On February 17, 1978 the 19-year-old British singer Kate Bush finally released her debut record The Kick Inside to the world. Although Bush seems remarkably young for such a debut, she was even younger when she began to write some of the tracks. While still attending school, she and her family produced a demo tape of over 50 original compositions and shopped it around to record labels. Nobody took the bait until David Gilmour of Pink Floyd got a hold of it from a mutual friend and, impressed by Bush’s evident talent, helped her by getting the then 16-year-old a professionally produced demo tape by Andrew Powell, who would go on to produce Bush’s first two full-length albums. This demo tape was eventually sent to Bob Mercer at EMI, who signed her but put her on a two-year retainer. Mercer claims he thought that, essentially, Bush was too young for either failure or success – either might ruin her – while Bush believes that he just didn’t want any other label to swoop in and get her.
Regardless, Bush was officially under contract with EMI at the end of those two years and began recording her first album in August 1977, although two of the songs “The Saxophone Song” and “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” were recorded two years previously. The quality of the music and unique voice behind the lyrics is no surprise when you learn that Bush had been writing music basically since the age of 13. By the time she was 19, she was past most of her artistic growing pains – if she ever had any.
The album is a creature unto itself. Bush mixes pop-rock music with piano and orchestra arrangements, all of which underline her elastic and clear soprano voice which does the most in conveying mood and rhythm as it bounces around the words as if they aren’t even words anymore. To quote one of the songs, you “feel it” much more than you may think about it.
That primitive quality to her music is foreshadowed in the first few seconds of the album, which feature a selection of whale song. The song that follows, “Moving,” is written in tribute to the emotion and freedom Bush felt through her interpretive dance and mime lessons with Lindsay Kemp. As Bush described in a 1980 Sounds magazine interview, Kemp “fills people up, you’re an empty glass and glug, glug, glug, he’s filled you with champagne.” In the same interview Bush explained her reasoning for including the whale song, claiming that whales “say everything about ‘moving’… [they] are pure movement and pure sound, calling for something, so lonely and sad.” The song works as a good introduction to the rest of her album, and to Bush as an artist that we’re getting to know on her debut album. Here her voice cuts above the surprisingly bold piano and drums, while moving in a way that feels flexible and rhythmic.
The follow-up track, “Saxophone Song,” is simple but in a way that indicates Bush knows how to efficiently communicate an idea without meandering unnecessarily. It’s a song from a fan of a musician – who plays the titular instrument –singing about how she is moved by his music. This track, as well as “Moving” and several others illustrate how Bush can write about things in her life, that are true to her young experience such as taking dance lessons, reading Brontë, and being an awed fan of a musician, and she can turn them into songs that feel adult and general enough to appeal to a listener of any age, as well as stand the test of time.
The next track “Strange Phenomena,” ponders the odd coincidences and synchronicities of life that make you feel connected to something larger and part of a powerful intuitive system. It’s an introduction to Bush’s tendency to write about relatively intellectual subjects, which comes up a few times on this album alone.
Bush’s most conventional tracks are “Kite” and “James and the Cold Gun.” They’re the most pop-rock and boisterous sounding of the 13 songs, and relatively conventional in their lyrics and delivery. Sandwiched between those two songs, however, are the first two singles and two of Bush’s biggest hits, “The Man with the Child in His Eyes” and “Wuthering Heights.” The former song was written by Bush at age 13, and recorded at age 16. The music on the track is straightforward, and Bush’s vocals are the most clear and unaffected here, allowing us to hear every word. The “child” in the title can simultaneously be applied to who the man is looking at and, as Bush has said, the “little boy within” most men. It’s an astonishingly mature song to imagine a 13-year-old writing, which adds a sort of haunted quality to it. The single made it to #6 in the UK, and won Bush the 1979 Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding British Lyric.
