420. ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush

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!

Get up to speed with all 420 #1s so far, before my next recap

9 thoughts on “420. ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush

  1. Kate entered the pop biz as a one off – my room mate at uni remarked she’d have difficulty following it up, as in it smacked of a novelty hit. I begged to differ, but we both bought the single, she sounded like nothing in pop before and her visuals were all part of the carefully choreographed cerebral appeal. People who love Kate really LOVE her with a lifelong loyalty and her influence has been large.

    Its not my absolute fave Kate – that would be Running Up That Hill, Hounds Of Love or This Womans Work – but she never released anything that wasnt worthy and has many others just as or more quirky and interesting. See Sat In Your Lap, Cloudbusting, Babooshka, Army Dreamers….

    1. I see her as a female Bowie – intelligent, creative, hard to pigeonhole, real star quality, adored by their fans… Kate Bush, though, is nowhere near as prolific, and maybe because of that less ‘successful’ in chart terms…

  2. Probably one of the most unusual No. 1s ever, by one of the most individual British female singer-songwriters of all (you could take the word ‘female’ out and it would still be accurate). Even friends and family members who don’t really care for her readily concede that she was astonishingly gifted.

    1. Unusual yes, and a worthy number one single. But for me, the unusual-ness just feels a little too forced, like the centrepiece of a student’s music/drama A-level project… Which given her age when she wrote and released it is understandable. No arguing with Kate Bush’s talent and influence following on from this, though!

    1. She’s uncompromising, and not to everyone’s tastes. I have to admit I’m no expert on her career output… I’d never heard Benatar’s version. It’s fine. The guitars in the original point towards the eighties’ power ballads, and Pat’s completed the job!

  3. Pingback: Recap: #391 – #420 – The UK Number Ones Blog

  4. badfinger20 (Max)

    When I first saw Kate on SNL I didn’t know what to make of her…I was only 11 and of course the first thought was…what a great looking lady! LOL but yea it was like you were listening to a section of a musical instead of a pop song. I do like her voice and I love that an artist like her could have this kind of hit.

  5. Pingback: 421. ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, by Brian & Michael – The UK Number Ones Blog

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