Them Heavy People

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Them Heavy People
Music video
Saturday Night at the Mill
Efteling
Sound in S (Japan)
Seiko commercial
Seiko commercial 2
Saturday Night Live (start at 7:25)
Legs and Co
Tour of Life
Xmas special

“There is a cosmic law which says that every satisfaction must be paid for with a dissatisfaction.”
— G. I. Gurdjieff.

The philosopher-mystic G. I. Gurdjieff’s spiritual path The Fourth Way presents a response to three ways of enlightenment: disciplining the body, emotions, or mind (these are the paths of the fakir, the monk, and yogi, but this isn’t a theology blog). Rather than focusing on becoming one’s true self through just one of these channels, Gurdjieff taught a Fourth Way which prioritized all of them at once. This was a way for people to learn their true selves by engaging with this path in daily working life without undertaking John the Baptistian asceticism. Gurdjieff’s doctrine caught on with such figures as P. L. Travers, Robert Anton Wilson, Peter Brook, and became influential in its disparate, scattered way.

The reference to Gurdjieff in “Them Heavy People” is notable for how it tips an already offbeat song into esoterica. Like much of The Kick Inside, the song is Bush paying her debts to influences and teachers. A number of musicians of the time had spiritual gurus: Pete Townshend never stopped writing songs about Meher Baba, Dave Davies followed yoga teachings, and the Beatles famously lavished Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with attention for a period. Bush touches on this fad not by leaning exclusively on Gurdjieff but by discussing the wonders of influence and being taught.

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Bush begins the song with a single phrase, “rolling the ball,” which she calls back and forth across the song’s intro like (fittingly) a ball. She proceeds to speak of having existed in a state of social and mental inertia (“I was hiding in a room in my mind,” “I’d shut the people out of my life”) until some instructive magi hoisted her out of her ennui. Bush is vague on the extent of her isolation, focusing more on how cool it is to be influenced by wise people (the “heavy people” of her title), “wonderful teachers ready to teach me.” The people helping her bring her out of her plight matter more than the spot she found herself in.

So what exactly did the heavy people do to Bush? Their treatments range from the scriptural (“they read me Gurdjieff and Jesu”) to the ascetic (“they build up my body/break me emotionally/it’s nearly killing me/but what a lovely feeling”) to ritual (“I love the whirling of the dervishes”). Bush conjures up a series of esoteric images, ideas keeping her alive mentally and physically as well as spiritually. She’s stepping forward from where she began the song, her eyes tracking a pendulum-like ball, or perhaps getting something started. Gurdjieff’s teachings are compatible with Bush’s aesthetic here: they unify the body with the mind, keeping both alive and in a constant dialogue with each other.

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It might be worth contrasting “Them Heavy People” with last week’s song, “Room for the Life,” which has very conservative ideas of what bodily autonomy is. That song ultimately mistook upholding the gender binary and traditional ideas of reproduction as the center of a woman’s existence for some kind of liberation. “Them Heavy People” vibes more with finding new avenues of thought. “Them heavy people hit me in a soft spot”: one’s physical discipline and movement is paramount to moving forward internally. Every one of us has a heaven inside, and Bush makes sure to express hers with dance.

For all its spirituality, “Them Heavy People” is not a hymn. It’s a playful song, one of the poppiest Bush has written to date (Bush has so far spent her career redefining “poppy”), overall staying in A flat with some diversions to D flat. It begins with a glimmering piano riff before descending into a reggae groove in the verse, guided by David Paton’s killer bassline (never quite replicated to the same effect live, as the song’s reggaeness was overemphasized in concert). But rather than falling into the banality of Seventies white reggae, “Them Heavy People” never quite settles into one aesthetic, engaging with the baroque, the sublime, and the childlike all at once. This is best demonstrated by the song’s music video, a shoo-in for the silliest Bush has ever filmed. In it, Bush, dressed in a fedora and sleeveless black top and purple skirt, leans her elbows on a table and gazes in awe at, of all things, a swinging lightbulb, moving from side to side of the frame. She then engages in an utterly goofy mimed brawl with dancers Gary Hurst and Stewart Avon Arnold, both dressed in noir goon costumes that turn “heavy people” into a pun. It’s playful and absurd, and it’s a contender for Bush’s finest video of the Seventies.

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Part of what makes the video so remarkable is how it encapsulates the song’s sublime childlikeness. It forms a double act with “The Man With the Child in His Eyes,” while discussing another component of growing up: knowledge. Bush is willing to be awed by these strange new ideas. She makes herself a student because of a desire to fundamentally improve herself (“I must work on my mind”). And she sings about that in the giddiest tone possible.

The result of this enthusiasm is a quintessential Kate Bush song she proceeded to take around the world. “Them Heavy People” was a Japan-exclusive single which she lent to some commercials she was in, and she performed it in a truly wild disco-inflected appearance on a Japanese TV program called Sound in S. The song even made it onto Bush’s one performance on Saturday Night Live, hosted by Eric Idle of all people (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this was a fitting choice or not).

