming, with Stuart Elliott’s drums quietly accentuating things rather than taking a “lead instrument” role. The relatively high position of Del Palmer’s bass playing in the mix also feels superannuated and reminiscent of “Blow Away (For Bill)” or “Egypt,” some of the oldest songs in Bush’s studio career. “All the Love” has some flourishes characteristic of the mid-80s — the sampling of phone conversations is the sort of thing Pink Floyd or The Smiths did around the same time (see The Wall, “Rubber Ring”). Nonetheless, “All the Love” sounds old, an adscititious swan song for Bush’s early style. 

There’s certainly a callback to the subject matter of Never for Ever, nominally catastrophes that damage and alienate families. While Never for Ever’s songs are largely narrative, The Dreaming deals with Modernist techniques of abstraction, dissociation, and stream-of-consciousness, shifting the dramatic arena to the human mind. “All the Love” is social, even amusingly caustic in its distance from human living. Its lyrical triumph, “the first time I died…”, setting up an account of a person whose deathbed experience includes “good friends of mine” who “hadn’t been near me for years.” Where the hell have you been? Why are you doing this performative fraternal visitation now? The answer comes as “we needed you/to love us too/we waited for your move.” We’re given a set of people (or perhaps just one faction) who struggles to love people and relate to them properly.

There seems to be some concession of wrongdoing, admitting she wasn’t the most forthcoming to her friends (“but I know I have shown/that I stand at the gates alone”). But she tempers this with an admission that the emotional distance was mutual: “I needed you to love me too.” There’s even a sort of “if I could start again” concession, as the character asserts the inevitability of reincarnation (or afterlife?) with “the next time I dedicate/my life’s work to the friends I make/I give them what they want to hear.” Its grief for a lost, atemporal past binds itself to the effluvium of old and new styles “All the Love” embodies. In the words of Bauhaus, “all we ever wanted was everything. All we ever got was cold.”

(Bush.) Bush — piano, Fairlight. Palmer — bass. Thornton — choirboy. Launay — engineer (backing tracks). Hardiman — engineer (overdubs). Backing tracks recorded at Townhouse Studios May – Jun ’81. Overdubs at Odyssey Aug – Dec ’81, Jan – Mar ’82. Mixed Mar – May ’82. Released 13 September 1982. Screenshot from Don’t Look Now (1973, dir. Nicolas Roeg).

Houdini

Houdini

Patreon pledges have declined precipitously, sometimes descending below $300, which is my baseline for comfortably living off the blog. Furthermore, my day job as a college tutor is getting an hours cut, meaning my outside income is jeopardized. These are stressful circumstances that can make concentrating on work difficult. As a disabled 21-year-old working class trans woman who has complex PTSD, ADHD, major clinical depression, and chronic anxiety, this gig is mostly what puts food on my table. It’s survivable for now, but if you could help me get to  $350, I’d be immensely grateful.

The Dreaming’s sessions with Nick Launay exemplify the album’s episodic production. The songs originally engineered by Hugh Padgham explore relationships between headspace and environment and how unreleasing trauma and mental illness can be cathartic. Bush and Launay’s songs are teeming with trauma and catharsis. Frequently they anatomize historical subjects, particularly subaltern or marginalized narratives. An overarching focal point tends to be enunciating the unspoken. Perhaps this was Bush’s way of asserting agency over a largely masculine music industry that had thus far limited her and kept her from true leadership positions in the creation of her albums. “[It was] very dark and about pain and negativity and the way people treat each other badly,” Bush asserted to Canadian broadcaster Daniel Richer in 1985. “Perhaps the biggest influence on the last album was the fact that I was producing it and so I could actually do what I really wanted to for the first time.”

“Houdini” is the face of The Dreaming. It’s one of the only Bush sleeves where the image is supplied by the song. Its aspect, another creation of fraternal mainstay John Carder Bush, is a sepia photograph in medium closeup depicting a slightly agrestal Bush with her head tilted to the right, with her mouth open wide revealing a key on her tongue, which she passes to a faceless Del Palmer. This image derives from the lyrics of “Houdini,” which impart the fictionalized yet broadly historical experience of Bess Houdini, widow of premier escapologist Harry Houdini, who tries to contact her late husband through necromancy (“I wait at the table/hold hands with weeping strangers/wait for you/to join the group”). The relevant lyric “with a kiss I’d pass the key/and feel your tongue, teasing and receiving,” is unique among pop lyrics, as the overwhelming majority of them don’t contain idle recollections of Frenching a deceased spouse. It’s a bald-faced and ostentatiously move that flags how uninterested in notions of “normality” Bush is. 

