Telling the whole story

It is almost 25 years since Kate Bush released Hounds of Love, her creative masterpiece, and to mark the anniversary a new biography charts the singer's career.

Kate Bush has been a major influence on many contemporary female musicians, most notably Joanna Newsom (above).
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It is hard to believe, but some musical anniversaries really are more than opportunities for beleaguered record companies to flog us their product. One such is that of the release, 25 years ago next month, of Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, an album widely regarded as one of the most important of the 1980s and whose influence is still heard today. Its vinyl-happy structure - commercial tracks bundled together on side one; proggy "song cycle" on side two - betrays its age, but otherwise this marriage of modernist pop sheen and ethereal folk strangeness sounds as if it could have been made yesterday.

The first taste of it was the single Running up that Hill, released in August 1985 and premiered on the British television show Wogan just days after Bush had featured in a sarcastic NME article headlined "Where are they now?". (Answer: she disappeared from public view after the underperformance of her 1982 album, The Dreaming and holed up in the Kent countryside, plotting her next move.) A hit even in America, which had thus far resisted Bush's charms, Running up that Hill is probably her second-best-known song after Wuthering Heights and something of a gauntlet thrown down to other musicians: Coldplay admitted that their 2005 hit Speed of Sound had its roots in an attempt to replicate the delicate martial patter of its tom-toms.

That no plans are afoot to reissue Hounds of Love suggests that the reclusive, fastidious singer-songwriter does not want its 25th anniversary celebrated: famously business-savvy, Bush rather than her label EMI owns the rights to her recordings. That said, the past few months have felt unusually busy by the standards of Bushworld, where things generally move at a glacial pace. First, Bush, who turned 52 last month, broke cover to pen a fulsome tribute to her old friend and collaborator Peter Gabriel as part of a feature for Mojo magazine. Then there was a rare message from her on her website - another tribute, this time to Bob Mercer, the former managing director of EMI who had signed her as a 16-year-old on the recommendation of Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour. Mercer died of lung cancer on May 5. "It's thanks to Bob that I've been able to spend my life making music," she wrote. "He was like family to me."

Next, it was announced that Bush's most recent album, Aerial, would finally be available on iTunes, a mere five years after its release. Apparently, Bush was unhappy with the idea that the songs on the second CD could be downloaded independently of each other when she wanted them to be listened to in sequence as a unified suite. A Sky of Honey now runs as a single, 42-minute track. The other big event has been the publication of Graeme Thomson's sensitive, empathetic and exceptionally well-researched biography of the singer, Under the Ivy. Notoriously private, Bush has kept an even lower profile since the birth of her son Bertie in 1998. She did the bare minimum of promotion for Aerial, restricting herself to a handful of press and radio interviews. Her last public appearance was at the 2001 Q Awards.

Thomson expected Bush to be a hard nut to crack. But he wrote to her out of courtesy before starting work to declare his intentions and invite her participation. "I was always aware that it was highly unlikely that she or any members of her family or closest friends would contribute," he says, "but I didn't see this as a huge hindrance. The book I wanted to write was principally focused on my critical analysis of her work filtered through an understanding of her instincts as an artist and where they came from."

For proof that Thomson's interest in Bush wasn't trivial or gossipy, potential subjects needed to look no further than his previous books on Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson. And while Thomson was clearly obliged to rely on secondary sources for his account of Bush's secure, middle-class childhood in south-east London, the impressive roster of musicians, studio personnel and industry figures who agreed to talk to him speaks for itself.

Not only did he get to Bob Mercer before he died, he also scored first-rate insights from, among others, the Killing Joke bassist Youth (who played on Hounds of Love), the photographer Gered Mankovitz (responsible for a famous early portrait), producer Nick Launay and the folk supremo Joe Boyd. Thomson explains: "Some checked in with Kate and came back happy to talk; others checked in, then declined. Some others were no longer in regular or even sporadic contact with her - again, some of those came on board, some didn't. When you're intersecting with 40 years' worth of personal and professional relationships, you're negotiating all sorts of factors.

"I'm a great believer in the value of the fleeting glance. For instance, I got in touch with Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' engineer who in 1975 worked on Bush's demo of The Man with the Child in his Eyes. He hadn't worked with her before and hasn't since, but his memories of watching this prodigy begin to bloom were vivid and touching." Hounds of Love represents Bush's commercial and creative peak. Thomson is great on this mid-1980s period, when her success brought her perilously close to membership of what he calls the Phil Collins/Dire Straits/Sting "axis of orthodoxy"; but he's also good on the early 1990s, when a series of personal and professional "bumps in the road", particularly the death of her mother and the end of her long-term relationship with her bassist, Del Palmer, affected her songwriting badly. "I always think of her as airborne, a kind of elemental force," says Thomson, "and on [her 1993 album] The Red Shoes she sounds grounded."

In a sense, Bush's massive early success with her first single, Wuthering Heights, was as problematic as it was welcome. It fixed her for ever in the public consciousness as a squeaky-voiced, wide-eyed banshee when the truth, as anyone knows who's followed her career from the sonic experimentation of The Dreaming to the lush, jazzy textures of Aerial, is infinitely more complicated. Of all the myths that circulate about her, which did Thomson find to be true?

"They're all pretty flimsily constructed tabloid caricatures, pivoting around this idea that she's a mad-as-a-mongoose hermit. I didn't believe that going into the project and I certainly didn't believe it when I'd finished. In the end, she emerged much as I thought she might: deceptively strong, kind, generally beloved, genuinely indifferent about fame and adulation, and someone whose sense of creativity is absolutely innate. She's certainly eccentric, but it breeds the kind of blindness to convention that helps make her so great."

Lumping female singer-songwriters together is an idiot's game. Still, Bush's influence has never been greater or more easily detectable. It's there in Bat For Lashes, Florence + the Machine, Laura Marling, Goldfrapp and, especially, the critics' darling Joanna Newsom. By all accounts, Bush is working on new material - the veteran double-bassist Danny Thompson unwittingly disclosed his involvement in a radio interview last December - but as Thomson explains: "She now exists in a creative continuum, working whenever she feels like it, with no set time limit or even any particular sense that she's making anything as defined as a 'new album'."

In other words, don't hold your breath.