When Kate Bush decamped to her newly installed home studio in 1983 to begin recording Hounds of Love, the focus of the fourth TBVO, her career was at a crossroads.
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Famously “discovered“ by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour when a family friend played her demo tape for the Floyd guitarist, Bush’s debut album, The Kick Inside, was released in 1978. When the album’s lead off single, “Wuthering Heights,” hit number one on the U.K. charts it catapulted Bush to stardom.
But by the time she released Hound of Love seven years later, at the ripe old age of 26, Bush was portrayed by the press as a washed-up relic.
From the beginning, Bush’s ethereal prog-pop was out-of-step with the punk movement of the late-1970s. Many rock critics dismissed her as an airy fairy hippie holdover. Meanwhile, the overly sexist British tabloid press seized on Bush’s age and appearance to portray her as a shallow sexpot. “I wasn’t looked at as being a female singer-songwriter,” Bush told NME in 1982. “People weren’t even generally aware that I wrote my own songs or played the piano until maybe a year or so after that. The media just promoted me as a female body.”
EMI’s attempt to capitalize on the success of The Kick Inside didn’t improve Bush’s critical standing. While The Kick Inside’s second single, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” was still scaling the U.K. charts, the label rushed Bush back into the studio. Without enough time to write new material, Bush had to draw on songs rejected for The Kick Inside. She also was stuck working with The Kick Inside’s producer Andrew Powell, with whom Bush hadn’t always seen eye-to-eye. The resulting album, Lionheart, hit the shelves just nine months after her debut. It kept Bush on the charts and in the headlines, but it was a creative and commercial step backwards.
“It’s not the way I would’ve done it,” she told Mojo years later. “Because with the first record, I’d had all the time from being 12, 13, right up until when I made the record, to accumulate a big pool of songs that I then chose the best ones from. The second record was made very quickly after the first. I just didn’t like it. That was a really big turning point.”
On her next outing, Never for Ever, Bush took over the production reigns with the help of engineer Jon Kelly. It was a major step in Bush’s assertion artistic independence. “Obviously the production is such a big part of what the song is,” she told Claude Van Heye in 2005. “It’s every bit as much what the song is as the lyric and...I mean, it is the song.”
Unlike the hurried Lionheart, Bush took more time to craft Never for Ever and began experimenting with the Fairlight CMI, an early digital sampler and synthesizer that Bush was introduced to by Peter Gabriel, whose third solo record featured Bush on backing vocals. The Fairlight arrived too late in the process of recording Never for Ever to fully transform the album. But thanks to Bush’s maturing songwriting, inventive production, and tentative deployment of the Fairlight, Never for Ever was a more sonically adventurous and accomplished work than the underwhelming Lionheart.
Following Gabriel’s lead, Bush banned the use of cymbals and hi-hats on Never for Ever. “I always felt there was this slightly sort of MOR quality to hi-hats,” she explained. “It just sounded a bit passé. So that was one of the key things, make sure there’s no hi-hats.” Instead, Bush sampled aerosol can sprays with the Fairlight to deploy in the sonic space usually occupied by hi-hats.
Moving forward, the Fairlight would become Bush’s primary writing tool. By today’s standards, the Fairlight CMI (which stood for “Computer Musical Instrument”) was rudimentary. As Michael Moran wrote in his 2011 tribute to the Fairlight, “The Fairlight sampled in mono, with a fairly grainy sounding 8 bit resolution and had a bandwidth of around 2100 Hz to 30 kHz. If there’s a mobile phone in your pocket right now, chances are that it can sample better than that.”
Despite its sonic limitations and clunky interface, Bush used the Fairlight to transform her already highly idiosyncratic take on piano-based singer-songwriting into something wholly unique and largely indescribable. “Discovering the Fairlight gave me a whole new writing tool, as well as an arranging tool…,” Bush explained in 1990, “With a Fairlight you’ve got everything, a tremendous range of things. It completely opened me up to sounds and textures, and I could experiment with these in a way I could never have done without it.”
