The Greatest Pop Songs In History – No 11: Kate Bush, ‘Wuthering Heights’

From the high pitched piano to the operatic vocal, ‘Wuthering Heights’ sounded totally unique when it was released in 1978. It’s oddness was indisputable and yet it managed to capture the collective imagination of a nation enough to propel it to the top of the charts. As John Lydon (an unlikely Bush devotee) offered, in way of an explanation of its popularity, said : “Those shrieks and warbles are beauty beyond belief.”

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‘Wuthering Heights’ was released in January 1978 and hit the top spot. Taking its lyrical inspiration from Emily Bronte’s 1846 novel of the same name, the track crash-landed into the charts and stood out like a musical UFO amongst the likes of ABBA, the Brotherhood Of Man and Wings. The story of Bush herself, however, was more prosaic.

A GP’s daughter from Bexleyheath in Kent, she began playing the piano at aged 11 and composed her first song at 13. Such was her precocious, unique talent that it attracted the attention of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour who was a friend of the Bush family. After hearing her play, he helped the teenager gain a recording contract with EMI. The deal included two years of development that included dance lessons, vocal training and rehearsal time with the band the KT Bush Band.

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The initial spark of inspiration for ‘Wuthering Heights’ came when the singer was 12 and had caught the last 10 minutes of the 1970 TV version of the book as a child. She recalled:

I’d just caught the very end of the film. It was really freaky because there’s this hand coming through the window and whispering voices and I’ve always been into that sort of thing, you know, and it just hung around in my head. I had to write a song about it.

She finally put pen to paper in March of 1977, composing the song in her South London flat, under typically ‘Bushian’ conditions. She revealed: “I wrote it in my flat, sitting at the upright piano. There was a full moon and the curtains were open and every time I looked up for ideas, I looked at the moon.”

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Having seen the TV adaptation, she also flicked through Bronte’s classic: “I borrowed the book and read a few pages, picking out a few lines. So I actually wrote the song before I had read the book right through,” she admits.

The track was apparently done and dusted in ten minutes, and to Bush it seemed clear that it should be the first track to announce herself to an unsuspecting British public. But EMI did not agree. They wanted the somewhat more obvious ‘James And The Cold Gun’ to come first, but she was adamant that it should be ‘Wuthering Heights’.

When the song hit the top of the charts she became the first female UK singer to get to the position with a self-penned track. It also lead the EMI boss to buy her a Steinway piano to say sorry for doubting her first single instincts.

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Despite having pursued a career defined by lyrical inventiveness (much of which has been inspired by novels) and musical risk-taking, to many Bush will eternally be defined by the willowy lady from the mountains, singing about “Cathy” and “Heathcliff”. As she disappeared from view in the mid-90s, to some tabloids Bush had become the ageless spirit hovering around the dales. Fiction is definitely stranger than the truth.

‘Wuthering Heights’ remains an astounding track. Timeless in its authentic strangeness and the way Bush exudes the glee and borderline madness of mysterious, young love. Dismissed at the time as a novelty hit, instead it would begin the story of Bush’s expectation-defying career with a brilliant bang.

Did you know

* Kate Bush was born on the same day as Emily Bronte, July 30th

* It’s been covered by gig haired 80s rocker Pat Benatar, Wolfmother and, of course, Alan Partidge.

* John Lydon was a fan, but his mother was not. She said it sounded “like a bag of cats.”