Words: Matthew Barton
In 1978, aged just 19, Kate Bush released her debut single 'Wuthering Heights' and promptly found herself at Number One on the UK Singles Chart, where she would stay for four weeks.
The feat made the then-teenaged Kate the first female artist in British musical history to achieve a UK chart-topper with a self-written song - but that would prove to be just the first f her many achivements.
Today (July 30) marks Kate Bush’s 63rd birthday and to celebrate, we are taking a look back at ten of the key songs over the past 43 years that have cemented Kate’s reputation as a cultural icon, pop legend, and artistic genius.
'Wuthering Heights' (1978)
You couldn’t have a list like this without Kate’s iconic debut single.
Released at the dawn of 1978, in an era where punk and disco ruled the airwaves, Kate arrived, at 19, with this eccentric and entirely unique slice of proggy neo-classical art pop that, no exaggeration, changed the course of pop music.
Fun fact: Kate shares a birthday with Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë, so turns 63 on the 203rd anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth.
Kate’s Tour of Life in 1979 rewrote the rules as far as elaborate pop staging was concerned, and, over a decade before Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour, pioneered the use of the headset microphone.
A veritable cornucopia of outlandish choreography, swooping vocals, and top-quality pop music, its effects can be seen in 'Wow', which also highlights Kate’s way with a character and the influence of mime artist Lindsey Kemp.
'Sat In Your Lap' (1981)
By the early ‘80s, Kate was producing her own records and they began to take a more cerebral, experimental turn.
Kate had always incorporated strange, exotic elements into her music, but 1982’s The Dreaming was something else – a bold artistic statement that puzzled the mainstream press at the time but today stands as one of the landmark records in pop.
Its lead single, 'Sat In Your Lap', with its hypnotic, thunderous tribal drumming, rhythmic piano, and squalling synths, still sounds fresh and exciting today. And the video is one of the most Kate Bush of all Kate Bush videos.
'Running Up That Hill' (1985)
After the relative failure of 'The Dreaming', Kate was seen to be retreating from public view (the beginning of a continuing theme).
In fact, she was hunkering down to create another artistic masterpiece that is widely viewed as one of the greatest records of all time.
'Hounds of Love' was previewed by 'Running Up That Hill', a haunting pop song of majestic beauty that exhibited a new depth and complexity to her vocals and production. Here is her memorable comeback performance on Terry Wogan’s TV Show.
Has Kate Bush ever sounded better than this?
'Cloudbusting', inspired by Peter Reich’s father-son memoir 'A Book of Dreams', is one of her most enduring yet subtle masterworks.
A plaintive melody, emotive vocal performance, ambiguous lyrics with multiple possible interpretations, and a closing chorus that is both joyful and yearning (all topped off with an elegant string arrangement) all add up to something truly exquisite.
Improbably, Kate returned to the live stage in 2014 for her towering 'Before the Dawn' shows and closed each evening with this stupendous song.
Sample subject matter for Kate has included vengeful murder, the persecution of Aborigines, and falling in love with, variously, computers, snowmen, and siblings, but 'Breathing', originally from 1980’s Never for Ever, is one of the best examples of subject matter that in anyone else’s hands may come off as bizarre but in Kate’s is utterly human, devastating, and beautiful.
Sung from the viewpoint of a foetus in a post-apocalyptic nuclear war, this gorgeous solo piano version from Comic Relief in 1986 shows the strength of her core songwriting.
'The Sensual World' (1989)
The Sensual World is possibly most famous for the ethereal 'This Woman’s Work' - rightfully regarded as a modern classic - but its title track is more representative of the Kate Bush sound of the late ‘80s – serene, breathy vocals, elegiac Uillean pipes, and an autumnal, mature atmosphere.
It’s an intelligent, sexy take on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Kate was refused permission to use the original text, but she tried again successfully over two decades later and in 2011 she re-recorded the song as 'Flower of the Mountain' for Director’s Cut.
'The Red Shoes' (1993)
1993’s The Red Shoes is the unfairly maligned outlier of the Kate Bush catalogue but in reality it’s a fun, energetic, diverse collection.
The title track is one of the best examples of its inventiveness, imagination, and surprising catchiness.
The song was also featured in Kate’s 1993 film The Line, The Cross, and The Curve, which she has since dismissed as “a load of bollocks” – a customarily harsh self-assessment.
Anyone who longs to take their shoes off after a long night of dancing may relate.
'A Coral Room' (2005)
By 2005, Kate Bush had achieved almost mythic status as pop’s great recluse – a handful of public appearances (most notably, at the 2001 Q Awards – “ooh, I’ve just cum” and, wonderfully, asking the Queen for an autograph for her son at a Buckingham Palace reception) and no new music for a dozen years added up to create the media’s perfect Garbo of Pop (however inaccurate it was).
So the announcement of the double album Aerial was unsurprisingly seismic. It turned out to be worth the wait: eclectic, experimental, proggy, beautiful – it had all the ingredients of a Kate classic, and one of its most enduring moments is 'A Coral Room', a devastating ode to her late mother Hannah.
It is little more than Kate’s piano and quivering voice that cracks with emotion.
'And Dream of Sheep' (2014)
It still feels difficult to believe that Kate returned to the stage in 2014 ago after a 35-year absence. It was exciting enough when she appeared in public again to collect a South Bank Award in 2012, but a live show?
The 22-date 'Before the Dawn' residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo was a crowning artistic achievement, a three-act landmark pop event that took the invention of Tour of Life to an even higher level.
Central to the piece, footage of which is scarce but was immortalised in audio with 'Before the Dawn' in 2016, was the 'Ninth Wave' cycle from Hounds of Love.
Hearing Kate sing 'And Dream of Sheep' again, thirty years on, gives you goosebumps.