Kate Bush: Under The Ivy – an extract from the recently updated book.
Kate Bush: Under The Ivy
By Graeme Thomson
New and updated edition just published by Omnibus Press
In which the KT Bush Band does pub rock.
One of the most delicious anomalies of Kate Bush’s entire career is the short period of time she spent singing live in the pubs and clubs around London.
The KT Bush Band in their initial incarnation existed as a gigging entity for only a matter of months, between April and June, 1977, and apart from Bush comprised Vic King on drums, Del Palmer on bass and Brian Bath on guitar, three old friends from Charlton Secondary School who bonded back in the late Sixties over an almost irrationally obsessive love of Free. Even today, they excitedly recall the night they witnessed the first ever performance of ”ËAll Right Now’.
Between four and five years older than Bush, by 1976 the trio were already veterans of the south London music scene and had played in numerous groups ”â both with and without one another ”â and experienced the industry’s standard doling out of brief highs and crushing lows. From clattering around in bedrooms and youth clubs to enduring shady managers, bad record deals, good bands that petered out, promises that came to nothing, they had always retained their love of playing music.
Bath, of course, had known Paddy Bush for several years and was well aware of his little sister’s talent. She was also aware of his attributes. Aside from his frequent jam sessions with Paddy at the farm, Bush had seen Bath play with a hastily assembled band consisting of Vic King and another friend, bass player Barry Sherlock, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1976. She was there to perform at Paddy’s final year show for his course in Music Instrument Technology at the School of Furniture, which was situated just across the road, and as part of the presentation she danced to classical music “wearing some woollen type suit with a big trumpet thing coming out of her head,”Â recalls Bath. “You couldn’t actually see her. Paddy had some wacky ideas, he really did. He wanted us to do duelling basses with a band.”Â
This showpiece was an early prototype of the memorable routine later reprised during ”ËViolin’ on Bush’s ”ËTour Of Life’. Indeed, although her time with the KT Bush Band proved to be her sole experience of the dubious, stale-sweat-and-watered-down-beer romance of small scale live performance, and although it was an essentially contrived exercise in which, considering she had already signed a record deal, very little was actually at stake, nonetheless a line can be drawn between what she was doing in 1977 in places like the Rose Of Lee in Lewisham and what she did almost exactly two years later to wild acclaim in the theatres of Europe.
Vic King recalls that after their “basic rock’n’roll”Â performance at Whitechapel, Bush came up to the band, said that she enjoyed their set, and asked whether she could sing with them. Bath remembers the approach somewhat differently, as a clear response to Bob Mercer’s diktat about the necessity for Bush to perform live. “Paddy left a note at my house with my mum, saying ”ËGet in touch, something has come up’,”Â he says. “I phoned him up and he said, ”ËI’ve got to see you, it’s about my sister. She wants to form a band because she needs the experience of playing live. Could you do it?’ I said, ”ËYeah, I think so!’”Â
One of Bath’s previous bands, Shiner, had recently split up and he decided to enlist Del and Vic and stick with a similar set: Motown, Beatles, some rockier material from the likes of Free and The Rolling Stones; songs that everybody knew and which made few demands on the audience. The first band practice was in a boiler house in the local swimming baths at Greenwich, in “a little dungeon of a rehearsal room they used to hire out,”Â says King. Bush arrived fully prepared, having learned the lyrics to ten songs, including ”ËI Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and ”ËSweet Soul Music’. They all enjoyed themselves but agreed that a boiler room in the public baths wasn’t necessarily conducive to locating the creative spark, so Bush suggested they relocate to the barn at the bottom of the garden at the farm. “We went up there, moved all the furniture out, swept the floors, cleaned it up and played all afternoon,”Â says King. Once again, the old grain store became her creative playground.
