Three songs into her third album, Kate Bush lists the imagined residents of her rock ‘n’ roll heaven. Buddy Holly, Sid Vicious and Keith Moon are all there, of course. But so are Minnie Riperton and Sandy Denny. What’s made explicit here — on Never For Ever‘s electric piano ballad “Blown Away (For Bill)” — has been implicit throughout Bush’s career. That is, here’s a female singer/songwriter with enough reckless ambition and unapologetic weirdness to compete for the glory that’s too often limited to rock’s boys’ club. And she’s not afraid to wield elements of traditional femininity (orgasmic cries, folk romanticism) just as flamboyantly as male rockers have tended to emphasize their machismo. As Bush would sing five years later on her greatest song, Hounds of Love‘s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” “Let’s exchange the experience.” Everyone from Björk to Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzie Bougatsos has tried following her lead.
Released in 1980, when Bush was only 22, Never For Ever was the first original studio record by a female solo artist to reach the top of the British album charts. It was also the first full-length for which Bush received a co-production credit. Her unconventional vocal phrasing and propensity for lyrics that draw on literature, films, or ancient lore were already familiar from her first two albums, particularly 1978 debut The Kick Inside‘s hit “Wuthering Heights.”
On Never For Ever, though, Bush increasingly makes use of the Fairlight digital sampler and other varied instrumental textures, building songs that feel as if they conform to the rhythm, rather than the other way around (see the looped sounds of bottles breaking on mistaken-identity single “Babooshka,” the Moog jam on “Egypt,” or the post-punk frenzy of “Violin”). And while Bush’s distinctive approach hadn’t yet reached its stunning consummation (both “Running Up That Hill” and the title track from Hounds of Love are great places to start), Never For Ever is the album where she leaves behind some of the sentimentality and childish imagery of her earliest work. If there’s a place for Bush in rock ‘n’ roll heaven — and there’d better be — this is where she truly begins her ascent.
Here are five records that inspired or reflect its greatness.
The Prog-Rock Patrons
A clear forerunner both to Bush and to the prog-rock scene that would help spawn her, Pink Floyd put rock music on an operatic scale, focusing on grandiose album-length statements rather than concise pop singles. Issued the same year Floyd guitarist David Gilmour discovered the younger singer, 1975's Wish You Were Here presages the ambition and scope of Bush's music. A tribute to founding member Syd Barrett, the album rangers from tender classic rock radio standbys (the strummy title track, which echoes throughout the hits from Radiohead's The Bends) to multi-part jazz-rock epics ("Shine on You Crazy Diamond"). The songs are still rewarding all these years later and nobody will suggest you try listening to it while watching The Wizard of Oz.
The Mad Dub-Punk Uncle
At a 2001 British music awards show, John Lydon said to Bush, "Your music is fucking brilliant." On the surface, Lydon and Bush could hardly have less in common. After all, weren't airy-fairy prog-rockers like Bush exactly the staid musical establishment that Lydon's former band, the Sex Pistols, was supposed to be overthrowing? Look deeper, though, and while Bush may have been less aggressive than, say, Siouxsie Sioux, that hardly means she was less forward-looking her reliance on old tales and melodies only conceals the innovative production techniques underneath. By double album Second Edition, Lydon and his Public Image Ltd. were making a dub-wise alien racket every bit as otherworldly and challenging as Bush's mythic story-songs. Now this is anarchy.
The Alternative-Rock Stepdaughter
On her debut, Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos sang about different types of girls; on its follow-up Under the Pink, she became them. The singer-songwriter's 1994 sophomore album is a grander, fiercer statement, one where Amos allows herself murderous shrieks (the seething tempo-shifter "The Waitress") and moments of feminist religious doubt (the slickly groovy "God"). But she still crafts a handful of beautifully evocative slices of life, like opener "Pretty Good Year," where a circular piano line coaxes away the hours as we "hold on to nothing as fast as you can."
Under the Pink prioritizes Amos's classically tinged keyboard work and octave-jumping vocals, giving the album a sharper aesthetic. Amos even crafts a nearly conventional pop song in "Cornflake Girl," a jazzy romp that rides a relentlessly strummed mandolin. Trent Reznor contributes backing vocals to dark love song "Past the Mission," and the musical whimsy of "The Wrong Band" urges along its question-authority message. But while the album teeters between rocky rave-ups and gentle lullabies that echo the songs' seismic emotional shifts, Amos ends on a decidedly baroque note with the nine-minutes-plus "Yes, Anastasia." Transforming herself into the Russian royal Anastasia Romanov and pounding the keys along to a stirring string arrangement, Amos proves the womanly angst she's so adept at channeling doesn't need to even be her own.
The Hip-Hop Superfan
According to a London newspaper interview, Never For Ever cut "Babooshka" was Big Boi's ringtone as of 2004. The OutKast MC has been talking up Bush for much of his career, thanks to an uncle who introduced him to the British singer/songwriter way back in high school. OutKast would go on to greater commercial and, arguably, artistic success two years later on Stankonia, which features the epochal single "B.O.B." But just as Never For Ever sees Kate Bush hitting her stride, so Aquemini finds the Atlanta duo's ambitions beginning to cohere, from the spaced-out theatricality of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious" to the down-home posse-rap of "Skew It on the Bar-B." You might expect a Bush crush from Andre 3000, always OutKast's more stylish member. That she'd have such an impact on the tougher, gruffer Big Boi just goes to show the extent of her reach.
The Art-Rock Apprentice
Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan is an English singer/songwriter who somehow convinced a major label to release a loosely conceptual LP based around dualities, alter egos and Bible verses with a guest appearance from the decidedly un-commercial Scott Walker. Sure, one of the songs was an addictive synth-pop tune inspired by The Karate Kid's "Daniel," but it's no stretch to say none of this would have been possible without the example of Kate Bush all those years earlier. While Khan's sultry voice doesn't jump around as much as Bush's on Two Suns, her ideas are no less grand. Take a would-be hippie from a seaside English town, set her down in Brooklyn for a while to watch bands like Gang Gang Dance and TV on the Radio, put her romantic relationship through the wringer, and at least when she's as extraordinarily talented as Khan this is what you get.