The Empty Bullring/Warm and Soothing (The Never for Ever B-Sides)

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CORRECTION: The A-side of “The Empty Bullring” is “Army Dreamers,” not “Breathing.”

The Empty Bullring

An ephemeral B-side, “The Empty Bullring” tells its story in under 2-and-a-half minutes. A short tragedy, the song takes the shape of a lament by a matador’s lover. The song’s opening line, “disappears through a window/out of my mind/trying to keep him at home,” is a choppy summation of Bush’s POV, but it’s followed by an intriguing literary reference: “leaving me here/like Tam Lin in her tower,” an homage to the Scottish legend of Tam Lin. While Bush’s recollection of this story is off — Tam Lin is a male character who isn’t actually trapped in a tower — and as a result makes the allusion incoherent, it’s still a marker of the song’s cultural literacy. The matador goes “out into Rome,” rather than Spain, the world’s bullfighting capital alongside Mexico. There’s some historical accuracy here — ancient Rome was known for its bullfighting. Yet the juxtaposition of Scottish folklore and the Roman Empire makes for a weird hodgepodge of settings, making history a backdrop on which continuous cultural battles are fought rather than a linear tradition of events.

So what battle is fought in “The Empty Bullring?” Obviously there’s the song’s focal image of a bullfight, which the matador loses: “the throw of the rose/it’s all you lived for/but you’ve lost it all.” The matador has a fatal obsession with “taking [his] red cloak/to regain something,” perhaps a sense of masculine pride which he’s been deprived of all his life. Rather than finding fulfillment at home in his relationship, he’s enraptured by “glory and gore,” seeking out a destructive lifestyle that took him away from the pleasures of life. Bush ends the short song with the bullfighting tragic hero losing everything, having prioritized a momentary victory over long-term happiness.

“The Empty Bullring” is most notable for being the first non-LP Kate Bush song to back one of her singles. It’s a minimalist track, with no instrumentation apart from Bush’s piano playing and little treatment in terms of production. Compared to its despairing A-side “Army Dreamers,” the track is considerably smaller in its scope, carrying a classicist tragedy on a catchy major third-minor third riff. Constructed from bits of other songs, “The Empty Bullring” does what its protagonist never could, accepting its place as a perfectly acceptable minor work in the Bush canon.

Warm and Soothing

According to Bush, “Warm and Soothing” was recorded to see how recording at Abbey Road would work for her. “We went into Studio Two, and really the only way we could tell if it was going to sound good was if I went and did a piano vocal,” she said, before effusing about the experience (“it sounded great”). The trite-and-true model of Bush playing her piano without a backing band or further instrumentation was a solid testing ground for recording at Abbey Road. Bush sounds at ease singing a fairly standard song of hers about the warmth of her old home vanishing into past as she returns to it, poor memories returning and getting buried under unpleasant new ones. “And I’m afraid by the way we grow old, darling,” says Bush. The further away she gets from her childhood in East Wickham, the most anxious her music gets. As the world moves forward, so does she. Nostalgia is a poison, but sometimes a revelatory one.

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Ran Tan Waltz

cureforcuckoldpl00webs

This will be my last blog post to be crossposted to Eruditorum Press, as my friend Elizabeth Sandifer’s Tori Amos project, “Boys In Their Dresses,” will begin its run on the site next week, and we agreed back in January running the two blogs on the same site wouldn’t benefit either project. While you’re reading this italicized bit, you can think about supporting me in exchange for exclusive writing and personal editing at my Patreon. I am literal days from moving out of my current apartment and haven’t found an affordable replacement, so my partner and I could really use your help. As always, thanks for reading.

