Flippin' 'ell - is she really 50 today? It's also been 30 years since her first album, The Kick Inside, was released. I first heard her in the summer of 1985, when I heard Running Up That Hill on someone's car radio. Being more into The Police and Van Halen at the time--I didn't think much of it except I thought she had a unique voice (I was more used to Stevie Nicks' L.A. husky cocaine drawl and Madonna's plastic pop whine). Fast forward five years and I was able to take away a cassette copy of The Sensual World, her 1989 release, from a record store I was working at. There were a box of returned cassettes that had apparently been there for months and hadn't been sent back for credit, so I managed to convince the shop owner's son that if they weren't going to get credit for them anyway--they were better off in my grubby mitts. Most of them, admittedly, seemed pretty crap--but the Kate album definitely got a few spins.
Fast forward again to 1993 and I was working in another record store--this time when her first album since "The Sensual World", The Red Shoes, was released. By then, I was pretty much on my way to being a total Kate fanboy. The store received a promo copy, which I promptly snatched and listened to a lot...I mean a lot. I then started buying all of the earlier albums, from The Hounds Of Love and The Whole Story..back to Lionheart and "The Kick Inside". I listened to all of them quite a bit, but eventually my faves boiled down to The Dreaming and "Hounds", though I do have a soft spot for Never For Ever as well. In 1996, I found the This Woman's Work boxed set at a Record Show in Hartford. It set me back about $100 and it's the Japanese edition--so no reading the booklets for me. It contains all of the studio albums up to "The Sensual World" (aside from "The Whole Story")..plus two discs of B-sides and rarities and a groovy extra booklet of photos. In '93, there were rumours that she would tour for "The Red Shoes", but unfortunately, that's all they were. She hasn't played live since her English "Tour Of Life" in 1979 and she's only made a few appearances since then...at one of the Secret Policeman's Ball events and at the Q awards a few years ago.
She released a 'companion' film to "The Red Shoes", called The Line, The Cross & The Curve, in 1994. It starred herself, Miranda Richardson and Terence Stamp. She put in a decent (if somewhat wooden) performance, for someone with no formal acting training. After that...not much for a long, long time. In the meantime, a phalanx of younger singers clearly influenced by Kate, stepped up to try and steal her crown. Only Tori Amos got close with the Under The Pink album in '94, but she couldn't match Kate's striving creativity and for me, "The Hounds Of Love" will always be a benchmark of what can be accomplished with enough ingenuity and drive. Amos' "ready-for-MTV" records lacked the sheer weirdness and playfulness of Kate's finest recordings.
I was starting to think she had retired from music, especially when it was announced that her son Bertie was born in 1998. Then, in 2005--she was back with a double-album called Aerial. The tunes were divided up into parts. The first disc featured disparate tunes like Pi, about a mathematician's obsession and The Coral Room, about the passing of her mother. The second disc was a connected suite of songs about time passing over the course of a day. This set-up echoed "Hounds" 20 years before..one side of disjointed songs--the second side a conceptual suite about a woman who's a survivor of a shipwreck and what runs through her mind as she's drifting through the water.
So here we are...and Kate is 50 today. I'm still waiting for DVD versions of "The Line, The Cross.." and The Single File, a videocassette which collected all of her promotional films up to "The Dreaming"--there's also a collection (well, three videos) of her "Sensual World" clips, if you're lucky enough to find a copy (I've got one!). Oh yeah, nearly forgot the Live At Hammersmith VHS/CD pack, filmed during the "Tour Of Life". I wish EMI and CBS would get off their backsides and make this stuff available on DVD. Hopefully, she won't wait another twelve years to release another record. Here are some of my favourite Kate recorded moments:
Army Dreamers ("Never For Ever", 1980) - Her third full-length was a departure from the 'girl-and-her-piano' tone of the first two. She expanded the instrumentation beyond just keyboard and backing band--to encompass sitars, violins, mandolins...and the Fairlight CMI synthesizer. The Fairlight was a very lo-fi, primitive keyboard-based sampler, but Kate (as well as Peter Gabriel) utilised it to it's full capabilities. On "Army Dreamers", it provides a percussion instrument out of sampled rifle bolt clicks. The song itself seems to be about a mother's guilt over her son's death during manoeuvers. She thinks of other things he could have been...rock star, politician, father...but didn't seem to have the options available. "What a waste...of army dreamers", Kate coos while the tune plays in waltz-time. A very subtle anti-war song. In the early 80s, it was Northern Ireland and the Falklands..now it's Iraq and Afghanistan. What a waste of more army dreamers. "Never For Ever" also contains the superb anti-nuclear war song Breathing as it's closing track.
Pull Out The Pin ("The Dreaming", 1982) - "The Dreaming" is probably Kate's most defiantly artistic record. It showed her bucking all of the trends in the early 80s and sales be damned! Of course, EMI probably weren't so happy that one of their lucrative acts decided to create some strange, neo-psychedelic songs about Harry Houdini and bank robbers--but she stuck to her direction in the face of the bigwigs...a more "punk" move than what most of the Class Of '77 were doing at the time. "Pull Out The Pin" is a song about the Vietnam War, but from the Vietnamese perspective. As if that weren't radical enough, the point-of-view is from a female Viet Cong volunteer. She views the American soldiers as "big and pink and not like me" and "they see little light..see no reason for the fight" Pretty ballsy. Contrast that with Billy Joel's Goodnight Saigon, released the same year. I know "Goodnight.." isn't all 'rah-rah..'Nam was kick-ass", but it's sentimental chorus at the end renders it somewhat ineffective. Kate doesn't flinch from the violence, but doesn't glorify it either. It's a means to an end for the song's protagonist--screaming "I love life" as the song nears it's coda. David Gilmour (who 'discovered' Kate in 1974 and financed her first demo recordings), on the run from the rapidly dissolving Pink Floyd, provides a freaky guitar solo and some backing vocals. Top stuff!
The Ninth Wave (Side 2 of "Hounds Of Love", 1985) - Wha? "A whole album side (or...the second half of the CD for you young'uns)?" you ask. Yep...the whole friggin' thing...start to finish. This was where she perfected everything she had done up to that point...and to be honest, it seems to me that she still hasn't bested it. If you're still of the opinion that women can't create progressive rock music--I challenge you to play this suite and tell me that"is" still so. Sure, some of the production sounds a tiny bit dated now--but I don't care. She takes the listener through so many moods and moments and scenes and dreams though the course of "The Ninth Wave" (the name taken from a Tennyson poem), you'll feel like you've listened to a double album. That's how many ideas are packed into this 25 minutes of connected songs. Kate deserves every accolade heaped on her just for this suite alone. I'm not even going to say anymore--just get thyself to a CD player (or turntable) and listen...then listen again. Man, that's good......are you still here???!!!!
Love And Anger ("The Sensual World", 1989) - Admittedly, "T.S.W." seems a bit patchy...but after the triumphal "Hounds Of Love", how was she really going to top it? She shied away for a few years, releasing the "greatest hits" package "The Whole Story" with new single Experiment IV, about a secret military project that goes horribly wrong. "Love And Anger" is another of Kate's relationship songs, where she outwardly goes through her trepidations about the big "L" and being caught between it and her desire to be free. I like the melody of it and Kate's pleading vocal is one of the best on the album. Definitely a stand-out, with an uncharacteristic wailing guitar solo, courtesy her old buddy Dave Gilmour (on hiatus from the revived Floyd). Her laugh at the very end of the tune is a nice touch also.
Oh! England, My Lionheart ("Lionheart", 1979) - The title track to her second album might be a bit twee for your taste, with lines like "Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park", but this sparse piano song features a heartfelt vocal by Kate. The song title plays on England's symbol and her own Sun Sign. The lyrics seem like a wistful look at post-war Blighty..with imagery about Spitfires and over-grown air-raid shelters. In some ways, it echoes Johnny Rotten's "England's dreaming!" battle-cry...but in others, it still celebrates the magic of the "green and pleasant land". It almost seems like the last gasp of 70s hippie reverie, before Thatcher and the conservative culture warriors swept in the 80s. A poignant and beautiful tune.
I could go on and list more - but then you wouldn't feel like reading anymore (if you've made it this far...). I'm just glad she's still on the planet--thanks for all of the music, Kate, and a very Happy Birthday!