The Wedding List

27253045

The Wedding List (demo)
Xmas special
The Wedding List
Prince’s Trust Gala (1982)

Dedicated to Rohanne, the baddest bitch ever to write about the French New Wave.

This blog post was brought to you by 28 backers on Patreon. The Patreon has been doing incredibly well lately. For as little as $1 a post, you can read Dreams of Orgonon early every week.

François Truffaut’s film La Mariée était en noir, or The Bride Wore Black, frequently juxtaposes images of marital domesticity with the unhappiness of women. Its opening sequence depicts topless photographs of a woman being mechanically laid down by a machine. She stares dispassionately at the camera, perhaps itching to get away from a lecherous photographer. This introduce’s the movie’s theme of women’s antipathy towards men who objectify them, as actress Jeanne Moreau’s character, a bride who becomes a widow when her husband is shot to death immediately after their wedding, exacts violent revenge on her husband’s killers. To do so, she often goes through degrading transactions with these men, having tedious dinner dates with bigwigs or posing for their drawn portraits. Men and women have negative relationships in The Bride Wore Black, defined as much by the absence of supportive figures as its surplus of exploitative ones.

The films of the Nouvelle Vague, or the 1960s French New Wave which includes The Bride Wore Black, are walks through the zeitgeist of 1960s France, storming through the decade’s cultural and sociopolitical changes and exploring them with fluidly montage-centric and social realist filmmaking. Many New Wave movies tell stories of women trapped by misogynistic social dynamics. Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie showcases the misfortunes of an abused-housewife-turned-sex-worker at upsetting length, Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 is about the terror of a woman faced with the possibility of imminent death, and François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim follows the dick-waving battle of two men over a woman. The New Wave is where the misogyny of male intellectuals clashes with burgeoning new modes of feminism, and finds itself both caving to women’s liberation and exposing the weaknesses of its own gender politics.

So the influence The Bride Wore Black had on “The Wedding List” is traceable, as the song preserves the gist of Truffaut’s themes without performing as a purist adaptation. As in The Bride Wore Black, the setup of “The Wedding List” is the vengeful killing spree of a woman whose husband was shot dead on her wedding day. It’s a pretty straightforward lift — while there’s no mention of the film or its characters, the premise is exactly the same. Bush trades in striking images, so copping such a vivid plot from a film was standard practice for her. Yet “The Wedding List” signals a break from the norm for Bush — unlike “Wuthering Heights,” it’s clearly written by someone who’s familiar with the source material. The image of a bride widowed as her husband is struck down in the church is a striking one on aesthetic and ideological levels. Getting to write such lyrics as “you’ve made a wake of our honeymoon” is only one major reason to write about it.

 

Of the aforementioned New Wave movies, two are directed by men. More Nouvelle Vague is male-directed than not. For all that these movies display an awareness of women’s issues, they’re largely from a masculine point of view that deprives their female characters of interiority. Women remain objects of desire who can’t function when unaccompanied by men. The Bride Wore Black is a good example of this: while Jeanne Moreau’s character is taking revenge on the male world, her motivations are pretty much exclusively “welp, I don’t have a man anymore so I’d better become a murderous vigilante.” While this reversal of traditional revenge plots is clever (Quentin Tarantino clearly thought so, since he stole the film’s plot for Kill Bill), and its gender politics are at least complex, it’s still fundamentally a narrative of how women fail to function without men in their lives.

Kate Bush is no stranger to this idea. A good number of her classic songs are about pining for an enigmatic male figure. It’s as much a part of being a female songwriter in the Seventies as pianos, getting stalked by gross music journalists, and getting compared to other women artists with no similarities beyond their gender. Kate Bush’s men are bastions of strength, and to be fair, she has a reason to believe that. The majority of her steadiest collaborators and supporters — her partner Del Palmer, her brothers, and nearly every musician she worked with — have been men. It’s easy to adopt a positive view of masculinity with that background. As Graeme Thomson likes to remind us, masculinity to Bush is a desirable companion to femininity. For all that Bush has often proven to be a feminist in denial, her music showcases a conservative fantasy.