Gilmour, who had the unique experience of producing Bush’s earliest demos and working with her after she’d achieved stardom, saw how the Fairlight helped Bush achieve sonic ambitions that had previously been out of reach. “She can see and hear exactly what she wants to get and then she has to struggle to try and achieve it,” he told Mojo in 2018. “I think she found that the Fairlight gave her much more control and helped her to achieve her vision.”
In her early use of the Fairlight, Bush prefigured production techniques that would become more and more common as the use of computers in music advanced. “She responded instinctively to all the sonic and cultural implications of the Fairlight,” John Walters, who helped Bush program the Fairlight, told biographer Graeme Thompson. “She was naturally ahead of her time and, of course, went on to do much more with it as the instrument developed. She made the most of it for her own idiosyncratic music.”
Bush’s next album, 1982’s The Dreaming, would be her first solo production. It would also be the first album not to include any of the backlog of songs she’d written prior to 1978.
After the release of Never For Ever, Bush installed an eight-track home studio, where she would work up the demos for The Dreaming using piano, a Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer, and Linn electron drums. “The songs were very different from anything I’d ever written before,” she told one fanzine. “They were much more rhythmic, and in a way, a completely new side to my music. I was using different instruments, and everything was changing; and I felt that really the best thing to do would be to make it completely different.”
In addition to being her first solo production, The Dreaming was Bush’s first true Fairlight album. After using it only sparingly on Never For Ever, Bush “was determined to use its varied sound palette on almost all the songs [on The Dreaming],” as Thompson put it. “There were a lot of things I wanted to experiment with…. I particularly wanted to play around with my voices because there are a lot of different backing vocals and things like that,” Bush told an interviewer. “So the different textures were important to me. I wanted to try and create pictures with the sounds by using effects.”
But the Fairlight’s possibilities combined with the freedom of self-producing caused Bush to overdub and layer The Dreaming’s songs to the point of near-unmanageability. “I couldn’t bear it after a bit, actually,” Hugh Padgham, the house engineer at London’s Townhouse Studios, told Thompson. “She didn’t really have any idea of the sonics, and didn’t understand why, if you put 150 layers of things all together, you couldn’t hear all of them.” Bush admitted later that in the process of recording The Dreaming she began “losing sight of my direction” and felt stuck. Eventually engineer Paul Hardiman, who’d help give Wire’s first two albums their lean sound, stepped in to help Bush streamline the album. Bush called finishing the album “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Creatively, the struggle paid off. The Dreaming was a stunning artistic and sonic leap forward for Bush. But critical reception for the album was mixed, and the public was even less kind. While The Dreaming peaked at number three in the U.K., it stayed there only 10 weeks on the way to becoming Bush’s lowest-selling album.
In the years since, The Dreaming has received a critical reevaluation and come to be regarded as a underrated classic. At the time, however, it was seen as a dagger through Bush’s commercial viability. As Thompson summarized in his excellent biography: “[The Dreaming] had cost her a fortune, way beyond the advance she received, took her a year of almost solid recording, hopping around studios and between engineers, and it had pushed her to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. The company hated it and it killed her as a singles artists for four years.”
Following the disappointing reception of The Dreaming, Bush retreated from the public eye. “It took me four or five months to be able even to write again,” she told the Daily Mail in 1985. “It’s very difficult when you’ve been working for years, doing one album after another. You need fresh things to stimulate you. I decided to take a bit of the summer out and spend time with my boyfriend and with my family and friends, just relaxing. Not being Kate Bush the singer; just being myself.”
During her self-imposed exile, rumors swirled that Bush had had a mental breakdown, developed a drug or food addiction, or retired from the music industry. In reality, Bush spent 1983 turning the barn on East Wickham Farm, her parents’ suburban London home, into a 48-track studio, complete with two Studer A80 24-track machines, her own Fairlight, and a Soundcraft mixing desk (later replaced with a state-of-the-art Solid State Logic board). “I don’t like working in commercial studios,” she explained to Van Heye. “For a start, they’re so expensive. But also, I don’t like the dissipation of the focus. ‘Cos you might be in the middle of doing a vocal and you look through to the control room and you’ll see somebody walking in looking for a pair of headphones or something.”
