Under the Ivy: the Life and Music of Kate Bush

Positively uncool

A few years ago, I tried to come up with an artistic manifesto. It didn't get very far, containing only one statement about what art should be: "It should be radically uncool."

If you were looking around for an example of a radically uncool artist, Kate Bush might be the best you could find. As Graeme Thomson puts it, "She is certainly the only musician who, having persuaded Prince to play on one of her songs, would then decide that what the track really needed was a contribution from Lenny Henry." The list of Bush's wondrously uncool collaborators goes on: Percy Edwards (the animal impersonator), Hugh Laurie (pre-House), the Chieftains (before the world turned folk). And how many of us fans - overjoyed to get her latest album, Aerial, on to our stereos after more than a decade of anticipation - were devastated to hear Rolf Harris plonked right in the middle of the mix?

A question that Under the Ivy frequently raises, but never answers satisfactorily, is to what extent Bush at first created and then controlled her public image. Where this becomes interesting, to me, is in the question of parody. Immediately following her first few television appearances, singing "Wuthering Heights" on Top of the Pops, she became what you would conventionally call a target of satire. Thomson describes her as "a gift for comedians" - but a gift is something given. And while it would be going too far to say that Bush wanted to be travestied by Pamela Stephenson and Faith Brown, clearly she must - at an early point in her development - have realised that pursuing her uncool path would draw mockery, where it did not provoke outright hostility. The Sex Pistols may have used the NME, but Kate Bush used Ask Aspel.

This is a very badly written book. If Thomson were never allowed near a simile again, it would be a good thing for the English language. However, he has done a fantastic amount of research, is extremely sympathetic to his subject, and - when he is not being figurative - can hit on exactly the right thing to say.

In the epilogue, Thomson writes: "Before Kate Bush, there was no Kate Bush." It is important to remember this. One of the subplots within Bush's career, as presented here, is her struggle to escape from being the sweet little singer-songwriter girl with great tits. There is a huge amount of male lustfulness in Under the Ivy, not least from Thomson himself. David Bowie's producer Tony Visconti recalls, or rather doesn't recall, Bush playing him a batch of new songs: "I was sitting behind her on the couch, and all I can remember is the Bush bum swaying in my face. I'm sure I loved the music, too . . ." An image emerges, particularly during her early career, of the five-foot three-inch Bush surrounded by hairy, lechy, smirking, muso blokes. Regarding the collaborators on her second album in the late 1970s, she said: "They were all taking the piss out of me a bit."

Cut to 1984 and the making of Hounds of Love, and here is the bassist/producer Youth saying: "She commands a great respect in the room and everybody is clearly looking at her to lead, and she's very able to do that." The distance between these two statements reminds us that, as there was no Kate Bush before Kate Bush, it fell to Kate Bush - and no other woman - to be Kate Bush.

In this context, Thomson's comment about "the extraordinarily positive way in which Bush views men" is mind-blowingly true: "She is surely unique among female songwriters in that her canon contains not a single song that puts down, castigates or generally gives men the brush-off." This is even more amazing when you flip the remark around and think of how much rock music by men is founded entirely on misogyny. Whenever Robert Plant was stuck for a lyric, he would start telling us how evil his woman was. Bob Dylan, though more verbally inventive, has always used
female-bashing as a fallback. And now try to think of a male artist who has never put down, castigated or brushed off women . . .

Perhaps Bush's unfailing positivity is to do with one of this biography's most common refrains - that she is a very, very nice person. It may also be to do with her "astonishingly sensible upbringing" in a bohemian yet essentially middle-class family. (The middle classes are, naturally, radically uncool. So perhaps it is worth mentioning those other musical greats from similar boho-bourgeois backgrounds, Syd Barrett and Nick Drake.) But at the end of this book, it's hard not to think that there is something transcendental about Bush's obvious love for a world that puts so much effort into something so trivial as being cool.

Under the Ivy: the Life and Music of Kate Bush
Graeme Thomson
Omnibus Press, 346pp, £19.95

Toby Litt's latest novel is "King Death" (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela