Kate Bush in 1985
Photo by Anwar Hussein/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
How 'Hounds Of Love' Finally Gave Kate Bush Her Deserved U.S. Breakthrough
Cliched it may be to describe Kate Bush as otherworldly. But the singer/songwriter truly appeared to have been beamed in from another planet in 1978 with her swooping, shrieking take on Emily Brontë’s only finished novel.
Of course, Bush actually hailed from Bexleyheath, a London town not exactly renowned for its transcendent qualities, which perhaps explains why Britain was so quick to embrace her idiosyncratic talents. By the age of 19 she’d become the first ever female solo artist to score a self-penned U.K. number one, with "Wuthering Heights" also propelling debut LP The Kick Inside to more than a million domestic sales.
America, on the other hand, was a little more wary of this incredibly precocious enigma whose literate blend of art-pop, prog-rock and folk often needed its own CliffsNotes. Although second single "The Man with the Child In His Eyes" briefly graced the lower reaches of the US Hot 100, audiences weren’t convinced enough to pick up its parent album. And by her mid-20s she’d essentially been consigned to the status of minor one-hit wonder.
By this point, even Bush’s homeland appeared to have cooled toward her increasingly complex singular vision: 1982’s self-produced The Dreaming, once self-described as the "she’s gone mad" record, sold barely a fraction of its three predecessors and the NME would later run a slightly embarrassing piece asking "Where Are They Now?"
Whereas many of her peers would have panickingly roped in a hit-making team to restore their former commercial glories, Bush doubled down on the D.I.Y. approach for album number five. She built a 48-track studio at the 17th century Kent farmhouse she shared with musician partner Del Palmer. She further utilized the Fairlight CMI, the beast of a synthesizer that she’d first dabbled with on 1980's Never For Ever. And she reportedly presented EMI with the finished product before execs had even heard a single note. This was unarguably Bush at her most autonomous, her most liberated, her purest.
You perhaps might not have expected Hounds of Love, therefore, to reverse her chart fortunes on either side of the Atlantic. Even more so considering its ambitious two-suite concept, with the titular radio-friendlier first soon giving way to a nightmarish tale of survival dubbed "The Ninth Wave." However, the record not only returned Bush to the top of the U.K. charts, it also peaked at a then-career high of No.30 in the States, spawning a bona fide hit single in the process.
Bush had to fight tooth and nail to launch Hounds of Love with "Running Up That Hill" instead of the much-preferred "Cloudbusting." However, she did make a rare concession to her label. The battle of the sexes had originally been titled "A Deal with God" before EMI bosses convinced the singer that its religious connotations would scare off the bible belt. It was the first of several signs that Bush wanted as many people to hear the fruits of her labor as possible.
Indeed, Bush has since garnered a reputation for being so reclusive she makes Howard Hughes look like a social butterfly. But in the fall of 1985 you couldn’t turn on late-night cable TV without hearing her softly spoken English tones answering a variety of inane questions about her anything-but-inane career: she has to work overtime to hide her disdain during this particularly awkward interview on USA Network’s Night Flight.
There were also several radio appearances and, even more remarkably, a signing session at Greenwich Village’s Tower Records store. Yet it was Bush’s embracing of the music video that truly helped her connect with U.S. audiences beyond the fringes of the art-rock scene.
Bush was no stranger to the art form, of course. The theatrical videos for early hits "Wuthering Heights" and "Babooshka" were undoubtedly just as memorable as the songs they promoted. But the Hounds of Love campaign was the first time Bush had the budget to match her visual flair and subsequently the ability to court the vital network that had only been in its infancy last time around.
Not that MTV were initially on board, though. According to the star’s brother Paddy, the beautifully choreographed promo for "Running Up That Hill"—which sees Bush and Michael Hervieu perform an interpretive dance in a shadowy loft studio—was a little too abstract for a station defined by straight-to-camera performances.
Yet they couldn’t ignore the cinematic follow-up. "Cloudbusting" boasted a bona fide Hollywood star, Donald Sutherland, who’d been accosted by Bush at his Oxfordshire hotel room in another bid to raise her Stateside profile. And its depiction of the touching relationship between misunderstood scientist Wilhelm Reich and his young son Peter proved once and for all that artists didn’t need to lip-sync for their life to make a music video compelling.
By the time the promo for fourth single "The Big Sky," a self-directed blend of cosplay, sci-fi imagery and flamboyant stage performance, dropped, MTV was a fully signed-up member of the Bush fan club. They even went on to gift her consecutive Best Female Video nominations at the VMAs.
The critical response, in general, had been much kinder, too. Indeed, while Rolling Stone dismissed Hounds of Love as an album that both “dazzles and bores,” the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times were far more complimentary, with the latter describing it as "a dark and dreamy masterpiece."
Given the relatively commercial appeal of the album's four singles, it’s easy to forget just how disorienting "The Ninth Wave" gets. "Waking the Witch" finds the youngster in trouble visualize being burned at the stake amidst some demonic growls and unnerving tumbling percussion. Equally disconcerting is "And Dream of Sheep," a stark piano ballad in which she drifts in and out of consciousness as her body succumbs to hypothermia. And just as you become accustomed to the solemn tone, along comes "Jig of Life," which sounds like the kind of traditional Irish ditty you’d expect to hear blaring out of a pub on St. Patrick’s Day.
Lulling so many Americans into such a false sense of security may well be one of Bush's most impressive feats. But what’s almost as remarkable is how many stuck around: her next three LPs all went Top 50 (1993’s The Red Shoes even charted two places higher). And her status as an icon has since been cemented by several GRAMMY nods, her obvious influence on the likes of Tori Amos, Regina Spektor and Anohni and the sheer number of fans who traveled across the Atlantic to witness her first tour in 35 years.
Interestingly, Bush dedicated half of her Before the Dawn London residency setlist to Hounds of Love, performing the second suite in its entirety as well as its three biggest hits. This time around, Rolling Stone recognized that one term you can never throw at Bush is boring.