This furthermore indicates the subversive narratology Bush is pursuing. It’s quite boldly literal in the Carder Bush photo, where Del Palmer’s face is turned away from the frame. There’s an occlusion of “great man” narratives to “Houdini.” It’s named after one of the 20th century’s great performers, but it’s largely defined by his absence. As a result, the story has to be about the widowed Bess and her grief. Impressively, “Houdini” avoids elegy for the accomplishments of a Great Man, opting instead for the love Bess Houdini bore for her husband and the ecstatically weird lengths she went to demonstrate that. 

The song is far from a stringent one. “Houdini” is fueled by anguished conniptions rather than melodic coherence. The verse initially sounds like “The Infant Kiss” or some other perfectly normal song with its piano balladry in Eb minor with a progression that finishes on a major tonic chord. It commences as a séance with mourners preparing to reach into the ether (“the tambourine jingle-jangles/the medium roams and rambles”). The refrain is the apex of Bush shrieks, culminating in a gravely, agonized “WITH YOUR LIFE/THE ONLY THING IN MY MIND/WE PULL YOU FROM THE WATER!” The result is hardly melodic — it’s willfully ugly, produced by Bush eating lots of chocolate and drinking milk to sabotage her own voice. Whether or not the experiment works, it doesn’t seem like Bush cares — she wants this to sound raw and ugly.

We’ve talked about The Dreaming’s equation of the mind and spirituality quite often, so running into a rationalist-leaning figure like Houdini is quite something. A man who sought to discredit mediums during his lifetime, Harry made a pact with Bess to attempt contact after his death with a passcode only they knew, which would prove the medium who discovered was legitimate. In the song, this even seems to work — “this is not trick of his/this is your magic.” Houdini specialized in illusions, but if said illusions worked, that seems about equivalent to his magic being real. Curiouser is how the song legitimizes the séance, as it seems to transcend spacetime as it takes Bess back to her past assisting her husband’s dangerous performances. “You hit the water” comes across as temporal fuckery of the kind found in Bush’s favorite movie, Don’t Look Now. Linearity this ain’t. Functionality is irrelevant to Bush. Often she tries for beauty, but just this once Kate Bush fiercely clutches onto the awfulness of emotional reality. 

(Bush.) Personnel: Bush — vocals, piano, Fairlight, production. Weber — bass. Elliott — drums. Powell, Lawson — strings (writing and arrangement). Farrell — spoken word. Palmer — spoken word. Launay — engineer (backing tracks). Hardiman — engineer (overdubs). Backing tracks recorded at Townhouse Studios May – Jun ’81. Overdubs at Odyssey Aug – Dec ’81, Jan – Mar ’82. Mixed Mar – May ’82. Released on The Dreaming 13 September 1982. Issued as B-side to “Night of the Swallow” in Ireland, 21 November 1983. Photo: Bess Houdini and her husband (1907, Musée McCord).

Lord of the Reedy River

(Donovan, Goodbye Again)
(Donovan, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium)
(Donovan, HMS Donovan)
(Hopkin, Postcard)
(Bush, “Sat In Your Lap” B-side)

CW: brief discussion of rape.

Cycling several incarnations before appearing on record, Scottish singer Donovan Leitch’s “Lord of the Reedy River” is a minor classic of his career. Getting performances on a 1968 TV programme and a 1969 celebrities’ demo reel romcom before appearing on Donovan’s 1971 double LP HMS Donovan. Serene, erotic, creepy, and sensuous all at once, Donovan somehow manages to make the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, a fable in which Zeus seduces or rapes (depending on the telling; Ovid, surprisingly, removes the rape, while Yeats writes about it as one) the Aetolian princess Leda. Donovan’s telling is a strictly romantic and erotic one, rejecting the sexual violence of the tale in favor of a sensuous, mythical love affair (“she fell in love with a swan” has no business sounding as beautiful as it does, but that’s Donovan). It’s a stunning piece of work that fixates on the uncanny and eerie aspects of the tale (“he filled her with song,” “she in my boat long hours/he in his royal plumage”). The song’s sense of place is potent and inextricable from its sensuousness (“black was the night and starry,” “she threw him some flowers/in the reedy river”). Most delightfully, the song has a Shape of Water ending, with the final act of its drama being the “glide” of “two swans.” With its chilling harmonies, palpitating vocal, uncanny vocal, and genuine lyrical beauty, “Lord of the Reedy River” is a masterpiece, an unjustly forgotten landmark of late-60s-to-early-70s folk music. 

