The Best Debut Single Ever – Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush

(I wrote a version of this review for a consumer website a while back. They were running a competition for MP3 single reviews. As a huge fan of Kate Bush I had to write about Wuthering Heights and was happy that my review was one of the winners.)

It had to be the single. To me it was the only one.”

January 1978 saw the release of one of the most unusual singles ever to hit the British charts. The first of many ‘firsts’, her debut, ‘Wuthering Heights’ made nineteen year old Kate Bush the first woman to have a number one hit with a self penned song. It knocked Abba’s ‘Take A Chance On Me’, from the top spot and kept Blondie’s first European hit, ‘Denis’, at number two. It’s a song that defies categorisation, which is no doubt part of the reason for the initial mixed reaction from music journalists, many of whom wrote her off as a novelty one hit wonder. Kate’s subsequent album release – ‘The Kick Inside,’ proved them wrong and showed her to be a prodigious talent, containing several tracks written in her early teens.

Kate had to push hard for ‘Wuthering Heights’ to be her first single release. Executives at EMI wanted another album track; ‘James and the Cold Gun,’ to be the first. Rob Jovanovic’s 2005 biography of Kate tells how she sat in tears in an EMI office, insistent that ‘Wuthering Heights’ be the first track. The executive in question, Bob Mercer, told her; “Frankly, I don’t think there are any hits on the album, so I’ll put ‘Wuthering Heights’ out. It will hit a wall and then you’ll understand what I’m talking about.” Thankfully Kate won the argument.

Wuthering Heights was an international hit, reaching number one in several European countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand, although it made little headway in the US, where Kate has only ever had moderate success.

Lyrics

“I just had to write a song about the tormented heroine Cathy calling for the soul of Heathcliff”

Inspired by the classic Emily Bronte novel of the same name, the song is written around a spooky early scene. Mr Lockwood crosses the Yorkshire moors to visit the house of his landlord, an ill tempered man named Heathcliff who lives in an isolated manor named Wuthering Heights. Once there he becomes trapped by a blizzard and is forced to stay the night. The housekeeper puts him in an out of the way room in which he sees three names scratched into a ledge – Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton, Catherine Heathcliff. He finds an old diary belonging to Catherine and reads some of it before falling asleep. During a restless night filled with bad dreams, he hears repeated tapping at the window and, half asleep, he breaks a pane of glass in an attempt to break off the tree branch he thinks is there. Instead an icy hands grabs his own and a sobbing voice begs to be let in. Lockwood tries to shake off the hand, forced to rub it’s wrist against the broken glass, the sheets get covered with blood. He screams in terror until Heathcliff rushes into the room. Instead of dismissing it as a nightmare, Heathcliff rushes to the window and cries out to Cathy.

This, then, is the basis for the lyrics – sung from the point of view of Cathy’s ghost; the spirit of a woman compelled to wander the moors until she can be reunited with the soul of her earthbound lover.

Music and Vocals

It was a real challenge to precis the whole mood of a book into such a short piece”

The tune begins with tinkling piano and celeste, suggestive of an icy cold night. Kate’s striking, almost operatic, vocal, chimes in; ‘Out on the wiley, windy moors…’. Kate’s eerie voice is perfectly suited to such a unique song and is probably the most memorable thing about this track upon first listen. Two verses keep the momentum up before the music sweeps downwards into the chorus. Direct quotes from the novel are used; ‘Let me in! I’m so cold!’

Intense, romantic, passionate, it’s a brilliant attempt to distill the essence of the Bronte novel into four and a half minutes of music. The whole thing reaches an almost hysterical peak both musically and lyrically with shrieks of; “Ooh! Let me have it. Let me grab your soul away,” before the chorus is repeated and a soaring guitar solo takes over. This solo is often mistakenly attributed to Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, (who brought Kate to EMI), but it’s actually played by Ian Bairnson, (Pilot/The Alan Parsons Project). The guitar wings it way over and above the rest of the instrumental fade-out.

Kate played a Bosendorfer grand piano on the recording and there’s a big string section, as well as extensive synthesizer use and orchestral percussion. Kate also treats her voice like a musical instrument. The post punk landscape of the late seventies was perhaps the perfect time for this song to appear; female singers had had the space to experiment vocally more than ever before, and it’s maybe thanks to punk rock that Kate’s experimental and eccentric approach was more acceptable than it would have been in previous years.

Other Versions

“I tried to project myself into the role of the book heroine and, because she is a ghost, I gave her a high-pitched wailing voice.”

Kate recorded a new vocal for the song as a B-side to her 1986 single Experiment IV. The reworked version was the opener to her greatest hits collection, ‘The Whole Story’ released the same year. Some sources claim that Kate felt the vocals on the original version were too ‘little girlish’. It’s a good version, I like the extra wailing towards the end, but on balance I prefer the rawness of the original, which is the one that gets most airplay.

Several other artists have covered this song but in my opinion any cover version of this is a complete waste of time, only one singer can do it justice.

Wuthering Heights and Me

“When I sing that song I am Cathy”

I was nine years old when this song was released. I heard it on the radio and found it strange but beautiful. I was entranced by Kate when she first appeared on ‘Top of the Pops’ and my early admiration turned into a respect that has strengthened over the years. I love many different kinds of music, but to me Kate Bush is transcendent.

This was the first single I owned. If you’d peeked through the windows of our house back in Winter 1978 you would have seen me dancing away to it on the lino, trying to be Kate/Cathy. I’d seen the old black and white film, so I knew what it was about and loved the drama of it all; pure escapism. (Also, if you’d peeked through the windows of my house lately, whilst I’ve been in the process of writing this review, you might have seen me and my little girl prancing away on the living room carpet with the video playing on youtube.) Later that year, inspired to make the leap from Blyton to Bronte, I began reading the classic novel, unaware that the single that inspired me to do so would come to be regarded as a classic track.

Video

“When I perform, I’m definitely someone else. She’s a lot stronger and I wouldn’t be as daring as her”

As if the song wasn’t perfect enough, the video was also mesmerizing. Kate had studied dance and mime and the UK video release for this song in which she wears white and dances in a dark room, was one of the first ever music videos. She combined song and dance in a way that hadn’t been done before, what seems commonplace now was novelty then. It’s a clip that’s often been mocked, but forget about any hints of corniness and just let yourself go with the whole OTT fantasy and it’s sublime. (There were in fact two video releases, the other one features Kate dancing on the moors in a red outfit, and was for US release). ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a work of art and the video is an elemental part of the whole performance which is why, in spite of this being an MP3 single review I feel it’s important to mention. To watch Kate dance to this is to see her throw herself into the part of Cathy’s ghost. Kate becomes Cathy. She doesn’t just sing the lyrics, she lives them. You can see it here:

Finally

I don’t know exactly what chord Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights touches in me or why, but to this day whenever I really listen to this track, it gives me the shivers. In my opinion there is no comparable debut single. Ever.

(All quotes attributed to Kate Bush, sourced from Gaffaweb, the Kate Bush fan website; http://gaffa.org/)

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About tricialo

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4 Responses to The Best Debut Single Ever – Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush

  1. I love Kate Bush! Thank you for your edifying analysis of a truly great single. I played it for my university English class when they were studying the novel 🙂

  2. Lisa*:) says:

    Great article!! I share you love for this incredible, visionary song. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Extended Essay Music – eeb3music4life

  4. I just discovered Kate Bush and this song. I absolutely love it! I love the video where she is in the white dress and looks like a ghost.

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