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All She Ever Looked For: Kate Bush’s Never For Ever, 40 Years On
Ben Hewitt , September 7th, 2020 08:02

Kate Bush’s third album is not her most celebrated but, Ben Hewitt argues, it might be her most pivotal – the start of her transition from artist to auteur

No one was safe once Kate Bush arrived at Abbey Road, not even the people in the canteen. Sessions on 1980’s Never For Ever were fun but punishingly long, especially when she and her band spent hours playing with their freaky new toy, a Fairlight CMI digital sampler. One day, they smashed all the studio’s crockery and recorded the different timbres of each shattering cup and glass, just so they could play an arpeggio of breaking-shard samples on ‘Babooshka’. It sounded incredible, but not everyone thought the effect justified the means: the kitchen staff were so appalled, writes Graeme Thomson in his fascinating biography Under The Ivy, that Bush apparently grovelled for forgiveness with Belgian chocolates.

Maybe the final confectionery-based detail in that anecdote is too good to be true, just like the apocryphal tale of Bush inviting an excited EMI bigwig to her house to show him what she’d been working on during a long, mysterious hiatus, only to then present him with some freshly baked cakes. What is beyond doubt, though, is how much hard graft went into her third album, and what a huge turning point it proved to be. Despite being overshadowed by what followed, it’s the start of her transformation into a one-of-a-kind auteur, the record that made her later, greater glories possible. Tired of EMI’s conveyor-belt approach to rushing out LPs, Bush assumed more ownership in the studio and changed the way she made music forever. “The whole thing was so satisfying,” she enthused in 1980. “To actually have control of my baby for the first time.” Forty years later, it’s no less significant: Never For Ever isn’t Bush’s best album, but it might well be the most important.

By late 1979, Bush was long used to battling EMI. If the label had gotten its way three years previously, her first release would have been the fun-yet-forgettable ‘James And The Cold Gun’; Bush pushed for ‘Wuthering Heights’ instead, and duly became the first woman to hit No 1 with a self-written single. Still, there were only so many fights a 19 year old could win in a sexist, stuffy industry. After the success of 1978’s The Kick Inside EMI demanded an instant follow-up, giving her only weeks to write new material and forcing her to mostly use years-old compositions. Worse, they then backed producer Andrew Powell’s decision to again replace her group, the KT Bush Band, with session musicians. The patchy Lionheart, released nine months after her debut, left her cold. “Though they were my songs and I was singing them, the finished product was not what I wanted,” she later told Keyboard.

Never For Ever would change all that. Draining as it was, Bush’s gruelling Tour Of Life gave her the chance to co-produce 1979’s On Stage EP with engineer Jon Kelly, convincing her they could handle a full album together. She ousted Powell and combined the session hands with her band members, swapping them in and out like rolling subs and making them record take after take. Another Bush biographer, Rob Jovanovic, estimates she spent an unprecedented five months writing and demoing at Abbey Road, honing new and old ideas alike, while keyboardist Max Middleton told Thomson the sessions were so exacting because of her obsession with finding “something nebulous that was hard to pinpoint”. For Bush the autonomy was worth savouring, no matter how painstaking the process. “It was the first step I’d really taken in controlling the sounds,” she said, “and being pleased with what was coming back.”

Listen now and you can still hear that fundamental shift Bush spoke of, the birth of some new, peculiar magic. It starts with ‘Babooshka’, in which a paranoid wife impersonates a younger woman to test her husband’s roving eye, and ends up destroying her marriage. It’s a wonderfully wicked premise: Bush based it on the cross-dressing, happy-ever-after hijinks of the traditional English folk ditty ‘Sovay’, but her revamp is less a cheeky romp than a surreal, bitter farce, pitched somewhere between Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and Tales Of The Unexpected. Most startling, though, is the way it sounds, like unearthly Russian folk music: there’s something both archaic and futuristic about its echoey keys, eerie synths and the ethereal strings of her brother Paddy’s balalaika, as uncanny as a Cossack band playing on the Mir space station. Bush sings like two different people, flitting from coy trills to operatic shrieks, and eventually her world comes crashing down in a crescendo of squalling guitars and the Fairlight’s splintering glass.