Given the relative commercial failure of The Dreaming, EMI wasn’t keen on Bush producing herself again. “It was felt that my producing Hounds of Love wasn’t such a good idea,” Bush said later. “For the first time I felt I was actually meeting resistance artistically.” But Bush pressed forward, with the East Wickham studio providing a layer of insulation from record company oversight.
With the help of Del Palmer, Bush’s partner and bassist, Bush began demoing tracks for Hounds of Love in the summer of 1983. “The writing and recording processes,” Thompson wrote, “finally dissolved into one another, a much longed for development: using the Fairlight as her primary compositional tool, Bush was now creating in sound and had ceased to distinguish between the two.”
Demos were built around drum patterns created on the Linn and samples from the Fairlight. Instead of throwing away these demos and starting from scratch, Bush used them as the foundation for Hounds of Love in order to preserve “initial spark of emotion and inspiration in each song,” as Thompson put it.
Rhythm took center stage on Hounds of Love. “When I was initially coming up with the songs…I would actually get Del to manifest in the rhythm box the pattern that I wanted,” Bush explained at a 1985 fan club convention. “As a bass player I think he has a very natural understanding of rhythms and working with drums, and he could also get the patterns that I could hear in my head and that I wanted. It’s…through him that we started off with the rhythmic basis that was then built upon.”
As recording progressed, Bush would call musicians to the Wickham studio to overdub on top of the demos-turned-masters, sometimes augmenting the Linn and Fairlight, other times replacing their sounds with live instruments. But guitar, bass, and even Bush’s own piano played much-reduced roles on Hounds of Love. Compared with The Dreaming’s kitchen-sink approach, the songs on Hounds had room to breathe. The resulting sound was more linear and atmospheric than anything Bush had created before.
“I believe she has an extremely clear impression of the atmosphere she wants to create. How she achieves that involves the experimentation, but she has an incredible, innate sense of what works for a song,” Haydn Bendall, one of the many engineers who worked on the album told Thompson. “[On Hounds Of Love] we were using Fairlight and Linn drums a lot, and they’d come out with these funny little sounds which you might think weren’t very interesting, and she’d say, ‘Isn’t that wonderful, isn’t that great?’ She’d make it great, and in a way that’s the mark of a genius, to make something fabulous out of a simple idea. She’ll just have a little kernel of an idea that would develop into a huge blossom.”
“Running Up That Hill,” which would become both Hounds of Love’s leadoff track and its first single, was one of the first songs Bush wrote for the album. According to Thompson, “The track’s most instantly recognizable components — the riff, that searing Fairlight part, and the rumbling electronic drums, programmed by Del — were present from the very beginning, located right at the heart of the song.”
Like many of Bush’s songs, the lyrics to “Running Up That Hill” — which repeatedly plea for “a deal with god” — are evocative and lend themselves to varied interpretations, even though the actual inspiration for the song was fairly straightforward. “It’s very much about a relationship between a man and a woman who are deeply in love and they’re so concerned that things could go wrong — they have great insecurity, great fear of the relationship itself,” Bush explained in 1985. “It’s really saying if there’s a possibility of being able to swap places with each other that they’d understand how the other one felt, that when they were saying things that weren’t meant to hurt, that they weren’t meant sincerely, that they were just misunderstood.”
Like “Running Up that Hill,” the second and third singles from Hounds of Love would also be drawn from the album’s first side.
