Hammer Horror

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Hammer Horror demo
Album track
Single/music video
Song & interview, Countdown ABC Australia
San Remo performance
Tour of Life performance
Tour of Life performance (Germany)
TV performance
Strange Phenomena podcast

Kate Bush’s relationship with the Gothic has been an intriguing part of the discourse since Bush entered the scene with Wuthering Heights. After launching her career with a song based on one of Gothic literature’s pivotal novels, Bush decided she hadn’t released her intertextually Gothic single, and continued to periodically dabble in the Gothic, filming a TV special in a Dutch Gothic theme park, marching alongside the early strand of women singer-songwriters coming to prominence in alternative music of the Eighties, and releasing an actual Gothic rock single in 1978.

“Hammer Horror” is the most flamboyantly Gothic song we’ve heard from Bush so far. Part of this is how it’s haunted by “Wuthering Heights,” which it predates in composition and follows by several months in its release. This hauntedness is ingrained in the song’s style, as it boasts strings and a fraught C minor key (which modulates to E flat major). “Hammer Horror” asks questions about performance and identity, and centers on a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, complete with direct on-the-nose references to Notre Dame (the cathedral is named in the lyrics) and a stranger reaching out of the dark to grab Bush by the shoulder, depicted with wonderful literalness in the music video. The understudy has an identity crisis, and they’re haunted by the original actor — being placed in an undesired role creates a inadequacy (“I’m the replacement for your part/but all I want to do is forget you, friend.”)

Bush’s homage is specifically to Gothic horror cinema rather than 19th century literature (and its relationship to the nascent Goth subculture and its music is relevant but minimal). The imagery comes from cinematic iterations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, conjuring up spectres of Hunchback iconography (“you stood in the belltower but now you’re gone/so who knows all the sights of Notre dame?”). This is a pretty specific reference for the often cryptically influenced Bush. Conversely, “Hammer Horror” doesn’t actually have much to do with the horror films of Hammer Studios: Hammer never made a Hunchback film, and it’s not as if the song is loaded with references to the studio. It’s not even made clear in the song what medium the production takes place in, although Bush’s focus on rehearsals in the lyrics and contemporary interviews suggests a theatrical staging. But titling the song “Hammer Horror” lends the song a trademark Britishness and a cinematic framing: Bush is marrying the British traditions of horror filmmaking and theater in a spectacularly musical situation. She doesn’t step completely into the regions of Gothic horror, camp theater, and grim music altogether, but she takes pieces from all of them to assemble her own vision.

Instead of being particularly influenced by Hammer, Bush as an influence cites the Oscar-nominated Fifties biopic Man of a Thousand Faces, a film in which veteran Hollywood actor James Cagney plays the silent era monster performer Lon Chaney. The movie is preoccupied with voicelessness, whether through Chaney’s mute parents, his wife ruining her voice with acid as a cry for attention amidst Chaney’s neglect, or Chaney himself losing the ability to speak on his deathbed. Quintessentially it’s a Gothic movie cleverly disguised in the trappings of a Hollywood biopic. Recently writer and musician Alex Reed described the Gothic as being “less concerned with particular values than the act of revealing their underbellies.” Similarly, Man of a Thousand Faces is less interested in Hollywood glamour than the traumas and weirdness of this eccentric actor. Underneath these strange roles is an ordinary, screwed up man. And there’s a strain of meta-performance at play as well: as Bush herself said, “an actor in an actor in an actor, rather like Chinese boxes, and that’s what I was trying to create.”

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In “Hammer Horror,” she casts off the hood of the actor to reveal a permanently anxious ruin of a man, rather than the deeply flawed and abusive Chaney of Faces. Bush’s mode of exploring genres places a character inside a genre to explore its pathologies, and thus their own. The Gothic is preoccupied with the question of possibly being the thing you suspect you’re not — a categorical rejection of a consensus on human nature. Bush in “Hammer Horror” is afraid of being the worst thing possible in showbiz: a fraud. Certainly that’s what the ghost of her actor’s friend convinces him he is. To be an actor is to be a professional faker, but what’s worse than that? A faker playing a faker. Let’s look at this summary from Bush:

“[Hammer Horror] is about an actor and his friend. His friend is playing the lead in a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a part he’s been reading all his life, waiting for the chance to play it. He’s finally got the big break he always wanted, and he is the star. After many rehearsals he dies accidentally, and the friend is asked to take the role over, which, because his own career is at stake, he does. The dead man comes back to haunt him because he doesn’t want him to have the part, believing he’s taken away the only chance he ever wanted in life. And the actor is saying ‘leave me alone, because it wasn’t my fault — I have to take this part, but I’m wondering if it’s the right thing to do because the ghost is not going to leave me alone and is really freaking me out. Every time I look around a corner he’s there, but never disappears.”

