Friday, July 30, 2010

Scaling the Heights

Celebrating "Wuthering Heights," Kate Bush's
classic debut single from 1978.

In honor of acclaimed British singer/songwriter Kate Bush, who celebrates her 52nd birthday today, I share this evening excerpts from Rob Jovanovic’s 2005 book, Kate Bush: The Biography. These excerpts document the making and reception of Kate’s debut single, 1978’s chart-topping “Wuthering Heights.”

But first some background information. According to Wikipedia:

[“Wuthering Heights” was] written by Bush when she was 18 [and] is based on the novel of the same name. She was inspired to write the song after viewing the last ten minutes of the 1970 film version of Wuthering Heights. She then read the book and discovered that she shares her birthday (July 30) with Emily Brontë. Bush reportedly wrote the song, for her [debut] album The Kick Inside, within the space of just a few hours late at night.

Lyrically, “Wuthering Heights” uses several quotations from the novel’s character Catherine Earnshaw, most notably in the chorus – “Let me in! I’m so cold!” - as well as in the verses, with Catherine’s confession to her servant of “bad dreams in the night.” It is sung from Catherine's point of view, as she pleads at Heathcliff's window to be allowed in. This romantic scene takes a sinister turn if one considers the events of the book, as Catherine may well be a ghost, calling Heathcliff to join her in death.

. . . The song came 32nd in Q magazine’s Top 100 Singles of All Time, voted by readers.

The excerpts from Jovanovic’s book below are followed by the music video and lyrics to “Wuthering Heights.” Enjoy!


Side One of her debut album [The Kick Inside] ended with what is still Kate Bush’s most famous song - ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Musically, the track is both beautiful and haunting, right from the opening notes. The slow, measured piano chords (doubled with Andrew Powell’s chiming celeste) build tension before the vocal gains momentum up to the first chorus, which bursts open with Bush’s octave-running vocals.

“I think it is a great track and a style which flew in the face of everything else which was around at the time,” says [guitarist] Ian Bairnson. “We kept looking at each other thinking, ‘This is so different but interesting – it will either do really well, or bomb.’ I don’t think there would have been any half-measures in Kate’s success, but the Number One spot was a great bonus.”

The skeleton backing track was recorded “live” in the studio with all musicians playing together: Bush playing a Bosendorfer grand piano, Stuart Elliot on drums, Andrew Powell on bass and Ian Bairnson on an acoustic guitar.

“I can’t remember doing any editing on Kate’s sessions,” says [engineer] Jon Kelly. “I can remember ‘Wuthering Heights’ being a performance-y type song. Stuart was a brilliant drummer – he absolutely adored Kate’s songs – and the all-round enthusiasm and will to play well on those sessions was just fantastic. They were great musicians, and everything they did was of a very high standard.”

Overdubs included usual bassist David Paton playing a 12-string acoustic guitar and Bairnson’s original acoustic guitar work being double-tracked. The string section (eight first violins, six second violins, six violas and six cellos) and three French horns were recorded in what Jon Kelly described as a “huge room, twice as big as the live area in Studio Two. It could accommodate between 60 to 70 musicians, and had high ceilings and a lovely, bright sound. Everything sounded great in there.”

Kate recorded her vocal late one night when the musicians weren’t around. Jon Kelly recalls the effort she put into every take that she did. “In the case of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ she was imitating this witch, this mad lady from the Yorkshire Moors, and she was very theatrical about it,” he says. “She was such a mesmerizing performer, she threw her heart and soul into everything she did that it was difficult to ever fault her or say, ‘You could do better.’”

The final addition would be Ian Bairnson’s guitar solo, which would wing its way over and around the instrumental fade-out of the song. “For purely ‘guitarist reasons,’ I disliked the tone for many years,” reveals Bairnson. “I prefer my Les Paul [guitar] to sound harder and have more kick, like it usually does on records, but I got over it and am now quite happy with that guitar solo.

. . . In her own mind the choice of a lead-off single was obvious: it had to be “Wuthering Heights.” EMI, however, had other ideas and wanted “James and the Cold Gun.” Discussions on the matter started in September.

“It felt like a mission,” she says. “Even before I’d had a record out I had a tremendous sense of conviction that my instincts were right. There could be no other way. I remember sitting in an office at EMI with some very important people who were saying that “James and the Cold Gun” should be the first single. For me this was totally wrong. How could it possibly be anything other than “Wuthering Heights”? But they were going, “You don’t understand the market.”

“My secretary said Kate was very upset and she wanted to see me,” recalls [EMI executive] Bob Mercer. “She sat down and she said she wanted “Wuthering Heights” to be the first single. I said, “You and I are very close – we should tell the truth to one another. Well, I don’t come down to the studio and tell you how to do your job and you’re not going to come in here and tell me how to do mine.” She burst into tears. I couldn’t deal with that. I said, “Frankly, I don’t think there are any hits on the album, so I’ll put “Wuthering Heights” out. It will hit a wall and then you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

“So we went on saying the same things to one another for a few more minutes,” counters Bush. “I was being politely insistent. I usually am in an argument. I’m not good at expressing anger. That’s still hard for me. Then a guy called Terry Walker, another executive, came in with some papers in his hands and put them on the desk. He looked around, saw me and said, “Oh, hi, Kate, loved the album! ‘Wuthering Heights’ definitely the first single, eh?” And he walked out again. If he hadn’t come in at that moment, well, I don’t know what would have happened. It was so well timed, it was almost as if I’d paid the guy to do it. They obviously thought of me as just a strong-willed girl, but they trusted his opinion.

