Unlikely as it might seem for a singer who last toured over 30 years ago and whose live appearances since can be counted on the fingers of one hand, Kate Bush was once a pub-rocker, as this extract from Graeme Thomson’s Bush biography Under The Ivy explains.
One of the most delicious anomalies of Kate Bush’s entire career is the short period of time she spent singing live in the pubs and clubs around London. The KT Bush Band in their initial incarnation existed as a gigging entity for only a matter of months, between April and June, 1977, and apart from Bush comprised Vic King on drums, Del Palmer on bass and Brian Bath on guitar, three old friends from Charlton Secondary School who bonded back in the late Sixties over an almost irrationally obsessive love of Free. Even today, they excitedly recall the night they witnessed the first ever performance of ‘All Right Now’.
Between four and five years older than Bush, by 1976 the trio were already veterans of the south London music scene and had played in numerous groups – both with and without one another – and experienced the industry’s standard doling out of brief highs and crushing lows.
Although Bush’s time with the KT Bush Band proved to be her sole experience of the dubious, stale-sweat-and-watered-down-beer romance of small scale live performance, and although it was an essentially contrived exercise in which, considering she had already signed a record deal, very little was actually at stake, nonetheless a line can be drawn between what she was doing in 1977 in places like the Rose Of Lee in Lewisham and what she did almost exactly two years later to wild acclaim in the theatres of Europe.
Vic King recalls that after a performance at Whitechapel, Bush came up to the band, said that she enjoyed their set, and asked whether she could sing with them. Bath remembers the approach somewhat differently. “Paddy [Bush, Kate’s brother] left a note at my house with my mum, saying ‘Get in touch, something has come up’,” he says. “I phoned him up and he said, ‘I’ve got to see you, it’s about my sister. She wants to form a band because she needs the experience of playing live. Could you do it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think so!’”
One of Bath’s previous bands, Shiner, had recently split up and he decided to enlist Del and Vic and stick with a similar set: Motown, Beatles, some rockier material from the likes of Free and The Rolling Stones; songs that everybody knew and which made few demands on the audience. The first band practice was in a boiler house in the local swimming baths at Greenwich, in “a little dungeon of a rehearsal room they used to hire out,” says King. Bush arrived fully prepared, having learned the lyrics to ten songs, including ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and ‘Sweet Soul Music’. They all enjoyed themselves but agreed that a boiler room in the public baths wasn’t necessarily conducive to locating the creative spark, so Bush suggested they relocate to the barn at the bottom of the garden at the [Bush family] farm. “We went up there, moved all the furniture out, swept the floors, cleaned it up and played all afternoon,” says King. Once again, the old grain store became her creative playground.
Through the late winter of 1976-77 and into spring the group rehearsed regularly at Wickham Farm, drumming up a 20-song set. Working on their music, fortified by Hannah Bush’s legendary hospitality, breaking off for games of football and as much tea and cake as they could reasonably consume, they got to know one another.
The 18-year-old Bush made an immediate impression on her new bandmates. “She stood out from other girls, she was different,” says King. “Not overtly sexual, [but] there was something about her. Shy as shy can be, wouldn’t say boo to a goose. She just wanted to sing and play without all the trappings.” Palmer, who in due course would embark on a 16-year relationship with Bush, later recalled that he fell for her almost immediately.
They rehearsed, according to Bath, for “ages.” In common with most fledgling bands, they argued most vociferously over what to call themselves. Bush wanted to give the band “some strange name”, and when King came up with the KT Bush Band she shrieked, ‘Ooh no, that’s terrible!’ But that’s what it became. Her opposition may have been simple diversionary tactics. There was a certain reluctance on her part to leave the age-old sanctuary of the barn and surrender herself to her first ever taste of live performance, but finally Bath used his contacts to organise a residency at the Rose Of Lee, a popular local pub at 162 Lee High Road in Lewisham*, beginning in April 1977.