Bush will revisit the ideas of “Them Heavy People” as late as The Dreaming (“I keep it shut” may set off alarm bells in the mind of an astute Bush fan), always remembering the fundamental joy of knowing something you don’t know. In some ways, “Them Heavy People” is the last cry of the Phoenix era, a final outing for the childlike epoch of Bush’s old demos. Let’s let have Bush have the final word here: I love the beauty of rare innocence.

Recorded 1977 at London AIR Studios. Performed on various television programs through 1978 and 1979 and performed on the Tour of Life. Studio personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano, backing vocals. Stuart Elliott — drummer. David Paton — bass. Ian Bairnson — guitars. Paddy Bush — backing vocals. Andrew Powell — production. Live personnel: Bush — piano, vocals. Preston Heyman — drums. Del Palmer — bass. Paddy Bush — backing vocals. Brian Bath — guitar. Kevin McLea — keyboards. Ben Barson — synthesizer. Alan Murphy — electric guitar. Liz Parsons and Glenys Groves — backing vocals.

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Room for the Life

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Room for the Life
Tour of Life

This post has been supported by 17 backers on Patreon.

The women’s lib movement (or movements, really) of the Seventies are a battlefield you could write several blogs about. Feminism was becoming impossible to ignore as a mainstream presence, with books like Robin Wright’s anthology Sisterhood is Powerful and Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class coming to light.. Whatever position one was going to take on gender, it would have to be a reaction to feminism in some form.

A couple entries ago we made it clear that Kate Bush is at the bare minimum not a conscious feminist. Her work is useful for women’s sexual liberation and art, but Bush’s beliefs are broadly conservative. I’ve gone on at length about Bush’s soft spot for men — she’s generally inclined to treat them well and make them paragons of beauty and virtue. Sometimes she’ll even do this at the expense of failing to call men out when they commit immoral acts, as we’ll see in “Babooshka.” Bush is a heterosexual woman, and one with an unusually positive view of men. One of the primary effects of this preference is that her songs predominantly feature conversations between men and women, often of a romantic or sexual nature (or both). It’s a terribly heteronormative dynamic, although one Bush will push against at times.

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“Room for the Life” is that rare thing in Kate Bush’s early discography: a song presenting a dialogue between two women. You’d think this would be particularly refreshing, but there’s something odd about “Room for the Life”: nobody ever talks about it. That’s not to say there’s not a single person in the world who doesn’t enjoy the song — it’d be astonishing if in the four decades since The Kick Inside was released nobody had liked “Room for the Life.” But the song is hindered by the fact it’s not any good. It’s easily the worst track on The Kick Inside: ham-fisted, embarrassing, and just plain forgettable.

Musically, “Room for the Life” is a trainwreck. Its verse blends into the rest of The Kick Inside, offering little in the way of standing out, and the chorus does little to liven up the song, with its tepid use of beer bottles as an instrument only succeeding in making the track sound flaccid. The worst comes at the end of the chorus, with Bush chiming “mama woman aha!” obnoxiously. This culminates in the song’s outro, with Bush imitating… what is she doing here exactly? Percussionist Morris Pert’s boo-bams (a kind of bongos) bring a light world music flavor to it, amplified by Bush’s grating “OO-AH”s. It’s one of the most tasteless moments on an otherwise sophisticated record, and releasing a track like this instead of “Frightened Eyes” is a downright baffling move on Bush’s part.

In addition to its musical tastelessness, “Room for the Life” is out of touch. Bush has identified herself with male artists, admitting that a lack of interesting female songwriters was the reason (she cites Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, and Joan Armatrading as exceptions). When she writes about two female characters in “Room,” things fall apart (this isn’t always the case — my favorite Kate Bush song is a woman-centered dialogue, as we’ll see). The song is addressed from one woman to another, telling of the magical power of women, expressed as a singularity with the oddly agrammatical phrase “because we’re woman.” It’s an oddly naïve little song, and one with strange conclusions on how to be a woman. “Lost in your men and the games you play/trying to prove that you’re better woman,” Bush chides her friend. How dare she try to get ahead of men. The audacity of it.

But the apex of the song’s regressive gender politics comes in… its conclusion that women are special because of their wombs. Really. The room for the life is the uterus. “Inside of you can be two.” I mean… what do you do with that? Infertile women and trans women are pretty straightforwardly excluded from the deal. That’s something Pat Robertson garbage might peddle. It’s a vulgar and outdated form of the Feminine Mystique. Yes, this is pretty much orthodox women’s rights stuff of the period. And it’s the point where you’re almost ready to call it quits on the Seventies. Bush will get better on gender in many ways — we’re going to see some amazing stuff from her in the future directly related to wombs. For the time being, “Room for the Life” is just something Bush — and the feminist movement — will grow beyond.

Recorded 1977 at London AIR Studios. Personnel: Kate Bush — piano, vocals. Stuart Elliott — drums, percussion. David Paton — bass. Ian Bairnson — guitars, beer bottles. Morris Pert — boo-bams. Andrew Powell — beer bottles, production.

James and the Cold Gun

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James and the Cold Gun
Hammersmith Odeon

I’ve recently set up a Patreon, which has gotten off to a good start with 14 Patrons. If you enjoy my work, consider pitching me some money over there. My financial situation is strained to say the least, and every bit helps. Plus you might get to read some writing you’ll enjoy. In the meantime, here’s “James and the Cold Gun.”

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.