Never for Ever is pervaded by images of familial breakdown. From “Babooshka” and its adulterous façade to the wartime despair of “Army Dreamers” and “Breathing,” traditional concepts of familial domesticity collapse in the face of violent modernity. Each song on the LP conveys some shattering of youthful preconceptions under the weight of adult burdens. Midwifed by the prodigy’s anxiety of Lionheart, the youthful dream of The Kick Inside has morphed into a darker vision of a strange world that, while allowing the hopes of the young to break into it, warps them beyond recognition: “maybe fate wants you dead too.” This kind of pessimism is found throughout Never for Ever and The Dreaming, and is only somewhat alleviated by Hounds of Love. It’s expressed in “The Wedding List” through the death of Bush’s husband. There is no male hero to save the day: Bush is well and truly alone, left to fend for herself.

In this way, Bush kills her positive vision of masculinity and replaces it with a bloodier one. She essentially takes the role of the vigilante usually played by men. When men stop playing a part in this story, women take their roles. It’s a kind of reverse fridging, the moment fridging stops being a misogynistic trope and becomes kind of good and queer. This is a traditionally male role being occupied by one of the most popular young singers in England. This break with gender norms is exemplified by Bush’s Christmas special performance of the song, where she dons a wedding dress while shooting her husband’s assassin to death. It’s terribly fun and extra, but it gets to a key truth about wedding stories: they usually don’t have a lot of women protagonists with guns. To be fair, this is a problem a lot of stories have even now, but in Truffaut and Bush it’s a nice departure from the cultural norms of the Sixties and Seventies.

Yet for all the fun subversion Kate Bush as a shooter in a wedding dress entails, it still brings us back to the fundamental problem of The Bride Wore Black. This is still a story of a woman failing to function as a member of society because there’s no longer a man in her life. It’s a compellingly told one that understands the trauma of these women, but neither The Bride Wore Black nor “The Wedding List” seeks to be empowering. Telling disempowering stories isn’t a problem in its own right. I live for pessimistic works of art. But Bush is still copying a narrative from the director of Jules et Jim, even if Truffaut is more willing to explore a woman’s side of the story than some of his contemporaries.

The decisive way in which Bush differs from Truffaut, who ends his movie with Jeanne Moreau in prison but having killed all of her husband’s murderers, is that “The Wedding List” ends with… well… “after she shot the guy/she committed suicide.” “I’m coming, Rudy,” she howls desperately. It gets worse from there: her autopsy uncovers that she “had a little one inside/it must have been Rudy’s child.” This is a song where a pregnant woman commits suicide. And it’s not even the first time that’s happened in a Kate Bush song! If this was bleak for 1980, it is perhaps more so in our historical moment when shootings are a pestilence (and not just in America — the UK has seen the assassination of Jo Cox in the last three years). Violence wins in Never for Ever — the potentially happy wife and mother is never granted domestic happiness.

In addition to the clash of women’s lib and the desire for domestic peace, there are plenty of additional dissonances on the track. “The Wedding List” hails from the first, pre-Fairlight period of Never for Ever’s recording sessions, and is the most straightforward rock song of the bunch. The melody is, unusually for Bush, largely guitar-led, carried on its four-note guitar hook. It lent itself well to being sung live, as Bush sang it for Prince’s Trust Gala concert in 1982. The performance was hilariously almost derailed by Bush’s dress nearly falling off as its straps popped off. Bush carried on, holding her dress on with one arm throughout the song (while continuing to sing), finishing it, and rushing offstage. Onstage with her was Pete Townshend, who proceeded to march up to the front of the stage and offer a schoolboyish “whoops.”

And for all its fraughtness, “The Wedding List” is a compelling and fun tragedy. Any Bush fans who claim they don’t occasionally strut while playing the music video and imitating Bush’s performance in it has either never seen the video or is a pathological liar. Bush’s stories of familial destruction are useful for many reasons, but one vital component is this: societal collapse must be danceable.

Advertisements

Blow Away (For Bill)

rs-9735-20130228-keith-moon-drums-624x420-1362092589

This blog post was brought to you by 22 backers on Patreon. If you’d like to read Dreams of Orgonon early and have access to my exclusive writing on other subjects, please consider pitching in. I’ve recently added a $10-per-post tier to the Patreon for those who’d like me to proofread their writing. If that interests you, we can talk. Any money at all significantly helps out this minimum-wage-working trans writer. Thanks for your support.