Then, before the debris has cleared, she drifts into the wispy beauty of ‘Delius (Song Of Summer)’, which recounts how Frederic Delius’s amanuensis, Eric Fenby, took down his idol’s compositions from dictation after he was waylaid by syphilis. All the same, if “moody old man” Delius was difficult, there’s no rancour in its shimmering reverie of hazy sitar and bubbling percussion: it hums with the heady buzz of the olde British countryside, and Bush’s vocal has the crisp, bucolic freshness of dandelion and burdock. Both tracks size up the album’s big themes – the push-and-pull of thorny relationships, the constant churn of emotions – but one bursts into thunder, and the other floats on the breeze.

Never For Ever is a starting point, not a zenith, and those miraculous opening six minutes aren’t as groundbreaking as her later innovations. But it is, I’d argue, the first of her LPs that’s genuinely experimental. Paddy’s greater involvement brought weird new instruments – zithers, kotos, musical saws – although Peter Gabriel introduced Bush to the Fairlight, the sonic equivalent of a Jedi being handed their first lightsaber; there were only three in the UK, and while she wouldn’t master it until later, her instant obsession speaks to how determined she was to bend her ornate style into bizarre new shapes. ‘All We Ever Look For’, her happy-go-lucky reflection on knotty parent-child relationships, mutates into several different forms by itself: it jumps between lurching, whistling synths, the koto’s fluttering strings, and a mishmash of Foley-style noises including chirping birds and hurried footsteps. “The whims that we’re weeping for/ Our parents would be beaten for,” sings Bush over its jaunty, oddball din, like the ringmaster at a baroque big top.

Equally ambitious is the twisting, turning ‘Egypt’, narrated by a blinkered tourist too entranced with romantic visions of the “lands of the Pharaohs” to notice its uglier realities. Its seductive score is full of starry-eyed wonder, all glittering exotica and lithe instrumentation, until that celestial beauty is sucked down into a dangerous underbelly of murky, thrumming electronics. Even the short, stark ‘Night Scented Stock’, with its 50-odd seconds of haunted choral chanting, is a desolate novelty. While Bush’s earlier albums are full of idiosyncrasies, these songs offer a fuller glimpse of the pioneer who’d make The Dreaming, Hounds Of Love and the rest: not just a wildly creative songwriter, but an intrepid explorer and studio perfectionist to boot.

In fact, given Bush’s fondness for revisiting past work, it’s almost tempting to hear some of these tracks as prototypes for the future: the blissful ‘Blow Away’, a tribute to her late lighting director Bill Duffield in which musicians’ ghosts gather in a rock&roll Elysian Fields, certainly foreshadows the grand farewell of ‘Moments Of Pleasure’, the sumptuous highlight of 1993’s The Red Shoes. Others put a new spin on old ideas, with the raucous ‘Violin’ screeching and flailing around like an unhinged sequel to The Kick Inside’s ‘The Saxophone Song’, Bush’s jazzy daydream about listening in rapt silence as a horn player serenades a Berlin bar. The violin, on the other hand, sends her into an ecstatic frenzy, and she hoots and howls so fervently you’d swear the maestro and his fiddle were Thor wielding Mjölnir. “Paganini up on the chimney/ Lord of the dance with Nero and Old Nicky!” she yells, wholly possessed by caterwauling devil’s music.

Sadly, some people weren’t capable of evolving so impressively. Although Never For Ever was largely well-received, a few reviews were grossly sexist, and less egregious offenders nonetheless harped on tired, gendered criticisms. Speaking to ZigZag, Bush blamed the reservations of NME’s reviewer on old hangups regarding her supposed naivety. “He saw me as this chocolate-box-sweetie little thing who had no reality in there, no meaning of life,” she said. It was a common misconception. Naysayers called her twee, but she boldly centred female desire; they dismissed her as cloying, yet The Kick Inside’s title cut wrestled with incest and suicide; they insisted she was whimsical, as if her biggest hit wasn’t about horny teenagers as much as gothic ghosts. Yes, Bush was imaginative, inventive, fantastical. But she didn’t lack substance.