There’s lots to unpack here apart from the macabre humor of pissed off thespian ghosts. There’s of course a strain of theatrical anxiety in here — Bush is talking about stage fright. Digging further, this play on performance has plenty to say about the anxiety of imitation and legacy. Since Aristotle human beings have known that storytelling is at its base an act of imitation, casting shadows on the wall (“shadow” was indeed once understood to mean “performer”). These shadows are often our ghosts — in the words of Doctor Who, “stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.” In “Hammer Horror”, Bush looks at the shadows and sees memories coming to haunt her. But these aren’t the shadows of strict monsters. It’s a man playing multiple monster roles at once: the one he never got to play onstage, the Hamletian spectre crying out from the afterlife, and the legacy of the Great Man himself demanding history pay him his dues.

So the conflict of the song is inherently masculine. There’s the frail actor falling apart under the weight of his friend’s legacy, and there’s the ghost of his friend beating him down with the club of established superiority. The ghost howls in rage while the living man cowers in fear and guilt (“the first time in my life/I leave the lights on to ease my soul,” “rehearsing in your things/I feel guilty”). A possibly once strong relationship has been broken, and Bush’s black humor ties in well with her taste for tragedy. The story of the song is shot through with manpain. But instead of committing to the manpain, Bush repurposes it for feminine camp.

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 There’s also an element of musical gender play at work in “Hammer Horror.” Bush chooses a male story with a masculine narrator and tells it through a feminine perspective with dashes of camp. This is where her “actor in an actor” fascination comes in. She’s telling someone’s story and embellishing it in radical ways. If Mick Jagger sang this track, it’d be him spitting autobiographically at Keith Richards, who would reply with some vicious chords in open D. Bush plays the actor as a frightened damsel, terrified of the stranger in the dark. She begins the song with a trembling “yooooouuu stoooood,” moving down her vocal range for a more playful “they’ve got the stars for the gallant hearts” (the most innocent confession of pissing oneself ever put on record), howl-belting out “HAMMER HOR-ROR” for the chorus, and lapsing into a more classically Bushian “are we really sure about this” in the post-chorus. It’s the most daring Bush vocal we’ve heard on this blog so far. No male artist would go this far in 1978.

What else do those vocals point to? I don’t know, umm, how about the fact that this is the most camp thing ever? Bush maintains some reverence for her Gothic source material, but not without a tongue-in-cheek performance. Her vocal for “Hammer Horror” is full-blown melodrama, containing, as Goth scholar Andi Harriman puts it, the Goth subculture’s commitment to dramaticism, or “transforming yourself into a different form of beauty.” Bush’s vocal range swerves up and down, covering C#6, Bb5, and descending to the lows of F#5 and F5. The song is absurdly eclectic and committed to its shtick, containing a licking guitar and a full-blown string section tensely opening the song and carrying the chorus. Musically, it’s full-blown hedonism. Visually, it’s another story altogether.

I mean, look at that music video. Bush is dressed in black while dancing with a man (presumably dancer Stewart Avon-Arnold) and expressing nearly every note of the song with obsessive literalism. When she sings about a hand reaching out from the dark to grab her, sure enough she gurns at a mysterious hand. Indeed she gurns at everything in the music video — Bush will remain a world class gurner until she develops a more understated relationship with the camera (and thus many great GIFs were lost to the world). Until then, this is the standard for camp Bush videos. It is utterly absurd and completely delightful.

Now we’re discussing camp, we might as well discuss the real ghost haunting this essay: Goth rock. It’s uncontroversial to say that Kate Bush is not Goth. She’s too separate from the Goth subculture in terms of aesthetic, class, and musicality to claim to membership. However Bush is, as we noted earlier, not averse to engaging with the Gothic. She launched her career on it. Naturally there’s going to be some overlap with Goth rock.

