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Classic Tracks: Kate Bush 'Wuthering Heights'

Producer: Andrew Powell • Engineer: Jon Kelly By Richard Buskin
Published June 2004

Kate Bush performs 'Wuthering Heights' on Top Of The Pops in February 1978.Kate Bush performs 'Wuthering Heights' on Top Of The Pops in February 1978.Photo: BBC / Redferns

Kate Bush's smash hit debut single was also the first major project Jon Kelly had recorded. It proved to be a dream start for both artist and engineer, and a perfect illustration of the benefits of working with talented session musicians.

The 1977 sessions for The Kick Inside marked the debut not only of a new artist named Kathy Bush, but also of Jon Kelly as a fully fledged engineer. He had spent the previous couple of years as a tape-op and assistant engineer at the original AIR Studios facility on central London's Oxford Street, during which time he'd assisted the already-legendary Geoff Emerick on recordings by Gino Vannelli, Robin Trower and Gallagher & Lyle. He also "did as many jingles as I could, because I knew that would teach me to be quick", and had worked on several smaller projects with producer Andrew Powell before the two of them joined forces for The Kick Inside. Thereafter, Kelly would engineer Kate Bush's second album Lionheart, co-produce Never For Ever with her, go on to produce and/or engineer for the likes of Paul McCartney, Chris Rea, Tori Amos, the Damned, Deacon Blue, New Model Army and Prefab Sprout, and form a notable relationship with the Beautiful South which has so far yielded nine albums.

Artist Development

A beautifully tender yet haunting musical setting of Emily Bronte's classic love story, 'Wuthering Heights' wrapped swelling keyboards, strings and guitars around a lead vocal delivered in a sustained, almost child-like soprano by the song's 18-year-old composer, Kate Bush.

Mentored by Pink Floyd lead guitarist Dave Gilmour, Bush had been signed to EMI at the age of 16 on the strength of 'The Man With The Child In His Eyes' and 'Berlin' (later retitled 'The Saxophone Song') — both recordings, engineered during an 'artist test' by Geoff Emerick, would be included on her first album, The Kick Inside. Thereafter, she had been allowed to study dance, mime and voice while developing her self-evident keyboard and writing talents, and by early 1977 she'd penned 'Wuthering Heights' and numerous other numbers and was ready to enter the studio to record The Kick Inside. This was achieved with producer Andrew Powell and engineer Jon Kelly behind the 24-channel Neve console in AIR's spacious Studio Two, which also housed Tannoy monitors and a 3M M79 two-inch 24-track tape machine, as well as the similar equipment in Studio One, whose vast live area was utilised for the string sessions.

"As a Geoff Emerick protegé, my early miking choices basically mirrored his," says Jon Kelly. "For instance, on drums he loved the Coles 4038s for overheads, as I still do now, and at that time his snare mic was an AKG D19 — he liked that punchy dynamic on the snare, and the D19 provided that kind of definition while the overheads captured most of the size. His tom mics varied between D19s, Sennheisers and Shures; and bass drum mics were usually D12s, D20s and sometimes a [Neumann] FET 47. I can't remember ever putting up any ambients or room mics with Geoff, because during the mid-'70s everything was pretty dry. It was always that Westlake/Eastlake sound, with people taping up cymbals so they didn't ring too much.

CLASSIC TRACKS: 'Wuthering Heights'"Geoff took immense care positioning the mics. He used to say 'The microphone is like a camera lens. Imagine it's taking a picture.' Having assisted a number of engineers at AIR, the difference I noticed with Geoff was that he always used the cheapest dynamic mics on the drums, whereas others like Bill Price used things such as KM86s on the snare, 84s and 87s as overheads — much more classy condenser microphones. Geoff would use the old dynamics and then bring the sound out with EQ."

Starting At The Top

All of this served as Kelly's starting point for the very first Kate Bush session, during which he was "learning as I went along and dreadfully insecure. I give full credit to Andrew [Powell] and the great musicians, who were very supportive, while Kate herself was just fantastic. Looking back, she was incredible and such an inspiration, even though when she first walked in I probably thought she was just another new artist. Her openness, her enthusiasm, her obvious talent — I remember finishing that first day, having recording two or three backing tracks, and thinking 'My God, that's it. I've peaked!'"

The live rhythm section that Jon Kelly recorded for 'Wuthering Heights' consisted of Kate Bush playing a Bösendorfer grand piano, Stuart Elliott on drums, Andrew Powell on bass and Ian Bairnson on a six-string acoustic. And in terms of the miking, Kelly adhered pretty closely to Geoff Emerick's favoured choices while adding some of his own.

