It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time again to take a closer look at a song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all on this blog to date. My pick for this installment of Song Musings is Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush. I won’t deny this tune falls outside my core wheelhouse, now perhaps even more than back in the ’80s when it first came out, and yet I find myself drawn to it!
Written and produced by the British singer-songwriter, the synth-pop song first appeared in August 1985 as the lead single to her fifth studio album Hounds of Love. At the time, it became Bush’s biggest hit overall since her January 1978 debut single Wuthering Heights and her first top 40 single in the U.S. To me, there’s something hauntingly powerful about Running Up That Hill. And while based on what I’ve heard to date I find Kate Bush can be quirky, I have to admit this lady is an impressive artist.
In 2022, the song, aka Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God), enjoyed a massive resurgence, topping the charts in the UK, Australia, Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand. It also peaked at no. 3 in the U.S., marking Bush’s highest-charting single to date on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune’s renewed popularity was fueled after it had been featured in the fourth season of the Netflix series Stranger Things.
“It’s about a relationship between a man and a woman,” Bush explained in a 1985 interview, as documented by Songfacts. “They love each other very much, and the power of the relationship is something that gets in the way. It creates insecurities. It’s saying if the man could be the woman and the woman the man, if they could make a deal with God, to change places, that they’d understand what it’s like to be the other person and perhaps it would clear up misunderstandings. You know, all the little problems; there would be no problem.” Here’s a cool live version featuring then-Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour who adds a bit of rock flavor.
Running Up That Hill helped make Hounds of Love a commercial success for Bush after relatively low sales of the predecessor The Dreaming from September 1982. Hounds of Love did best in the UK where it reached 2x Platinum status, which there means one million in certified unit sales. In Germany and Canada, it secured Platinum status, based on 500,ooo and 100,000 certified unit sales, respectively. The album topped the charts in the UK and The Netherlands, and reached the top 10 in Germany (no. 2), Australia (no. 6), Canada (no. 7), as well as no. 9 in France and Sweden.
Following are some additional insights from Songfacts:
Bush wrote this with the title “Deal With God.” Her label made her change it because they didn’t think radio stations in any religious countries (Italy, Ireland…) would play a song with “God” in the title. Bush thought that was ridiculous, but agreed to the change because after spending two years making the album, she didn’t want her song to get blacklisted because of the title.
It was a rare creative compromise for Bush, and one she came to regret, as she feels “Deal With God” is the proper title and part of the song’s entity.
This was Kate Bush’s biggest hit in the US, where she has a small but devoted following. She was a chart regular in her native UK, where the Hounds Of Love album knocked off Madonna’s Like A Virgin to claim the top spot, and popular throughout much of the world, but remains mostly unknown in America.
Stateside success was never her priority. Bush rarely plays live and never did a concert in America. Her record company had a hard time promoting her there because she didn’t travel to the country and didn’t do many phone interviews with American journalists. While “Running Up That Hill” was taking off in other parts of the world, American radio was saturated with more straightforward acts like Duran Duran, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis & The News, and Phil Collins. A lot of it had to do with MTV, which didn’t put the “Running Up That Hill” video in rotation.
Bush wrote “Running Up That Hill” using a Fairlight CMI digital synthesizer. She was one of the first to use the device, including it on her 1980 album Never For Ever.
Typically, Bush writes on piano, but composing on the Fairlight opened up new gates of inspiration. “There is something about the character of a sound,” she said in a 1992 radio documentary. “You hear a sound and it has a whole quality of its own that can be sad or happy, and that immediately conjures up images, which can of course help you to think of ideas that lead you onto a song, so everything is crucial for trying to find some direction with inspiration. A good sound is worth a lot artistically.”
Kate Bush not only wrote her own songs, but starting with her 1982 album The Dreaming, was also her own producer, a rare feat at the time especially for a female artist. Until she came along, the only woman on this level who did her own writing and production was Joni Mitchell, another singer of immense influence and acclaim.
The song’s concept is a flip on the Faustian bargain where one makes a deal with the Devil. When Bush thought about what it would take to switch places with your partner, she first thought of the deal with the Devil, then decided it could also be done through a deal with God, which would be even more powerful...
…Bush often used interpretive dancing in her music videos to express the emotion of her songs. By the time she released “Running Up That Hill” in 1985, she felt the art was being cheapened by the newer crop of talent on MTV. She explained in a 1985 TV interview with Canada’s Good Rockin’ Tonight: “During the gap between the last and this album, I’d seen quite a few videos on television that other people had been doing. And I felt that dance, something that we’d been working in, particularly in the earlier videos… was being used quite trivially, it was being exploited: haphazard images, busy, lots of dances, without really the serious expression, and wonderful expression, that dance can give. So we felt how interesting it would be to make a very simple routine between two people, almost classic, and very simply filmed. So that’s what we tried, really, to do a serious piece of dance.”
Clad in Japanese hakamas, Bush and her dance partner, Michael Hervieu, perform an intimate dance routine before they’re torn apart by a crowd of masked strangers. The dancers’ archery-inspired gestures are referenced in the single’s cover art, which features Bush brandishing a bow and arrow. The clip was directed by David Garfath and choreographed by Diane Grey.
Instead of airing the music video, MTV decided to use footage from Bush’s performance on a BBC TV program. According to the singer’s brother Paddy Bush, “MTV weren’t particularly interested in broadcasting videos that didn’t have synchronized lip movements in them. They liked the idea of people singing songs.”
Bush did just one concert tour – a run of 24 shows in Europe in 1979. She stopped touring because she got so focused on making music and the visuals to accompany it. “Running Up That Hill” she performed at just a handful of charity events until 2014, when she put on a production called Before The Dawn that ran for 22 shows at the Eventim Apollo in London. These shows were highly theatrical, with dialogue, dancing, illusion and elaborate set design framing her performances.
Bush’s record company wanted to release “Cloudbusting” as the first single, but Kate convinced them to release “Running Up That Hill” instead. Since they had already renamed her song, it was considered a compromise...
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube