Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn – distant memories and moments of pleasure

Promotional image from Kate Bush's Before The Dawn stage show

Promotional image from Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn stage show

As Kate Bush releases a live recording from her storied Hammersmith residency, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby reflects on the shows and her enigma as a performer. 

Were you there?

I was there.

Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn residency at the Hammersmith Apollo was undoubtedly the most anticipated show since – God knows. Led Zeppelin’s reunion show at the O2 Arena? The resurrection of Jesus?

But unlike Led Zep (though, admittedly, not unlike Jesus), Bush’s shows are still shrouded in mystery and intrigue. The “no cameras” rule meant that, unless you were there, the sheer scale of the shows are impossible to comprehend. If you were there, it is difficult to remember. This wasn’t rock & roll. It was theatre.

As pretty much every article you have read on both the shows and the album makes abundantly clear, Before The Dawn was Bush’s first set of shows since 1979’s The Tour of Life (the second date of which, incidentally, was performed at the Liverpool Empire). Up until 2014, this was her sole tour. 28 dates in Europe, just 10 of those outside the UK. An absurd undertaking, encompassing music, art, poetry, magic, dance and mime. They were a benchmark for all future merges of music and theatre.

Kate never intended to quit performing live. Initially, she planned to make two more records and return to the road. At the end of those two records – 1980’s Never For Ever and 1982’s The Dreaming – the shows still didn’t materialise.

The reasons for this have never been clear. Some have suggested that once she had succeeded so impressively with The Tour of Life, she felt no need to do it again. Perhaps part of the reason is the material on The Dreaming itself. Even for one of our most eccentric artists, that album is bizarre. Bush herself has referred to it as her “I’ve gone mad” record.

Given her background, it is surprising that she felt no need to tour again. Not only had she served her apprenticeship in the pubs and clubs of the country at the behest of EMI whilst they were still developing her as an artist, but in 1976, Bush attended the Covent Garden Dance Centre, where she studied with Lindsay Kemp – who was also a mentor to David Bowie, teaching him mime and dance and appearing in the original run of Ziggy Stardust shows at the Rainbow Theatre.

I went to see a show, and it was Lindsay Kemp,” Bush later said. “I’d never seen anything like it before. And what he was doing was he was using movement without any sound at all, which was something I had never experienced…and it suddenly dawned on me that there was a whole new world of expression that I hadn’t even realised.”

Her knowledge, enthusiasm and abilities when it comes to this kind of performance are apparent in her music videos. From her movements in the famous video for Wuthering Heights, to the dual personality in Babooshka, the vignette of This Woman’s Work and whatever the hell was going on in Sat In your Lap, she was as much an actor as she was a musician. She inhabited the characters in a way few musicians are able.

In terms of dance, the video for Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) is arguably the finest example of her abilities. The music video featured Bush and a gentleman performing an interpretive dance in a studio. Unlike the majority of the videos on MTV at the time, the piece feels very classical. There are no bandwagon jumping lapses into break dancing.

She told TV show Good Rockin’ Tonight in 1985; “During the gap between the last and this album, I’d seen quite a few videos on television, that other people had been doing. And I felt that dance, something that we’d been working in, particularly in the earlier videos in quite a fore way, was being used quite trivially, it was being exploited: haphazard images, busy, lots of dances, without really the serious expression, and wonderful expression, that dance can give. So we felt how interesting it would be to make a very simple routine between two people, almost classic, and very simply filmed. So that’s what we tried, really, to do a serious piece of dance.”

As it happened, though, MTV didn’t use the clip in America. Instead they used a performance of the song from Wogan. According to brother and collaborator Paddy Bush; “MTV weren’t particularly interested in broadcasting videos that didn’t have synchronised lip movements in them. They liked the idea of people singing songs.”

The next time a tour was mooted was in 1993. If you listen to The Red Shoes, the album feels like it was designed for the live stage. It is hard to imagine a song like the opener Rubberband Girl appearing on any of Kate’s more laboured, previous albums. The feel of the record is much more live and features much less experimentation. There are also more guest stars showing up for a jam, from Eric Clapton, to Jeff Beck and the frankly bizarre realisation of having Kate Bush, Prince and comedian Lenny Henry performing a song together on Why Should I Love You? (Kate would return the favour to Prince by appearing on My Computer on his Emancipation album in 1996 – we’re guessing Henry’s invitation got lost in the post).

Once again, the tour never materialised. Instead, Bush released the corresponding short film The Line, the Cross and the Curve, which she herself has referred to as “A load of bollocks”.

That isn’t to say she never performed live. She occasionally popped up to perform when least expected. She appeared on television shows to perform her latest singles, such as Top of the Pops and the aforementioned Wogan.

For paying audiences, her performances were much further between. Charity shows seemed to be a semi-regular. In 1986 she sang Breathing at Comic Relief (when it was a stage show as opposed to the studio-based telethon we see it as now), and even performed a comedy routine with Rowan Atkinson.  A year later she was joined by David Gilmour at the Secret Policeman’s Ball for Amnesty International, where they played Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God). 15 years later, she shocked David Gilmour’s audience at the Royal Festival Hall by singing Roger Waters’ lines in Comfortably Numb.