"For the drums I used a D19 on the snare, Sennheiser 421s on the toms, a D12 on the bass drum and a [Neumann] KM84 on the hi-hat," Kelly recalls. "The bass was DI'd and amped — at the time I was very keen on the Susan Blue DI box, while a Marshall cabinet and Marshall head were miked with an FET 47. Ian Bairnson's acoustic was recorded with a Neumann U87, as were Kate's piano and vocal — I was a big 87 fan, I used to use them on everything. I still think it's a really under-rated microphone. When people listen to one on its own they often think it's a bit hard and doesn't have such a huge sound as some of the valve or softer-focus mics, but it's so efficient once you place it within the mix.

"Kate always recorded live vocals, and they were fantastic, but then she'd want to redo them later. In the case of 'Wuthering Heights', she was imitating this witch, the mad lady from the Yorkshire Moors, and she was very theatrical about it. She was such a mesmerising performer — she threw her heart and soul into everything she did — that it was difficult to ever fault her or say 'You could do better.'"

Virgin Territory

The layout of AIR Studio Two for the recording of the 'Wuthering Heights' band.The layout of AIR Studio Two for the recording of the 'Wuthering Heights' band.David Paton, who was the bass man on the other songs, overdubbed 12-string acoustic guitar on 'Wuthering Heights', and after Ian Bairnson redid his six-string part, Jon Kelly double-tracked them and tweaked the Varispeed on the machine to provide some breadth together with a chorusy feel. Then Andrew Powell hired a celeste and played the chime-like arpeggios that double with the piano motif during the song's intro and the sections preceding the chorus... all of which was virgin territory for the fledgling recording engineer.

"There was a fair bit of fun involved in working with instruments like that," Kelly recalls. "Kate would certainly get involved, poking her head all around to see where it sounded nice. There was a good feeling of camaraderie, so I never felt nervous... just insecure! I recorded the celeste with a Coles ribbon mic positioned on the soundboard at the back, and that worked out fine.

"You couldn't keep Kate away from he sessions even if you had wild dogs and bazookas. She was just drinking it all up, learning everything that went on. The first moment she walked into the control room, I could tell that's where she wanted to be, in control of her own records. She was so astute and intelligent, and she was also phenomenally easy to work with. An absolute joy. I can't remember any bad moments at all."

Next to overdub some parts was percussionist Morris Pert, who spent an entire day working on songs for The Kick Inside. "The only things he played on 'Wuthering Heights' were crotals, which are like disc-shaped glockenspiels," Kelly explains. "Again, these were doubled with the piano motif throughout the song."

Mr. 87

The string section was recorded in the larger AIR Studio One.The string section was recorded in the larger AIR Studio One.Then came the strings recorded in AIR's Studio One — eight first violins, six second violins, six violas and six cellos — as well as three French horns. These comprised the section that was used on 'Wuthering Heights', whereas a smaller section was used for some of the other songs — the parts for a couple of numbers were recorded in each three-hour session.

"That was a huge room, twice as big as the live area in Studio Two," Kelly remembers. "It could accommodate between 60 to 70 musicians, and had high ceilings and a lovely, bright sound. Everything sounded great in there. I miked the first violins with a couple of 87s, as I did for the second violins, the violas, the French horns and as overheads — back then you could have called me Mr. 87. At least there were FET 47s on the cellos. I'd try to use as few mics as posssible in Studio One because the room sounded so good and there was this phase thing going on — the more mics you used, you could fool yourself into thinking it sounded better, but things would cancel one another out and you'd lose the vibrancy.

"Nothing was slaved, everything was kept 24-track on this album, and that was fortunate because slaving was a really laborious process in those days — before Q-lock enabled us to efficiently run two machines together, we'd have to physically get two tapes in the right position to start a song. Tracks one through five were hi-hat, bass drum, overhead left, overhead right and snare — hi-hat would always be the first casualty if we needed an extra track — and tracks seven and eight were the tom-toms. Track six was missed out because you couldn't pan between odd and even on the Neve desks in AIR, while some of the groups had faders on them and some weren't normalised. You had to be careful about getting groups caught between the two, because there were cancellation problems. Meanwhile, the strings were mixed to two tracks and the French horns went to just one track."

Ian Bairnson's electric guitar solo, which winds its way through the closing stages of 'Wuthering Heights', was played in the Studio Two control room, his Les Paul going through a Marshall head and Marshall 4 x 12, miked with... yes, a pair of 87s, one close, the other about four feet away.

"Ian warmed up and developed that solo while I got the monitoring right, and there was one take that was just great," says Kelly. "Being in the control room, he missed the feedback from the amp, and I can remember telling him to get close to the speakers, expecting this to do the same. You can tell I was pretty naïve..."