“Cloudbusting,” the album’s second single, was based on A Book of Dreams, a memoir by Peter Reich about his father Wilhelm Reich, the controversial psychoanalyst who, among other things, claimed to have discovered a universal cosmic energy called “orgone” and to have created a machine that could harness orgone in order to create rain. Eventually, the Food and Drug Administration sought to stop Reich from selling devices that he claimed could increase “orgastic potency” in humans. When Reich defied the FDA, he was sentenced to two years in prison, where he died of a heart attack.
It’s heady stuff for a pop song. But in Bush’s hands, it becomes a universal hymn to the mystery of childhood (“You’re like my yo-yo, that glowed in the dark / What made it special, made it dangerous”) and love for a parent. As Thompson explained in his biography:
The genius of “Cloudbusting” is that it doesn’t even attempt to distill Reich’s bizarre, brilliant, esoteric and in some respects highly dubious life into a five-minute song. Instead, it focuses on the profoundly touching relationship between a child and his father. Peter Reich witnessed the ransacking of his father’s labs, watched the FDA take him away, and visited him in prison many times. He was 13 when Reich died, and A Book Of Dreams is written from the universally accessible perspective of a son celebrating the magic of a mysterious and powerful man, a man who can make rain, and his feelings of pride, helplessness, loss and confusion (Reich Jr. never can make up his mind about the legitimacy of Orgone and the “cloudbuster”) following his death…. It’s a wonderfully balanced song, both sad and strangely ecstatic, and filled with a real understanding of a child’s love for a parent; for don’t we all, as children, want to believe that our parents can perform miracles and cosmic sleights of hand?
One of the Hounds of Love songs lacking either bass or guitar, “Cloudbusting” is propelled by a sparse, repeating string phrase and an insistent drum pattern, which in combination with the chorus (“I just know that something good is going to happen / I don’t know when / But just saying it could even make it happen”) imbues the song with an oddly uplifting power given the subject matter.
The title track, eventually released as the album’s third single, highlighted Bush’s playful side. Once again devoid of either bass or guitar, “Hounds of Love“ is structured around a gated reverb-treated, syncopated drum pattern.
Bush wrote in her fan club’s newsletter that “Hounds of Love” was about the fear of love. “I wonder if everyone is perhaps ruled by fear, and afraid of getting into relationships on some level or another,” she explained. “They can involve pain, confusion and responsibilities, and I think a lot of people are particularly scared of responsibility.” Bush has bloodthirsty hounds stand in for this abstract fear, and on the backing vocals, Bush personifies the hounds, substituting “doggy ‘ow,’” as Bush put it, for traditional “oohs.” (In case the joke was lost on listeners, the album’s cover showed Bush nuzzling with her two dogs, Bonnie and Clyde, and the album’s liner notes included “A big woof to Bonnie & Clyde” from Bush.)
The second side of Hounds of Love was dedicated to “The Ninth Wave,” a seven-song story about “a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.” “It’s a bit like...my first novelette,” Bush joked to Van Heye. “I enjoyed doing that. It was really hard work. But I thought it was the beginning of something really interesting. It’s just the idea of taking a piece of music on a journey, which was what opera and classical music used to do all the time.” Sonically inventive throughout, the individual tracks that compose “The Ninth Wave” are by turns gentle (“And Dream of Sheep”), jarring (“Waking the Witch”), hypnotic (“Watching You Without Me”), and joyous (“The Morning Fog”).
Unlike The Dreaming, Hounds of Love was both a critical and commercial success.
Released in August 1985, “Running Up That Hill” reached number three on the U.K. singles chart and number 30 on the U.S. Hot 100, Bush’s highest U.S. chart position since 1978. The single’s success gave the album a boost when it was released a month later, reaching number one on the U.K. charts and number 30 on the Billboard 200. It was also a success in Canada and across Europe, selling over a million albums worldwide.
As fans scooped up copies of Hounds of Love (the first Bush album released on vinyl, cassette, and CD simultaneously), the music press lavished the album with praise.
