Kate Bush NME review on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme

Charles Shaar Murray gets his damning review of Kate Bush read back to him on BBC radio, as Kate embarks on 22-gig concert dates.

Following tonight’s imminent premiere of the first Kate Bush live show in 35 years, preceded by yr humble’s appearance on Radio 4’s PM to discuss it, requests have been received for a post of the text of the 1979 NME review of which the PM team made such a delicious four-course dinner.

So by, as Aswad used to sing, SPESHAL REQUESS AN A PUBLICK DEMAHN, and gracelessly but gratefully nicked from Rock’s Back Pages — here it is. Enjoy already.

And Ms Bush – break a leg.

Kate Bush: The Palladium, London
Charles Shaar Murray, New Musical Express, 28 April 1979

TWO MEMORIES: recalled first are the days when rock and roll was swamped with failed classical pianists and violinists who knew that they could make it in rock and roll because certain strata of the rock audience have an inferiority complex about Real Culture and no standards by which to judge it.

Recalled second are all the unpleasant aspects of David Bowie in the Mainman era. Successfully shoved under the cerebral carpet by the passing of time and the ghosts of all those dynamite gigs, it only takes a whiff of Kate Bush’s tour programme and the haughty condescension of the little notes from the Kate Bush Club that you find on your seat when you arrive to bring it all back.

No photographers. Stay in your seats and worship, you dumb bastards!

The Kate Bush show that’s been wowin’ ’em (as in “Wow, wow, wow, wow, we think you’re unbearable”) all over the country is a tribute to hard work, lots of money and the old-style ideology that defines the relationship between artist and audience as purely that between worshipper and worshipped. Described (elsewhere, natch) as some kind of apex in the mating of rock and theatre, it is simply the most complicated and expensive extant collision between theatrics (there is a difference between ‘theatre’ and ‘theatrics’, but if Kate Bush is aware of it, she certainly isn’t letting on) and MOR pop.

An endless stream of sets, costumes, pantomine-conjuring special effects, back projections sound effects (ranging from wind and rain to her brother’s awful crypto-poetry read in a portentous, echoing elocution-competition voice to audible sniggering from people who hadn’t paid the statutory fiver for their tickets) and things that would be described as ‘gimmicks’ if they occurred in the course of a performance with less lofty ambitions as this one, the KATE BUSH (she prefers capitals) experience is an exercise in the time-honoured art of battering an audience to death and making them like it.

Ms Bush herself is the evident product of an awful lot of strenuous self-improvement. One can only imagine all those years of ballet training, mime classes, piano lessons…she is Supergirl: the range of her skills aspires to be breathtaking and the end result is that she is capable of doing enough things passably to convince large numbers of people (only a few of whom are equipped to know better) that she is doing them brilliantly.

Her piano playing is competent but characterless: unlike Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell – whose work she evidently admires – the style is neither distinctive nor expressive. Her songwriting hints that it means more than it says and in fact means less: she hints at mystery and uses it as a cloak whereas true mysteries always stand naked. Her singing is at least unusual: her shrill, self-satisfied whine is unmistakable.

Altogether, a lightweight talent with one good song (‘Wuthering Heights’) to her credit.

Her dancing is more perspiration than inspiration: completely lacking in sensuality or funk, it relies instead on a supple, well-exercised frame and enough ballet moves to impress people who know nothing about ballet just as the Emersons and Wakepersons of yesteryear were able to bullshit people who knew nothing about classical music.

Her mime is elegant sham: great mime expresses everything, good mime expressessomething and bad mime expresses nothing other than somebody’s been to mime classes.

Backed by a cast of a dozen (seven musicians, two dancers, two singers and the real star of the show, illusionist Simon Gray), Bush twirled and skittered and trilled her way through a series of tableaux vivants which almost disguised that if it had actually been performed and staged as a straight concert it would have been tedious in the extreme.

For the climax – centred around ‘James And The Cold Gun’ – she dressed up in cowboy togs and methodically shot Gray and the two dancers, complete with fake blood, rimshots and dry ice, before retreating to the stylised womb at the back of the stage from which she had originally emerged, shooting at the audience. It was the first time that she played direct to the crowd and the only emotion expressed was hatred.

It has been pointed out that she’s terribly young and oh, so talented. She certainly works hard: the show runs over two hours and except for when she’s seated at the white piano, she’s in constant motion, using a radio mike on a kind of telephonist’s headset so that she can move freely the whole time. The trouble is that she’s completely entranced with the idea of her own stardom and the concept of presenting an almost superhuman facade.

Tony DeFries would’ve loved you seven years ago, Kate, and seven years ago maybe I would’ve too. But these days I’m past the stage of admiring people desperate to dazzle and bemuse, and I wish you were past the stage of trying those tricks yourself.

Sure, what you do takes talent, but it ain’t the kind of talent I respect.

Enjoy your success.

© Charles Shaar Murray, 1979

Charles Shaar Murray’s next Hothouse Project writing course starts Tuesday 30th September in West Hampstead.

Crumb, Shelton & Me: The Fabulous Furry Comix Brothers

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Charles Shaar Murray interviews Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton at the British Library Comics Unmasked event. Plus Oz trial panel discussion.

Into the life of an impecunious freelance kulchah pundit occasionally comes a proverbial Dream Gig. Being invited by the honchos of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked season to host and chair a panel with the two greatest figures of First Wave Underground Comix — namely R(obert) Crumb and Gilbert Shelton was one such. I mean, I’ve adored and admired the work of both these guys since my teens, and here was an opportunity not only to meet them but to chat with them before a sold-out audience and attempt to provide the specks of grit around which the creators of Mr Natural and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers could spin their respective verbal pearls.

With incomparable restraint and iron determination, I managed to restrain myself from lapsing into Fanboy Babble Mode for the first hour of the event during which i cajoled the legends into discussing their experiences in late ’60s West Coast kountah-kulchah, the effects of pyschedelics on them and their work, their earliest cartooning influences, their differing creative processes and other way-fascinating stuff. We were then joined for a second panel concerning the OZ Schoolkids Issue and the resulting legal shenanigans by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Dick Pountain (a veteran underground press hand deputising for our old friend Felix Dennis, who’d gone to somewhat drastic lengths for copping out on the panel) and my fellow ex-OZ schoolkid, architecture guru Deyan Sujic. I was only slightly distracted by a guy in the audience who could have won an Alan Moore Lookalike Contest even if Alan Moore himself had been participating.

The evening concluded with a banquetty thing at the Groucho Club (not one of my regular haunts, I must confess) where we were joined by Terry Gilliam (who’d worked alongside our two heroes in New York at Harvey Kurtzman’s HELP! magazine during the early ’60s) and where I discovered, much to my gleeful surprise, that a Seriously Famous Movie Star is a major fan of my Jimi Hendrix book, Crosstown Traffic.

So what were they like? Even cooler than I’d hoped. Shelton is a laid-back, dry-witted senior hippie and Crumb presents an elegantly dapper and sardonic figure bearing only a passing resemblance to the frazzled misanthrope of his on-the-page self. Video clippage is imminent.

Nobody seemed to have any bloody dope; everybody’s so damn respectable nowadays … but everything else one could have desired was present and more than correct. They even tell me I’m getting paid, too … miracolo!

Watch a video of the OZ Schoolkids Issue obscenity trial debate at Comics Unmasked.

Pix: Mr Crumb, Mr Me and Mr Shelton by Ander McIntyre; Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Anna Chen by Lora Fountain.

Anna-AlineCrumb-med copy