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While Kate Bush was staging her only tour, the 1980s were being born. The Labour government of James Callaghan collapsed, and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power, a major step towards the austerity policies and neoliberalism that’s defined the last forty years. The Camp David Accords were orchestrated by American President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin, and the Egypt-Israel Peace treaty, effectively terminating the Israeli occupation of Sinai while also seeing to it Egypt began supplying Israel with oil. Soon afterwards, Carter lost a presidential election to Ronald Reagan, the American half of neoliberalism’s early regime. CNN was established, arcade video games were becoming a viable commercial presence, and John Lennon was killed in New York. To be an artist is to be a cultural marker for a moment in history. To be one in 1980 was to witness the world falling on its head.
The massive global upheaval is noticeable in music as well. Just look at the UK’s Top 10 singles of 1980: it’s topped by Don McLean’s “Crying,” and the other songs are apprehensive titles like The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and the MASH theme song. Even a catchy disco single like Odyssey’s “Use It Up and Wear It Out” sounds tense and minimalistic compared to something like “YMCA” or “Freak Out.” Also in the top 10 is ABBA’s “Super Trouper,” their last #1, has a militaristic-sounding title (even though a super trouper is actually a spotlight and not a Heinleinesque mensch). 1980’s albums tend to abandon some of the Seventies’ utopianism as well: punk had given way to the abjection of post-punk groups like Public Image Ltd and Magazine, synthpop was rearing its head in the form of Ultravox and The Human League, and new wave was speeding up with Blondie and Talking Heads. Rock veterans were also pushing themselves, like David Bowie, who made the violent and weird Scary Monsters and its turn-of-the-decade-anxiety single “Ashes to Ashes,” and Bruce Springsteen, who went all-out with the wildly undisciplined double-LP The River. Songwriters of Bush’s generation were forging ahead: Elvis Costello released Get Happy!, one of his longer and more sprawling albums, and Prince dropped his funk-cum-erotica LP Dirty Mind. In the music of 1980, popular music is torn between sensibilities: the drive of the Seventies and the call to innovation necessitated by the new decade.
Having just completed her triumphant European tour, Kate Bush was entering her imperial phase. Instead of working with producer Andrew Powell and the band of her first two albums again, she established control of her work by appointing herself co-producer with Jon Kelly, and finally using her own band for a whole LP. The result was a more authored album than her first two, one with the mark of its creator in its every facet. Never for Ever is a weird step forward: for one thing, it’s much more in line with the synthesizer music that was beginning to surface in British pop. It’s the album where she discovers her long-term ally, the Fairlight, a classic synth which would direct much of her music. Never for Ever’s interest in soundscapes is greater than that of its predecessors, sometimes letting songwriting take a backseat to more spatial ideas of music and composition. The technology of music takes greater import in her work as she starts composing with synths. Never for Ever is the point where Bush’s songs start sounding like their concepts. Rather than only singing about the magical forces of the universe, she’s now able to implement its sounds into her music. Now in addition to her idiosyncratic vocals and unorthodox compositions, she has the technology to match her songs too.
Never for Ever also signals a return to the conceptual clarity of The Kick Inside, which Lionheart lacked. Each of its ten songs has a clearly outlined idea and purpose, with refined hooks and clear-cut melodies. Yet there’s much of Lionheart’s darkness and trepidation as well: this time, the sense of doubt is in regards to more worldly causes than Lionheart’s adolescent stage fright. For all that Bush doesn’t discuss politics head-on, she’s writing unmistakably political songs. Never for Ever is full of familial trauma, violence, and massive political fallout, both on and offstage. It’s a veritable Pandora’s box of ideas and fears: take a look at the classic cover, which depicts a variety of fay creatures, sprites, and eldritch monsters pouring out from under her skirt. As Bush has said, “that’s where all [her] ideas come from.” And why not release your new album by giving birth to strange creatures? That may be the only way to release albums.
Speaking of “strange creatures,” let’s talk about “Egypt” (the song more than the country, although we’ll be talking about the latter soon). Its treats the country as an enigma: it is seductress, serpent and sigil. “She’s got me with that feline guise/got me in those desert eyes,” the chorus says, “Oh, I’m in love with Egypt.” Bush’s Egypt is that of Ancient One of the Pharaohs, necropolises and the Sphinx, which Bush refers to in the best fucking lyric ever with “my pussy queen knows all my secrets.” The perception of Egypt is occidental: Bush is captivated by the myth of Egypt, the country that’s found in history books rather than the one that actually exists on the Sinai Peninsula. She’s dealing with iconography more than actual lived history once again. Falling into the pervasive Western trope of depicting Eastern landscapes minus the people (The Lion King, anyone?), she sings about an unpopulated landscape, a playground for colonizers rather than a place where people live. In his classic text Orientalism, Edward Said describes the East as “a theatrical stage affixed to Europe,” where the interests of Western imperial powers are acted out. The ever-theatrical Kate Bush operates similarly.
To Bush’s credit, she attempts to grapple with this tension. An early part of the discordant lyric — consisting of a mere two verses and two choruses, which almost entirely fail to rhyme — makes mention of how “the sands run red/in the land of the Pharaohs.” Bush’s gaze shifts from the bloodshed: the chorus begins with “I cannot stop to comfort them/I’m busy chasing up my demons.” At the very least, she tries to deal with the solipsism of Western colonialism. Fetishization of Egyptian objects becomes a sickness that distracts from the exploitation and cruelty of material history.