Ran Tan Waltz
Xmas special

Numerous times on this blog we’ve talked about Kate, Bush’s classic 1979 Christmas special. As one of the few extended performances of her music Bush has done, and the only one made for television, it documents some of her less performed songs. While the bulk of Kate’s setlist was played on the Tour of Life, with the exceptions of Peter Gabriel’s contributions and a couple of Never for Ever songs, the BBC’s style of “televised theatre” differs from the musical theater Bush spent the tour performing. 20th century BBC shows were often boxed into a single room of a studio, and wholeheartedly embraced their limits by emphasizing their producedness, operating as filmed theater. Bush capitalized on the theatrical aspect of TV, particularly in her early career, relying more on costuming and mime than special effects and cinematographic precocity. Most of the songs performed in the Christmas special have visual counterparts from Bush or Gabriel elsewhere, barring “Another Day,” but we’ll leave that post to itself. The other exception, “Ran Tan Waltz,” is a B-side, an eccentric piece of smut that would have made de Sade drool.

“Ran Tan Waltz” has one of the strangest videos of Bush’s career. It’s a three-dancers-on-one-stage setup that’s not atypical of Bush in this era, but the costuming tips it into what-the-fuck-are-we-looking-at territory. Bush is decked out in Tevye-like garb, boasting a chinbeard, waistcoat, and bare feet, an exemplary sample of how middle-class English girls think the working class looks (à la some cabaret). To her left and right are dancers Stewart Avon Arnold and Gary Hurst dressed respectively as an upper class woman in purple and, I swear to God I am not making this up, a fucking baby in a diaper. Kate Bush has made a music video that’s a weird mix of cabaret, Victoriana, early 20th-century Russo-Jewish musical theater, and AB/DL. In a BBC Christmas special. Having written these last two sentences, I shall now retire Dreams of Orgonon and languish in obscurity.

Alas, if every blogger who covered BBC television from the Seventies quit after seeing things like diaper men, there’d be a complete deficit of media criticism about this era. So umm… yeah, “Ran Tan Waltz,” the song and the video, has a lot going on. Normally we could contextualize the substance of a video with its song, but really, how do you get Tevye and diaper fetishes out of a song like this? Well, musically, “Ran Tan Waltz” is the third part of a loose trio following “Coffee Homeground” and “Magician,” all gloomy Kurt Weillesque waltzes. Weill’s influence is useful for figuring out the class aspects of the video: while Brecht and Weill’s plays weren’t always about the working class — not by a long shot — they did often feature a dramatized ideal of working class decadence. Bush’s interest in this aesthetic is grounded in musical theater rather than Marxist class consciousness, but there’s still a latent political base to it, consisting of warped gender politics and domestic life.

In “Ran Tan Waltz,” the nuclear family is rapidly collapsing. Bush’s character is a cuckolded husband who’s left to take care of his baby while his wife shags his friends. Really. It’s a willfully crass adultery song, laden with entendres which intentionally flunk their doubleness and show off their flunking. The very first verse has some rare lyrical profanity from Bush when she sings that some nights, the adultress runs home terrified because she’s “[picked] on a dick that’s too big for her pride.” The chorus has the phrases “she saw me coming for miles” and “she saw me open wide” in them and repeated ad nauseum (Bush uses “open wide” to usher out the song. Even the title, “Ran Tan Waltz,” applies a rhythm to “ran tan,” a synonym for “banging noise.” Bush is abandoning her usual treatment of sex as a sensuous heterosexual union for a coarser and more rustic approach. This Kate Bush song doesn’t just have sex: it fucks.

There’s a lot to this. This is a blatantly negative song about relationship dysfunction, which is in part the bread and butter of Never for Ever, which has tracks like “All We Ever Look For” and “The Infant Kiss.” It deals with a marriage break in a material way: sex is referred to entirely as a rough act, one that’s driving a family apart rather than keeping a relationship’s magic alive. The husband is getting nothing at home: he is, in Internet fuckboy lingo, getting cucked.