With traces of classical, operatic, tribal and twisted pop styles, Kate creates music that observes no boundaries of musical structure or inner expression…. With no plans to tour America, Kate is likely to remain obscure on this side of the Atlantic. While her eclecticism is welcomed and rewarded in her homeland her genius goes ignored here — a situation that is truly a shame for an artist so adventurous and naturally theatrical.
If I were allowed to swear, I’d say that Hounds of Love is f***ing brilliant, but me mum won’t let me.... All human life contained herein. Dramatic, moving and wildly, unashamedly, beautifully romantic.
[O]ur Kate’s a genius, the rarest solo artist this country’s ever produced. She makes sceptics dance to her tune. The company’s daughter has truly screwed the system and produced the best album of the year doing it.
In 1992, Bush remembered the release of Hounds of Love as one of the greatest moments of her career:
I never was so pleased to finish anything if my life. There were times I never thought it would be finished. It was just such a lot of work, all of it was so much work, you know, the lyrics, trying to piece the thing together. But I did love it, I did enjoy it and everyone that worked on the album was wonderful. And it was really, in some ways, I think, the happiest I’ve been when I’d been writing and making an album. And I know there’s a big theory that goes ‘round that you must suffer for your art — you know, “It’s not real art unless you suffer.” And I don’t believe this, because I think in some ways this is the most complete work that I’ve done, in some ways it is the best and I was the happiest that I’d been compared to making other albums.
That doesn’t mean that she didn’t agonize over it until the last minute. Ian Cooper, who mastered all of Bush’s albums from The Dreaming to The Red Shoes, remembers the mastering of Hounds of Love taking the longest time. “I won’t say it was a nightmare, but…I have a funny feeling we were still doing it when it was released,” he told Thompson. “I remember asking her when it was coming out, and she said, ‘It’s out!’ I said, ‘Then why are we doing it?’ and she said, ‘I think we could this and that right.’ It’s tempting to surmise that nothing is ever quite finished to her satisfaction.”
Indeed, to both the joy and (sometimes) consternation of her fans, Bush never sees any of her work as complete. “I mean, it’s always quite a disappointing process for me, listening back to stuff,” Bush told Van Heye in reference to the process of remastering of her catalog in 2018. “Because either I think, ‘Oh, I should’ve remixed that, or I shouldn’t have done this.’ Or, ‘That was good, but I didn’t make enough of it.’”
As we’ll see, Bush’s dissatisfaction with her past work throws a few curveballs at fans seeking out the best digital mastering of Hounds of Love.
Most fans have surmised that there are five digital masterings of Hounds of Love: 1) 1985 CDs with a track one peak value of 96.5, including the Japanese “Black Triangle 1 ” release, 2) 1985 CDs with a track one peak value of 1.00, including most common European and U.S. releases, 3) a rarer 1985 CD with a track one peak value of 78.4, 4) the 1997 CD remaster, which includes six bonus tracks, and 5) the recent 2018 remaster, released on CD and as a hi-res download.
Making matters more complicated, Bush decided at some point that she preferred the single mix of Hounds of Love’s third track, “The Big Sky,” to the album mix. As a result, some post-1985 reissues and remasters have the single mix, while others retain the album version. The 1997 remaster, for example, contains the album version, while both the 2011 Fish People reissue (which contains the 1985 mastering, not the 1997 mastering) and the 2018 remaster contain the single mix.
The first mystery that this TBVO can solve is whether the three 1985 CDs with different peak values are, in fact, different masterings. The straightforward answer is that they aren’t. The GIF below rotates through several Hounds of Love tracks, comparing Har-Bal’s “average power” graphs across the “Black Triangle” CD (grey), a 1.00 peak value CD (green), and a 78.4 peak value CD (yellow)2:
It’s not clear why different pressings have such different peak values, but they’re all undoubtedly the same mastering, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Cooper is the only one credited on any of the 1985 CDs3.