It seems Bush was flirting with the idea of performing specifically around 1986-87. Our favourite surprise Kate Bush performance comes from June 28, 1987. It was Peter Gabriel’s final London date on his So tour. Bush had famously duetted with Gabriel on Don’t Give Up, the second single from the album. For most of the tour, her vocals were taken by another singer. This night, Kate stepped out and sang her lines. There is no professional recording of the performance, and no bootlegged video. But there is bootlegged audio. The sound of the crowd when they realise Bush is present is overwhelming. She is totally drowned out when singing the first chorus, as the ripples of excitement overpower the sound coming from the stage.

Following the birth of her son, Albert, Bush mainly stayed out of the spotlight. Her album Aerial was released in 2005 to great acclaim, and she made just one video to promote it – King of the Mountain. The sparse appearances stopped.

Steve Coogan (of all people) spoke in a BBC documentary of Bush’s apprehension regarding live performance; “About 14 years ago I had a long, long conversation with her because I wanted her to do something, and she wouldn’t do something live with me or do a song with me. And she rang me to tell me why and it turned into a long, long conversation about performing on stage and how terrifying it can be, and how she hadn’t done it in a long, long time and how she felt a little bit scared about the prospect of going out there again.”

All things considered, there was no reason to believe that Kate Bush would ever step on stage again.

Of course, as we all know – something changed. She told Matt Everitt on BBC 6 Music; “I had done two albums in quite quick succession, and I really felt like doing something different. I really wanted to do something that wasn’t going to mean sitting in a studio for a couple of years just putting an album together.”

But there feels like another reason. It was said by those within Michael Jackson’s inner circle that one of the reasons he wanted to do the ill-fated O2 Arena shows in 2009 was that his children were old enough to appreciate it. Similarly, the inspiration for Bush’s Before The Dawn appeared to be her son.

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In the notes she wrote in the residency’s commemorative programme, she admits; “Without my son, Bertie, this would never have happened. Without his encouragement and enthusiasm, particularly in the early stages when I was very frightened to commit to pushing the ‘go’ button, I’m sure I would have backed out…He is a very talented actor and beautiful singer, as you will be witness to, and he brings something very special to the show through his presence”.

Indeed, Bertie was hugely present throughout the shows. He was a backing singer, took lead on a new song in the show’s second half (Tawney Moon) and acted in a segue segment during the show’s centrepiece, a complete performance of The Ninth Wave, a song cycle from 1985’s masterpiece Hounds of Love.

So much has been written about the shows now, and Kate herself has reflected upon them publicly, but if you weren’t there, you really don’t know. No matter how many images you have seen, no matter how many reviews you read, you haven’t got the foggiest.

What happened on that stage for those 22 nights currently exists only in the minds of those who were there. It almost doesn’t feel real. This writer recalls giggling uncontrollably for the first two or three songs, dumbfounded at being in the same room as Kate Bush. People around you were crying. I also let out an extremely audible “Oh shit!” when I heard the opening of Hounds of Love; “It’s in the trees, its coming!”

What was most striking was how normal she appeared to be. Her image being what it is, and given her (probably unfair) reputation as a recluse, to hear her speak so humbly, almost timid and with a slight lisp, was almost jarring. She seemed shocked by the adulation and outpouring of love she received.

After performing a laid back opening set, so began the theatre. The Ninth Wave began with film, and morphed into a theatrical presentation. Bush is shown to be lost at sea. What happened on the screen was reality. What happened on stage was fantasy. She has an out-of-body experience, observes her family, and enters the Earth’s atmosphere. She has said that being lost at sea is the most frightening thing, because aside from the nothingness, you also don’t know what is underneath you. We absolutely recall the claustrophobia of the filmed sequences.

The show’s third act was A Sky of Honey, the second disc of Aerial. In this, Bush portrayed a bizarre bird-woman-thingy watching a 19th century painter and a wooden puppet. We remember returning to our seats after the intermission and seeing a large wooden door had appeared on stage from somewhere. The amount of visuals were too much to take in at once, and we wished we had seen the show again so we could accurately describe the events (over two years later, it is proving hugely difficult). Our abiding memory comes from the end of the set, when a tree grew out of Kate’s piano and remained there during the encore of Among Angels and Cloudbusting.

Before The Dawn is finally documented in a live album, which is released today. It isn’t credited to Kate Bush but, like the shows themselves, The K Fellowship. This appears to be in tribute to those who put their hard work into the shows, an acknowledgment that she could not have pulled off this ridiculous feat without the army of people surrounding her.

But the work of many of these people will go unseen. Despite all of the breath taking visuals, there is no concert film despite cameras being present at a couple of shows. She said on BBC 6 Music; “It has been filmed – so it has been documented…There’s lots of levels to this one for me. One is when you are in a theatre at a live performance, it’s a completely different medium from watching a film…But also, I think music is really an important art form, and I think that the live album is more representative of what the show was than a DVD that we would put together…I remember Elton John had this live album out…17-11-70. I played that to death. I absolutely loved it…The fact that it was invisible is what made it so exciting…So I’m hoping that people won’t feel disappointed.”

She concluded her thoughts on the matter with a dash of hope “I’m not saying that we won’t ever do anything with it, but there are absolutely no plans at all. And I really want to move on and do something new.”

We do hope she changes her mind. It took a number of years for the film of her Tour of Life stop in Hammersmith to be released, and we don’t think it has ever been issued on DVD. Ultimately, at some point, somebody is going to release this footage. We would much rather have Kate’s vision of it than anybody else’s.

But, for the time being, reliving the music will do. As well as the hope that Kate will one day return to the stage and grace us with her presence and her vision once again.