The cuckoldry bit is perfectly in keeping with the sort of thing Bush does. She often writes about issues concerning women from a man’s point of view, a subgenre of Bush songs which is going to culminate in Never for Ever’s most famous single. It’s a strange pathology of hers, one that sets her as a rare woman in a tradition of masculine songwriting, but it often allows for interestingly fractured views of gender. In the case of “Mr. Mom: Kurt Weill Edition,” Bush destroys the nuclear family. The mother is a playgirl while the father stays home and takes care of the baby. This is Bush’s model of desire-from-a-distant played through a Feydeau farce: everything becomes dirty and obscene, even romantic relationships. Kate Bush is doing an anti-Kate Bush song. The magic of the universe has been lost to these characters. There’s not enough sex in their lives.

Sex is often a luxury, one that can be dangerous if those involved lack means. People all over the globe succumb to STDs, and in some countries queer people can be legally murdered for expressing their sexual orientation. For many working class people, including women and others, sex is a way of subsistence and maybe even making the rent. It’s a way for people to keep their bodies and minds alive as well as often a financial mode of subsistence. “Ran Tan Waltz” reflects this lack of luxury, where some not-well-off people have nothing to think about outside of labor and childcare than their sex lives. Families can easily fail and break apart under the wrong circumstances. If one were to explain the music video, it would be this way: Bush is tapping into modes of working class theater to touch on how sex locks into struggle. To be sure, it’s a romanticized vision of the working class, but it’s not a judgmental one. Beneath the surface, there’s some genuine probing of proletariat circumstances and how it shapes people’s sex lives. It’s not the optimistic romanticism that underpins The Kick Inside, but it’s more mature and wide-reaching.

It is also fucking goofy. This is a song that’s probably given fodder to diaper fetishists for decades. Probably none of the aforementioned class and sex dynamics actually entered Bush’s mind when she wrote this song. She just wrote a sex farce. And yet as always, even the throwaway parts of Bush’s career are worth looking through for salvage. Puzzles pieces still tell you something about a larger picture: the way to progress is blowing up its goofiest parts.

Recorded in 1979, presumably in autumn at London AIR Studios. Performed on the BBC special “Kate” on 28 December 1979. Released as the B-side of “Babooshka” on 27 June 1980.  

Passing Through Air

Since this essay covers the earliest recorded instance of Kate Bush collaborating with other artists, now seems like a good time to thank the people who’ve helped me out on this blog. So infinite thanks to William Shaw, Michelle Coats, and the author of this great article for proofreading these essays, and also thanks to Tomer Feiner for straightening me out on the music theory for this one. Y’all are fantastic.

Need Your Loving (demo)
Passing Through Air

Having a professionally recorded song makes our job much easier. What nuances are lost in the lo-fi recordings of, say, “Queen Eddie” or “Sunsi” are picked up in the clean sound of “Passing Through Air.” This is largely due to Cathy recording with professional equipment for the first time. She didn’t need it to shine before, of course—she’s simply honing her best work to date for a really, really important moment.

Image result for hook end manor studio

Artists rarely get a big break. A 15-year-old artist’s home demos getting picked up for professional recording was pretty much unheard of in the pre-Soundcloud age. For a young artist to be discovered by a musician coming off the back of releasing one of the bestselling albums of all time seems colossally unlikely. Yet this is an exaggeration—plenty of people had heard Cathy’s demos by this point, and she wasn’t the only artist David Gilmour had taken under his wing at the time. Coming off The Dark Side of the Moon’s massive success, Gilmour was nurturing about eight protégés, the luckiest of whom would hit #1 on the UK singles charts five years later. He’d found Kate via her brother Jay’s friend Ricky Hopper, who played Gilmour some tapes which struck him. Maybe it was the undercurrent of ethereal strangeness in Kate’s songs or her musical aptitude which struck him. After he’d worked on “The Great Gig in the Sky,” no wonder he was into this sort of thing.