That messy, human drama provides the heart and guts of Never For Ever’s stories, too, however fanciful they get. Often they’re about women deciding their own destinies in fraught, far-fetched situations, old-fashioned expectations of meekness be damned. Some are schlocky: Bush has a murderous ball on ‘The Wedding List’, inspired by 1968 French film The Bride Wore Black, as a gun-toting bride hellbent on avenging the husband killed on their wedding day. “I’ll fill your head with lead!” she crows, vamping and winking with as much gusto as a gangster’s moll. Every so often, however, the slick, romping keys and tough-talking threats die away and are replaced by wheezing, mournful harmonica, and the rampage ends with the broken, pregnant widow turning the gun on herself. Some are shocking: ‘The Infant Kiss’, based on 1961’s Henry James-indebted horror flick The Innocents, finds a governess convinced a child is possessed by her dead lover’s spirit. Bush brings out its lush creepiness with ghostly, trembling strings, more frightened of her own desires than any spectre: “I must stay and find a way/ To stop before it gets too much.”

In that sense, the LP’s final two tracks, despite being the most explicitly political Bush had ever written, aren’t quite the radical outliers they seemed back in 1980. For all their polemical grist, she saw them as personal, poignant stories just like all her others, and although most critics lauded them for reckoning with ‘real life’ in a way her older efforts didn’t, their power transcends such bogus rules of authenticity. They’re spectacular not because their subject matter is inherently weightier than yarns about paranoid Russian wives or grumpy syphilitic composers, but because Bush brings it to life with exactly the same kind of exquisite, singular imagination; they’re political songs that have been twisted and transmogrified so they can exist in her strange universe, not the other way round. If Never For Ever made her a bolder, sharper songwriter, it was still absolutely on her own terms.

And so on ‘Army Dreamers’, a misty waltz about a mother racked with grief and guilt when her son is killed on military manoeuvres, Bush resembles an otherworldly prophet rather than a common-or-garden tub-thumper. “Wave a bunch of purple flowers/ To decorate a mammy’s hero,” she sings softly, sadly, bitterly, her gentle Irish lilt mingling with its sweet, woozy mandolin and the Fairlight’s unnerving samples of cocking rifles (Bush thought the accent, combined with the thwack of bodhrán, had a poetic vulnerability her regular voice lacked – not the last time she’d invoke her Celtic roots for emotional heft). Its gauzy prettiness gives it the air of a nightmare taking place inside a snow globe, twice as crushing for her delicate touch.

Nothing, though, is as devastating as the closing ‘Breathing’, a vision of nuclear doomsday with a horrifying wrinkle, like Threads turned into a poisonous lullaby (Bush, ever prescient, actually beat the film by three years). She sings as a terrified foetus breathing in toxic fumes inside the womb, slowly being killed by the blast’s fallout because mother doesn’t stand for comfort at all in this grim new world. Every element is beautifully brutal: the brooding electronics that fill the air like dangerous smog; the chilling, fairytale-gone-wrong image of plutonium chips “twinkling in every lung”, made extra-disturbing by gorgeous, glimmering chimes; the ominous scientific lecture that builds to a billowing, mushroom-cloud explosion of ungodly noise, followed by the background singers’ dread chant of “We are all going to die!” Most harrowing of all is the strangled, throat-tearing terror in Bush’s voice. In the past she’d shrieked, yelled, whooped and wailed, but she’d never all-out screamed like she screams here, a guttural cry for help that freezes the blood: “Leave me something to breathe!” Bush was as proud of its apocalyptic nightmare as she’d been unmoved by Lionheart. “It’s my little symphony,” she boasted to ZigZag.

Like ‘Wuthering Heights’, Never For Ever made history: the first No 1 album by a British female solo artist. Yet its significance transcends chart milestones. For the next decade Bush would build on its potential to become, as she joked to Q in 1989, the “shyest megalomaniac you’re ever likely to meet”. Whereas her first three albums were squeezed into two-and-a-half years, the subsequent three spanned nine. The next one, the bewildering, avant-garde masterpiece The Dreaming, was the first she produced entirely by herself; soon after, she built a studio-come-sanctuary near her family home and hunkered away to make the flawless Hounds Of Love. Each record introduced new inspirations, new instruments, new collaborators and new methods, all indebted to Never For Ever’s triumph of bloody-minded determination. It doesn’t belong in her imperial period, but that imperial period wouldn’t exist without it.

Whenever people told Bush they didn’t understand Never For Ever’s title, she patiently explained it encapsulated her belief that all things, good and bad, eventually passed. “We are all transient,” she declared in her fan newsletter, and it’s hard to think of a finer choice for an album that, even now, exists in a glorious state of flux. Never For Ever proved how great Bush could be when given the control and freedom she craved. More tantalisingly still, it promised the best was yet to come.