Through the late winter of 1976-77 and into spring the group rehearsed regularly at Wickham Farm, drumming up a 20-song set. Working on their music, fortified by Hannah Bush’s legendary hospitality, breaking off for games of football and as much tea and cake as they could reasonably consume, they got to know one another. King was the oldest of the male trio, socially set slightly apart (he was dubbed ”ËNosmo King’ for his aversion to cigarettes), and he became the band’s de facto organiser: buying the equipment, organising rehearsals, picking up, dropping off. He often collected Bush from her dance classes in his Hillman Imp and brought her to gigs or rehearsals. Bath was the musical dynamo, a gifted player and songwriter who had won a deal with Essex Music, one of those vastly talented musicians always just a whisker away from seizing their big chance. Many years previously he had taught his close friend Del the rudiments of 12-bar blues on the bass, and Palmer had progressed from there. A plain speaking extrovert with a lively sense of humour, Del “was naturally rhythmic, he won dancing competitions,”Â laughs Bath. “He used to do Mick Jagger impersonations. Del was obviously up for it. Del’s just really solid, you know there’s a bass player there when Del’s playing, he’s got such a heavy anchor point. A tremendous player, he can really hold it down.”Â
The 18-year-old Bush made an immediate impression on her new bandmates. “She stood out from other girls, she was different,”Â says King. “Not overtly sexual, [but] there was something about her. Shy as shy can be, wouldn’t say boo to a goose. She just wanted to sing and play without all the trappings.”Â Palmer, meanwhile, later recalled that he fell for her almost immediately.
None of them, perhaps with the exception of Bath, realised initially how deep her involvement with EMI went. It was not a frequent topic of discussion. “It didn’t come out at first, it came out later that she had been paid some money to stay at home and write,”Â says King. “We didn’t have to pay for anything at the time, I remember that. The petrol was all paid for.”Â
They rehearsed, according to Bath, for “ages.”Â In common with most fledgling bands, they argued most vociferously over what to call themselves. Bush wanted to give the band “some strange name”Â, and when King came up with the KT Bush Band she shrieked, ”ËOoh no, that’s terrible!’ But that’s what it became. Her opposition may have been simple diversionary tactics. There was a certain reluctance on her part to leave the age-old sanctuary of the barn and surrender herself to her first ever taste of live performance, but finally Bath used his contacts to organise a residency at the Rose Of Lee, a popular local pub at 162 Lee High Road in Lewisham*, beginning in April 1977.
“I went down and said we were getting a new band together, we’ve got a fabulous looking girl singer, we’d got a really strong band,”Â says Bath. “I said the first week you’ll get a handful of people, but by the fourth week you won’t be able to get them in the door. And sure enough, it was exactly as I predicted.”Â Around 20 people turned up to watch the first Tuesday night gig, split into two 45-minutes sets, for which the band were paid the princely sum of ÃÂ£27. “I was so scared, I really was,”Â Bush later recalled of her live debut. “The first time was a little bit daunting [for her], but it got to be great fun,”Â says King. “The following week you couldn’t move ”â and then the week after that you couldn’t get in. It was just heaving. It was great!”Â
The KT Bush Band very quickly became a success on its own terms, and their nights at the Rose Of Lee were highly anticipated by both the crowd and the rest of the band, if not necessarily by Bush. Bath tended to handle most of the talking and general audience interaction, traditionally the role of a band’s lead singer. Bush ”â mostly just standing and singing, without the natural defence of a piano and keyboard ”â was reluctant to communicate directly to the crowd. “She was very nervous,”Â says King. “Sometimes you had to push her on there, but once she was on she was fine. Singing in these smoke-filled rooms”Â¦ wasn’t really her scene, she didn’t really frequent pubs. I don’t think it was 100 per cent enjoyable, but she wanted to do it because she had to learn stage presence and projecting and playing in front of a band of musicians.”Â
There’s little doubt that if Bush had been willing to perform earlier she would have found a more direct route to a record contract, though at what price creatively it’s hard to say. Although King says he envisaged the KT Bush Band progressing along the lines of a group like The Pretenders, more straight ahead and rocky, with less emphasis on the arty angle, even in 1977 they stood out. At the time pub-rock was all the rage, its foundations laid deep in US roots music ”â blues, folk-rock, country, R&B ”â and a set of aesthetic values that stopped at jeans and plaid shirts. The emphasis was on raw energy and accomplished ”â solid as opposed to flashy ”â musicianship over anything so presumptuous as a performance or spectacle. In this landscape, the KT Bush Band was a strange beast indeed.
Bush’s involvement brought an extra tantalising twist to standard pub fare. Her innate Englishness made everything from across the Atlantic change hue rather charmingly. They even tried to turn ”ËNutbush City Limits’ into ”ËKate Bush City Limits’ but it “didn’t quite work!”Â According to King, “we had this strange little way of playing and performing. The vocals were very high, she was very young and the strength of the vocal wasn’t quite there, but people’s eyes were popping because she used to wear very flimsy, floaty dresses, rather than jeans and a T-shirt. It was something South-east London hadn’t seen, especially the Rose Of Lee.”Â
As word spread and the gigs at the Rose Of Lee and other venues like the Royal Albert in New Cross Road became more successful, they began to feel energised by the group’s progress. Although for Bush the experience was ultimately just about “doing [some] thing so my time would be full”Â while she waited for the moment of ignition, along with her bandmates she took it seriously and invested considerable reserves of time, energy and emotion into it.
