Written By Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
“Every night for a couple of hours I’d sing and play. When I was 15 my family thought it would be a good idea to maybe meet some people in the music business and see if I could get some response from my songs… I think they were pleased to see I had something I could release myself in. They neither encouraged me or discouraged me, they just let me be myself, which is something I’ll always thank them for.” – Kate Bush explained to Jon Young of Trouser Press in 1978. Only a few months before, the nineteen-year old singer-songwriter had released her debut album, The Kick Inside, which had already peaked at number three on the UK Albums charts and would continue to chart for most of the year. The album’s first single “Wuthering Heights” soared even higher, spending four weeks in the number one spot and introducing audiences to the transcendent creativity and artistry of Kate Bush.
Kate Bush was born on July 30, 1958 and from an early age was surrounded by music and the arts. Her parents worked in medicine but loved music; her father was an amateur pianist, and her mother an amateur Irish dancer. Her two brothers participated in the local folk music scene and played backup in her first band. She began exploring the piano and songwriting at age eleven, even writing some of the tracks included on The Kick Inside at the tender age of thirteen. She may have been young, but the budding songwriter had a poignant ability to capture the emotive depth of her lonely school years. “School was a very cruel environment and I was a loner. But I learnt to get hurt and I learnt to cope with it” Bush reflected.
By the time she was sixteen, Bush had channeled those emotions into over fifty compositions which she began recording to produce a lengthy demo tape. One of her brothers had a friend who was working in the music industry and helped the teenage prodigy find her first break. Bush explained in 1978: “he came around to listen to me. I put twenty to thirty of my songs on a tape and he’d take it to record companies. Of course there was no response” But soon enough, this friend brought the tape to the attention of David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Bush continued:
“Dave was doing his guardian angel bit and scouting for talent. He’d already found a band called Unicorn in a pub and was helping them. He came along to see me and he was great, such a human, kind person – and genuine. He said, ‘It looks as if the only way you can do it is to put at most three songs on a tape and we’ll get them properly arranged.’ He put up the money for me to do that, which is amazing. No way could I have afforded to do anything like that. EMI heard it and I got the contract.”
The contract afforded Bush the unusual benefit of time and autonomy in preparing her debut album which was released three years later, in 1978. Prior to its release, however, Bush advocated for the choir of “Wuthering Heights” as her first single. She explained to Record Mirror: “Wuthering Heights” is so important to me. It had to be the single. To me it was the only one. I had to fight off a few other people’s opinions, but in the end they agreed with me”
Bush’s relationship with the track was intensely personal. She had penned the song after discovering Emily Brontë’s famous mid-nineteenth century novel through a television broadcast of the BBC’s 1967 film adaptation. She explained:
“When I first read Wuthering Heights I thought the story was so strong. This young girl in an era when the female role was so inferior and she was coming out with this passionate, heavy stuff. Great subject matter for a song. I loved writing it. It was a real challenge to précis the whole mood of a book into such a short piece of prose. Also when I was a child I was always called Cathy not Kate and I just found myself able to relate to her as a character. It’s so important to put yourself in the role of the person in a song. There’s no half measures. When I sing that song I am Cathy.”
The lyrics tell the story from the point of view of the novel’s protagonist Catherine (“Cathy”) Earnshaw. It captures the destructive passion of Cathy’s relationship with Heathcliff (“I hated you, I loved you too”) and the haunting presence she holds throughout the story. “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy. Come home, I’m so cold. Let me in your window,” she wails in the song’s chorus. Bush’s vocals are intoxicating in their originality. She uses the full range of her voice, both enticing and unsettling the listener – somehow managing to condense the essence of Brontë complex character into a few minutes of exquisite songwriting and performance.
The song’s melody and harmonic structure are both innovative and intriguing. The instrumentation and production develop the song’s storytelling, creating what Simon Reynolds described as “Gothic Romance distilled into four-and-a-half-minutes of gaseous rhapsody”. Bush played a Bösendorfer grand piano for her part, with Stuart Elliott on drums, producer Andrew Powell on bass, and Ian Bairnson on guitar. The texture of the song builds as it progresses, bringing in Duncan Mackay on Hammond organ, David Paton on acoustic guitar, Morris Pert on crotales and even a small orchestra of 14 violins, 6 violas, 6 cellos, and 3 french horns. For such a complex lineup, Powell served as the song’s arranger, working closely with Bush to realize their vision. Engineer John Kelly recalled Powell’s meticulous work saying:
“Andrew was a superb musician and arranger. All the parts were written out and he would hand them to the rhythm section, they had chord charts and a brief outline of what he wanted. He’d worked with Kate on the arrangement beforehand and how he wanted it to turn out. It was an absolutely brilliant job, a first class record.”
Despite the song’s obvious complexity, the tracks were all mixed in one night. Kelly recollected: “We started that mix at around midnight, and Kate was there the whole time, encouraging us. She was the shining light of the entire sessions [sic]. You couldn’t deny her anything. So, we got on with the job, and we finished at about five or six that morning. It was a fairly straightforward mix — among the only effects were a pair of EMT 140 echo plates, one straight, the other delayed with a 15ips Studer — but it gelled and it had a whole vibrancy to it, and full credit for that goes to Andrew. He got the arrangement exactly right; he got the chords right, he translated Kate’s work beautifully, and everything that was on the multitrack deserved to be there”
“Wuthering Heights” launched the nineteen year old Kate Bush into the international spotlight. It not only hit number one in the UK (making Bush the first female artist in the UK to reach number one with a self-written song), it also grabbed the number one spot in Australia, Italy, New Zealand, and Ireland. Further, the song made it into the top ten in Denmark, Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Spain.
“Wuthering Heights” remains one of Kate Bush’s most successful and beloved tracks. In 2016, Pitchfork named it number five on their list of the best two hundred songs of the 1970s. It was also foundational in helping Bush develop her interest and skills in music production. She has gone on to record ten studio albums, many of which she produced or co-produced herself. She has also received three Grammy nominations and in 2013, she was appointed as a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.
In a fitting return to her artistic beginning, Bush was invited, in 2018, to write a poetic tribute to Emily Brontë that was then inscribed on a stone near the author’s home in Yorkshire. “To be asked to write a piece for Emily’s stone is an honour and, in a way, a chance to say thank you to her,” Bush said of the experience. “Each sister being remembered by a stone in the enigmatic landscape where they lived and worked is a striking idea. Emily only wrote the one novel – an extraordinary work of art that has truly left its mark.” With “Wuthering Heights” a teenage Kate Bush forever left her own mark on the international musical landscape, capturing the attention of audiences with her passionate and deep artistry, and setting the stage for her rich and influential career.