Kate Bush occupies this odd Trans-Atlantic space between cult figure and pop star. It makes sense that she’s had a long, varied, widely analyzed, and deeply studied career, and it also makes sense that she found an ideal space in the Top Of The Pops/MTV ’80s to amplify her own singular voice with a visual and overall artistic sense that was almost intimidatingly uncanny. It’s the way she was able to translate this is weird to this is amazing via this speaks to me that accounts for her chart success, particularly in the UK, where it feels unlikely that an artist like her even fit into a pop world in the first place — even one that had space for the likes of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Peter Gabriel. Bush’s “First woman to _________ on the UK charts” run early in her career made her notable enough, but the albums she recorded from the late ’70s through the ’80s put her in a class of her own, as someone more enigmatic than her predecessors while still simpatico enough with capital-p Pop to create songs people felt compelled to sing along with. Not everyone could have that voice, but being the first one to have it meant Bush opened the gates for so many others.
By the time “Running Up That Hill” (later given the parenthetical “A Deal With God”) became her first and (so far) only single to hit the US top 40, peaking at #30, Bush had already established a rich career of art-rock boundary-pushing, and Hounds Of Love was her biggest statement yet on how to be a pop star and a prog auteur at the same time. And while it’s hard to pin an archetypal signature song on an artist with more than her share of candidates right from the get-go (seriously, “Wuthering Heights” is a hell of a thing), “Running Up That Hill” might just be it: booming enough for the dance charts, but still infused with a fearless experimentation, given a hook that’s delivered with an insistent power to latch itself onto your mind. And its lyrics — based around the struggles of love and the idea of swapping the identities of a man and a woman in an effort at bringing empathy into a relationship fraught with an uncontrollable power — are run through with a raw-nerved openness that seems intimate and anxious at the same time. It’s not an easy task to claim this song, but many have tried.
Kiki & Herb (2000)
Sometimes an aging cultural artifact has to survive being rendered as camp before it can earn a more sincere canonical importance. While “Running Up That Hill” was covered a couple times in Euro House form — in 1994 by Elastic Band, and 1995 by Levy 9 — one of its first real high-profile postmodern re-imaginings came from drag cabaret duo Kiki & Herb, who drew on the juxtapositions of unlikely pop and indie songs with old-time showbiz schmaltz to dredge up the ludicrous weirdness lurking just under the surface of both worlds. Their first album, 2000’s deranged Christmas album Do You Hear What We Hear?, is the first of many recordings that put their theatrically inebriated grand dame take on Kate Bush’s classic through the wringer — though by the time it earned show-closer status during the Carnegie Hall show recorded for 2005’s Kiki & Herb Will Die For You, it had become the kind of genuinely affecting over-the-top show-stopper that only amplified the intense yearning of Bush’s original.
Faith & The Muse (2001)
Kate Bush is probably not goth. I admittedly don’t have any firsthand experience parsing whether or not something fits the goth lifestyle and/or aesthetic, what with kind of being an outsider to that whole situational mindstate (though I ride for the Cure, they’re cool). Whenever I think of Bush’s place in music I usually wind up conjuring up Peter Gabriel or St. Vincent or Tori Amos (more on her later) as points of comparison. Fair enough; they’re more in the general vicinity of singer-songwriter/auteur-ish art rock. But there’s a certain goth-adjacent quality to Bush’s corner of music that can translate pretty easily — there’s some bleary hauntology somewhere deep in her melodies, which have the frequent tendency to sound better or at least more intense at night — and darkwavers Faith & The Muse bring it out with a relative minimum of genre-bound translation. Just make the drums thunderous, swap out the synthesizers for hovering-doom guitars, and let Monica Richards’ ice-cracking voice do the rest.
Maybe it’s the title, but “Running Up That Hill” is one of those songs it’s easy to remember being more uptempo than it really is — it’s the intensity of Bush’s voice, paired with the rhythmic pulse that feels heavy with exertion, that does it. And while slowing things down is usually the cheap and easy way to dredge up some half-assed notion of Deeper Meaning, Placebo’s version — released in 2003 as a single, on their covers album Covers, and as a bonus track on some issues of Sleeping With Ghosts — at least has the savvy and the uniqueness to pull it off successfully. Brian Molko’s decadent grunge-glam presence uses his vaunted androgynous qualities to the fullest, and even if he oversells a moment or two (hitting those hard “r”s on “there’s thunder in our hearts, baby” puts this weird oily sheen over it), he doesn’t so much drag the song’s pace down as he just luxuriates in it. Keeping the arrangement mostly to subterranean minimalist percussion and drowning piano doesn’t hurt, either.
Tori Amos (2005)
To paraphrase Tony Shalhoub’s character in Barton Fink: Tori Amos. Kate Bush cover. Whaddya need, a roadmap? Amos has been hounded (of love) by Bush comparisons for most of her career, and she’s handled it with a knowing awareness that points out how reductive that formulaic equation can be. Nevertheless, as an artist Amos can still get to the root of what makes Kate Bush an amazing performer and songwriter without losing her own identity, and probably the clearest possible way she’s done that is to juxtapose “Running Up That Hill” with her own song “God” as a frequent centerpiece of her live sets. If they’re going to make the comparisons, you might as well make them, too, and better — and hearing Amos weave through Bush’s singular vocals through a half-dreaming haze beats the daylights out of any RIYL algorithm going.
Splitting the difference between baroque, theatrical art-pop and borderline-aloof wintry halogen-glow synthpop can ruin both sides of the equation if you’re not careful. Chromatics are, if anything, careful to a fault — think of those recent stories of producer Johnny Jewel completely scrapping and destroying every single trace of their upcoming years-in-the-making album Dear Johnny as he went back to the studio to completely re-record it. Hearing Chromatics as a no-half-measures band does a lot to make the idea of them turning up the contrast on “Running Up That Hill”‘s electro qualities sound a lot more appealing, and this one’s a real addition-by-subtraction reinterpretation: Ruth Radelet is a much wispier, distant-sounding singer than Bush, but that just puts a different set of nuances to the melody up front, breathlessly awed instead of intensely yearning. That staggered morse code guitar taking up the role ceded by the original’s palpitating drum beat seals it.
Little Boots (2010)
“Ah, this is my favorite song ever… sorry if I ruin it.” Well, that’s one way to announce that you’re going to take a shot at covering Kate Bush. Spend enough time with a song and its creator will probably feel not only like a big part of your mindstate but also somebody that you really don’t want to disappoint, and Victoria Hesketh just drops the most gut-level version of that certain nervousness some musicians must have when they’re actually channeling this formative piece of work through themselves. It’s like that old writer’s exercise of sitting down at a typewriter and transcribing the words of Hemingway just to find out what it was like to push those words through your fingers, except Bush is arguably a better writer than Hemingway and definitely a better singer so you’ve got a lot to live up to on at least a couple levels there. Little Boots goes for it at this Amoeba Records in-store with just an electronic piano to accompany her, and while there’s nothing spectacularly transcendent about this interpretation, it had to have felt pretty staggering for her anyways just to breathe through it.
Will Young (2011)
Can you think of anything more potentially anodyne than a TV singing idol contest winner rubbing generic gaspy-twerp melisma and skip-to-the-chorus reductiveness all over the work of one of pop music’s most distinctive voices ever as an excessively tasteful acoustic guitar/piano arrangement mawkishly sleepwalks behind him? Me neither.
Wye Oak (2015)
Wye Oak sometimes feel destined to be one of those bands that gets back-shelved in history. And it’s not because of any travails of right-place-wrong-time indie PR, or an excess of either unremarkable ordinariness or wild inaccessibility — it’s because they don’t lend themselves too easily to a scene-bound narrative throughline. Consistently good without being consistently typical, tagged with genre names (indie folk, indie rock, indie pop) that said more about target markets than nuanced style developments, compared with more widely known peers more often than they were compared with their frequently transforming selves. Lord knows they kept slipping out of my own notice, which is why this cover is pretty startling: Recorded a few months after 2014’s Shriek confused a good chunk of their fanbase by going a bit creepy-synthpop, it’s recast by the Jenn Wasner/Andy Stack two-piece as a sort of overcast skulking funk, to fascinatingly sinister effect (pun intended; a drummer who simultaneously plays keyboards lefthanded is a hell of a thing). The part where Wasner stomps that fuzz pedal during the bridge? Bla-dow.