30 Years On: Kate Bush – The Dreaming
Released in 1982 to a baffled public and laudatory (if similarly bewildered) critics, The Dreaming was the first album where Kate Bush took sole credit for production. She had assisted Andrew Powell on Lionheart (1978) and co-produced Never For Ever (1980) with Jon Kelly. The latter work proved to be pivotal. During the sessions she discovered the Fairlight CMI, a sampling synthesizer very much in its infancy having been created in 1979. She was introduced to the machine, along with the rhythm box, by Peter Gabriel, while recording backing vocals for his third eponymous album (also known as Melt).
Both devices had a seismic impact on Bush’s methodology as they facilitated a move away from piano-based compositions to a more layered, experimental approach, where rhythm shaped much of the music’s spine. Indeed, Bush was also particularly enamoured with the colossal ‘gated reverb’ drum patterns Gabriel was cultivating with engineer Hugh Padgham at London’s Townhouse Studios. As with the Fairlight, this would become a salient feature of 80’s rock, best heard on Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight (1981). Collins was incidentally the drummer on Gabriel’s album suggesting a kind of forward thinking MOR phalanx at the start of the decade. At the time only Tony Visconti’s pioneering work on Bowie’s Low (1977) was its only significant precedent. In tandem with this plunge into studio luxuria was an emerging topicality in Bush’s writing. 1980’s Breathing signposted a new era for Bush. The song, written from the viewpoint of a foetus reluctant to be born into an apocalyptic world, was a quantum leap from the windy, wiley moors of Victorian literature. Equally startling was the record’s sound, she referred to it at the time as her ‘little symphony’ and it marshalled an album’s worth of scope into its duration. A bold piece of studio craft, Breathing was a strong indication of things to come.
Assembled over the course of a year (back then an inordinately long time) with a revolving cast of engineers and recording locations, The Dreaming was born of an exhaustive and exhausting gestation. It’s as if the studio itself became the same kind of amalgam of womb/airless bunker so powerfully evoked in Breathing. Del Palmer, Bush’s then partner and musical sounding board, talked of ‘coming up’ from the windowless Advision studio while Bush herself referred to just ’watching the evening news before returning to the dingy little treasure trove to dig for jewels.’ At one point, all three of the legendary Abbey Road Studios were utilized for the sessions. Soon after promoting the album, Bush was diagnosed with nervous exhaustion and it was three years until the release of 1985’s triumph, Hounds Of Love.
Widely regarded as the dark (fore)shadow to that opus, The Dreaming was the real game-changer. Since she first pirouetted in to public consciousness in 1978, Bush had been considered an eccentric pop princess, a regular presence on daytime television and fertile terrain for parodists. Back in 1982, The Dreaming was regarded as a jarring rupture. ‘Very weird. She’s obviously trying to become less commercial,’ wrote Neil Tennant, the future Pet Shop Boy, still a scribe for Smash Hits. He echoed the sentiments of the record-buying public. Even though the album made it to number 3, the singles, apart from Sat In Your Lap, which got to 11 a year before, tanked. It was purportedly the closest her record label, EMI had come to returning an artist’s recording. Speaking in hindsight, Bush observed how this was her ‘she’s gone mad’ album.’
Posterity has a habit of vindicating the brave. The Dreaming represents not just a major advancement for Bush herself but a landmark in art-rock. Its sonic assault shrieks and shudders with a surfeit of musical ideas, all chiselled into a taut economy. Sat In Your Lap had already unveiled Bush’s new aesthetic in June 1981. It’s a violent assertion of creative control. Pounding pianos & tribal drums dominate, frazzled synth brass puffs steam as Bush’s vocals veer from soft sensuality to ferocious histrionics. The lyrics scratch their head in search of epistemological nirvana, a pursuit akin to the arduous process of making the album. The Dreaming’s disparate narratives frequently seem to be tropes for Bush’s quest for artistic autonomy and the anxieties that accompany it; the bungled heist in There Goes A Tenner, the ‘glimpse of God’ in Suspended In Gaffa, even the Vietnamese soldier pursuing his American prey for days with religious fervour in Pull Out The Pin . ‘Sometimes it’s hard to know if I’m doing it right, can I have it all?’ she coos in Suspended In Gaffa and that peculiar mix of self-doubt and pole-vaulting ambition characterizes many of the songs.
This is dense and allusive stuff, both musically and lyrically. At times it feels as if it requires as many footnotes as T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land to wade through its twists and turns. The album vaults the roof between pre- and post- punk. Proggy shifting time signatures and textures vie with an anarchic energy & the kind of poly-rhythms deployed on PIL’s Flowers Of Romance (1981). The PIL record was engineered by Nick Launay, one of The Dreaming’s most invaluable contributors. Another engineer, Paul Hardiman, had worked with both Yes and on Wire’s seminal first three albums. Bush clearly favoured an outlook that eroded the old/new wave divide and it’s one of the many factors that make The Dreaming a remarkably prescient record. The vivid, zig-zagging palette of influences looks forward to modern music’s genre-busting kaleidoscope. Only there’s an organic hybridization and unifying cohesion on The Dreaming sadly lacking in so much of today’s pick and mix sounds.