Blow Away (demo)
Blow Away

After the Tour of Life wrapped, Bush stayed out of the studio for a few months, giving herself room to breathe in between albums. By August, she’d gone to Abbey Road with engineer Jon Kelly to mix the EP On Stage, a collection of four live recordings from her tour and the only EP she’s ever produced herself (other Bush Eps have been promotional efforts by EMI). Shortly afterwards, Bush and Kelly moved to London AIR Studios to record Never for Ever. The initial 3-and-a-half-month-long sessions that followed heralded the masters of “Violin,” “Egypt,” “The Wedding List,” and “Blow Away.” Given that “Violin” dates from around 1976 and Bush wrote “Egypt” for her tour, “Blow Away” is the initial Never for Ever song, and it’s more beholden to her tour than most of the album. It’s the most directly autobiographical song, drawing as it does from both personal acquaintances of Bush and music history. Like “Violin” and “Egypt,” “Blow Away” majvde its debut onstage, when Bush performed it for the 75th anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra in November of 1979, when Bush put in an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. The song’s structure was nailed down pretty early on, as its demo is more or less a stripped down version of the master recording. It’s not clear exactly when Bush wrote “Blow Away,” as it could have been written on the road or during the summer between tour and album, but it’s definitely marks a newfound clarity in Bush’s songwriting, which become sharper, boasting more memorable hooks and keen structures than Lionheart’s more unruly songs.

Bush’s newfound confidence as a songwriter was accompanied by her newfound lack of certainty about the world. The songs of Never for Ever ask bigger questions than her first two albums do. “Blow Away” is one of Bush’s many songs to deal with death, and issues of consciousness. It’s an ethereal dirge, sung “For Bill,” referring to Bush’s engineer Bill Duffield, who was accidentally killed on the first night of her tour in an especially grim bout of party-pooping. It’s rare for Bush to sing about her personal life and friends, (we’re still far away from “Moments of Pleasure”) but there’s a whole song on her tertiary LP dedicated to an engineer she knew for a probably rather short period of time. Bush’s renowned generosity towards her collaborators extends to everyone on her team, as her charity concert for Duffield shows. Her use of “we” instead of “I” when discussing the making of her albums pretty much says it all. She’s essentially still in the KT Bush Band, where everyone is a member of a group and of equal importance. Still, “Blow Away” isn’t a character study of Duffield, nor does it exploit a tragedy for sentimental purposes. It carefully positions his death as a tragedy in the vein of musical giants, casualties of musician life and its dangers.

Duffield is directly referenced once, in a conversation about the afterlife. The engineer suggests that people who’ve died but come back to life go to a special room in the afterlife where they meet a group of dead famous musicians. The second chorus lists the musicians present: Minnie Riperton, Keith Moon, Sid Vicious, Buddy Holly, and Sandy Denny. One major point in common among these artists is that all of them died tragically young, with Moon being the oldest of them at 32. While not all of these artists’ deaths were cautionary tales by the excesses or doom of celebrity (Riperton’s death came from breast cancer rather than a plane crash or a heroin overdose), they were all recent deaths reinforcing the story of the foibles of celebrity.

While we’re dealing with mortality, we have to deal with the jaw-dropping fact that Bush quotes Othello in this song. “Put out the light/then put out the light” is her Shakespeare line of choice. In the context of the song, the quote is the opener for the meandering third verse. The lines that follow never quite cohere into a strong verse (“dust to dust/blow to blow”), but it’s worth thinking about why Bush copped this Othello quote. The line comes from Othello’s ending, in which Othello is preparing to murder his wife Desdemona in her sleep, falsely believing her to be an adultress. The line is a Shakespearean double-entendre, referring both to snuffing out Desdemona’s life and to her pale skin (the race politics in Othello are among the most fascinating and analyzed in all of literature). The actual meaning of this line is, of course, lost when deprived on context. Yet it’s an interesting line for Bush to lean on. It frames the deaths of these popular stars — and Sid Vicious — as classical tragedies, the downfall of great artistic figures. It risks being hagiographic, but at the same time there’s something compelling about the strangeness of this framing.

