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Transforming live performance: the Kate Bush Tour of Life

Kate Bush’s 1979 Tour of Life was the first and only tour she ever did. However, it was so unique in production that it changed expectations of live performance forever.

The story starts in July 1976, when EMI signed a 16-year-old singer songwriter who, they envisaged at the time, might make the same sort of waves at the likes of Joni Mitchell. She was a ballad singer, and while the idea of a tour was not out of the question, it would most likely see her sat at a piano, singing track after track for a predominantly female audience. Kate however, had other ideas.

Kate Bush, Tour of Life 1979
Kate Bush, Tour of Life 1979

Right from the start, Kate was determined not only to own her music but to define her own image – one that couldn’t be further from the Joni Mitchell-mould she was being guided toward. Between the years 1976 and '78, Kate took herself on a self-guided journey with stardom at the finish line. With a modest advance pocketed from EMI, she moved out of home to a flat in London, took up dance lessons with eccentric mime artist Lindsey Kemp, and focused her energy on building the sort of stage presence her music called for.

The release of her first single is an early example of Kate driving her own self-identified brand – against popular advice. Many don’t know, but it was actually the more commercially viable “James and the Cold Gun” and not “Wuthering Heights” that EMI had originally earmarked to break Kate into the public space. But Kate was adamant, and “Wuthering Heights” was released as her debut on 20 January 1978.

Wuthering Heights official music video

Who knows how the story might have developed if Kate had not been so self-assured. Luckily, we’ll never have to know.

“Wuthering Heights” entered the official singles chart at number 27 on 18 February 1978. Three weeks later, it was number one, dethroning ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” and making Kate the first ever British female singer-songwriter to top the UK charts.

The Kick Inside (Kate’s first album) peaked at number three in the UK charts, and it was decided that Kate would tour after the release of her second album Lionheart, due to be released in November 1978, less than a year after her debut.

It was around this time that Kate took her second major act of rebellion – turning down the offer to tour as a warm-up act to The Rolling Stones, for fear that she wouldn’t be allowed to create the spectacle she had envisaged on someone else’s stage.

Tour of Life programme
Tour of Life programme

Rehearsal for Tour of Life began toward the end of 1978, and it was clear from the off that this would be a performance like nothing any artist had given before, incorporating dance, poetry, burlesque, theatre and even magic.

“She was very determined about how her music was presented and performed – that was pretty obvious from her first album. So no one saw any reason to step in and stop it. She wasn’t prepared to do the conventional thing.”Brian Southall, EMI

Kate was involved in almost every aspect of the show’s production, from the choreography (co-produced by Anthony Van Laast, along with two young dancers, Stewart Avon Arnold and Gary Hurst), to costumes and set, which would each evolve throughout the show.

The production was so ambitious that Kate’s sound team had to invent a new type of microphone, allowing her to dance and sing at the same time – something that no other artist had attempted in quite the same way.

Rehearsals ran through the winter as ticket sales boomed, compelling EMI to squeeze extra dates into the tour (members of the Kate Bush Club, Kate’s self-run fan group, were guaranteed tickets). On 2 April 1979, the company moved from their base in Euston to Poole in Dorset for a full dress run.

Kate Bush wearing the prototype wireless microphone made from a wire coat hanger, Tour of Life 1979
Kate Bush wearing the prototype wireless microphone made from a wire coat hanger, Tour of Life 1979

It’s here that tragedy struck. Lighting director Bill Duffield fell through an open panel high up in the lighting gallery, suffering detrimental injuries. He would die in hospital a week later. Kate was devastated, as were the rest of her crew. However, after open talks about cutting the show all together, it was decided that Bill would want the tour to go on.

The tour opened on 3 April 1979 in Liverpool at the Liverpool Empire, covering England and Scotland before moving through Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands and France. Every night was a sell-out.

With three acts, two encores and 17 costume changes, the show featured almost every song from Kate’s first two albums and was, to all intents and purposes, far more like a stage-play than a concert.

“I saw our show as not just people on stage playing the music, but as a complete experience. A lot of people would say ‘Pooah!’ but for me that’s what it was. Like a play.”– Kate Bush

The show began with Kate in a blue leotard, singing “Moving” with rippling lights around her. For “Egypt”, she emerged as a seductive Cleopatra. On “Strange Phenomena”, she was a magician in top hat and tails, dancing with a pair of spacemen. “Oh England My Lionheart” cast her as a World War II pilot and for “Wuthering Heights” she performed the same routine as the video, with dry ice fog adding to the haunting atmosphere.

Critical reception was overwhelmingly positive, hailing the tour’s progressive use of visual projections, audio and microphone technology, along with its narrative storyline which gave the performance a more immersive feel than you could expect from a traditional rock concert.

Kate Bush performing, Tour of Life 1979
Kate Bush performing, Tour of Life 1979

The tour closed back in London at the Hammersmith Odeon on 14 May 1979, where Kate dedicated a memorial concert to Bill Duffield featuring an altered set list with performances by Peter Gabriel and Steve Harley.

Kate never toured again.

"Touring is an incredibly isolated situation. I don't know how people tour for years on end. You find a lot of people who can't stop touring, and it's because they don't know how to come back into life. It's sort of unreal." – Kate Bush

If you still can’t quite picture the magic, you can actually watch a recording of the full concert on YouTube. Otherwise, the next best thing would be going to see the wonderful Mandy of Cloudbusting – a tribute group who regularly tour up and down the country.

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