The Story Behind The Song: ‘Wuthering Heights’ Kate Bush’s literary record-breaker
On this day in 1978, Kate Bush achieved something truly remarkable. She became the first female to ever take her own, self-penned song to the number one spot in the U.K. It was a feat of determination and artistic pursuit that would cement the little known Bush as one of Britain’s most creative forces.
We’re going to look back at the incredible talent, skill and musicianship that went into creating this iconic number. From the track’s literary influence to the career it would herald, as we take a look at The Story Behind The Song.
As anyone who has studied English Literature at school will be able to tell you, the track was undoubtedly inspired by the novel written by Emily Brontë of the same name. Written in 1847 and published under her pseudonym Ellis Bell, Brontë’s novel has become a cultural touchpoint across the world.
The novel may have been written in the Yorkshire moors but the song was written in a leafy South London suburb in March of ’77. As London was swollen with the vicious angst and energy of punk, positively pulsating with feverish anger, Kate Bush was creating a masterful pop record: “There was a full moon, the curtains were open and it came quite easily,” Bush told her fan club in 1979.
But while we dream of Bush rifling through dusty books for her inspiration, the story goes that Bush didn’t read the book but caught the final ten minutes of the 1967 BBC mini-series based on the famous novel, writing the entire song in just under a few hours. However, those a little worried that the song has no literary identity needn’t fret, the song is still littered with references to the novel and its protagonist, Catherine Earnshaw.
Bush lifted lines straight from Brontë’s work as she uses Earnshaw’s plea “Let me in! I’m so cold” among other quotations from the novel. It’s clear that Bush truly connected with the song, and in fact, the novel too. She told Record Mirror in 1978, “Great subject matter for a song. I loved writing it. It was a real challenge to precis the whole mood of a book into such a short piece of prose.”
Bush continued, “Also when I was a child I was always called Cathy not Kate and I just found myself able to relate to her as a character. It’s so important to put yourself in the role of the person in a song. There’s no half measures. When I sing that song I am Cathy. (Her face collapses back into smiles.) Gosh, I sound so intense. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is so important to me. It had to be the single. To me, it was the only one.”
She was right too. The song would go on to typify not only Bush the singer but the songwriter too. In a newsletter to her fan club in 1979, Bush offered up some clarity on her process, “I couldn’t seem to get out of the chorus – it had a really circular feel to it, which is why it repeats. I had originally written something more complicated, but I couldn’t link it up, so I kept the first bit and repeated it. I was really pleased, because it was the first song I had written for a while, as I’d been busy rehearsing with the KT Band.”
When looking back at the song one must remember not only Bush’s relative age but her fragility as a new and upcoming artist. Bush didn’t really fit into any corner of the market at the time. She wasn’t the gritty side of rock and roll nor the shiny side of disco. Kate Bush was somewhere in her own world, a world she created using her forward-thinking lyricism. In the case of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ it was a compulsion to tell Cathy’s story.
“I felt a particular want to write it, and had wanted to write it for quite a while,” says Bush. “I remember my brother John talking about the story, but I couldn’t relate to it enough. So I borrowed the book and read a few pages, picking out a few lines. So I actually wrote the song before I had read the book right through. The name Cathy helped, and made it easier to project my own feelings of want for someone so much that you hate them. I could understand how Cathy felt.”
As well as a headstrong writer the song may also have some serendipity attached, as Bush explains, “It’s funny, but I heard a radio programme about a woman who was writing a book in Old English, and she found she was using words she didn’t know, but when she looked them up she found they were correct. A similar thing happened with ‘Wuthering Heights’: I put lines in the song that I found in the book when I read it later.”
Many people would attribute the success of the song to another coincidental moment as despite the Brontë Society allegedly calling the track a “disgrace,” it helped a considerable amount of people with their school exams, “I didn’t know the book would be on the GCE syllabus in the year I had the hit, but lots of people have written to say how the song helped them. I’m really happy about that,” says Bush in 1979. The serendipitous nature of the song’s composition doesn’t stop there either.
“There are a couple of synchronicities involved with the song,” continues Bush. “When Emily Brontë wrote the book she was in the terminal stages of consumption, and I had a bad cold when I wrote the song.” While they’re not quite the same Bush continues, “Also when I was in Canada I found out that Lindsay Kemp, my dance teacher, was in town, only ten minutes away by car, so I went to see him. When I came back I had this urge to switch on the TV – it was about one in the morning – because I knew the film of Wuthering Heights would be on. I tuned in to a thirties gangster film, then flicked through the channels, playing channel roulette, until I found it. I came in at the moment Cathy was dying, so that’s all I saw of the film. It was an amazing coincidence.”
What wasn’t a coincidence though was Kate Bush’s soaring vocal. The singer was making her name known for an acrobatic range and she let loose on this single, in particular. Somehow, it was recorded without overdubs, and according to producer Andrew Powell was completed in one take “a complete performance”.
“There was no compiling,” engineer Kelly said. “We started the mix at around midnight and Kate was there the whole time, encouraging us… we got on with the job and finished at about five or six that morning.” It was a sign of things to come. Bush would have control over her music and her direction. She was determined and dedicated to her work, she would not be manhandled by a major record company or anybody else. She demanded it be the album’s lead single and saw it soon become a record-breaker.
It was the world’s introduction to Kate Bush. Her employment of dance, mime and theatricality began to herald in a new era for pop music. Her iconography, her fame and her stardom only grew from this moment. She inspired a generation with her pursuit to never be boring or feel tiresome, Bush always pushed the envelop, and indeed continues to, and her credibility has always, always rested on her daring. A daring which ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a perfect testament to.