Sunday, 28 September 2014

Before The Dawn

The Apollo, Hammersmith

This week has seen me experience what I am certain will remain the most memorable and thrilling live concert of my life.

If you have known me for a long time, or if we have ever had a significant discussion about music, you will probably be aware that I have always been a huge fan of Kate Bush. There are a number of artists that I admire with almost as much reverence, but Kate has always been No. 1, despite lengthy absences between album releases, several decades out of the public eye and a non-existent live career.

I'm one of those people who doesn't remember much of my childhood, particularly, and even my teenage years are not that distinct in my memory. Certain events, yes, and I'm sure the memories are buried there somewhere... but it seems most people have much more clarity in their recollections.

One of my stronger memories, however, is of the first time I laid eyes on Kate Bush - and of course who could forget the first time they heard her?

It was a Sunday evening in early 1978 and, it being 6.00pm, naturally my backside was glued to the floor about a metre away from the TV. Australians above the age of 40 will know why. Suddenly I and every other music fan in Australia was confronted with the image of a waif-like creature with wild auburn tresses in a flowing red dress, a flower in her hair, dancing on a hillside - part ballerina, part gymnast. A heart-shaped face with gigantic hazel eyes and imperfectly large ears. A dancer's lithe, slim body. But the sound, the SOUND! I remember with utmost precision that my mouth actually popped open in shock and it remained agape for the next four minutes. 

Wuthering Heights

What WAS that?! 

I remember my Dad laughing and making what he thought was a terribly good joke - 'Ho ho ho... That's going to be No. 1, Ree!' (chuckle, chuckle, chortle). It was, and it stayed there for three weeks.

As this mad apparition swooped and pirouetted on that hill my 14-year-old self somehow sensed a shift in the universe, an adjustment to the order of things. I was to experience the same sense of import that same year, the first time I heard Johnny Rotten spit out the lyrics of Anarchy In the UK. (Yes, I realise that was released in 1976 but punk took a while to filter through to a young Catholic teenager living in the western suburbs of Sydney.)

Being a voracious reader, the imagery of the lyrics was not lost on me; and I realised here was a kindred spirit. Whilst the charts were full of people singing about Macho Men (sic), Stayin' Alive and Dancing in the City, here was somebody bringing to life Emily Brontë's swirling, dark masterpiece, without apology. Wow. Unbelievable.

It was love at first sight.

You can renew your acquaintance with this iconic piece of music and imagery here. If you've never seen it before (you will surely have heard it, unless you've been living under a rock for several decades), you're in for a treat. Remember that the young woman you are watching was just 19 years old at the time. But unlike the hordes of youngsters promoted on 'talent' shows these days, there is no imitation. The song has been written by Kate. The dancing was choreographed by Kate. She had already written and recorded her first album which would be released shortly, playing all of the piano and keyboards herself. She would then release her second album nine months later. 

If you need further convincing, please listen to this, possibly the most beautiful of all Kate's songs - she wrote it at age 14, and recorded it at 16. 

Numerous hits followed in the next few years. Every time we saw her, Kate was showing us another angle of her persona. Forget Madonna and her 'reinventions' - Kate was there first. She was always herself, but revelled in exploring a connection with historical figures and in stepping into the shoes of others.  Many a teenage boy's dreams were inspired by Kate's sensational ensemble for Babooshka.

Video-wise, perhaps one of the most accomplished was Running Up That Hill. A perfect pop song with a Fairlight synthesiser hook that even more than 30 years later people instantly recognise, the video is a sublime demonstration of modern dance in what looks like a grey future world - an army of lookalikes swamping the individual. There's a lot of conjecture about the meaning of the lyrics, the most logical one to me being Kate's desire to experience orgasm from a male's perspective. Never one to shy away from tricky subjects, our Kate.

My favourite video, however, has always been Cloudbusting, with Kate herself playing a young boy and the divine Donald Sutherland lending his considerable talents as the boy's inventor father. 

