Pop is so littered with the carcasses of flippant ideas and the 2 minute trash aesthetic that sometimes it’s tricky to even remember that it can be an art form, a platform for moments of pure, breathtaking brilliance that deal with powerful intoxicant of love that can transport you somewhere else with their other worldy magic. A place where complex emotions can be dealt with far beyond the parameters of wam bam thank you mam or the look at me strutting of the three minute catwalk.
Few records have this power, the quicksilver magick of another place another time. Wuthering Heights is one of those songs- an amazing debut single from a 19 year old teenager that came out in the middle of the punk wars that was melodically genius and ground breakingly original and still has the power to pull you into a universe of its own with its atmosphere, melody and sheer origonality and heartfelt brilliance of the vocal.
Kate Bush had been signed to EMI in 1975 after the usual endless list of rejections. A 50 song demo had shown that here was a creative volcano but the music industry then as in now had little interest in genuine talent and was lost in the usual money grubbing tomfoolery. It took the chance dropping of the demo into the hands of the good guy from Pink Floyd, Dave Gilmour for it to be tidied up into something that EMI could sign and record and wait for the right moment to release.
Whilst the young singer toured the pubs with her own group, the KT Band, and honed her sound down they waited until 1978 to release the song which famously they didn’t want to put out as the first single but had their hands forced by the young singer who had a very firm idea of her music and its presentation. A presentation which was already cloaked in costume, one of style and a dance routine that moulded ballet and karate and a strikingly original image that had hints of the hippy culture but was somehow linear and powerful enough to not look out of place in the middle of the punk wars.
This piano led, strange and powerful ballad that seemed to be about a classic book of love and lust and seething storms of nature and emotion dripped with a feminine power and physicality in the middle of the very male locker room of late seventies. Music like this was from another planet- a glimpse of the future in a time of no future and beardy DJs whose attitude to women was at the best stupid and one dimensional and at the worst evil. The single was released right in the middle of the 2 7s clash of the punk wars as it entered 1978 and was a neat contrast to all that wonderful militant music and also something equally brilliant that not only swerved that template but all the templates in pop culture.
Kate Bush debuted with her first single Wuthering Heights in January 1978 and created a dramatic world of her own that was easily as enticing as the guitars as machine guns attack of the punk stuff that we were so immersed in at the time and created a few minutes of musical magic that came with a swirling emotional depth that is still the real intriguing pull of the song.
There are few moments of total pop genius…you know those moments when something sounds so brilliantly original that you are stopped in you tracks, confused by just where the hell it came from. Few moments where there are a new set of sounds, a different atmosphere, a whole new way of listening to music- something that defies all logic and creates a whole new soundscape and yet still somehow manages to be a big hit.
It takes something pretty special to pull that trick off and Kate Bush’s 1978 number one Wuthering Heights was just that. Like any ground breaking work of genius it was endlessly lampooned with the halfwit comics totally missing the subtle undertows and powerful dynamics of the song to make cheap points that missed their mark.
The fact that it came out in the middle of punk only added to its brilliance. At the time we were slavering droogs hooked to the noisy stuff, anything else sounded unlisteneable and we were looking deeper and darker for a new kind of kick. Ostensibly Kate was a mainstream artist, maybe EMI perceived here as a return to the rustic mid seventies when things were fine before the phlegm encrusted punk thing crashed in and rewrote the rule book. That mattered little with a record this startlingly original and also belligerently not towing the line- it somehow FELT like a punk record in spirit because it was an uncompromising piece of art even though it sounded like there were a 100 chords in it. The fact that she seemed to be good mates with the Stranglers as well was pretty cool- not the most obvious band to hang out with if you were trying to appear media cool but as has been discussed on here many times, the best.
Despite, perhaps sounding closer to prog than punk, Kate felt like one of ours- she was startlingly original looking as well and had the stark and powerful lines of the time and her rare mix of English rose with a glint of Irish blood and a no future starkness rolled into one made her photogenic but above all that it was her artistic vision and no compromise spirit that was even more powerfully attractive.
Wuthering Heights may have sounded like ultimate bookish song but was actually inspired by a mini TV series and it was only after she had written the song that Kate read the book and become struck by the many similarities between the powerful sweeping work of literature and her own complex and deep and very feminine songs- this was a sort of grrrl power without the placards- a whole new language in the linear world of pop.
The songs creation was explained by Kate in a late seventies interview.
‘ I didn’t read the book until just before I wrote the song. I’d seen the television series years ago. I just caught the last few minutes where she was at the window trying to get in. It’s one of those classic stories that you vaguely know. I knew there was Heathcliffe and Cathy and that she died and came back. It just fascinated me. What an incredible situation that people should want something so much that even when they die they won’t let go. It is a greed of some kind…or a greedy-need, that’s the word.
It was just fascinating me so much, it kept coming into my brain. I thought the only way to get rid of it and stop it bothering me was to write it down. So I read the book and it amazed me. It was such a beautiful story. I made sure that I had read it as I was doing it as a tribute to Emily Brontë and anytime you do a something with somebody else’s work, you should take care with it because you might well be abusing their expressions. But I found the book more than I had hoped for because for a girl so young it was beautiful that she had the strength to do it.
Quite an interesting coincidence between Emily and myself, that I didn’t find out until much later, is that we have the same birthday, 30 July. I thought it was a nice tie-in.’
What do you make of a song that seems to creep in like the English rain with that piano flurry. It sounds like the misty moors where the drama takes place. For thirty seconds you are left hanging by this attention grabbing yet subtle intro before THAT voice comes in grabs you, high pitched and other worldly and brim full of passion of lust and love and seething emotion this is a voice like no other, a powerful and emotive tool that works through the layers of melody with a skill and soaring freedom that is almost impossible to keep up. Just listen again, her voice doesn’t hover around one note like a normal pop singer desperately trying to sing for the auto tune to correct those perceived glitches. Her voice moving up and down the scales but not showing off , it’s going to the places it needs to to squeeze every ounce of drama and melody out of the dark love story and it never does the obvious thing.
Inspired by the 1970 film of the book which inspired her to read the book it sees the singer empathize with her near name sake in the book, Catherine, and her pursuit of the dark love of the charismatic yet dangerous Heathcliff even beyond the grave. The song captures this stormy darkness and dangerous love with a brilliantly realised romantic female view point and was, remarkably, the first number one in the UK to be written and sung by a woman- a tragic indictment on the blokey charts of the time.
Like, Strawberry Fields, that other great English record that somehow places you in a time and place but also floats away from reality, Wuthering Heights captures the damp melancholy of the moors, the drizzling rain but also the bodice trapped, fluttering heart full of love and desire as it builds with a musical sophistication that is still mind blowing now to listen to now let alone at the time.
It was a hell of a start to a musical career and remains Kate Bush’s best selling single but also a harbinger to a restless creative career that runs at her own speed and is still working on its own creative rules with her most recent album 50 Words For Snow still breaking boundaries and creating brilliant art on her own terms.