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Kate Bush – Hammer Horror

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If I could go back in time and do any job in history, I’d probably choose to be an executive at EMI in the late 1970s. That way I’d get to sit opposite Kate Bush and ask “what’s the new single about then?” and she’d say something like “well, I play an actor who bags the lead role in the Hunchback of Notre Dame after the previous one dies on set, and then I get haunted by his ghost” – at which point a rictus grin would spread across my face while I wondered how the hell I was going to market this.

Kate Bush remains unique in the pop canon in that she has never really released what you might call a conventionally themed single (1994’s And So Is Love probably comes closest), preferring to take on rather more – shall we say – niche subjects, such as nuclear war, bank robbery and gender swapping. Pop is obviously much richer for it, but for a brief moment in 1978 it looked she was destined to become a two-hit wonder when Hammer Horror, the first release from her second album Lionheart, stopped at no.44 on the UK singles chart.

This was absolutely not how things were supposed to go – only a few months earlier the rather divisive Wuthering Heights had sailed to no.1, and even at the age of five I was aware of how polarising it was. My school playground was divided into those who pranced around doing Kate impressions at playtime and those who thought we were nutters. I suppose the risk with Wuthering Heights was that it’s strangeness would mean it ended up as a novelty record, and as we all know, novelty success isn’t often repeated. But when The Man With the Child In His Eyes followed it into the top 10, it looked like that pitfall had been successfully avoided.

And then came Hammer Horror.

I’m not sure what anyone really expected of a brand new Kate Bush single at this point, but apparently it wasn’t this. Opening with a fabulously dramatic string and piano pairing, it’s definitely something of a curiosity. The creeping, tentative verse gives way to a jagged, almost violent rock chorus and the whole thing veers wildly between the two styles, with Kate alternating her upper and lower registers like she’s got two heads. It may be a bit Rock Follies at times, but it’s a gift to interpretive dancers.

You could argue that it was just too strange to be a hit, but the follow-up, Wow – a song about theatrical luvvies containing pop’s best – and probably only – reference to the other use for Vaseline, went to no.14. For Kate, oddity was never a barrier to success, so I think Hammer Horror – despite its helpful just-before-Halloween release date (27th of October), was just a bit unlucky.

A lot of people tend to think that Lionheart, coming just nine months after The Kick Inside, was a bit rushed and lacking the depth and intricacy of its predecessor. I disagree with that: it’s overflowing with ideas, beautifully arranged and the most overtly theatrical of all her albums, which makes perfect sense given that 1979’s Tour of Life was already in the planning stages. I was too young to attend (“mummy, please can I go and see the screaming lady?”), but every bit of that strange, glorious energy was still in place when I went to the Before the Dawn show in 2014. Wept for most of it, couldn’t speak about it coherently for weeks afterwards. Still not sure I can.

HammerHorror_0

 

Entered chart: 11/11/1978

Chart peak: 44

Weeks on chart: 6

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lady Gaga belted this out on American Horror Story: Hotel.

 

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