“We formed very strong links between us all,”Â she recalled. It was like an extended family, “a good, kind of chummy thing,”Â according to Brian Bath, and everyone mucked in. Lisa Bowyer and her boyfriend Rob became unofficial roadies; Rob worked for a printing firm and offered the services of his van for shifting equipment and personnel. Paddy helped out with the lights and would drop in on guitar and mandolin. Del and Brian cooked up some hand-drawn posters for gigs and had T-shirts printed with the KT Bush Band daubed on the front ”â the singer, sadly, wouldn’t wear one ”â while King splashed the group’s name across his kick drum. In honour of Bush’s great love of The Muppet Show, he was tentatively nicknamed ”ËAnimal’.
Rather quickly, Bush’s natural urge to push the envelope and her burgeoning notions about performance ”â which were being fed daily by her sessions at the Dance Centre ”â began to rise to the fore. They had rehearsed her song ”ËJames And The Cold Gun’ right from the beginning, and it was so cold in the barn that sometimes they would decamp to the front room at Wickham Farm, putting the drums on the hearth rug and playing with acoustic guitars. Because there was a piano in the room, they started rehearsing more Bush originals, and the band of seasoned semi-pros was given a direct insight into her astonishing gift.
“Kate used to write a lot each week and come up with these ideas and bounce them off you,”Â says King. “I don’t know how many songs she had for the first album that weren’t used. [I remember] some strange song about ”Ëtick tock the clock”Â¦’ She had a unique style of writing and composing music. Books, stories, films ”â she loved The Red Shoes ”â it was that world of art and portraying characters, detectives with trilby hats and old raincoats, old Forties and Fifties films. It became something to write about. From our point of view, it was just chords and rhythms and beats.”Â
Del Palmer, meanwhile, was also impressed and intrigued. “The songs always started off in a way I found instantly familiar, but then suddenly they’d leap off somewhere completely different and I’d think, How could you possibly think of going to there from where you were originally?”Â he said. “I would never have thought of doing that, and yet it always works!… I’ve never had any desire to work with anyone else since.”Â
There was no shortage of material, but only the songs that most obviously leant themselves to the standard band format ”â and the ones that stood the most chance of being easily digested by a pub crowd ”â made it into the set. The strange beauty of ”ËThem Heavy People’, ”ËJames And The Cold Gun’ and ”ËThe Saxophone Song’ insinuated themselves into the cracks between Marvin Gaye and the Stones. On these songs, Bush would bring her plastic portable keyboard to the front of the stage and add her piano playing to the band; her own songs somehow seemed to require her direct musical participation where ”ËHonky Tonk Women’ did not.
On other numbers, she started putting into practice some of the things she was learning through Lindsay Kemp, Adam Darius and her teachers at the Dance Centre. ”ËJames And The Cold Gun’ in particular became a showpiece, complete with fake gun. “Rob got a dry ice machine from somewhere,”Â says Bath. “We used that on stage for ”ËJames And The Cold Gun’ and it looked great. We had a bit of a show going! Kate did a costume change, she’d put on a bloomin’ western cowgirl dress for the second set! The theatrical thing was starting to get there. She wasn’t shy on stage. She would move around, she didn’t stand there like a prop. She was pretty dynamic, she used to live it all.”Â Del Palmer recalls that “she was just brilliant, she used to wear this big long white robe with coloured ribbons on or a long black dress with big flowers in her hair. She did the whole thing with the gun and [the audience] just loved it. She’d go around shooting people.”Â
As the band’s circle grew wider, they began amassing more equipment, a bigger PA system, and signed a contract with Len Fletcher’s South Eastern Entertainment Agency to play nightclubs at ÃÂ£60 a show. “Once they came to see us they were just ringing up all the time,”Â says King. “We did build up a following, especially in the London scene. It was great driving around and seeing our posters on the hoardings.”Â At Tiffanys in Harlow they played a Sunday afternoon cabaret spot in a restaurant where fake palm trees gazed back at them forlornly and faded photographs of distant beaches adorned the walls. They were asked back but declined. If they were playing places like the Target in Greenford, west London, on the way home they would park up Vic King’s Hillman Imp and Bath’s Morris 1000 van and stop off at Mike’s Diner, an all-night eatery in New Burlington Street, off Regent Street. Over 4 a.m. omelettes and cups of tea and strong coffee, they would dissect the night’s gig and discuss plans for the next day: Shall we meet tomorrow at the farm? Does Kate have any new songs?
