Thanks to a dramatic and prominent placement in the TV show ‘Stranger Things’, Kate Bush’s nearly 40 year old single ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ found itself on the top of the UK singles chart. It is therefore the perfect time to reflect on the album from which it is the opening track, ‘Hounds of Love’. As new, younger audiences once again discover Kate Bush, some may also discover that the 2005 track ‘Hounds of Love’ by The Futureheads is a cover of Bush’s title track. The influence of the album is therefore clear, but what is it about Kate Bush’s fifth LP that makes it a classic?
Released in 1985, Bush had been quietly working away on ‘Hounds of Love’ for three years. When her previous album, ‘The Dreaming’, had failed to perform as well as her earlier releases she had spent time getting to grips with whether chart performance or artistic vision were more important to her. As her first self-produced album, Bush had learned lessons while crafting ‘The Dreaming’ and while her label was not fully enthused about her taking sole control over her next release, Bush felt that her artistic vision was of prime importance. Knowing that time spent in a studio was going to be impossibly expensive, she built a new studio in a barn near her family home and began writing demos using a synthesizer and sampler, the Fairlight CMI, and a drum machine, the LinnDrum. The resulting tracks were fully formed enough and of appropriate quality that Bush decided not to re-record them but instead to add overdubs using live instrumentation and additional vocalists. The result is an organic album that was one of the first to blur the line between acoustic instrumentation and digital manipulation.
Opening with what has gone on to become arguably the album’s biggest hit, ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ begins with a slow atmospheric build before a bass heavy drum beat joins in and is quickly joined by the now familiar synth melody. Perhaps Kate Bush’s biggest hit, it displays the power and dominance in her vocal delivery, filled with strength and determination. Using this powerful delivery, she tells her lover that she’d swap places with him so they could more easily understand one another, and if she was successful it would be the end to her problems. As an underrated feminist anthem, told from a place of dominance, Kate Bush controls the narrative in a way that suggests that if she only swapped places with her partner, she’d be able to be free of them, “running up that hill with no problems”. Behind the lyrics is a synth melody that captivates thanks to the way each note swells, short and fast while the underrated star of the show is the tense LinnDrum beat that never relents, as if Bush spends the entire track running up the hill feet stomping, her deal made with God. It’s no great surprise that this track was selected for ‘Stranger Things’ given the power dynamics, earworm chorus, and tension driving percussion. Notably, Kate Bush wanted to name the track ‘A Deal With God’ but relented to label pressure due to a fear that the track wouldn’t gain sufficient radio play in highly religious countries, likely meaning Ronald Reagan’s United States.
Next up is the title track, made famous by Kate Bush and then made famous all over again thirty years later thanks to a cover by The Futureheads. Beginning with a sampled voice from the horror movie “Night of the Demon”, Bush again builds on a solid LinnDrum base, using Fairlight to provide the atmospheric synths while live strings round out the piece. Taking the idea of being hunted almost haunted by love, Bush sounds thrilled from adrenaline while still being horrified at the thought of being chased by the hounds of love, as if they were instead the dogs of war.
Side one concludes with the track ‘Cloudbusting’, a song based on the book ‘Book of Dreams’ by Peter Reich about his childhood with his father, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. For many it’s likely to be a niche subject, and yet it is an immediately catchy, entertaining and absorbing listen that captures the love between a father and son so perfectly that it peaked in the top 20 in the singles chart.
Over five tracks, the first side of ‘Hounds of Love’ tracks through a range of relationships and the ways love can centre our experience, interpretations and desires. Four of the tracks would be released as singles, and all would make the top 40. Using propulsive percussive rhythms, synthesised and sampled melodies, and overdubbed instrumentation, Kate Bush would show the horizons of artistic Pop music. On the flip side, Bush introduced a second suite of tracks, ‘The Ninth Wave’, that would fit together conceptually to tell the tale of a woman adrift, lost at sea. Inspired by time sitting by the Irish Sea, Bush would delve into a Prog suite for the ‘80s weaving a tale from a female perspective.
Beginning with ‘And Dream of Sheep’, the second side opens with a piano ballad before ‘Under Ice’ makes use of the Fairlight to craft a synthesised string atmosphere that is cold and dulled. Like a stripped back, percussion-less form of Electro, it feels more like a film score, cinematic in scope and redolent in imagery thanks to Bush’s vocal narrative. It is then followed by another piano-based track, ‘Waking The Witch’ that features a range of sampled vocals including that of Robbie Coltrane, before it diverts into a glitchy, hyperactive, demonic electronic track. Standing out even more so is ‘Jig of Life’, an Irish Folk instrumental track with a carefully paced Bush vocal that undoubtedly acted as an influence on PJ Harvey’s later style; part Patti Smith spat out poetry, part growl.
‘The Ninth Wave’ is a rich and eclectic journey that traverses genres and styles, drawing more on acoustic instrumentation but still making use of Fairlight to shape sampled instruments into new textures. Most notably, the percussion slows and takes a back seat, acting more as like a traditional rhythm section to keep a beat rather than forcing tempos and adding additional emphasis, texture, and emotion into tracks as is found throughout the first half of the album.
Very much an album of two clear sides, the first half of ‘Hounds of Love’ helped cement Kate Bush as a singular Pop artist capable of crafting artistic tracks with hooks that could elevate her to the top of the charts. The second side showed that her ability to craft a narrative, her determination to indulge in artistry over all else, allowed her to weave a suite of tracks few could get away with in the mid 80s, long since Prog had its heyday. By sampling live instrumentation and then sequencing it using the Fairlight, Kate Bush was able to dial in sounds that were at once familiar but slightly abstracted, crafting synth patterns and melodies that were warmer and more absorbing than many of her contemporaries. It was an innovative triumph that came about from a determination to do it herself, to trust in her demos and her songwriting, and to create something new. Soon enough sampling, and the wonders of new genres and creations it would allow, would be in full flow. In 1985, Kate Bush was making it look effortless.
A bolder, more assertive Kate Bush is on display throughout ‘Hounds of Love’, and yet thanks to her trademark delivery she counters and calms this with an abundance of tenderness. While the subject matter on ‘Hounds of Love’ is not the most approachable, Bush’s vocals carry an empathy and a wisdom that makes them amenable and cordial to others’ interpretation. While there’s a valid argument to be made that the innovative use of sampled acoustic instrumentation alone makes this album a classic, instead it is Bush’s songwriting, from hits to deep cuts, that make ‘Hounds of Love’ such a respected album and a well deserved classic.