The 1997 CD, on the other hand, undoubtedly features a new mastering by Chris Blair. The 1997 remaster (red) features significantly more bass and often a touch more high end than the “Black Triangle” (grey):
Unfortunately, the 1997 is a victim of the “Loudness War.” Whether measured by crest factor DR score or R128 dynamic range, Blair’s 1997 CD is markedly less dynamic than the 1985 Cooper CDs. A comparison of “Running Up that Hill” waveforms in Audacity bears out this fact:
Ultimately, the 1997 remaster comes across as harsher and more compressed than the 1985 CDs. While the bonus tracks might make it worth owning for some, these same bonus tracks can be found in both 1990’s This Woman’s Work box and Part II of the recent Remastered box.
That leaves the recent 2018 remaster, which was done by Pink Floyd engineer James Guthrie in collaboration with Bush.
Unlike the 1997 remaster, there’s no problem with compression on the new Guthrie/Bush remaster. On some songs, the 1985 CDs have slightly higher R128 numbers, while on others the 2018 remaster’s numbers are higher. Overall the 1985 CDs score either a 12 or a 13 DR, while the 2018 remaster is a 12 DR. In other words, Guthrie and Bush did an excellent job preserving the album’s original dynamic range.
EQ-wise, the 2018 remaster adds a modest amount of low end to most tracks, but usually less than the 1997 remaster, as this GIF comparing the “Black Triangle” (grey) to the 2018 remaster (blue) across several tracks demonstrates4:
The slight bass boost is tasteful and provides more impact to the tracks without compromising the overall balance.
Upon close listening, it’s apparent that the 2018 remaster has a greater degree of depth and clarity than the 1985 CDs.5 The sound stage on the Guthrie/Bush remaster is deeper, and the remaster evinces greater micro detail than the 1985 mastering, despite not being EQ’d to be brighter. Likely, this greater resolution is the result of a better transfer using more recent analog-to-digital conversion technology. While fans have spotted a few minor errors elsewhere in the 2018 remasters, the Hounds of Love remaster done by Bush and Guthrie is spotless.
Sonically, it’s easy to give the 2018 remaster the TBVO crown. However, the aforementioned presence of the single mix of “The Big Sky,” rather than the original album mix, might be a deal breaker for some fans. The differences are subtle, but I prefer the single mix. However, placing it on the remaster is clearly an act of historical revisionism. Ultimately, the sonic edge of the 2018 remaster makes it worth seeking out even for those who prefer the album mix of “The Big Sky.” Just hold on to your original CD for the original mix.
Speaking of her tendency to revisit and revise old works — which culminated in the 2011 release of Director’s Cut, an album of reworkings of her old songs — Bush explained, “[T]hat’s all part of hopefully…a continuing process that you can take into the next record and maybe try and correct it and not make the same mistakes again. But it’s very hard because, of course, we all tend to repeat mistakes, don’t we?”
While that may be true for mere mortals, the trajectory of Bush’s career between her second album and Hounds of Love was one of constant refinement and fixing mistakes, culminating in one of the best albums of the 1980s and, arguably, Bush’s greatest work.
With Hounds of Love, Bush had taken full artistic control and made the most of it. “I’d seen other artists self-produce and more often than not, it doesn’t come out very well,” Killing Joke bassist Youth, who played on Hounds of Love, told Van Heye. “Occasionally, you can get a masterpiece, and I think Hounds Of Love is one.” Hear, hear!
1. Note that this mastering was reused on the 2005 Japanese CD.
2. When necessary, Har-Bal’s loudness matching option, which doesn’t affect the frequency response, was used to create clearer graphs.
3. For those interested, I did compare several original vinyl rips to the 1985 CDs, and both formats seem to share the same Cooper mastering.
4. Interestingly, the EQ the 2018 remasters is very close to the EQ used for the 2014 Audio Fidelity vinyl release, based on a comparison of the former and a hi-res rip of the latter.
5. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played Audirvana Plus. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack. Most critical listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-1000 subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including NAD HP50, Sennheiser/Massdrop HD6XX, Audeze LCD2 Classic, and Focal Clear.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.