Kate Bush hits 60 today. Mark Beaumont explains why she's an "enigma worthy of the name"
Enigmas? They’re 10 a penny in 2018. Jungle were enigmas for a bit, likewise Wu Lyf, Alt-J and any band with a name designed to make Google shrug. Frank Ocean is considered an unfathomable mystery simply because he doesn’t grab at every microphone waggled in his direction and start gabbling about Trump; Sia has been rendered a puzzle of the age by dint of no more than a reckless fringe. In the Twitter/Insta era of on-the-hour studio selfies and flesh-flashing self-promotion, a mild reluctance to share every aspect of your person with the world at every available opportunity is enough to make you a modern day Greta Garbo.
Enigma without substance, though, is nothing, and no figure from the past 50 years of music encapsulates the allure of the reclusive genius more than Kate Bush, turning 60 today without a jot of her otherworldly mystique evaporating with age. Since she made the bold decision after only six weeks on the road in 1979 that she wouldn’t play live again, yet continued to be a powerhouse of inventive avant pop for the next 15 years – and a sporadic, off-the-grid presence ever since – Bush has set the blueprint for the autonomous artist creating masterworks entirely at their own pace and on their own terms. Kate Bush is the definitive example of a musician allowing work to flow through her life, not cram life into the spaces between her work.
It was clear from day one that Bush was a unique proposition. How strange it is to think that she was considered a pop act when ‘Wuthering Heights’ emerged in January 1978; clearly pop music was a far more fluid concept in the late ’70s than we find in the rigid R&B/EDM formulas of today. But her cinematic and literary references, her chamber pop tones and post-Raphaelite aesthetic, her theatrical performances and links to the more leftfield establishment rock figures (David Gilmour was thanked on debut album ‘The Kick Inside’ for “rolling the ball”, Peter Gabriel for “opening the windows” on 1980’s ‘Never For Ever’) marked her out as a splash of high-art colour on post-punk pop’s blank canvas.
That ‘Wuthering Heights’ made her the first woman to reach Number One in the UK singles chart with a self-written song also placed Bush at the vanguard of a trickle of artistically emancipated, self-determining female solo artists that would grow to a flood with the arrivals of Madonna, Sinead O’Connor, PJ Harvey, Bjork and countless more. Bush’s brilliance was in never selling out that noble position, always maintaining the highest artistic standards and never giving in to the cash-register lure of lowest common denominator pop. Having had a huge hit with a couple of wide-eyed chintz pop tunes, she broadened her musical cast to incorporate Hammer Horror women in black, Irish army mums, husband-testing seductresses and cockney bank robbers, turning herself into an ever-evolving revue of sketches and set-pieces that would never be staged.
With 1982’s experimental ‘The Dreaming’ she embraced world music with Aboriginal mood pieces and polyrhythmic percussion, and when she returned to radio-friendly art pop on ‘Hounds Of Love’ in 1985 it came with half an album of ‘Low’-style song cycle attached. Looking back, Bush has never made a safe step in her entire career, nor ever trodden forward on an unsure foot. Just witness the consummate confidence with which she writhed her way gracefully through a burning forest in the video for ‘The Sensual World’, weaving glacial Gallic folk rom-pop around (largely baffling) James Joyce imagery, and remember, this was at the height of Kylie & Jason, Jive Bunny and Lisa Stansfield absent-mindedly mislaying her baby.
Bush’s retreat into the musical background following 1993’s ‘The Red Shoes’ was no purposeful attempt to seal her legend or become a thing of myth and mystery; she just wanted to raise a family like normal people (with several remote, idyllic country houses) do. When her 2005 album ‘Aerial’ and 2011’s ‘50 Words For Snow’ appeared like radio signals from some distant, cut-off world, they never felt like a comeback, just a creative soul still tinkering away, more for her own personal fulfilment than ours. That she released them at all felt like being allowed to view the attic sketches of some lost grand master, and her return to the stage for 2014’s Before The Dawn show felt like Kate throwing open the doors to an extravagant Bush family Christmas show, with the Lion King people doing the puppets.
It’s the way that Bush is simultaneously carefree and in complete control of her life and legacy that makes her such an icon, an enigma worthy of the name. So happy birthday Kate Bush; long may you intrigue, evade and – very occasionally – pop up unexpectedly and delight.