Another Gilmour ward was the band Unicorn, featuring the rhythm section of bassist Pat Martin and drummer Pete Perrier. The two musicians readily agreed to record the Bush sessions (they did so without immediate payment, although they’d receive royalties when the song was released seven years later.) They proceeded to play a number of songs (the exact song count is lost to history), including “Maybe” and “Passing Through Air.” The accompaniment of Gilmour, Martin, and Perrier, while not daring or spectacular by any means, lends some musical texture to “Passing Through Air.” To date, Cathy’s songs have sounded like they were recorded in a vacuum, not just because of their sound quality, but in how they’re completely isolated from any human contact. Gilmour’s home studio is a huge step up for her—being able to work with an 8-track recorder, a 16-channel mixing desk, an upright piano, and a Wurlitzer electric piano must have been thrilling for her. She immediately takes advantage of the equipment—she seems to record her vocal with automatic double-tracking (two tracks of audio will be recorded simultaneously, but one will have a slight delay, giving the recording a thick, rich sound. John Lennon used this technique often). Cathy steps into the world of professional recording with impressive ease, and so she makes our job a little easier as well. Not only do we know the exact circumstances under which “Passing Through Air” was recorded and have a high-quality recording of the song—there’s even sheet music for it.

Kate Bush - Alone At My Piano 1976 Very early Kate via Big O (and including some later demos as well). “I’d practice scales and that on the piano, go off dancing, and then in the evening I’d come back and play the piano all night. And I actually...

The seminal book Kate Bush Complete helps us out enormously here. Published by EMI in 1987, the text eschews the erroneous notation which plagues most sheet music books in favor of transcribing the song as heard on record. A cursory scan of Complete’s entry for this song shows that “Passing Through Air” is a weird composition. The verse begins with a single bar in A before walking through the VI and i chords of A minor (F major and A), followed by the III chord (C), a slash chord (C/B), and resolving to the tonic of A minor before segueing in A to the chorus. Here the key changes to G and descends through a series of slash chords (G, G/F, G/E, G/D) and reuses the C and C/B of the verses, and the song repeats itself. It’s an unconventional song, one with a patchwork melody that creates conflict between keys—it’s not often you’ll see see a juxtaposition of A major and A minor. Some may call it unruly. I’d call it the work of a songwriter who knows her way around the piano. Rhythmically it’s quite nice too—it breathes and moves organically (fun detail: while the majority of the song is in 4/4, the segue to the chorus sneaks a bar in 2/4—an early use of the hidden Kate Bush time signature change.) It’s not hard to see why Cathy decided to professionally record this one—it’s too good to pass up. Some good ol’ Elton John-y pop for the nice man from Pink Floyd.

Lyrically, “Passing” isn’t a great departure from the demoed songs. Its subject is much the same as “Something Like a Song” or “Queen Eddie”—an elusive figure who makes things magical and exciting. Yet Cathy has honed her skills as a wordsmith to write her best lyric yet. The verses seem to take a spiritual walk through a green moor—Cathy spins poignant phrases like “you mix the stars with your arms” and rhymes them with stuff like “the doom of eternity balms.” The song briefly walks through phrases like this before exploding into G and realizing that what Cathy needs to write is a pop song. “Oh, don’t you throw my love away/I need your loving, I need your loving” is the remedy to the lugubrious tunes she’s composed to date. Finally she’s allowing herself to have fun within a song.

Seven years later, Kate clearly retained a soft spot for “Passing Through Air” that lead her to include it as a B-side to the less cheerful “Army Dreamers.” It’s an odd choice of B-side—”Passing Through Air” has no musical, aesthetic, or thematic resemblance “Army Dreamers”. Why release “Passing Through Air” so long after its recording, when she’d moved forward creatively and become a national treasure? Maybe the track reminded her of a happy time. The excitement of adolescence may have been a sorely needed antidote to the story of early death related by “Army Dreamers.” Even a dark Kate Bush song clings to hope, and a brighter one doesn’t work without anxiety. If you need hope, there’s an abundance of it in Cathy’s demos.

Recorded in 1973 at David Gilmour’s home studio; released as a B-side in 1980. Personnel: Bush—vocals, piano. Gilmour—guitar. Martin—bass. Perrier—drums. Pictures: Hook End Manor, possibly the where the demos were recorded. The studios in Hook End. Kate Bush in Abbey Road.