Who else would cast Rolf Harris and John Lydon’s recent engineer on the same album? Harris’ dijeridu provides a hypnotic drone on the title track, a foreboding inversion of his own Sun Arise (1962). Where Rolf’s early example of ‘world’ music conjures up the sunburst optimism of the vast outback, The Dreaming is the sound of culture clash; rumbling ethno-textures are juxtaposed with the samples of slamming car doors on the Fairlight and the synthesizer’s soon to be ubiquitous preset, Orch. 5. Form and content coalesce impeccably; the ‘white’ man invades the Aborigines sacred turf, digging for plutonium and ore while archaic instrumentation rubs shoulders with cutting edge technology. The song segues into Night Of The Swallow. Here the Bush piano balladry of yore mutates into a torrid Irish folk blow-out; chiaroscuro Celtic cine-pop. Her musical imagination has the transportative power of cinema. Indeed, it almost resembles the aural equivalent of the ‘magic geography’ of Powell and Pressburger’s films.
Movies inform The Dreaming as much as any musical influences. Bush wanted a cinematic sound and when describing Pull Out The Pin, she synaesthetically blurs the vocabulary of music with that of film, referring to wide shots and ‘trying to focus on the pictures’ between the speakers.’ The song’s evocation of the Vietnam forest, ’humid…and pulsating with life’ is astonishing; all queasy protruding double bass lines, musique concrete, furtive Chinese drums and a distorted guitar sounding like a US soldier’s scratchy transistor. Avant-music hall crime caper There Goes A Tenner opens with Bush’s mockney delivery only to reference the most iconic US silver screen gangsters as the song shifts from parody to pathos; chirpy Ealing comedy darkening into Film Noir.
Something of the disarming menace in Bernard Herrmann’ music for Hitchcock hangs over The Dreaming’s darkest corners, Leave It Open and Get Out Of My House. Both are sublime slices of musical madness; bad acid trips through broken lives, controlled cacophony, post-punk pantomime. The latter repositions A.L. Lloyd’s reading of the metamorphic folk tale of romantic resistance, Two Magicians in the domestic asylum of Stephen King’s The Shining. It ends the album in a resounding bray of donkeys. These are thunderous drumscapes with spectral atmospherics blowing through them, as if the gated reverb’s quiet/loud dynamic amounted to a modus operandi unto itself.
It remains a terribly sad record. A treatise on ‘how terribly cruel people can be to one another, and the amount of loneliness people expose themselves to.’ Perhaps Lennon’s murder and the dog-eat-dog ethos of Thatcherism had cast their shadows here. Bush would never make an album in London again, a city she felt had an air of dread hanging over it’ and a very metropolitan melancholy runs through The Dreaming. All The Love, a forlorn symphonic sigh , features percussive sticks imitating venetian blinds sliding shut and climaxes with messages from Bush’s actual defective answer machine; all very modern alienating devices, straight from the same world of Bowie’s Sound & Vision. Palmer’s drowsy bass almost sobs with regret. Throughout The Dreaming sound speaks.
At the centre of this creative storm is Bush, herself. The vocal performances are a multi-faceted assault on the singer’s squeaky, whimsical past. There are guttural, larynx-shredding exclamations juxtaposed with whispers, sometimes on even the softer songs. Her voice is deeper and thicker than before, possessing an unbridled emotionalism that is only more potent due to its stringent control. On Houdini, she plays the role of the escapist’s wife, trying to contact him through a barrage of fraudulent mediums. Her immersion in the part is unnerving, imbuing the song’s old world romance with real gravitas, essential for a song, like so many of hers, triggered by emotive necessity rather than prosaic veracity. Love’s ability to transcend the ‘clutches of eternity’ had been an alluring theme for the singer since Wuthering Heights. Houdini’s serpentine chamber-pop plays like a maturation of the earlier song, shorn of girlish theatrics and soft-rock soft focus.
When she’s not weaving intricate layers of contrasting singing styles into the fabric of the songs, she’s filtering them through the same effects as the music; delays, compression, flanging. Far from being over-produced, each treatment is used with acute sensitivity only adding ballast to the music‘s visceral punch. There’s a Lennon-esque distrust of the dry, natural voice and The Dreaming bristles with the same kind of inventive mania that dominated The Beatles work circa Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour. Only this was not the 60’s, it was 1982, the year New Pop’s shiny subversion from within was about to be usurped by a blander corruption of its original manifesto. The yuppies were gaining traction and The Dreaming’s emotional wisdom belonged to another era while its pioneering spirit was too far ahead of the pack to be digested. Dig deeper into 82, however, and an alternate universe emerges of studio bound outre pop; The Associates’ Sulk, Peter Gabriel’s 4th, The Cure’s Pornography & Siouxsie’s A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. All form with The Dreaming a kind of ‘secret heritage’ that suggest the pre-Smiths musical landscape was far from barren.
An embarrassment of riches then, bestowed upon an unworthy rabble. The Dreaming is Bush’s most extreme manifestation of grotesque beauty and along with Hounds Of Love, remains the acme of this singular talent’s achievements. In America, it ignited critical interest in her for the first time. It uses ethnic instrumentation while sounding nothing like the world music that would be popularized through the 80’s.It is a record largely constructed with cutting edge technology that eschews the showroom dummy bleeps associated with synth-pop. At the time, she talked of using technology to apply ‘the future to nostalgia’, an interesting reverse of Bowie’s nostalgic Berlin soundtrack for a future that never came.
For such an extreme album, its influence has been surprisingly far-reaching. ABC, then in their Lexicon Of Love pomp, named it as one of their favourites, as did Bjork whose similar use of electronics to access atavistic states seems directly descended from The Dreaming. Leave It Open‘s vari-speed vocals even prefigure the art-damaged munchkins of The Knife vocal arsenal. John Balance of post-industrialists Coil confessed that the album’s songs were all ideas that he later tried to write. But Bush got there first. And The Dreaming remains a testament to the disquieting joy of letting ‘the weirdness in.’