How Kate Bush reinvented herself with Hounds of Love

Ed Power
·9-min read
Bush’s fifth LP would be hugely influential (Rex)
Bush’s fifth LP would be hugely influential (Rex)

As the fiddle solo took flight, Kate Bush dabbed away a tear. It was spring 1984 and at Windmill Lane Studios, a dark vault on Dublin’s dystopian docklands, Eighties pop’s great enigma was momentarily overcome.

“She gave me a big hug and said, ‘Oh, you’re playing so emotionally’,” recalls John Sheahan. The esteemed Irish fiddle player, a fixture with folk icons The Dubliners, had been invited to Windmill Lane to contribute to Bush’s latest album. He didn’t know much about her, though he was vaguely familiar with “Wuthering Heights”, her baroque homage to Emily Brontë that had topped the charts in 1978.

Bush struck him as soft-spoken and polite and given to hugs. But as they worked together, he also noted her steeliness. She didn’t parade her ego about the studio. Yet nor was this willowy 25-year-old minded to be pushed around by the much older men with whom she was collaborating (including U2 producer and future Riverdance creator Bill Whelan, piper Liam O’Flynn and multi-instrumentalist Donal Lunny).

The song they made together that day was “Jig of Life”, a feverish and mysterious composition that drew on Bush’s Celtic heritage (her mother was from the coastal town of Dungarvan in Waterford).

It sits rhapsodically on side two of Hounds of Love, the masterpiece Bush released 35 years ago today, on 16 September 1985. Hounds of Love is remembered today for its big singles – the title track, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” and “Cloudbusting”, with its steampunk Donald Sutherland video.

Bush admitted she made compromises on the albumRex
Bush admitted she made compromises on the albumRex

But much like David Bowie’s Low, the album is an experience of two halves. The flipside consists of a seven-song suite, “The Ninth Wave”, which plunges into Bush’s dream-life before achieving catharsis with the fifth track, the aforementioned “Jig of Life”.

Bush was clearly set on opening a new chapter in her career. Hounds of Love came three years after the perceived failure of her previous LP, The Dreaming. That record is gloriously wonky and has a special place in the heart of fans. However, it lacked obvious singles and was eccentric with a vengeance. Rolf Harris contributed didgeridoo, bird impersonator Percy Edwards “sheep noises”. Listened to today, it suggests Grimes collaborating with Madness.

It also furthered the idea, already pushed hard in the music press, of Bush as profoundly uncool. “She was regarded by many as part of the Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Annie Lennox and Pink Floyd axis of orthodox,” writes Graeme Thomson in his 2010 biography Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush. “A bit of odd pop for mums and dads and girls in Laura Ashley dresses.”

The Dreaming was dark and dangerous and uncompromising – too unorthodox for EMI to know how to package as a commercial entity,” says Michael Mayell, of Bush covers group Cloudbusting. “Kate’s hardcore fans embraced it straight away but singles like ‘There Goes a Tenner’ sank without trace and for many years Kate just wasn’t talked about. This seems mad now as it was clearly her most creative period. Today’s media would have been all over her. The reviews at the time tried to be open-minded but just ended up being patronising and avuncular.”

‘I’ve been reorganising my life’: Bush in 1985Rex
‘I’ve been reorganising my life’: Bush in 1985Rex

She would never say as much out loud but Hounds of Love can thus be interpreted as an attempt by Bush to address the whimsical rot that had set in. For the first time in her career, she was even willing to play the “game” to a degree. This didn’t mean touring – she had sworn off live performance after her traumatic six-week Tour of Life in 1979 and would not return to the stage until her acclaimed Before the Dawn residency at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014.

Bush was, however, prepared to accede to the wishes of her record label. That was quite a change from 1978 when, at just 19, she faced down EMI over the choice of her first single. She had wanted “Wuthering Heights”, the record company preferred “James and the Cold Gun”. This unknown teenager put her foot down and was vindicated as the track went to No 1 (making her the first female artist in UK chart history to top the charts with her own composition).

But by 1985 she had learnt to pick her fights. “Running Up That Hill” was originally titled “A Deal With God”. EMI argued this would limit its appeal internationally. “We were told that if we kept this title that it wouldn’t be played in any of the religious countries,” she recalled to Richard Skinner in an interview for his Radio 1 Classic Albums series in 1992. “We might get it blacked purely because it had ‘God’ in the title,” she said. “This seemed completely ridiculous to me … but nonetheless, although I was very unhappy about it, I felt unless I compromised I was going to be cutting my own throat.”

“I hate to second-guess Kate, but I'm sure she was feeling pressure to sell a few records,” says Mayell. “Everybody wants an audience, after all, don’t they? Her achievement is that she still managed to do it on her own terms.”

