Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

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

Aw, The ’80s (Part 1: 1980-1984)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

I’ve mentioned my weak spot for ’80s music on a few previous occasions. My taste has since evolved, and I now find myself wondering more often than not how I could have liked certain songs as much as I did back then. Well, obviously, I was a lot younger (though of course, I’m still young at heart!), and that music was all around me. It also triggers memories of school, parties, the first vacations with friends (and without my parents or any adults for that matter), the first hangover…in other words, it really was the soundtrack of growing up – okay, call me a sentimental fool!

This morning, I rode the car with my wife and put on Duran Duran’s Rio album – she loves ’80s, so it was all her fault! 🙂 Anyway, listening to this 1982 record gave me the idea to reflect on music and some related events from that decade. Since it’s a big topic, I figured it would be best to divide my thoughts in two parts. Obviously, it’s still not possible to make this all-inclusive, so I’m going to be arbitrary and selective, focusing on things that are meaningful to me. Here’s part I spanning 1980 to 1984.

Prince_Purple Rain

Some of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the ’80s are Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, the death of disco, new wave, the advent of the CD, hair metal bands and Live Aid. Of course, I could add many other buzz words, e.g., music videos. At the time, we didn’t have cable or satellite television at my house back in Germany, so I missed out on MTV and VH1. In fact, believe or not, it wasn’t until 1993 when I first came to the U.S. that I watched VH1 and kind of got hooked, especially on their Behind The Music documentaries. For some reason, I never warmed to MTV.

1980

Some of the events I’d like to call out are Paul McCartney’s arrest in Tokyo for marijuana possession, which resulted in the cancellation of the remaining Wings tour that year (Jan 16); launch of Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour in Los Angeles (Feb 7); release of Back In Black, AC/DC’s first album with Brian Johnson who had replaced original lead vocalist Bon Scott (Jul 25); death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (Sep 25); and murder of John Lennon who was shot by deranged Mark David Chapman in front of his Manhattan residence after returning from the recording studio with Yoko Ono (Dec 8).

The biggest hit singles of the year were Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) (Pink Floyd), Woman In Love (Barbara Streisand), (Just Like) Starting Over (John Lennon), Funkytown (Lipps) and Upside Down (Diana Ross). I dug all of these songs at the time. While from today’s perspective my favorite is the Lennon tune, the track I’d like to highlight in a clip is Call Me by Blondie. Co-written by Debbie Harry and producer Giorgio Moroder (remember that guy?), the song was released as a single in February that year and was also included on the soundtrack for the 1980 picture American Gigolo. It became the band’s biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the charts in the U.K. and Canada, and scoring in the top 20 in many other countries.

1981

Notable events include the release of Face Value, the first solo album by Phil Collins – like it or not, the Genesis drummer was just everywhere in the ’80s – with Genesis and solo! (Feb 9); first break-up of Yes (Apr 18) only to reunite less than two years later and release their biggest-selling album 90125; U2’s television debut in the U.S. on the NBC late night program The Tomorrow Show (Jun 4); official launch of MTV in New York (Aug 1); Simon & Garfunkel’s free reunion concert in the Big Apple’s Central Park, drawing more than 500,000 visitors – no disputes over crowd attendance here! (Sep 9 ); and Rod Stewart show at Los Angeles Forum, broadcast live via satellite and watched by an estimated 35 million people worldwide – the first such broadcast since Elvis Presley’s 1973 Aloha From Hawaii special.

The top 5 hit singles of the year were Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes), Tainted Love (Soft Cell), In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins), Woman (John Lennon) and Stars On 45 Medley (Stars On 45). Again, to me the Lennon tune holds up the best, though I also still like Bette Davis Eyes and have to admit In The Air Tonight is kind of cool. Even though I feel I’ve been over-exposed to Collins, I admit he’s done some good songs. Here’s a clip of Down Under by Men At Work. Co-written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, and released in October, the song was the second single from the band’s debut album Business As Usual that appeared the following month. It was cool then, and I still dig this tune.

1982

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the debut of Madonna with Everybody (Oct 2), the lead single from her first eponymous 1983 studio record, as well as the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (Nov 30), which remains the world’s best-selling record to date. Some of the other events include the death of comedian and Blues Brothers vocalist John Belushi (March 5); premiere of Pink Floyd – The Wall, a film adaptation of the band’s 1979 album with the same title, at the Cannes Film Festival in France; and start of CD mass production by Dutch technology company and disc co-inventor Philips in Langenhagen near Hanover, Germany (Aug 17).

Eye Of The Tiger (Survivor), Down Under (Men At Work), I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners) and Ebony And Ivory (Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson) were the biggest hit singles that year. Below is a clip of Come On Eileen, which appeared as a single in June. Co-written by Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams, the song was also included on the band’s second studio album Too-Rye-Ay, released the following month. I always found it cool how the catchy tune blended elements of Celtic folk with pop music.

1983

On March 2, CDs started to go on sale in the U.S., following their initial release in Japan the previous October. Some of the year’s other events in music include the debut of Let’s Spend The Night Together in New York, a film documenting the 1981 North American tour of The Rolling Stones (Feb 11); release of U2’s third studio album War, which debuts at no. 1 in the U.K. and features their first international hit single New Year’s Day (Feb 28); release of David Bowie’s commercially most successful studio album Let’s Dance (Apr 14); unveiling of Kiss’s faces without their make-up for the first time on MTV (Sep 18) – yes, I do seem to recall that seeing their actual faces was a pretty big deal at the time!; and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, the first heavy metal album to top the Billboard 200 (Nov 26).

The biggest hit singles of the year: Karma Chameleon (Culture Club); Billie Jean (Michael Jackson); Flashdance…What A Feeling (Irene Cara); Let’s Dance (David Bowie) and Every Breath You Take (The Police). Did I have all these songs? You betcha – in fact, I still do, mostly somewhere on music cassettes! Here’s Billie Jean, written by the King of Pop himself, and released as the second single from the Thriller album in January 1983.

1984

Some of the happenings in the music world that year: Announcement from BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read of this refusal to play Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood due to its suggestive lyrics (Jan 11), a ban that was put in place by the entire BBC around the same time – in a clear illustration that something forbidden oftentimes tends to make it more attractive, only 10 days later, the tune stood a no. 1 on the Official Singles Chart in the UK; death of one of the greatest soul artists, Marvin Gaye, who following an argument was killed by his own father with a gun he had given to him as a Christmas present the previous year (Apr 1); release of Prince’s sixth studio album Purple Rain (Jun 25), the soundtrack to the 1984 film of the same name – one of his most successful records and the third-best-selling soundtrack album of all time, exceeding more than 25 million copies sold worldwide; and the first annual MTV Music Awards held in New York, where Madonna raised some eyebrows with a racy performance of Like A Virgin (Sep 14) – Madonna being controversial?

The biggest hit singles of 1984 were Careless Whisper (George Michael), I Just Called To Say I Love You (Stevie Wonder), Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (Wham!), Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper) and Relax (Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Since I was a good boy and never listened to Relax and Like A Virgin, here’s a clip of Borderline, a song from Madonna’s debut record. On a more serious note, the tune that was written by producer Reggie Lucas still is one of my favorite Madonna songs. It became the album’s fifth and last single released in February 1984, peaking at no. 2 in the U.K. and reaching no. 10 in the U.S., less successful than the scandalous Like A Virgin!

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover the period from 1985 to 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube