As my insatiable desire for music-related knowledge grew and grew into my teens, however, (and at one stage this entailed owning – and poring over – copies of Guinness’s British Hit Singles, Top 40 Charts *and* Rock Stars books…with Rough Guides’ “Rock” reference book thrown in for good measure) further layers to Kate Bush were revealed that belied that safe, middle-England first impression. Lyrics that dealt with incest, murder, nuclear war; you name it. A four-octave voice. Her fixations with mime and modern dance. One night late in 1995 I decided to give the source material a try and heard, for the first time (I can’t quite recall how or where), 1978’s breakthrough UK#1 “Wuthering Heights”. In the pop music landscape of the time, it stood out like a sore thumb in a sea of gobby punk at one extreme, and formulaic disco at the other; an eerie, other-worldly slice of faux-operatic camp pop inspired by the 1847 Emily Brontë novel of the same name…and all the while sounding like nothing else released before or since (Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is arguably cut from the same ‘70s cloth of high-drama and excess…but even then, only comes close). And all this achieved, of course, at just 19 years old.
Just as for many people, the level of invention, originality and sheer resonance of that song alone triggered a switch in my head; a unique “A-ha, *now* I see what the fuss is about”-moment. Slowly but surely, following an initial foray into 1986’s The Whole Story greatest hits set, the explorations of the back catalogue turned into an ever increasing number of CD purchases. If the “worthy” reputation and air of Kate Bush proved too much for my poor l’il childhood brain to process, then she was instead, in the end, very much the sound of my university-student years; a time of discovery, self-sought altered states, and wilful eclecticism all at once. Somehow, her songs managed to serve as the mood music for both times of introversion or necessary solitude – that early twentysomething feeling of still finding an identity or niche to fit into – as well as, on the other hand, very exterior times of boiled-over rage, abandon or any other kind of cathartic primal scream that might take your fancy (sample the climaxes to “Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake” and “Violin”, if you don’t believe me about the latter).
Despite this emotional richness and primacy to the actual music, however, her songs also mysteriously functioned – to borrow another of Graeme Thomson’s astute observations - as quasi-museum-pieces, frozen in static at the time of their recording and initial release. While our Kate became known as a notoriously pain-staking studio worker – a dozen years between 1993 and 2005 marked the infamous yawning chasm that separated The Red Shoes and Aerial albums, during which many fans simply gave up waiting for a follow-up and presumed she’d retired permanently – she was increasingly averse (as time went on) to public appearances and promotional niceties. These niceties included touring: her one concession to a conventional series of concerts, 1979’s Tour Of Life, was an admittedly elaborate, pioneering and lavish affair both for the time and since. Conspiracy theories (physical exhaustion, incurable stage fright, a fatal accident involving a crew member, incompatibility with motherhood and wanting to lead a non-celebrity life) abounded thereafter as to why it was never repeated, and it attained an almost near-mythic status.
Fast-forward to March 2014, and after a brief period of steadily increasing presence and activity in the public sphere (two albums released within the space of a year in 2011, a re-recorded version of “Running Up That Hill” contributed to the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, and a CBE from The Queen in 2013), the previously unthinkable happened, and it was casually announced that Kate would perform a 22-show residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Social media went into meltdown, and one week later the tickets themselves sold out in 15 minutes.
On show-night itself, such is the level of surreal anticipation that an inexorable edginess kicks in, or an anxiety about safely finding your way to your appointed seat; it’s akin to aiming to successfully catch a plane to the dream-job interview of a lifetime. Once there, the realisation of suddenly being in a community of like-minded fans results in a spontaneous need to connect and story-swap. The couple next to me have travelled from Detroit (and took out the insurance policy of investing in *two* nights’ worth of tickets); another, not far away, have schlepped in from Seattle. One guy in the row behind me proudly sports an unofficial Kate Bush Fan Club badge, which possibly last saw the light of day in 1980 (or thereabouts). For the record, while the majority of the audience appear keen to abide by Kate’s pre-residency request not to film or record the experience on tablets or smartphones, many are scratching the itch to commemorate now; the outside-the-venue-selfie or pre-show-empty-stage both proliferating.
Show-time, and the entrance of the woman herself, stage-right, behind a chorus-line of backing singers shuffling forwards to the opening bars of “Lily”, is sufficient to send the audience into a (relatively civilised) state of having-gone-bananas. Perhaps it’s the realisation that “Kate Bush”, as opposed to being a hologram or figment-of-the-imagination, is not only a flesh-and-blood, embodied, living breathing human being, but also one warmly and openly grinning from ear to ear, singing clearly, powerfully and note-perfectly, and bookending every song with an impassioned, almost exultant “Thank you SO much!” The likes of “Running Up That Hill”, “Hounds Of Love” and “Top Of The City” are greeted not just with disbelieving euphoria but as if they’re harbingers of the Second Coming itself. In this context, even “Joanni” – a previously turgid, relatively unloved album-cut from “Aerial” – sounds re-imagined and newly invigorated.
Following the building of “King Of The Mountain” into a towering wall of sound, in an apparent flash everything then changes: the crowd is showered with Tennyson-inflected “confetti” and we’re ushered into a film of a fisherman making a call to the coastguard (script by David Mitchell of “Cloud Atlas” fame, no less). While “The Ninth Wave” was the one section of the show whose existence managed to leak out in advance, somehow the fact of the spoiler doesn’t seem to matter – partly because mere words don’t seem to do justice to the vividness, immersive-ness, and total theatricality of this song-suite experienced in person. It’s everything your imagination might have promised or hinted at since Side B of “Hounds Of Love” was launched on an unsuspecting public back in 1985, and then some more. The show’s co-opting of Royal Shakespeare Company director Adrian Noble is made plain-to-see here: not a prop or effect is out-of-place or wasted, sets-within-sets appear as if from nowhere and then disappear again just as rapidly. While the unconscious imaginings running through the mind of a drowning woman are arguably the stuff of existential nightmares, this is an absolutely compelling rollercoaster-ride; my eyes were fixed on the stage so much that I momentarily lost the correct sequencing of the songs within the “Wave” itself (brain forgetting to be 100% present, clearly).
Following an interval, the incident- and detail-packed disaster movie, trauma and rescue of The Ninth Wave is well and truly washed away with "An Endless Sky Of Honey", the 42-minute concept-piece/song-suite that comprises the second half of 2005’s Aerial. A sweeping, at times meandering and impressionistic meditation on the cycle of a “lovely afternoon” merging into a flamenco-drenched sunset, ambient starry night and subsequent dawn, it’s a challenging piece to fully attend to and truly appreciate at first listen; and one could argue that in being brought to the stage, it’s found its natural, more intuitive home. The visual hooks placed for the mind's eye to take hold of and use as points of orientation are more organic: a faceless Pinocchio-like figure stalks the stage in Kate's shadow; a giant "tawny moon"; massive projections of birds in flight interspersed with snowflakes; Kate herself literally being given "wings" as the pulse-quickening dawn approaches. It's more expansive and less structured than the fraught first half, and therefore perhaps more "noodly", but it's also beautifully rendered and never less than sumptuous to look at. Humourous touches are also not forgotten, and deployed just when you could be forgiven it's all at risk of disappearing up its own am-dram backside - "Piss off!" yells the Sky's painter (played here by Kate's son Bertie) at the boy-puppet. For all the juxtaposition with the Ninth Wave, in addition, Kate even manages to sneak in one of its vocal phrases ("...this black box!"), possibly just to test who really is paying attention; and a brief human imitation of actual birdsong is followed, not long afterwards, by a drawn-out, nearly-breathless cackle...almost guffawing at the ridiculousness of it all.
Two codas are dangled before the audience after this double-whammy emotional journey; "Among Angels", the sparse, voice-and-piano denouement of 2011's 50 Words For Snow, for which the very term "goosebumps" might have been invented; and a jubilant, mantric "Cloudbusting". The struggle with summarising anything in relation to Kate Bush is the fact that usual mere adjectives don't seem to apply, and that a whole new vocabulary needs to be created (just try and classify "Sky of Honey", for instance, and watch as you tie yourself in knots. Neo-pastoral? Freeform folk-jazz? Postmodern classical in a pop-rock idiom?) If the discernible feeling in the room during the interval was a universal "I almost can't take all this in", the equivalent as the audience troop out is one of contagious gratitude. Grousing about the absence from the setlist of her first four albums, and/or the prominence in the show given to her son, is really - in context - missing the point.
When all is said and written, then, about Before The Dawn, what was learned? It's perhaps first of all an unflinchingly honest and even portrayal of the human psyche in all its duality - wide-eyed, childlike wonderment versus weary experience; the terror and despair versus the joy and solace found in friendship, family and the pleasures of the sensual (and sensuous) world. More importantly, however, it's a long overdue - and yet somehow perfectly-timed - display of one of the rarest and most singular imaginations and talents to ever inhabit popular music being given free rein. Before The Dawn is like any experience - you live it, then you move on - but its backstory, attention to detail and overall sheer artistry will ensure it retains an echo in the minds of those fortunate enough to have been present long after these gigs have faded as a 2014 water cooler cultural talking-point. The mooted film of Before The Dawn will be a wise investment for those who were successful and unsuccessful in securing tickets alike, perhaps for the very reason that we can never be entirely sure what Kate's next move will be, in a career which has steadfastly never followed the script. It's that unpredictability that makes nuggets like this show so precious, and - ultimately - priceless.