One of the most surprising things about Bush is how she’ll often stumble on an aesthetic before anyone else and perform it in a way that sounds nothing like its more famous iterations. “Hammer Horror” was demoed in 1976 and released in 1978, when the Goth scene was beginning to cohere as a subculture. When it was released as a single in October, Joy Division had recently put out an EP, Siouxsie and the Banshees had cracked the Top Ten with “Hong Kong Garden,” The Cure had recorded but not yet released “Killing an Arab,” (yes much orientalism) and early iterations of Bauhaus were playing Northampton clubs. Goth wasn’t a salient cultural movement, but it was beginning to look like a separate scene from punk and even standard forms of post-punk (e.g. Gang of Four, Magazine). While this was going on, Bush had charted multiple times with three singles and two albums. She existed in a different sphere from Siouxsie and Peter Murphy. So why comment on the similarities at all?

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Well, the Gothicness of “Hammer Horror” seems like enough of a starting point that the similarities are worth talking about. It’s a glam song in Gothic trappings: parts of it are in a major key and it has a wholesale commitment to excess. Goth is all about excess as well, although in a largely different fashion, one largely focused on underbellies, as Alex Reed puts it. Andi Harriman said of Goth that it embraced punk’s DIY ethos, “combined it with elements of Ziggy Stardust’s alien-like presence, and cloaked it in darkness.” Bush is less committed to the decrepit and alien. At its core, her aesthetic retains some English respectability. Her aversion to subcultures and living in a privileged space kept her from a total commitment to alternative culture. But the major overlaps in Bushian and Goth aesthetics are perhaps self-evident: looks, camp, femininity, and, well, Gothicness.

Like Bush, the Goths were former glam children who took Goths central message of “style > substance” to the umpteenth degree. Bush and the Goths were nerds who hung out in their bedrooms listening to records and made an aesthetic out of it. Bush took a more baroque approach to this, while Goth decided that shadows were the future. Bush has a dark side and an interest in shadows, but she usually appropriates them for her own purposes. The same goes for Goth: both players use it for their own ends. The Sisters of Mercy can use choirs for delicious excess, while Bush will play with the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Bushianism and Goth are also more invested in femininity than previous forms of rock. Early Gothic literature had no shortage of femininity, from Mary Shelley to Emile Bronte to Carmilla. Post-punk music had a number of largely women bands, including The Raincoats and The Slits. Lots of women were involved in early punk, but the more famous faces of the movement were largely young men. Goth’s inherent ambivalence in its identity allowed for crossing over of gender. Women assimilated into the subculture and rose to the forefront of it, allowing someone like Siouxsie Sioux to maintain a presence in the singles charts and alternative music. Eccentric spaces allow women and minorities to thrive more than the mainstream does, and that’s far from incompatible with Kate Bush.

There’s also of course the visual similarity between Bush and the Gothic, with dark clothing and dark make-up cast against white faces (Bush and Goth both have complex relationships with race). But the two paths leads to different conclusions. Goth rock artists were interested in abjection, descending into the gutter. Bush, for all her winking at the camera, imitates her Gothic subject in a way that preserves reverence for it. These approaches aren’t diametrically opposed — they form an intersection instead of a metro running over a motorway. Bush just stumbled on some fresh cultural ideas at the same time as some other dramatically minded young musicians. She navigates her way out of the Gothic avenue into another street altogether — she resolves the tension of influence and anxiety by doing something weirder.

Demoed at 44 Wickham Road, Brockley in 1976. Recorded at Super Bear Studios in Berres-les-Alpes, France between July and September 1978. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, production. Andrew Powell — production, harmonium. Jon Kelly — engineering. Stuart Elliot — drums, percussion. Del Palmer — bass. Ian Bairnson — electric and acoustic guitar. Duncan Mackay — synthesizer. David Katz — orchestra contractor. Performed live on the Tour of Life in 1979. Images: from the cover of Andi Harriman and Marloes Bontje’s Some Wear Leather Some Wear Laces; Lon Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, dir. Wallace Worsley); The Gurning Queen; Siouxsie and the Banshees.

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4 thoughts on “Hammer Horror

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