Kate Bush at the Cusp of the Digital Music Revolution

Ben Dumbauld, TeachRock Director of Content

Were I to retreat somewhere for a year to write a book on music, I would most likely emerge with a detailed account of the British music scene in the late 70s and early 80s. I’ve always been fascinated by that moment in history, when burgeoning digital technology opened up a space of seemingly unlimited possibilities. While exorbitantly expensive, early samplers and digital synthesizers hinted at a future when a musician’s studio could sit comfortably in a corner of their living room; where any sound could be captured, edited, arranged, and made into music from a single electronic box. What became possible technologically shaped what was possible musically. This was the era of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, Brian Eno’s exploration into ambience and minimalism, and Peter Gabriel’s early experimentations after Genesis.

But for me, the artist who best understood and exemplified the emerging sonic potential this new technology offered was Kate Bush. From her 1978 debut release The Kick Inside, it was clear Bush molded music to her own ends, wrapping it around literary characters (as she did in her first hit, “Wuthering Heights”), her own personal experience as a woman, and intellectual flights of fancy.

By her third album, Bush’s imaginative song narratives were matched by an equally imaginative sonic approach. Released in 1980, Never for Ever was her first encounter with emerging synthesizers and drum machines–particularly the CMI Fairlight, one of the very first digital samplers. While one of the intended uses of the Fairlight was to approximate real instrumental parts in a song, Bush often took a more experimental approach by recording and editing everyday sounds. These sounds were then used to accent the narrative and emotion of a given song: in “Babooshka,” the sound of breaking glass occurs when a wife’s deception goes awry; the sound of a cocking rifle rhythmically accompanies a mother’s lament in “Army Dreamers,” the recorded description of an atomic explosion establishes the atmosphere of the heart-wrenching “Breathing.”

With the release of her 4th album, The Dreaming, two years later, Bush used these emerging technologies to their full potential. Often regarded as her most experimental record, the album begins with an explosion of sampled drums, voices, and synthesized horns in “Sat In Your Lap” before moving on to a myriad of themes characteristic of any Bush album. There are narrative songs about a botched robbery, a battlefield in Vietnam, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Harry Houdini’s attempts to reach his wife from beyond the grave, and meditations on spiritual separation and the destruction of aboriginal homelands. Each song, radically different, is a sort of sonic tapestry weaved of Bush’s disparate vocals, shrieks, and wails, conventional instruments, real-world samples, and undefinable electronic sounds made possible by the emerging technologies of the early 1980s.

While The Dreaming pushed the boundaries of what a pop song was capable of sonically, her subsequent album, 1985’s Hounds of Love, proved that such techniques could be used to create more ambitious and encompassing works. Side B of the album features The Ninth Wave, a suite narrating the story of a shipwrecked woman. Each song moves into the other, revealing an increasingly surreal account of someone slowly submerging into the ocean. The same formula would be used for Aerial, released two decades later, whose second half consists of a suite of songs that detail the subtle pleasures of a day outside, and features Bush singing counterpoint to field recordings of birdsong.

Bush self-produced every album she released after Never for Ever, no doubt with help from digital technology. Her innovative work applying such tools as a means of complement pop music has resulted in a lineage of musicians, producers, and singer songwriters have paid her homage, including Prince, Regina Spektor, Charlie XCX, Grimes, Coldplay, Big Boi, Adele, Björk, Tricky, St. Vincent, Johnny Lydon, Florence Welch, and Rufus Wainwright, among others. Without doubt, Kate Bush was a foremother of music’s digital revolution.