The first battle won, Bush prepared for her first single to receive a November 1977 release. Bush later said that delays over the artwork caused a postponement and things were put back to early 1978. . . . EMI in their haste to test the water had already sent out promotional copies of the “Wuthering Heights” single to several radio stations. Despite requests to hold back from playing them until after Christmas, the stations played it anyway.

At London’s Capital Radio, producer Eddie Puma played it to DJ Tony Myatt and they both agreed they had to put it on air right away, because it was so original. Night owls in the London area were thus the first members of the public to hear the song on The Late Show in November 1977. Soon afterwards Piccadilly Radio in Manchester followed suit and the single spread across independent stations around the UK like wildfire. When Radio 1 (which then still enjoyed a modicum of influence over the record-buying public) also put it on its playlist, the buzz really began to grow. By the time the single actually hit the shop shelves, almost everyone had already heard it.

. . . On January 20, 1978 “Wuthering Heights” was finally released, three months after the originally planned date. The buzz that had been building since November gathered momentum. From the early days of the single’s release people were raising their eyebrows and asking, “What is this song?” “Whose voice is that?” The tabloid press soon started looking for an angle, and they didn’t need to go far to get one: a sweet 19-year-old girl with a screeching voice and “weird-looking” video. A girl who sang about a Victorian novel and who shared the birthday of the book’s writer (Emily Brontë was born on 30 July 1818).

. . . Not surprisingly, the reactions in the music press were mixed. After all, this was a song that defied categorisation and was unlike anything that most people had ever heard before. It was certainly out of step with the rest of the charts. Melody Maker offered that she sounded like “a cross between Linda Lewis and Macbeth’s three witches,” though they generally liked the song. The Record Mirror didn’t like it and called it “B-o-r-i-n-g.” One complaint from listeners was that they couldn’t understand what Kate was actually singing in the song. Radio DJ Jonathan King took the extreme step of playing the song line by line and reading out the words from a lyric sheet to satisfy people’s curiosity.

Despite all the early airplay dating back to the previous November, the song’s ascent of the single’s chart was a slow one. It took a couple of weeks for it to creep into the Top 50 at the modest Number 42 slot.

. . . The Kick Inside was finally released on February 17, 1978, and media coverage intensified. Such a young, seemingly naïve and beautiful girl clearly caught the public’s imagination. She did her own thing, steadfastly refusing to follow trends while making career decisions that some saw as inspired and others as crazy. Either way she did things her own way and for the most part was loved for it.

All the hype culminated in “Wuthering Heights” becoming the UK’s Number 1 single on March 7. The song knocked super group Abba’s “Take A Chance On Me” from the Number 1 spot. Kate Bush was only 19 at the time. “Wuthering Heights” would sell a quarter of a million copies in the UK and be certified “Silver” (today, sales of just 100,000 qualify for “Gold” status, highlighting the importance of the singles charts then compared with now). Having an English singer at Number 1 clearly pleased the mainstream press. WUTHERING WONDERFUL!, exclaimed the Daily Express.

Out on the wiley, windy moors
We'd roll and fall in green
You had a temper, like my jealousy
Too hot, too greedy
How could you leave me?
When I needed to possess you?
I hated you, I loved you too

Bad dreams in the night
They told me I was going to lose the fight
Leave behind my wuthering, wuthering
Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff, its me, Cathy, I’ve come home
I'm so cold, let me in-a-your window

Oh it gets dark, it gets lonely
On the other side from you
I pine alot, I find the lot
Falls through without you
I'm coming back love, cruel Heathcliff
My one dream, my only master

Too long I roam in the night
I'm coming back to his side to put it right
I'm coming home to wuthering, wuthering,
Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff, its me, Cathy, I’ve come home
I'm so cold, let me in-a-your window

Oh let me have it, let me grab your soul away
Oh let me have it, let me grab your soul away
You know it's me, Cathy

Heathcliff, its me, Cathy, I’ve come home
I'm so cold, let me in-a-your window

NOTE: To view the "red dress version" of the "Wuthering Heights" video (which was very popular in Australia!), click here.

For a very funny 1980 parody of Kate Bush featuring Pamela Stephenson, click here.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Classic Tracks: “Wuthering Heights” - Sound on Sound, June 2004.
Kate Bush News and Information
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 1)
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 2 [featuring an insightful discussion on "Wuthering Heights"])
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 3)
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 4)
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 5)
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 6)
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 7)
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 8)
Kate Bush - Under Review (Part 9)

For more of Kate Bush at The Wild Reed see:
The Man I Love
Oh, Yeah!
Celebrating Bloomsday in St. Paul (and with Kate Bush)
The Dancer and the Dance


Mareczku said...

Isn't that something. I never heard of Kate Bush or the song Wuthering Heights. And I worked in a record store in the 70's. Don't know how I missed it. Must have been too busy listening to Disco in 1978!!! This is something different for sure.

Michael J. Bayly said...

I wouldn't feel too bad, Mark. Kate Bush didn't really break through into the US market until 1985 and her Hounds of Love album. It's big hit was the song "Running Up That Hill," the music video of which can be viewed at the end of this previous Wild Reed post.



Gianca said...

Wuthering Heights is an awesome song. Apart from the song itself, what impressed me the most was the cover sung by Andrè Matos, singer for the Brazilian band Angra. It's incredible for a male singer.