“I went down and said we were getting a new band together, we’ve got a fabulous looking girl singer, we’d got a really strong band,” says Bath. “I said the first week you’ll get a handful of people, but by the fourth week you won’t be able to get them in the door. And sure enough, it was exactly as I predicted.” Around 20 people turned up to watch the first Tuesday night gig, split into two 45-minutes sets, for which the band were paid the princely sum of £27. “I was so scared, I really was,” Bush later recalled of her live debut. “The first time was a little bit daunting [for her], but it got to be great fun,” says King. “The following week you couldn’t move – and then the week after that you couldn’t get in. It was just heaving. It was great!”
The KT Bush Band very quickly became a success on its own terms, and their nights at the Rose Of Lee were highly anticipated by both the crowd and the rest of the band, if not necessarily by Bush. Bath tended to handle most of the talking and general audience interaction, traditionally the role of a band’s lead singer. Bush – mostly just standing and singing, without the natural defence of a piano and keyboard – was reluctant to communicate directly to the crowd. “She was very nervous,” says King. “Sometimes you had to push her on there, but once she was on she was fine. Singing in these smoke-filled rooms… wasn’t really her scene, she didn’t really frequent pubs. I don’t think it was 100 per cent enjoyable, but she wanted to do it because she had to learn stage presence and projecting and playing in front of a band of musicians.”
Bush’s involvement brought an extra tantalising twist to standard pub fare. Her innate Englishness made everything from across the Atlantic change hue rather charmingly. They even tried to turn ‘Nutbush City Limits’ into ‘Kate Bush City Limits’ but it “didn’t quite work!” According to King, “we had this strange little way of playing and performing. The vocals were very high, she was very young and the strength of the vocal wasn’t quite there, but people’s eyes were popping because she used to wear very flimsy, floaty dresses, rather than jeans and a T-shirt. It was something South-east London hadn’t seen, especially the Rose Of Lee.”
As word spread and the gigs at the Rose Of Lee and other venues like the Royal Albert in New Cross Road became more successful, they began to feel energised by the group’s progress. Although for Bush the experience was ultimately just about “doing [some] thing so my time would be full” while she waited for the moment of ignition, along with her bandmates she took it seriously and invested considerable reserves of time, energy and emotion into it.
“We formed very strong links between us all,” she recalled. It was like an extended family, “a good, kind of chummy thing,” according to Brian Bath, and everyone mucked in. [Kate’s friend] Lisa Bowyer and her boyfriend Rob became unofficial roadies; Rob worked for a printing firm and offered the services of his van for shifting equipment and personnel. Paddy helped out with the lights and would drop in on guitar and mandolin. Del and Brian cooked up some hand-drawn posters for gigs and had T-shirts printed with the KT Bush Band daubed on the front – the singer, sadly, wouldn’t wear one – while King splashed the group’s name across his kick drum. In honour of Bush’s great love of The Muppet Show, he was tentatively nicknamed ‘Animal’.
The KT Bush Band’s reign of glory lasted for a grand total of 20 gigs. Their last few engagements were, at least, memorable. On Friday June 3, 1977, they played the Half Moon in Putney, a well-established music venue, on the eve of the England v. Scotland football international which ended, famously, in the victorious Scotland fans rampaging over the Wembley turf and breaking the goals. “They were mad, they were just mad,” said Bush, recalling a night that may well have put her off performing for good. “They had flags waving everywhere, and no-one could see the stage because all the guys were getting up on the stage and putting their arms around you!”
“Oh, it was a riot!” remembers Bath. “They were getting up on stage, some guy was all over Kate. I’m not a hard nut, but I went over and pushed him out of the way, off the stage area. Del didn’t do anything! It was mental, but we got through it. We did OK.” The following Monday, June 6, they were at The Ship in Brighton, a “lager-drinking pub [which] wanted something completely different to us,” says King. “After an hour we were asked to stop.”