Rumours had swirled about Bush during her three years away. There was misogynistic speculation in the press about her weight, and it hadn’t escaped her attention that she wasn’t approached to participate in Live Aid (she would have said “yes”). Surreal as it sounds today, there was also chatter in the media that she had been eclipsed by Madonna. In July 1985, shortly after her return from Windmill Lane, the NME listed her in its “Where are they now?” files. Obscurity wasn’t beckoning – but Bush, at 26, could certainly feel its breath on her nape.

“I’ve been reorganising my life,” she would say when grilled about what she’d been up to. “There’s nothing else you can do when you’re making an album: it completely obsesses your life. We moved from the city the country and built our own recording studio.”

“No one had any idea that she was hard at work building her own studio,” says Mayell. “She was probably thinking, ‘I’ll show you!’ while laying down the demos that would become the backbone of Hounds of Love.”

Her new creative retreat was at the bottom of the garden of her childhood home in East Wickham in Kent, where she and her two brothers had been brought up by her doctor father and nurse mother. In 1983, she installed a 24-track studio, equipped with her latest musical obsession, the Fairlight synthesiser and sampler – instantly recognisable in the stabbing, woozy intro to “Running Up That Hill”.

That song had been her attempt to reckon with her relationship with her long-term partner Del Palmer. In it, Bush expresses the wish they could swap places so that they could better understand the other’s perspective. Palmer, who had ambitions to become a recording engineer, was at her side during the sessions in Kent. Her brother Paddy was a frequent presence too, along with her dogs Bonnie and Clyde, the “hounds of love” who would grace the cover. Also in the studio was former Killing Joke bassist Youth, whose loping lines underpin the album’s most epic moment, “The Big Sky”.

Del Palmer and Kate Bush in 1985Rex
Del Palmer and Kate Bush in 1985Rex

There was apparently some tension between Bush’s partner and Youth, with the latter calling Palmer a “wally” at the launch party at the London Planetarium on 5 September. Bush had that effect on people – they become hugely emotionally invested in her and perhaps envious of those in her true inner circle. Such was the loyalty she inspired, collaborators were prepared to push themselves to the absolute limit.

“She was fastidious about getting things right,” recalls The Dubliners’ John Sheahan. “I remember playing the [tin] whistle. She was saying ‘this is absolutely beautiful but when you get to this note can you just slide up’. She was a real perfectionist.”

“Kate is quite secure in her own self-confidence,” Palmer told me in 2018. “But with many artists you have to make them feel loved. If you want them to do something again you’ll say, ‘oh it’s my fault’. You want to turn any comment you might have into something positive.”

She kept the record label at arms’ length throughout. This was probably just as well as EMI, and its new boss, David Munns, would surely have been alarmed by the avant-garde ambitions of “The Ninth Wave”. This series of linked compositions took its title from a line in the Tennyson poem “Idylls of the King: The Coming of Arthur”. Bush’s ambition was to bring the listener on a voyage into death and rebirth with fear of drowning a recurring metaphor.

“‘The Ninth Wave’ was a film, that’s how I thought of it,” Bush would say to Radio 1’s Richard Skinner. “It’s the idea of this person being in the water, how they’ve got there, we don’t know. But the idea is that they’ve been on a ship and they’ve been washed over the side so they’re alone in this water. And I find that horrific imagery, the thought of being completely alone in all this water.”

Bush with her mother, Hannah Daly, and her brothers Paddy and John in 1978Getty
Bush with her mother, Hannah Daly, and her brothers Paddy and John in 1978Getty

“It’s like a very old, almost Druidic thing,” Youth told Graeme Thomson. “It has a mystical, Bardic quality, part of our ancient British tradition. It’s not overt, it’s hidden, and I love that. That element synergised with cutting-edge technology and a genius writer and you get a classic album.”

Bush had walked the tightrope between some of her most commercial songs to date and a plunge into a murky universe of her own imagining. This daring gambit paid off better than she could have possibly imagined. “Running Up That Hill” peaked at No 3 – her biggest hit since “Wuthering Heights”. Hounds of Love would go on to sell 600,000 copies in the UK – 10 times the number shifted by The Dreaming.

It was also massively influential. The title track has an unlikely cameo in the story of landfill indie, with a version by The Futureheads going top 10 in 2005. Brett Anderson of Suede, meanwhile, has described “The Ninth Wave” as one of his musical touchstones. “I love how this album leads you along, like you’re this willing victim, one of the rats following the Pied Piper,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “Dog Man Star [Suede’s best album] wouldn’t have been the same … without Hounds of Love – it was totally inspired by it. Records that show that you can take a listener on a journey, create a real sense of space and a sound that is completely their own: those are the ones people love.”

Yet for those who worked with Bush at that time it’s the human connection that lingers. “I was into origami,” says John Sheahan. “I left a couple of little birds and frogs [around the studio]. The following Christmas I got in the post a present of this official origami book from Japan she had acquired from somewhere. She was charming. It was a beautiful experience.”