The use of Buddy Holly as a poster child for rock tragedy harkens back to another Seventies songs featuring his death, Don McLean’s “American Pie.” That paean to the fifties which has caused many boomers to explode phallic blood vessels is more grossly nostalgic than “Blow Away.” Tom Ewing has a great write-up of Madonna’s “American Pie” cover on Popular (which you frankly should read instead of wasting time on this blog), so I won’t discuss it in too much depth here, but suffice it to say that the song is a veritable tome of song references by a songwriter who can’t get over the music of his youth (Ewing hilariously mocks McLean’s unsubstle “Eight Miles High” namedrop). Ewing describes “American Pie” as “a theological dispute between Buddy Holly and Mick Jagger.” Holly is an ideological ploy for McLean’s rockist sectarianism. Little insight is offered into the workings of Fifties music. What McLean gives the listener is a nostalgia package: memory is what he trades on. In McLean’s mind, Altamont didn’t strike the killing blow to the Sixties dream: it was dead when it started. Mick Jagger ever getting on stage was the cardinal sin for “American Pie.” McLean’s use of “The Day the Music Died” isn’t a simple metaphor for the deaths of a few rock ‘n’ roll singers. In McLean’s view, it’s the point an entire tradition is co-opted and desecrated by these Lennon-McCartney whippersnappers.

Bush, of course, isn’t writing a song about the careers of Buddy Holly and the other deceased either. But “Blow Away” where differs from “American Pie” isn’t especially nostalgic — its points of sentiment were largely contemporary deaths. When Keith Moon overdosed, one of the biggest quartets in rock was partially dissolved. Punk discovered new proverbial dangers in Sid Vicious’ death. When the Seventies ended, a lot of assurance about how musicians lived and worked died with them. “Blow Away” can be read as a testament to this, chronicling the way popular music responds to the deaths of its idols. Framing the song as she does around a room where one can meet Minnie Riperton and Marc Bolan, she places deceased musicians in a paradise of their own. Certainly she’s lionizing these figures — which is maybe not a great move in a song namedropping alleged murderer Sid Vicious — but she’s engaging in ideas beyond “my generation of music is cooler than yours.” Think Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” but for people who still get laid.

There are reasons for this. Unlike McLean, Bush is going to keep writing songs people care about. She’s still paving the way for the music of the Eighties. While “Blow Away” is one of the less synthy tracks on Never for Ever, it’s more ambient than some of the songs on Bush’s first two albums. The Martin Ford Orchestra’s strings gives the song space, and Bush’s piano playing often has moments of silence which let the song breathe. The actual rhythm of the song is minimal, lacking the urgency of more rock-inflected music. It’s almost New Age, but in a genuinely spiritual way.

So what does “Blow Away” think of the afterlife? Well, it clearly thinks there is one. The dead have souls in Bush’s music. Her universe is populated by spectres — “The Kick Inside” and “Hammer Horror” demonstrate that. “Blow Away” fills their slot on Never for Ever — the song for those beyond the grave. Yet “Blow Away” is more optimistic about their chances of a happy eternity. Consciousness may thrive after death, but Bush has finally liberated her deceased characters of their mortal woes. Part of this is a matter of taste: everyone knows Keith Moon is in hell, but in 1980 it wouldn’t have been politic to say it in a song. Yes, there’s reverence for these musicians in this song, but the nostalgia is alleviated by the thoughtful weirdness of the song. It’s not the most radical song on the album, but it’s assuring that Bush’s optimism for the power of artistic imagination extends beyond the grave.

Performed live on 18 November 1979 at Royal Albert Hall. Recorded September 1979 at London AIR Studios. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Preston Heyman — drums, percussion. Max Middleton — Fender Rhodes, string arrangement. Brian Bath — acoustic guitar. Martin Ford Orchestra — strings.

Egypt

riversong

This post was backed by 22 supporters on Patreon. If you back me for $1 a blog post, you’ll get next week’s essay earlier than everyone else. For $2 you can read my writing on other subjects, and at $5 you can commission an essay from me.

Egypt live at Manchester
Xmas special
Egypt

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.

