Running Up That Hill: Origin Story
- June 24, 2022
- Fay Schopen
Kate Bush’s 1985 hit has been reborn as the song of summer, and is everywhere from TikTok to the top of the charts as it is discovered by a new generation. The story of how the extraordinary song came into being is fascinating.
Whether you were there the first time around, when it climbed the charts in 1985, or you’re part of Generation Z, who discovered the song via a recent episode of Netflix hit Stranger Things you can’t have failed to notice that Kate Bush’s Running up That Hill is having a huge and unprecedented resurgence, smashing previously-held records and making Bush, now 63, both the youngest (she was 18 in 1978 when Wuthering Heights topped the charts) and oldest female singer to have a self-written song reach number one.
Are the greatest pieces of art birthed from personal or professional failure? It’s a popular and compelling narrative, but in the case of English singer-songwriter and producer Bush it would be hard to argue she has ever really failed at anything. The Dreaming, however, her cutting-edge Fairlight-heavy 1982 album, and the first she entirely produced, was labelled ‘uncommercial’ despite reaching number 3 on the UK charts.
There was thus a lot riding on her next album, Hounds of Love, which kicks off with Running Up The Hill — at least from the point of view of EMI, her then-record company (Bush now has her own label, Fish People). But Bush was ‘pleased with herself’, in her own words, to discover that in the face of criticism and incomprehension, she didn’t actually care about fame or appeasing people — she cared about making a good album.
There were practical considerations too. Bush famously works slowly — valuing the creative process and perfection over banging out tunes. The experimental direction she was going in made studio time expensive — the cost of making The Dreaming, it turned out, was ‘absolutely phenomenal’ and Bush has said she couldn’t afford to make Hounds of Love, an endeavour of over two years, in a commercial studio.
The solution was to move back to her family home — a sprawling former farmhouse called East Wickham Farm in the outer London borough of Bexley, and build her own recording studio in a barn on the property. Finally, by 1983, she could work at her own pace. ‘I relaxed tremendously in my own environment … here I was in a situation of having as much creative control as I could ever ask for,’ she told the DJ Richard Skinner in 1992, as part of a BBC Radio documentary about the album.
As for Running Up That Hill itself, her long time bassist, musical collaborator and partner at the time, Del Palmer, wrote the drum pattern, that thrumming, pounding, insistent beat, and Bush got to work with her beloved Fairlight. The drone — the first, underpinning sound the listener is assailed with — she told Skinner, with typical understatement, ‘played quite an important part.’ The unifying themes of Running Up That Hill, and indeed the entirety of part one of Hounds of Love, are dark, human and compelling — throwing off impediments; shedding inhibitions. It’s hard not to see the music as a biographical metaphor.
The drums, the Fairlight, and Bush’s singular and powerful vocals create a unique world-within-a-world in the song, a ominous snippet of a story — Bush is nothing if not a narrative virtuoso — bolstered by the subject matter: an anguished yearning cry to a lover to make a deal with God and swap their places. Bush sings that it doesn’t hurt her, and then asks whether you want to feel how it feels. And at once the song is lodged in your brain. As the first single from the album, amid the heady pop-politics of the 1980s, this was Bush’s comeback — the three years since The Dreaming were an aeon in pop terms, and many in 1985 had written Bush off as a 1970s, ethereal flash-in-the-pan.
Running Up That Hill was Bush’s triumphant return. A statement of intent that would pave the way for the entirety of the rest of her career to date. Fiercely independent, unique, and working on her own terms in her own way. With just one minor niggle. ‘I was trying to say that really a man and a woman can’t understand each other … if we actually could … be in each other’s places for a while we’d be very surprised,’ Bush has said of the song’s subject matter. After rejecting the idea of a deal with the devil, she settled on the ‘more powerful’ A Deal with God, the song’s original title, only changed after Bush was told it would be blacklisted on radio stations in any religious countries — from France and Italy to the US and Australia. The change of title was an unhappy compromise with Bush saying: ‘Normally, I always regret any compromises that I make.’ Creatives take note.