Aside from meeting to play and rehearse, there wasn’t a huge amount of this kind of social interaction. They would sometimes pop around to Bush HQ in Wickham Road for a plate of spaghetti and a pow-wow, but she retained a customary detachment between the band’s life and her own existence. “She liked to turn up, hide as much as possible, hide again and then go home,”Â says King. “She didn’t really drink, she might have had a glass of wine but when we were doing the gigs I don’t remember any of that. She didn’t really like to hang around and talk to lots of people. She had her little entourage, always secluded. Lisa and Rob, Jay or Paddy, her parents came along to the gigs sometimes. She didn’t have a boyfriend that I knew of. I think she might have been seeing a few people, but nothing serious.”Â
That was to change when she and Del Palmer became an item. Neither of them, it seems likely, were initially aware that this was going to be a long lasting attachment. “I felt Kate was more dedicated to singing and writing, to being on her own, rather than being attached to someone,”Â says Vic King, bearing out Bush’s earlier feelings about settling down too early. Palmer, however, was to become one of the key figures in her life story. Their romantic relationship would last 15 years, and their working relationship still thrives today.
Palmer recalls feeling an instant attraction from the very first rehearsal at Greenwich Baths. “I felt a little nervous because, you know, I felt a particular emotional involvement coming on right from the word go,”Â he later said. “Kate used to travel with Vic in the Hillman Imp and I used to travel with Brian and we’d follow along and I used to sit in the van raging because I was so envious of Vic that she was travelling with him.”Â When he began hearing her compositions these feelings only intensified. In some deeply subconscious way his love of her work and the woman were bound together. “It was a phenomenon because it was so completely different from what anyone else was doing,”Â he said. “I knew I just had to get involved in some way because this was going to be mega.”Â
The initial steps of their pas de deux are long forgotten, but Brian Bath and Vic King recall two separate moments of ignition. “We played a nightclub in Lewisham, the Black Cat or something like that, and [afterwards] we were all talking,”Â says King. “Then they started talking a bit more between themselves than me and Brian. We assumed something might be happening, and obviously at the next gig something was happening.”Â
“After a couple of times at the farm you could see there was something going on between Kate and Del,”Â says Bath. “Really quickly they just ran at each other and that was it, they were off ”â during one of the rehearsals, I think. I thought, Oh my God, there’s going to be trouble here! She was just a member of the band, and this was the first time we’d ever had a woman in the band, but it worked out OK. We all got on with each other.”Â
She was 18, he was 24, born on November 3, 1952. When he moved into her flat on Wickham Road later in 1977 it was “all a bit hush-hush and keep-it-careful,”Â says Bath. Charlie Morgan, who had played with Del in one of their previous bands, Conkers, and later drummed for Bush, recalls that the prospect of another male entering the tight-knit Bush circle wasn’t necessarily welcomed by all the family. “I think there was a bit of friction between Del and John,”Â he says.
Palmer’s influence, however, was unquestionably good for her, both personally and professionally. Talented as Bush undoubtedly was, there was a tendency towards a blanket acceptance of everything she did as being outstanding, particularly when it came to her family’s views. Even her mother occasionally made interjections on Bush’s behalf if she felt her daughter’s interests weren’t being represented as well as they might be. “I do remember Kate coming to me after we’d mixed ”ËThe Man With The Child In His Eyes’ [in 1975] and saying that her mum didn’t think the strings were loud enough!”Â says Andrew Powell. “And I said, ”ËMmm, OK, but I think it’s all right.’ If I thought they weren’t loud enough I would have turned them up.”Â
Charlie Morgan recalls another time, shortly after The Kick Inside, when “everything that she did was just amazing according to the family and everyone around her: ”ËKate, that’s incredible!’ We were listening to these [new] songs and everyone was going, ”ËOh, that’s great! That’s got to be on the album! That’s fantastic!’ But nobody writes fantastic songs all the time, and a couple of times I said, ”ËYou know, that one’s not as good as that one.’ I got these horrified looks from the family, that I’d dared to imply that one of Kate’s songs was sub-standard. I was just trying to be pragmatic and as objective as possible. I think Del was able to cut through some of that adoration factor”Â¦ and say, ”ËWell, I don’t think that’s the best thing you’ve ever done. You’ve got better in you’.”Â
This would sometimes result in a butting of heads. “I don’t like hearing very truthful things about myself,”Â Bush admitted. “I get really indignant, I put a lot of defences up, and I can be stubborn.”Â The fact that Del remains her engineer and sounding board today, long after the end of their personal involvement, suggests that unlike many at the higher echelons of rock and pop she has learned the value of hearing the unvarnished truth on occasion, no matter how unpleasant it may be. She can also be severely self-critical.