Violin

Image result for the raincoats violin

Violin (demo)
Violin
Tour of Life performance
Xmas special

Recently musician Cecilee Linke kindly invited me to talk about this song on her podcast “Strange Phenomena,” which is the Internet’s other Virginia-based song-by-song Kate Bush project (the key difference is Cecilee goes through the songs by order of release). It’s a great time, and so is our discussion of “Army Dreamers.”

A recurring idea in Kate Bush’s music is anthropomorphism. She’ll take an archetype, animal, or object, and enumerate the ways in which it’s a conscious, willful, breathing organism. Pinning down a single overarching theme to an artist’s body of work is dangerous, but if Bush’s music has one, it’s the inherent magic of the universe as a source of catharsis. That magic can be joyful or dark (or, liberatingly, both), but there’s always release in embracing it.

Bush tends to shine when not dealing with the public eye. The “Kate Bush is a notorious recluse” line is only half false—her idiosyncratic creative process requires lots of privacy. Think of her as a more benevolent Kenneth Grahame’s Badger. Bush’s creative process is notoriously idiosyncratic and autodidactic. Hence she had a somewhat vexed relationship with instruction. She’s had useful teachers, most obviously the late great Lindsay Kemp and Bush’s own family and even school was helpful to her music theory education. But that positive aspect aside, it’s little surprise Bush dropped out of school at 18. Catholic school is particularly bad at letting young creatives thrive (I’ve never regretted being pulled out of Catholic school at 13). Bush has cited St. Joseph’s Convent Grammar School lack of avenues for letting her be herself as the main reason: “I learnt a few things from school which were useful, but it generally wasn’t an environment I felt I could comfortably express myself in.” Bush’s story has taken a peculiar shape so far, and it’s not one with room for convent school.

Image result for st joseph's convent grammar school

Bush’s chief enemy at St. Joseph’s was the violin. Unlike the piano, she didn’t discover it at home and learn to enjoy playing it for its own sake. She encountered it in (horrors) lessons. Everyone knows that the sound of a violin in the hands of an inexperienced player isn’t quite the same as the sound a piano or guitar makes with a new student. It’s not hard imagine this infuriating eternal perfectionist Bush.

Out of this frustration comes “Violin”, Kate Bush’s wildest, most frantic and most personal song to date. The demo hails from the period after she left school, and as usual it’s more modest than the finished product. The final recording ups the ante considerably, giving the album track more wild artifice than the demo.

Like “The Man With the Child in His Eyes,” “Violin” is one of a handful of songs from the early demos which made it a studio album. This wasn’t especially surprising with “Child,” where Bush picked a few songs from her older repertoire to professionally record. By the time Bush recorded “Never for Ever,” she was a full three albums into her professional recording career. It’s the last time Bush recorded a song from the home demo days. She’d written plenty of songs since the days of Wickham Road. Why dust off this old tape? Clearly it stood apart from the demos. Bush knew how to imbue “Violin” with new life.

Bush sounds positively deranged in the song, taking the human voice as an instrument to its zenith as she zips between the highs and lows of her vocal range (she hits her highest note on record here, an astonishing F6, with characteristic literalness as she whoops the note on “filling me up with,” which she immediately follows with an extremely low G#3 at “the shivers”). Her vocal is a roller coaster, slightly holding back over the “four strings,” becoming slightly giddier over “the quavers, drunk at the BARS” (deliciously emphasizing the violin pun and metaphor of the violin as intoxicating) and moving “out of the realm of the orchestra.” In the chorus Bush completely lets herself go, gutturally howling “get the bow going/let it SCREAM to me” in her most punk moment ever, a massive departure from her previous singing. Is it any wonder John Lydon is a Kate Bush fan when she does songs like “Violin,” with vocals closer to Never Mind the Bollocks than Pink Floyd’s Animals?

She takes this punk instinct for violent theatricality to another level in her Christmas special performance of “Violin,” possibly her greatest work on video to date, in which Bush literalizes the song’s batshit insanity by dressing up as a bat and attempting to fend off anthropomorphic violins. It’s objectively hilarious—the spectacle is so blunt and Bushian as to hardly require unpacking. It’s visually evocative of The Wall’s marching fascist hardware and aesthetically totally punk—rather than starting her BBC program with something conservative and respectful, Bush opts to dress like a ragamuffin and get attacked with violins (arguably this points to the more theatrical feminine aspects of post-punk, but as usual Bush predicts movements while not resembling them). Bush’s gut instinct is rarely contrarianism, but she can play the contrarian as well as anyone.