Kate Bush, meanwhile, re-recorded her 'Wuthering Heights' vocal late one night, miked with a Neumann U67. "I liked the clarity of the 67," Kelly explains. "For me, the top end was a little better suited to vocals than the 87, helping with diction, and to that I added some [Urei] 1176 compression. At that point, there was only one track left, and Kate did just two or three passes, and that was that. There was no comping, it was a complete performance."

Kate Bush's only major concert tour took place in 1979, and included this performance in Copenhagen.Kate Bush's only major concert tour took place in 1979, and included this performance in Copenhagen.Photo: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Fader Movement

Mixing of The Kick Inside took place inside AIR's Studio Three on a brand new, custom-designed Neve console, featuring innovative NECAM moving-fader automation that, according to Kelly, was something of a double-edged sword.

"Some artists don't like to see things move because they become overly aware of them," he says. "Moving faders can be distracting, and that's why SSLs work well with the VCAs — you don't see the fader movement, you're not distracted by it and you can concentrate on the music. Because sometimes, when you do a move, you automatically look at the fader to see if it's gone where you wanted it to go, instead of concentrating on how it sounds."

Jon Kelly today.Jon Kelly today.Photo: Vicky BrownNevertheless, over the course of a weekend Jon Kelly completed 'L'Amour Looks Something Like You' and 'Moving' before, at about 11 o'clock on the Sunday night, Andrew Powell informed him he'd need at least three tracks to play for the EMI execs the following day. Forget any ideas about going home. He wanted 'Wuthering Heights' to complete the trio.

"We started that mix at around midnight, and Kate was there the whole time, encouraging us," Kelly remembers. "She was the shining light of the entire sessions. You couldn't deny her anything. So, we got on with the job, and we finished at about five or six that morning. It was a fairly straightforward mix — among the only effects were a pair of EMT 140 echo plates, one straight, the other delayed with a 15ips Studer — but it gelled and it had a whole vibrancy to it, and full credit for that goes to Andrew. He got the arrangement exactly right; he got the chords right, he translated Kate's work beautifully, and everything that was on the multitrack deserved to be there."

For his part, Kelly would subsequently regret not mixing Ian Bairnson's guitar solo a little louder. "I always used to apologise to him whenever I saw him afterwards," he says, even though the balance actually works perfectly well, said guitar soaring subtly above all else during the track's instrumental outro. Still, 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing.

"I love the fact that performance was our main concern back then, and that everything had a distinctly human feel," Jon Kelly now states. "These days, that whole album would be approached differently — it might end up with a Logic sequencer somewhere — but in the final analysis Kate's talent would shine through anything. It would shine through an old dustbin lid and a rubber band. And that's what I loved about working recently on the Tom Baxter album, which had that spirit of performance. It was almost like coming full circle. Wouldn't it be great if we have an era of real playing and performance? I think the kids are screaming and gagging for that."

Separation Anxiety

After some screens had been strategically placed, there wasn't too much effort expended on attaining separation when the band was playing. "We weren't as precious about that sort of thing back then," Kelly asserts. "Since the advent of multi-channel recorders and people's ability to solo stuff, if they suddenly hear some drums on the piano they'll go into a panic. During the Kick Inside sessions, the piano wasn't all that far from the drums, yet it really wasn't an issue. For us, the performance was the thing."

In most cases, this was captured within just a handful of takes — it wasn't unusual to complete two or three backing tracks in a single day, and so, allowing for several breaks as well as the mix, the entire album took about six weeks to complete.

"I can't remember doing any editing on Kate's sessions," says Kelly, "but I can remember 'Wuthering Heights' being a performance-y type song. Stuart was a brilliant drummer, he absolutely adored Kate's songs, and the all-round enthusiasm and will to play well on those sessions was just fantastic. They were great musicians, and everything they did was of a very high standard."

Scaling The Heights

'James And The Cold Gun' was orginally scheduled to be Kate Bush's debut single, yet when Bush pleaded the case for 'Wuthering Heights' EMI deferred to the teen prodigy's intuition, and by January of 1978 the song was topping the UK charts. It would be a massive hit almost everywhere except America, where the diminutive musician would have to wait several more years before achieving her breakthrough. And the song also provided the British press with ample opportunity to dismiss her as little more than an eccentric novelty, before her subsequent releases dispelled that notion.

One of Kate Bush's best-loved songs, 'Wuthering Heights' was accorded a new vocal by her when included on her 1986 greatest hits compilation The Whole Story. Nevertheless, despite the furore which that provoked amongst purists, it is still the original that garners the most airplay.