Had the teenaged Kate Bush listened to the wishes of her record label, Wuthering Heights would not have been her debut single. EMI preferred the pop-stomp of James and the Cold Gun to the eerie, circular song that introduced her to the world. But by her late teens, Bush clearly knew herself and wisely pushed for Wuthering Heights instead. When it saw the light of day, in early 1978, it was a hit. By March that year, it had become a No 1 hit, the first single written and recorded by a female artist to top the British charts. It replaced Abba’s Take A Chance on Me, and remained at the top for a month.
It is sometimes worth remembering the incredible fact that Bush wrote Wuthering Heights when she was 18 years old, though perhaps its keen ear for adolescent angst is part of what makes it so special. She had been inspired by an old television adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel, which led her to seek out the book. Written from the perspective of the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw, a young woman pleading with the brutal Heathcliff, whom she loves and hates, to let her soul into the house, the song is a gothic melodrama that builds until it is thick with intensity. It is a magnificent achievement, though the writing of it was seemingly painless. “Actually, it came quite easily,” Bush recalled later, telling the story of a single moonlit night at the piano. The vocal was said to have been recorded in a single take. Bush found out that she and Brontë shared a birthday, and the fates were aligned.
The casual story of its creation belies the odd unwieldiness of the song itself. The piano gently heralds the arrival of this haunted tale of lost love and longing, then that tight, high melody reels you in. It loops and lilts, ascending, descending, as Bush’s vocal urges the story on, like Catherine striding across the moors. In the BBC’s 2014 documentary The Kate Bush Story, artist after artist recalls hearing it on the radio for the first time, thinking some variation of: what on earth was that? “You can hear one note of a Kate Bush song or one note of her voice and know what it is,” said Annie Clark, AKA St Vincent, and it has been that way from the start.
The spectacle of Bush as a performer inspired similarly wowed and unsettled reactions. She made two videos for the song, and appeared on Top of the Pops with it five times in 1978, cementing her public image as an ethereal spirit, embodying the essence of Cathy through a combination of wide eyes, floaty fabrics and wild choreography, still fondly mimicked and parodied today. Wuthering Heights turned Bush into a pop star, the rules of which she continues to bend to her own will: her individuality was set in stone from the very beginning.