It’d be easy to be unaware of the fact the UK singles chart still exists in 2022; the kind of coverage this one-time essential pop cultural institution was once afforded is long gone, with its traditional trio of promotional tools – ‘Top of the Pops’, Radio 1’s Sunday teatime Top 40, and the music press – all now part of the over-40s collective memory bank rather than a living, breathing barometer of where it’s at. It seems the sole reason the singles chart survives as a redundant relic of another era is simply its ongoing role as a yardstick for the music industry to measure its reach in terms of sales; to the general public for whom it once held as much fascination as the Premier League table, however, it means nothing. Being able to name the week’s No.1 hit isn’t even something most teenagers could probably manage today, and the chart appears to retain the ‘singles’ prefix simply to distinguish its content from the album chart – although any song is eligible for inclusion as long as it’s downloaded enough times, official ‘single’ or not.
Therefore, the sudden presence of 63-year-old Kate Bush at the top of the singles chart with a 36-year-old song in 2022 should be something that barely raises an eyebrow. Yet, the return of Kate Bush to a position she hasn’t occupied since her 1978 debut hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’, has received extensive media reportage in the last few days; ‘Woman’s Hour’ even managed the coup of a down-the-line interview with the reclusive Kate – though the fact it was conducted via Ms Bush’s landline telephone was a nice touch that seemed to emphasise a somewhat quaint analogue element adding to her mystique. The vintage slice of Kate Bush’s oeuvre that currently sits atop the singles chart is ‘Running Up That Hill’, the lead single from her 1985 album, ‘Hounds of Love’. The track originally peaked at No.3, kick-starting Bush’s commercial renaissance following a fallow period in which her increasingly adventurous vision failed to connect with the record-buying public. Its elevation two places higher in 2022 is apparently due to heavy rotation in a Netflix series called ‘Stranger Things’.
Obscure gems excavated by movies, ads and TV series have provided many unjustly-overlooked musicians with a delayed pay-check in recent times, yet neither Kate Bush nor ‘Running Up That Hill’ fall into that category. Her career has spanned the best part of 45 years and constitutes dozens of hit singles and several chart-topping albums, beginning when she was just 19. She’s been a household name to more than one generation, and her exceedingly rare return to the stage in 2014 was greeted by some fans as the Second Coming; the fact her live show consisted of 22 nights at the same theatre – the Hammersmith Apollo – seemed to once more single her out as a unique performer unwilling to embark upon the touring treadmill, despite being away from the stage for 35 years. As a survivor of an era that produced such gifted and original talent, Kate Bush remains something of a national treasure, and for her to be back at No.1 – however meaningless an achievement that might now be – is indicative of not just an enduring affection for her, but symbolises something wider in pop culture.
30 years ago, the late music writer Ian MacDonald could sense which way the wind was blowing with remarkable prescience. When referring to the contemporary rap and dance scenes at the turn-of-the-90s, he wrote ‘The effect of presenting rhythms by drum machines and later by drum samplers, slave to sequencers, has been to elevate the groove over every other musical priority; at its simplest, this means that songs are now written from the rhythm track upwards, rather from the melodic, harmonic idea as was the case in almost all 60s music.’ For all its generous electronic enhancement – and Kate Bush was always ahead of the game on that score – the technology that enabled ‘Running Up That Hill’ to sound cutting edge in 1985 doesn’t overwhelm the human element, with Kate Bush’s distinctive voice and its inherent humanity shining above and beyond the pseudo-tribal drumbeat. Even the notoriously soulless production values of the mid-80s can’t entirely erase the personality of the performer in the way the Auto-tuned, mechanised music of the 21st century has managed to squeeze it out. And to a new generation discovering the Kate Bush back catalogue via Netflix exposure, perhaps it is this quality – and the novel structure of songs not ‘written from the rhythm track upwards’ – that makes her sound so refreshing to unaccustomed ears.
When contemporary pop bows to the need for melody to give its monotonous rhythm track an earworm, more often than not the earworm chosen is either a sample from an organic, analogue track of 50-odd years ago – which adds the aforementioned human element lacking from the present day toolbox – or a ‘new’ melody that borrows so heavily from an old one that it’s just a few bars away from accusations of plagiarism and an inevitable appearance in the copyright court; the ‘Blurred Lines’ case of 2015 ruled in favour of Marvin Gaye’s estate, following claims the Robin Thicke track leaned a little too close to Gaye’s 1977 hit, ‘Got to Give it Up’. ‘Blurred Lines’ was a hit largely on the back of its infamous video, the uncensored version of which featured a topless model; considering my own YT channel was recently terminated on spurious grounds of ‘nudity’, the said video was still on there just a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. Anyway, I digress…
It’s interesting that Kate Bush’s overnight rediscovery is no isolated incident. An article by Ted Gioia that recently appeared in the Atlantic magazine quoted stats stating ‘old songs’ now constitute 70% of the US music market according to the latest data – yes, 70%. It seems you can’t keep an old song down, especially when new songs are found wanting in the qualities that have made old songs evergreen; the article goes on to say that the 200 most popular new tracks on the likes of Spotify actually account for less than 5% of total streams, a rate that was twice as high a mere three years ago. ‘Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,’ writes Gioia. ‘Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona-fide hits can pass by unnoticed by much of the population.’
Some of the more vintage acts remaining alive and kicking have decided to capitalise on ongoing interest in their body of work by selling-off their back catalogues, making one last mint from the family silver whilst they’re still around to enjoy it, especially when royalties from streaming sites are so pitiful. Prominent veterans such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all taken this path recently, and they’re fortunate they have those back catalogues; no artist of their grandchildren’s generation has that advantage.
Old and deceased musicians also satisfy cravings for the classics by transcending the physical and hitting the road as holograms – Elvis Presley and Abba have both been reborn as live acts utilising such technology, and we can probably look forward to the trend becoming the norm as more of the golden generation of musicians shuffle off this mortal coil. Paul McCartney may be physically headlining this year’s Glastonbury merely days into his tenure as an octogenarian, but he’ll probably still be headlining the festival 20 years from now as a 3D CGI facsimile. Perhaps Her Majesty could try a similar approach, if it prevents Charles from a reign few outside of Clarence House are looking forward to.
Along with the findings revealed in the Ted Gioia Atlantic article regarding the dominance of old songs on streaming sites, the best-selling physical format in music right now is the vinyl LP. And Kate Bush is No.1 in the singles chart. Perhaps, just as bookworms were still reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 1978 – 130 years after its publication – music lovers will still be listening to ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 2108. Nobody today would junk Beethoven or Bach from the Proms on the grounds they’re ‘old’, so maybe we shouldn’t expect 20th century music to be excised from playlists either. Perhaps this is the beginning of its elevation to permanent ‘classic’ status, where it will probably remain as long as people want to listen.
© The Editor