The subject matter of Kate's songs is notoriously eclectic, and eccentric. Being stuck under a frozen river, witches being drowned, a military weapon that can kill with sound from a distance, dancing with Hitler... heck, there's even one about a washing machine. Throughout her career she's referenced and drawn inspiration from great literature and art. In her early work particularly there's a level of eroticism - she's never been afraid to embrace that side of her nature. Her lyrics are often challenging and even the most die-hard fans have had cause to scratch their heads and utter 'What the HELL, Kate?????

In recent years she's expressed the great joy of ordinary things - summer evenings, the songs of blackbirds, the glories and mysteries of winter (thank you Kate). I cannot help but be thankful she came along when she did, because she sure wouldn't get a look-in these days. 

Over the years it's been difficult to be a Kate Bush fan. Since 1978 she has only released nine albums of new material, one greatest hits (The Whole Story) and one Director's Cut of selected songs. We waited TWELVE YEARS for Aerial after the disappointment of The Red Shoes in 1993. Every five or ten years there has been an interview, occasionally a sighting. She's frequently described as a 'recluse' but I don't think that's true - she's just chosen not to engage with the world of celebrity that usually forms part of a modern musician's life. She's raised a son and lived quietly in the Berkshire countryside for most of the last couple of decades.

Army Dreamers - just look at that beautiful face

So when it was announced about six months ago that Kate would be performing not one, not two, but FIFTEEN concerts in London later in the year, naturally it beggared belief. Aside from an occasional guest appearance this notoriously shy goddess had not performed live since 1979. Thirty-five years. She's barely been spotted in public in all that time. The music world was thrown into a frenzy. What was she thinking?! Was it some kind of elaborate joke? Then she decided to add an extra seven dates. Tickets to all 22 concerts - Before the Dawn - sold out in fifteen minutes. Anybody who is anybody has begged, borrowed and stolen to get their hands on tickets.

As a member of the official online fan group I was given a one-use-only code to purchase tickets 24 hours prior to the general release. It appeared that this event was meant to be, for me - all my planets were in alignment as we would be returning to the UK to live the month before the concerts started. Sadly, I missed out due to a technical issue with my UK credit card. Good friend Roy then offered to try and buy tickets the next day - but he too was thwarted because so many people tried to buy tickets, the system continually crashed. And so it seemed the dream would Never Be Mine.

Fast-forward six months and Roy messages me to ask if I'd be interested in a ticket - he has a friend with a 'spare' and Roy himself will be in Australia at the time, so he has declined the friend's offer. Would I be interested? Is the Pope Catholic?!

So that's how I came to be part of a very select number of people who will experience Kate Bush performing during their lifetime.

Many reviews have been written already by fans like me, all of us struggling to eloquently express our feelings. I've been to concerts before where there's a strong sense of loyalty and emotion for the performer. But I've never experienced anything like this. Even with the concert having been delayed for well over an hour due to technical difficulties (and almost cancelled altogether - gasp!), the great outpouring of love for this woman was palpable. 

Every moment was pure Kate. She didn't stride onto the stage in splendid isolation - she entered in a kind of detached conga-line with her back-up singers and other performers, barefoot and grinning from ear to ear. Throughout the concert she swirled about the stage, lost in her own special universe. One of the most amazing things about Kate Bush is she's completely unselfconscious. Take a look at her videos and you'll see facial expressions and arty-farty dance moves that on anybody else would be cringeworthy and seem affected. But somehow you know it's genuine, and it's right. I'm pleased to confirm that the sweet 19-year-old girl that we all fell in love with in 1978 is still there. 

Part of the joy and pure emotion of these concerts is the fact that none of us ever expected to have the opportunity. Long ago Kate's fans accepted that we would never breathe the same rarified air as our idol. To have that irrefutable (we thought) fact turned on its head has tilted the Kate Bush fan's axis. 

The evening was a phantasmagoria. Amazing lighting, incredible costumes, several set changes - a complete theatrical production - not your average concert.

