No disrespect is meant to Kate Bush. The Brothers Grimm could scarcely conceive of an ogre wretched enough to intend such a thing. But if on the release of her first single, someone dared to suggest she’d still be generating headlines more than 40 years later, he or she would have been escorted to a dark room and asked to sleep off the delirium.
Wuthering Heights was a big hit in 1978. It was number one in the UK and Ireland. She was the first woman to secure the UK top spot with a solely self-written song. But there was a sense that Wuthering Heights — tribute to the moorsiest of horror romances — was bordering on novelty territory. You got a lot of that in 1978. She was eventually knocked off the top by Brian and Michael’s LS Lowry paean Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs. That would surely be the last we heard of both artists. In a year dominated by the new wave, the NME could not find a place for Wuthering Heights in its 30 singles of the year (or even in the 19 “also-rans”).
Someone so idiosyncratic as Kate Bush — trained in mime and interpretive dance — was always going to generate hostility among pundits who preferred “old ladies” to roll the joints and make the filthy jasmine tea
Yet here we are. Following its inclusion in the latest series of Stranger Things, Running Up That Hill — from Bush’s classic 1985 album Hounds of Love — has just become her first song to land in the US top 10. There was more. “Kate Bush has scored her first Number One on a Billboard albums chart with Hounds Of Love, which leads the Top Alternative Albums on June 11th,” the NME, chastened after all this time, informed readers not close to birth when the inky shunned Wuthering Heights. It’s true. Bush has never before translated to the United States. To this point, her highest-charting single there was Don’t Give Up in 1986. Even that collaboration with Peter Gabriel, unavoidable misery-smooch material across most of the world, could only manage 72 in the Billboard chart.
To be fair to the largely ghastly rock establishment of the late 20th century, she has — insofar as she cares — long ago won something like critical respectability in the UK. Back in the 1970s, Melody Maker, the NME’s prime competitor, still awarded a prize for “old lady of the year” in its annual poll. To clarify, the paper was not suggesting that Joni Mitchell, regular winner before she hit 30, was then any sort of geriatric. The term, popular with Hells Angels and other hairy sods, meant something between “girlfriend” and “tolerable woman hanger-on”. The clear implication was that no woman could be expected to exercise their franchise in the paper’s Christmas round-up. Women with acoustic guitars were tolerated. Someone so idiosyncratic as Kate Bush — trained in mime and interpretive dance — was always going to generate hostility among pundits who preferred “old ladies” to roll the joints and make the filthy jasmine tea. She may have ventriloquised Catherine Earnshaw from Emily Brontë's only novel, but the rockocracy was more likely to think of Rochester’s pyromaniacal first wife in a book by Emily’s younger sister. It was not until Hounds of Love that Bush properly won more than the critics. The LP joined The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Fall and Prefab Sprout in the NME’s top 10 for 1985.
At any rate, Stranger Things has finally earned this singular musician the transatlantic recognition she deserves
The US rock gatekeepers were no less sexist than their European equivalents, but another complication in that community contributed to Bush’s near-total shutting out. Americans have, for no reason that makes any sociological sense, long felt the need to place everything and everybody within at least one category. You see this in the absurd awards at the always ludicrous Grammys. Don’t confuse “best R&B performance” with “best traditional R&B performance”. Could either appear on the “best progressive R&B album”? PhD theses have been structured around less prickly questions. What was Kate Bush? She dallied with prog rock musicians such as Dave Gilmour, but she knew just how to boss Top of the Pops. Wikipedia is undecided between art pop, art rock and experimental pop. However, will they decide on which radio station she belongs?
At any rate, Stranger Things has finally earned this singular musician — a cavalier artist to compare with Michael Powell and Ronald Firbank — the transatlantic recognition she deserves. She seems happy about it. “It’s all really exciting! Thanks very much to everyone who has supported the song,” she enthused on her website. The Belfast Telegraph, also elated, found space to note that, appropriately for marching season, the song features conspicuous thumps on a Lambeg drum. All of this is made possible by the double-edged sword that is the streaming revolution. Artists may not get much reward from the playing of their music, but if a needle-drop on a popular show highlights an old tune then, within minutes, it can be playing in its entirety on speakers from Seattle to Sarajevo. The punter may even choose to pay actual money for the whole album. Just watch what happens when Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs opens the next series of Succession.