“Wuthering Heights,” the album’s first single at Bush’s insistence, went to #1 on the UK charts, making it the first time a female singer-songwriter topped the charts with a self-penned song – and it remains Bush’s only number one single. The song was written at age 18 after Bush watched a mini-series adapted from the Emily Brontë novel of the same name. In the song she sings from the dead character Cathy’s perspective as a ghost, begging to be let inside and back into her love Heathcliff’s arms, perfectly capturing the wild and uncontainable emotions depicted in the novel. This song and its videos also brought to a wider audience Bush’s incorporation of movement to her performances. The UK video features Bush in a white dress surrounded by white mist and other dancing projections of herself. The more well-known video was made for the US and has Bush in a bright red dress, dancing among the woods and hills.
The second half of the album features a trilogy of songs about sex and sensuality – “Feel It,” “Oh to Be in Love” and “L’Amour Looks Something Like You.” They’re great examples of Bush’s ability to evoke mood and imagery through her voice, such as when her voice soars in the second half of the phrase “oh to be in love – and never get out again” to mimic the euphoric mindset the singer is in.
The final songs return to the more intellectual and metaphysical inspirations. “Them Heavy People” is about Bush enjoying the opportunity to learn as much as possible to expand her mind, extolling the pains and joys of pushing yourself and “opening doors you thought shut for good” to become the best version of yourself and find the “heaven inside.” “Room for Life,” is an appreciation of the power of women. Bush sings “like it or not, we keep bouncing back, because we’re woman.” The final track “The Kick Inside,” is similar to “Wuthering Heights,” in that it’s an adaptation of an existing work – in this case a “murder ballad” called Lizie Wan – and sung from the perspective of the female character. In this case, however, it’s a girl who is impregnated by her brother who then kills her because of it. It’s a bitterly ironic song to come after “Room for the Life,” which celebrates how woman has “room for a life… in your womb.” It’s a dark end to a strange album, but it’s a fitting end. It underlines that Bush is a fresh talent who is interested in plumbing the depths of human experience and psychology in her music and is not afraid of any source of inspiration.
The album went on to be quite successful in the UK, peaking at #3 on the Albums Chart – and only slipping to #9 by the end of the year. It was certified gold in 1978, in the UK and New Zealand, and platinum in Australia and Holland. In the United States, things were different.
EMI’s Bob Mercer felt that Bush’s relative lack of success in America was due to her being a poor fit for our radio formats, as well there being few outlets for the visual presentation “central to her appeal.” Bush made a rare US appearance on Saturday Night Live in December 1978 but that didn’t help her album crack the Top 200 Billboard albums chart. “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” did reach #85 on the American Billboard Hot 100, which was the only Bush single to do so until 1985.
It’s hard to explicate why Bush lacked success in America at the time. Maybe people really didn’t know how to market this odd girl and her odd music? Perhaps they were worried about scaring away some audiences by fully displaying her bold music and frank lyricism when she was still relatively young – which also made her musical identity a mystery to potential fans. It’s interesting to see the US cover of The Kick Inside, which is much simpler and even childish in its depiction of Bush than any other cover was. The album ultimately had six different covers, for the UK, US, Canada, Yugoslavia, Japan and Uruguay. All besides the US and UK are essentially artistic head shots of Bush. The UK artwork is colorful, bold, artistic and sensual, in a fair approximation of the album’s tone as a whole. The US version makes her look younger than she does on any of the other album covers, as well as coy and unassuming – an image totally disconnected from the album’s content. The Kick Inside and Kate Bush herself has since found a fan base in the US, with “Wuthering Heights” voted as #5 on Pitchfork’s Top 200 Tracks of the 1970s list in 2016. However, The Kick Inside has still never been certified anything in the US.
Despite the delay and occasional missteps from the studio, The Kick Inside remains a smart and assured debut for a singular talent. It excellently communicates how Kate Bush the artist thinks and feels, and illustrates what kind of music we can expect from her, as she confirmed our expectations with nearly every new release in the decades that followed.