If you'd asked a Kate fan what their ideal concert would be, I'm guessing 9 out of 10 would hope to hear the second side of Kate's seminal album The Hounds of Love in its entirety (this is harking back to the days of the LP, remember). That second side was subtitled The Ninth Wave and remains her most complete, inspired work - an incredible journey through the dark recesses of her mind and the bright, sunlit corners of her heart. It's heavily influenced by Irish folk music and at the time of its release, sounded like nothing else. 

Well, we got our wish! Experiencing all the theatre of those songs was more than I ever could have hoped for. I know what I have always imagined, listening to that music, but to see Kate's own interpretation was beyond my wildest dreams, and I confess to shedding a tear or two as the final track The Morning Fog was lovingly sung (along with a good percentage of the audience if the rapid retrieval of tissues and dabbing of eyes shortly thereafter was anything to go by). There is a line towards the end of the song - 'Do you know what? I love you better now...' Every single person in the room instantly felt Kate was directing that line at us, and as she then gestured towards the audience, it would appear we were right. Simultaneously we were all hoping she knew we felt the same about her - spontaneous applause and a standing ovation ensured she did. We're all older and wiser, and - do you know what? We love her better now.
The second half of the show (there was an interval) comprised most of 2005's Aerial album.  More amazing costumes, including Kate turning into a gigantic black bird.

What a privilege, to be admitted into Kate's universe for a few hours. She was everything I had hoped she would be. 

Kate had specifically requested that people not use their phones or cameras to take photos or record any of the show - she wanted us to be 'in the moment' rather than concentrating on our screens. To my knowledge, every single person in the audience complied with that request. For that reason I don't have any photos of the show itself, but below are a few shots taken before the performance and during the interval.

The gorgeous foyer of the Hammersmith Apollo (formerly known as the Hammersmith Odeon)

In recent years I've come to realise there's an additional reason for me to love Kate.  

My poor mother, the horrors she was forced to endure with a music obsessive like me as a daughter. My punk years in particular must have been difficult to a chronic migraine sufferer - a cacophany of thrashing guitar, crashing drums and discordant, screaming vocals constantly issuing from our little stereo, day and night. The only artist I ever remember her taking an interest in was - you guessed it - Kate. Mum herself had a beautiful singing voice, and prominent amongst those scant memories of my early childhood are the days before I started school, playing at home, reading (always reading!), and Mum singing all day long as she did the housework. I think she could appreciate Kate's perfect, clear tones as well as the drama and creativity of her work. 

More particularly, Kate gave me a very important shared moment with my mother. Anyone who's had the experience of watching a loved one fade away from a terminal disease will know there's not a lot of communication possible in those final days. As I sat by the bedside in her last hours, I tried to connect with Mum for the last time. I was determined to give her one last piece of earthly beauty before she slipped away. I placed my iPod headphones in her ears and played a couple of Kate's more gentle pieces, including A Coral RoomKate lost her mother at about the same age as I lost mine, and this song was her expression of grief, sharing with us her fondest memories of a beloved parent

Mum's laboured breathing seemed to become less so for the short while that Kate was in her ears. Despite being in a state of semi-consciousness, I do believe she was cognisant of the music, and it was soothing to her. Kate's was the last music my mother ever heard, in the dark, early hours of 25 May 2006.

In 2009 I recall standing in an empty and snow-covered Farnham Park, my tears flowing without restraint as I listened to A Coral Room for the first time since that awful night almost three years before. After Mum died I'd de-selected it from all my devices because I just couldn't bear to hear it. I can listen to it now, but I still cry every time.

Before the Dawn. It seems fitting that's what Kate has chosen to call her return to the stage, melding the saddest event of my life with one of the most uplifting.

I will remember this experience always.

All smiles after the concert

Until next time,
- Maree ox


  1. Lovely, poignant, eloquently written and reflective piece...thanks Mareexxx

    1. Thank you Kris. I hesitated to leave it this long, but then I decided people can simply close their browsers if they're bored! xo

  2. Wow. Beautiful piece. Thanks for sharing. Alan!