It takes a moment to get used to our next #1 single. The tinkling piano, the etherealness of it, and then that high-pitched voice…
Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush (her 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 5th March – 2nd April 1978
Even though it’s a very well-known song, it still discombobulates. It still sounds nothing like what pop music should, at least not at first. Out on the winding, windy moors, we’d roll and fall in green… You wonder if it was a risk to write a pop song about a hundred and fifty year old novel, and then to sing it like a Victorian soprano. Pop is usually about the new and the instant, not the ancient and established. There has not been, to my knowledge, a #1 hit about ‘Moby Dick’, or ‘Anna Karenina’. It also means that, after Brotherhood of Man’s references to ‘Figaro’, it has been a pretty high-brow start to 1978.
You only really relax into this record as it slips into the chorus, and a soft-rock vibe takes over: Heathcliff, It’s me, I’m Cathy, I’ve come home now… To be honest, I’ve always thought of this song as some kind of revolutionary moment. But listening to it now, properly, it’s clear that Kate Bush is the star attraction. It’s her wide-eyed vocal performance – and this might be the first time that we really need to recognise the video, in which she performs an extremely intense, interpretive dance to the song, in soft focus against a black background – that makes this a classic.
For musically, there’s not that much to raise an eyebrow. It’s got a catchy chorus, and a hard-rock guitar fade-out that hints at eighties power-ballads to come, but it’s all about Kate, really. She was eighteen when she wrote her debut smash, and only nineteen when it hit #1, making her the youngest artist to reach such heights with a self-penned song.
And if you were going to pick a famous novel to sing about as a teenage girl, then ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the obvious choice. Heathcliff and Cathy’s romance is thrillingly torrid to a seventeen-year-old, then you reach your mid-twenties and the pair turn into obnoxious brats. Still, nowadays, people perhaps know the story more through this record than they do through Emily Brontë’s masterpiece. It’s the ultimate ‘York Notes’ version: a massive novel condensed into a four and a half minute pop song, for lazy students to listen to on repeat the night before a test…
Before arriving at ‘Wuthering Heights’, I did wonder if it would challenge for top spot in my latest recap, coming up next. But I don’t think it will. It’s a great song, memorably performed, but there have been better in recent months. There are probably better songs in Kate Bush’s back-catalogue too, though none perhaps have had the cultural impact of her debut smash.
I must admit that my knowledge of Kate Bush is patchy, beyond this one, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Running up That Hill’ and the like. She is a reclusive star, not one for interviews or photoshoots, or for releasing much music (her last album came out in 2011, and she’s only released two this century). In my mind she is the fairy godmother of British pop… an idea, or a presence, more than a real person. And that’s a pretty cool role to fill.
Finally, ‘Wuthering Heights’ is the 4th chart-topper of 1978, and the fourth to feature female vocalists. If you go back further, and ignore Wings, then six of the last seven #1s have been at least woman-led. Considering that for parts of the 1960s we went entire years without a woman’s voice at #1, that feels worth noting. The next couple of chart-toppers are going to spoil this run but, before that, a recap!