Like her best friend Lisa, Palmer was another of those funny, no-nonsense extroverts who took the lead socially, whose behaviour allowed her, to a certain extent, to take the back seat in public situations. A working class south Londoner with few airs and graces, he was able to balance the more serious, academic and ”Ëarty’ side of her family’s input with a more grounded, pragmatic route to creativity. “Well, Del swears a lot,”Â laughs Bath. “Del just knocks it right down to the basics, he’s very blunt with it. He can bring it down to normality, but at the same time it could bring the whole thing down. It can get on your nerves, but he does push it down to reality, which is a good thing, a good attribute for a bass player. He’s an anchor point all the way across.”Â
From the outside, it looked like an odd pairing. Del had a passion for motor racing and fast cars ”â Hugh Padgham, who worked with Bush on The Dreaming, recalls, “My friend several years later sold Del a Ferrari S40, a pretty happening car, and he crashed it on the way home”Â ”â while Julian Doyle, who directed the ”ËCloudbusting’ video, admits that he always found Bush’s relationship with Palmer a little perplexing. “She had a very strange choice of men,”Â he says. “Del used to talk to me about 4 x 4 cars, wearing a double-breasted suit, and I’d think, I don’t know what she’s doing with this guy. He’s a nice enough guy, but he just didn’t particularly seem her sort.”Â
In fact, as much as Bush has ever had a ”Ësort’, Del seemed to fit the bill. From as far back as her earliest romances she has preferred older men ”â “I don’t think I could find a younger man attractive”Â, she once said ”â from backgrounds often very different to her own. Even their names give off a solid, no-nonsense ring: Steve, Al, Del. Her current partner and the father of her son, Danny McIntosh, falls into a similar category. Direct, grounded, supportive but unafraid to offer criticism of her work.
“Danny and Del ”â they’re both very down to earth,”Â says Stewart Avon Arnold. “I think she needs that. I call her a space child ”â if she was with someone who was similar to her I think they’d be on another planet by now, mentally. I think Del and [now] Danny ground her, in a sense. Like all couples it works if there’s the right combination of energies. It does seem to work for Kate, because she went out with Del for many years, and he is the kind of person that calls a spade a spade. Del was a normal cockney guy, very talented musician, and also very funny, a right laugh. And Danny is very similar, in a sense. Very down to earth. A fantastic musician, but not a Keith Moon type character, let’s put it that way. He’s very organised!”Â
* * *
The KT Bush Band’s reign of glory lasted for a grand total of 20 gigs. Their last few engagements were, at least, memorable. On Friday June 3, 1977, they played the Half Moon in Putney, a well established music venue, on the eve of the England v. Scotland football international which ended, famously, in the victorious Scotland fans rampaging over the Wembley turf and breaking the goals. “They were mad, they were just mad,”Â said Bush, recalling a night that may well have put her off performing for good. “They had flags waving everywhere, and no-one could see the stage because all the guys were getting up on the stage and putting their arms around you!”Â
“Oh, it was a riot!”Â remembers Bath. “They were getting up on stage, some guy was all over Kate. I’m not a hard nut, but I went over and pushed him out of the way, off the stage area. Del didn’t do anything! It was mental, but we got through it. We did OK.”Â The following Monday, June 6, they were at The Ship in Brighton, a “lager-drinking pub [which] wanted something completely different to us,”Â says King. “After an hour we were asked to stop.”Â
And stop they did. EMI were finally calling their terribly patient prodigy into the ring. Brian Southall was the first representative of the record company to see the band, and he had come away convinced that she was ready for active service. “I went to some pub in Lewisham and I remember having a long conversation with her mum, who kept giving me sausages,”Â he says. “Lovely lady. Mad, eccentric Irish woman. I left the pub and drove with some excitement ”â we’re talking midnight, 1 a.m. ”â straight to the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington where we were having a reception for The Shadows, to tell my boss Bob Mercer and other colleagues that I had just seen a little magic moment.”Â