As pop music increasingly becomes a matter of single-click instant access, it has begun to lose one of its most important qualities, the sense of mystery and anticipation that used to elevate events into truly memorable moments. We no longer eagerly await an album’s release, or wonder what makes a feted new artist so remarkable: we Google them, go “ho-hum”, and move on.
That’s why David Bowie and Beyoncé chose to spring their latest albums on us so unexpectedly, substituting surprise for anticipation. Shows, though, are a different matter: these days, with live performance such a big-ticket, premium income-stream for heritage acts, months of planning and development, and that element of surprise, are squandered within hours as fans rush to be the first to upload their shaky first-night cellphone footage onto YouTube. Although not all shows rely on either anticipation or surprise: some rely on gorging the audience in spectacle and sensation, while others are just periodic check-ins with old chums, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or the Stones. The best are probably those that mark some rite of passage, a perfect storm of anticipation, surprise and wonder.
No recent shows, however, have been quite as elevated by mystery and anticipation as Kate Bush’s upcoming performances at the Hammersmith Apollo. Perhaps the closest equivalent would be the reunion concerts by Cream and Led Zeppelin – except that both those involved simply the resuscitation of familiar experiences, the revisiting of memories. But save for a single run of shows in 1979, there has been no performance dimension to Kate Bush’s art and career, despite her celebrated grounding in mime and dance. No other artist – not even Michael Jackson or Madonna – has so completely relied upon filmed video for the visual promotion of their music. No sooner had her career begun, it seemed, than she retreated into the reclusion usually reserved for more established acts.
When I interviewed her a few years ago, she explained that her disappearance was a deliberate response to the distractions of celebrity. “I enjoyed being a performer, I enjoyed the tour that I did, it was very exciting,” she said. “But I experienced celebrity with the first hit of success, and it wasn’t what I’d been working towards, which was to be a writer. So quite early on, I made the decision that I wanted to spend more time making records than doing promotion, because my desire wasn’t to be famous, it was to do something interesting from a music point of view.” The result was that Bush became instantly recognisable but oddly indefinable, an intriguing paradox that became one of the keys to her career’s remarkable longevity: age did not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety – instead, it became a cloak of invisibility, behind which she was able to avoid the ravages of time and trends.
It also enabled her to operate outside the prevailing fashions of the music scene, her creations not reliant upon obvious musical precedents, but ranging freely across the sonic landscape. Her debut album opened with whalesong, and she became one of the first pop artists to incorporate ethnic elements, alongside jazz and classical, into her music; more recently, albums such as Aerial and 50 Words for Snow have stretched the boundaries of pop potential to the point where she’s now working in a way that has as much in common with ECM chamber-jazz and contemporary classical music as pop. Given which, it’s hard to imagine how she’ll present them in live performance. At the very least, her taste for fantasy, and disregard for the restrictions of straight performance, give her a broad canvas to work upon.
We should probably expect longer, more amorphous pieces, in the manner of those recent albums. Her Director’s Cut project effectively re-imagined songs written for The Sensual World and The Red Shoes as they might have been recorded by the artist who made Aerial. Which suggests that any back catalogue may be similarly transformed to reflect her more mature preoccupations. And while the setlist surely has to balance personal artistic interests with audience expectations, Bush is no longer the helium-voiced youngster of her early hits, so the main focus will doubtless be on the more mature and textured recent work – the warm, swaddling sounds of “Mrs Bartolozzi”, “King of the Mountain” and 50 Words for Snow, along with a judicious selection of career highlights: “Running Up That Hill”, certainly; possibly “Wow”; and maybe even “The Man With the Child in His Eyes”, one of her earliest compositions which might transfer well to her mature style. But which to leave out? Could she possibly not do “Wuthering Heights”? At the very least, it would require a significant change of key, and there may be a temptation to feature it instead in a nostalgic show-opening video of her younger self, a strategy used recently by both Elton John and the Stones.
Certainly, given her interest in visual direction, with the film The Line, the Cross and the Curve, and her various promotional videos, some form of filmed interludes and backdrops will surely be an important element of Bush’s live show. But whether we can expect the massive LCD screens of specially-filmed content is another matter: economies of scale dictate that that kind of production only becomes viable over a long period, as with Roger Waters’s world tour of The Wall, or Elton John’s Las Vegas residency of The Red Piano. And with the best will in the world, it’s hard to envisage an introvert like Bush gearing up for a global jaunt.
Neither should we expect too much dancing. However beneficial any yoga regime she might follow, it’s simply unbecoming for a woman of a certain age to be prancing about, and certainly not in the leotard and leg-warmers of the 1979 shows. And the sheer effort involved in singing and dancing simultaneously has driven younger performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna to miming. Indeed, re-watching that 1979 show recently, one notable element was the way that “Hammer Horror” relied on upfront, undisguised mime, with a recorded vocal playing as Bush was manhandled about the stage by dancers, a troupe of which will surely operate on her behalf in the new shows.
We can probably also expect multiple costume changes, as in those early performances; though whether this show will likewise include a credit for “Illusions, Magic & Mime” remains debatable.
Another intriguing surmise concerns the possibility of guest appearances by them heavy people: surely Stephen Fry, reciting “50 Words for Snow”? Perhaps Elton John, duetting on “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”? Maybe the Trio Bulgarka, or Nigel Kennedy? And it would be a shock if her mentor Dave Gilmour, at least, were not to grace a song. Though Rolf Harris, one suspects, will not be playing “The Artist”. But ultimately, it’s going to be Kate Bush’s show, and one anticipates something rather special. I just hope it ends in similar manner to her last performance, with Bush clutching flowers, waving deliriously to the crowd, and jumping for joy.