Published on September 12th, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
Kate Bush – “Wuthering Heights”
(from The Kick Inside, 1978)
Pop music loves novelty – or at least used to. Take Brian and Michael’s death-by-folk-strummer Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs (Lowry’s Song), which reached number one in April 1978 by displacing another single that paid homage to a canonical English artist while bypassing the prevailing genre staples – disco, MOR, punk/new wave, pap pop – for the singular realm of peculiarity and particularity.
Yet for its time, Wuthering Heights was the biggest novelty of them all: not just peculiar but freakish, untamed, daring, a hallucination verging on hysteria and yet perfectly controlled, like a sliver of Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, complete with pitch-perfect soprano. But, really, it was the apex of otherworldliness.
Bush benefitted from a conflux of circumstances: doctor dad, folk-dancing mum, two older, poetry-espousing musician brothers, all cushioned comfort and artistic autonomy. She was preternaturally gifted, but not until 18 did she catch the end of a BBC adaption of Wuthering Heights. Only then did she read Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel to ensure she didn’t misquote Cathy’s utterances, unreservedly embracing the story’s brutal vicissitudes.
The promo video resembled a young girl’s fantasy – part-faerie, part-witchy dance steps learned from mime expert Lindsay Kemp. But the lyric was a teenager’s reality check; how romance is corrupted by fate, cruelty, hormones (“cruel Heathcliff, my one dream, my only master”). When her first demos were rejected – one executive labelled her, “morbid” – she considered a career in psychiatry; certainly, singing from the perspective of tortured ghost Catherine (“Let me in! I’m so cold!”) shows an understanding of insanity.
Appositely, Bush wrote Wuthering Heights at her upright piano around midnight, under a full moon with the curtains open. “I couldn’t seem to get out of the chorus,” she said. “It had a really circular feel to it, which is why it repeats,” which explains the feeling that you’re right inside the song, trapped by its fuming, doomed beauty, like Cathy was trapped in purgatory. The celeste that producer Andrew Powell deployed to shadow Bush’s tinkling piano intro lent it another shiver, and the pause before her vocal entrance added suspense – and the pause before her vocal entrance, neither child nor adult.
Even today, the song can stop people in their tracks. When asked about her own epiphany as others had experienced Wuthering Heights, she cited Bowie’s Starman, which makes sense. The Kemp/mime training aside, both songs share an alien fascination and a theatrical élan that feels quite glam, especially as Ian Bairnson’s luminous guitar coda. Perhaps it’s this glam aura that widened Wuthering Heights’ appeal enough to scale the charts; check 1978’s competition (Abba, Boney M, the Grease soundtrack) to see how outlandish this achievement was.But it was never a *true novelty, not like Brian & Michael. Bush used its unique energy to fire her self-belief, to trust to her muse. And she never betrayed it, not even once.