The problem is that while Bush does take something of a critical hammer to colonialist attitudes, she engages in those very attitudes. Presenting Egypt as hypnotic is maybe not the critique Bush thinks it is. In fact it only buys into the Orientalist trope of the East as inherently mysterious and esoteric: just look at the first edition cover of Said’s Orientalism, with its snake-charming painting. And for all that I tipped my hat to Bush for her acknowledgement of Egypt’s violent conflict, it’s a very minimal part of the song. The unpopulated landscape is still almost the entirety of “Egypt”: there are no people in it. It’s not that I want Bush to write a song about the Suez Crisis or Yom Kippur. I shudder at the thought of such a song from nearly any white artist. But “Egypt” is such a minimalistic piece of songwriting it’s hard to derive anything conclusive from it.
This is no surprise given that “Egypt” was the first new song written for Never for Ever (“Violin” was recycled from the Phoenix years). It’s oddly shaped and difficult to parse — it sounds outright unfinished, with its sparse lyric and chorus. More than likely it was written in between Lionheart and the Tour of Life, as it made its first appearance on that tour, where it was introduced as visual spectacle instead of an album track. As a result the song is more something to be seen than heard, as it was originally written for the stage. In concert, Bush strove up to the audience draped in full Cleopatra-meets-Captain-Marvel, draped in the red, blue, and gold livery, heralded by pipes and Preston Heyman’s powerful drumming. The subsequent performance is tense and distant — its frantic arrangement keeps it from getting dull, and it’s more driving and catchy than its record counterpart. The tour’s punchy and often acoustic arrangements give “Egypt” more weight than it would later have, and the song would be worse off without it.
Yet therein lies the problem of “Egypt”: in striving to dispel myths of Egypt, it imitates them. Musically it’s host to a number of caricatures found in Western imitations of “Oriental” music: the live versions of the song have this zig-zaggy four-note riff which is akin to plenty of Hollywood scores for epic movies set in Southern Asia or Northern Africa (note this was shortly before Raiders of the Lost Ark was released). It’s not just a crass idea of what European musicians think Egyptian music sounds like; it’s a tacky-sounding riff as well. Paddy Bush’s strumento de porco doesn’t help much with its ringing scrape of a sound either (“Oriental” music sounds like things been scraped on other things, didn’t you know?).
It should go without saying that Bush is far from the only singer to broach Orientalism in the burgeoning Eighties, however. There’s also Siouxsie and the Banshees with their single “Arabian Knights.” Similarly to Bush, the Banshees play what they consider Egyptian music, interlaced with reverb-heavy Goth guitar playing and drummer Budgie’s deep-hitting syncopation. Similarly to Bush, the Banshees treat “Egypt,” as a living entity, although their Egypt is more a bleeding organism that’s been leeched on by exploitative foreign entities. Siouxsie expounds on how “a tourist oasis/reflects in seedy sunshades” as the landscape is devastated by “a monstrous oil tanker/its wounds bleeding in seas” (a lyric that’s aged particularly well). The anger and disgust of “Arabian Knights” goes beyond anything “Egypt” tries, as Bush refuses to pick a culprit for global problems. Yet the Banshees’ song also has problems, as it relies on phrases like “Arabian Knights/at your primitive best.” Its fury is genuine, but Siouxsie and the band’s judgement is very much that of a white band from Bromley.
Yet like “Arabian Knights,” “Egypt” is consistently interesting. The crux of its failure is that its weaksauce anticolonialism is tainted entirely by white privilege, with its key difference from Siouxsie’s take being Bush’s characteristic lack of cynicism. Melodically it’s unusually restrained by Bush standards, another possible effect of its rushed composition. Perhaps in an attempt to write under time constraints, Bush has set Egypt almost entirely in a pentatonic scale (E minor, mostly the natural minor) rather than her preferred chromatic one. There’s the occasional break from pentatonic standards as Bush throws in a C or an F#, and the song shifts between 4/4 and 2/4 (not the “9/8 or 11/9” guitarist Brian Bath has claimed), but it’s still a more controlled song than Bush tends to write.
As “Egypt” was mixed early in the production of Never for Ever, its album version appeared on her classic 1979 Christmas special. While the acoustic instruments are largely dropped from this recording, a sense of rhythm is lost: “Egypt” meanders, Bush’s urgent “I cannot stop to comfort them!” serving as its anchor. Mike Moran’s early Prophet V synth creates interesting spatial dimensions, but it’s far from most interesting synth playing on Never for Ever. The song is not well served by Bush’s misjudged and goofy video for it, in which she wears a red silk veil and billowing robes, in addition to a black cloth wrapped around her face, which appears to be a simplified battoulah (a mask hailing from the Arab States rather than Egypt, which. Hmm. Oh dear). Miming shock at everything around as she’s superimposed over images of the Great Sphinx and stock footage of Egypt, Bush plunges the song into pure camp. Embarrassing doesn’t begin to cover it; it’s hilarious in all the wrong ways.
Thus is “Egypt,” a queasy attempt to engage with a new world. As the world rapidly organizes itself into new modes of capitalism and imperialist expansion, Bush is producing a soundtrack for its disasters. Her new music shows tradition crashing down on people who’ve followed them blindly, and sometimes she gets caught under the debris. Shortly we’re going to see how she deals with personal catastrophe as well. It forces her to look outward. Yet despite the abyss gazing also, she’s a bit too immersed in Western solipsism to see where it’s looking.
Performed live on the Tour of Life through April and May of 1979. Recorded late 1979 at London AIR Studios. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals. Preston Heyman — drums, percussion. Max Middleton — Fender Rhodes, Minimoog. Paddy Bush — backing vocals, strumento de porco. Mike Moran — Prophet V.