Its album of origin HMS Donovan was a favorite of Kate Bush, a long-standing Donovan fan. Wavering between slating “Sat in Your Lap” with a cover of either Donovan or Captain Beefheart (the latter of which is mind-boggling to think about), Bush opted to cover the melodic Scotsman after serendipitously watching him perform on a Crystal Gayle programme. The choice was an interesting if unsurprising one — Donovan is as much a part of the British songwriting tradition Bush hails from as Ferry or Bowie or Waters. Yet the form of mystical, childlike ballad exemplified by “Lord of the Reedy River” was something of Bush’s past, an aesthetic that Bush had largely moved past by when she recorded The Kick Inside. This was an unexpected return to her musical roots. 

And yet the song works as a unit of Bush’s Dreaming era. The sensuous, place-centered ethos of “Lord of the Reedy River” is the sort of thing Bush explores throughout her four albums we’ve read about. The mythical aspect of Bush’s work has never departed, nor has her tendency to explore complex subjects through a perspective of searing childlike simplicity (one of the most useful critical tools for exploring the endemic truths of myth). Simplicity isn’t inherently equivalent to reductivism — simple truths have fractal implications. Certainly “Lord of the Reedy River” is both unostentatious and unnerving. Creeping into the senses through such channels of voice and harmony is as erotic as folk songs get.

In keeping with Bush’s explorations of psychological emancipation, “Lord of the Reedy River” fits in with Bush’s recent musings on transformations and desire. Who amongst us doesn’t at some point get so horny they turn into a swan? (I’ve read your posts, Kate Bush Forums.) It’s a treatment of childhood fantasy as a realization of deep-rooted desires. 

Bush niftily makes the song hers. She appears to be the only performer on the track, whose only instrumentation appears to be Bush’s Fairlight. Bush’s vocal is soft and throaty at once — she recorded it by the Townhouse’s disused swimming pool so her voice could “reflect” the water. Perhaps most crucial to the cover’s functionality is Bush’s change of pronouns from third person to first person — “she fell in love with a swan” becomes “I fell in love with a swan.” The result is Kate Bush singing about getting topped by a swan, the sort of surreal psychosexuality that appears in her later snowman-fucking song “Misty.” Nonetheless, Bush’s cover makes it feel like Leda’s story has come full circle, shaping her narrative into a love story of the sublime and the authorial presence of a woman.

The source material makes this tricky. In many tellings, “Leda and the Swan” exemplifies the predatory behavior of Zeus, the Greek pantheon’s patron deity of rape, with Zeus raping Leda. The plot varies by account (a knock-on effect of misogynistic sexual violence’s normalization in classical antiquity) and it eventually became a motif of classical eroticism in the Italian Renaissance, when the ostensible lovers were painted by da Vinci and Michelangelo. Yet Leda’s part in this myth has been sadly occluded. Greek mythmaking was populated by writers like Ovid and Aeschylus, who weren’t averse to telling stories about rape. In the myths, Leda becomes a Spartan queen, but this is occluded by her memorialization as exclusively a rape victim or a plaything of Renaissance artists and Classical playwrights and poets.

Donovan gets the ball rolling on repairing Leda’s story by jettisoning its violent misogyny. Bush takes this a step further by stressing the myth’s quintessential weirdness and providing the story with a woman to tell it. It’s one of Bush’s most idiosyncratic minor works, and an aberration in her greater career. An undervalued gem of Bush’s B-sides.

(Leitch.) Recorded May/June 1981 at Townhouse Studios, Shepherd’s Bush. Released as B-side to “Sat In Your Lap” on 21 June 1981. Personnel: Bush — vocals, Fairlight(?), production. Launay — engineer. Gray — assistant engineer. Leda and the Swan painted by Michelangelo in 1530. Screencap from If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969, dir. Mel Stuart).