Image result for kate bush bat

“Violin” is fraught with anxiety—Bush sounds like she’s thoroughly lost her religion. You can visualize the singer as a frazzled inmate in a padded cell, clinging to a violin and describing every centimeter of it. It’s possible they’re just high and really into the tangible shape of the violin (which is always a possibility and usually a given with Kate Bush), but I suggest a different reading: the singer has been driven mad by their violin playing. They’re an inverted Pied Piper or Erich Zann, leading themselves astray with their own music.

Some listeners might interpret the song as being enthusiastic about the violin—I wouldn’t read it that way. I think it’s about a person who’s had the violin imposed on them for far too long going over the edge. There’s an tinge of unreality to the song—it makes the violin a mystical object. Given the events leading up to the song’s creation, it’s unlikely Bush was feeling terribly positive about the violin while writing “Violin”. She isn’t one to push autobiography into her songwriting, but it’s hard not to read “Violin” as an expression of personal anxieties.

Image result for paganini

That’s not to say “Violin” is lacking in Bush’s trademark love of artifice and character acting. She clearly relishes singing these words, particularly as she namechecks violin players (“Paganini up the chimney/lord of the dance/with Nero and old Nicky/WHACK THAT DEVIL”). Her playful approach to language and music is as prevalent as ever. She’s anxious about the violin, but her character is far deeper into a violin obsession than she could ever have been. It’s a folk song about a hedonist in a chaotic spiral, which is always more interesting than the didactic ending of a folk tale where the hedonist is punished for their joy. Think “The Red Shoes” minus the unhappy ending.

So we have a song about a quasi-mystical addiction with undercurrents of school-resentment accompanied by howling vocals and a wailing electric guitar. Yes, this all feels a bit like The Wall but more creative and less misanthropic, but that’s not what we’re going to signify here. The aesthetic surprise is that “Violin” is that it’s Kate Bush inventing folk punk.

Image result for kevin burke bothy band

If there’s any doubt that this is a folk song, well, just look at the discreet guest session musician: fiddler Kevin Burke. Burke is a hugely acclaimed Irish folk musician in his own right, having worked with Christy Moore, the Bothy Band, and Patrick Street among others. Basically, he’s prolific enough to possibly merit his own blog. He may be the most inconspicuous celebrity artist Bush works with until Alan Stivell cameos in The Sensual World in that, well, he’s not exactly a mainstream celebrity. Bush has cited Burke’s song with the Bothy Band “Farewell to Eireann” as a favorite song of hers—clearly her attention extends outside the mainstream. There’s as much Kevin Burke as John Lydon in this song.

As for Bush inventing folk punk? This is a couple years before The Pogues come along. And the song has the inclusion of folkloric banshees in “give me the banshees for B.V.’s,” one of Kate’s wildest lyrics (yes, she was laying down the demo in Kent while Siouxsie and the Banshees were forming in Bromley. As above, etc).

Characteristically, “Violin” is Kate Bush touching on various aesthetics and predicting genres she’ll never touch again (eventual folk punk sounds nothing like “Violin”). Sometimes you need a hot mess of a song—Kate Bush will make a career out of this style, juxtaposing alternative and mainstream aesthetics. Finding life in the nooks and crannies of culture is one of the most rewarding parts of being a teenage aesthete. Personally, this is my favorite song I’ve written about on the blog so far. Kate Bush can do thoughtful and quiet as well as anyone else in the charts. This only makes her wild, untamed exercises in strangeness all the more salient. What does a punk do at school? Maybe break a few windows and receive detention. If Kate Bush skips school, you do nothing. There’s no stopping a goddamn banshee.

Recorded: (demo) c. 1976 at 44 Wickham Road, Brockley; (album track) autumn 1979 at London AIR Studios. Personnel: Kate Bush—vocals, piano. Brian Bath, Alan Murphy—electric guitars. Del Palmer—bass. Preston Heyman—drums. Paddy Bush—banshee. Kevin Burke—violin. Illustrations: The Raincoats, Kate Bush and her class in 1969, Erich Zann, a banshee, Paganini, the Bothy Band.