As he gets ready to tour Ireland, Kate Bush’s former partner and bass player Del Palmer fondly recalls the couple’s visits to this country at the height of the singer’s fame, writes
Side two of Kate Bush’s 1985 masterpiece Hounds of Love is a baroque descent into uncanny waters — a fever-dream relayed by an unnamed narrator trying to survive a night on the open sea. It’s cool to the touch yet you come out the other side shaken and stirred. Popular music has never produced anything quite like it, before or since.
The making of the record was a plunge off the deep end, too – one that saw Bush travel to Ireland to reconnect with her Celtic heritage. The journey would take her from U2’s Windmill Lane stomping the ground to her roots in Waterford and finally the furthest reaches of the Dingle Peninsula.
There, between the grey sky, the choppy sea and the sheep hugging the hills she must have felt she’d arrived at the edge of the world (not by coincidence, surely, the first track of the side-b suite, ‘The Ninth Wave’, is titled ‘And Dream Of Sheep’).
“There were no roads - just tracks,” recalls Del Palmer, Bush’s musical foil across the span of her career and her partner for some 15 years.
You couldn’t make a phone call on a Sunday because the phone-master was away. They used to have wind-up telephones. It was very different.
Bush’s family hail from around Dungarvan and Palmer’s from Cork (he has since become an Irish citizen). With Bush at the peak of her fame, their odyssey into the far south-west of Ireland was, Palmer recalls, enormously liberating.
“We loved it. One night we had to sleep in the car. We couldn’t make a phone call we needed to because it was a Sunday. And it was no problem. It was a Volkswagen Golf — nothing fancy. I can’t think of many other countries where you’d be fine about sleeping in a car.”
Palmer doesn’t give many interviews (he is understandably wary of journalists wishing to pry into his personal relationship with Bush).
However, he has made an exception as he prepares to return to Ireland, this time reprising his bass parts on some of Bush’s classic records as part of the acclaimed Kate Bush Songbook show.
He will play alongside singer Mandy Watson and keyboardist and band-leader Michael Mayell. The gigs, which include a date at Cyprus Avenue, Cork will celebrate 40 years of Bush’s esoteric, mind-blowing pop.
Performing Bush’s music is something Palmer is asked to do constantly. Usually, he politely declines. But something about the Kate Bush Songbook’s empathic and, on the forthcoming run of dates, stripped-down approach spoke to him.
It’s a big deal for him to go back on the road as the last time he will have played many of these tracks was on Bush’s first, and only, world tour in 1979, after which she retired from live performance, until her comeback residency at Hammersmith Apollo in 2014.
My philosophy was, ‘I’ve been there — I’ve done the real thing.’ But Michael sold me on the idea — in the end I asked him if I could be involved.
His memories of the 1979 shows are glitteringly bright. The Tour Of Life was truly ground-breaking, incorporating “mime, magic and reading”.
It also featured pioneering use by Bush of a wireless headset, so that she could sing and dance simultaneously (she had studied dance with David Bowie’s old mime tutor Lindsay Kemp).
These were innovations that would be copied by everyone from Madonna to Lady Gaga. It ran for just over a month — but changed live music forever.
“Nothing like that had been done before,” Palmer recalls.
“There were projections and costume changes and we played for three hours. It was very revolutionary. I remember the first night the audience going absolutely bananas.”
By that point, he’d been in Bush’s orbit for a little over two years. He was introduced via mutual friends in south London (he had known Bush’s older brother Paddy). The first time he saw her perform, Palmer understood his life had changed. He’d never encountered anyone like her.
“I knew I had to be involved. She was going to be huge — that was obvious to me when she was 17 and still a very raw artist. We had a residency in the Rose of Lee pub in East London.
"The first night there were about 10 people. By the time we finished the residency, there were people out the street who couldn’t get in the door, it was so jammed.
"Even then, she was using dry ice getting and down into the audience. She was remarkable, A little Energiser Bunny.”
By the time of Hounds of Love, Bush had come to a critical juncture. Her previous album, The Dreaming, had not been well reviewed (it was regarded as too experimental).
So a lot was riding on the new LP. Adding to that, both she and Palmer were determined to connect with their Celtic heritage.
“We were recording in Windmill Lane. Dónal Lunny was involved, John Sheahan [The Dubliners], Paddy Glackin [The Bothy Band]. Kate wanted to get back to her roots. On one occasion they had done a piece for Hounds Of Love called ‘The Jig of Life’.
They were all around her and played the piece and she was reduced to jelly. It just blew her away, she got so emotional. Irish music is for her and her family a very intense relationship.
There was also a trip to Waterford to meet Bush’s family.
“We went to look them up and they seemed to come out of the woodwork there were so many. ‘This is cousin Mick, this is cousin Johnny…’ There were thousands of them. They were so friendly.”
The question Palmer is often asked is how do you produce records for a talent as enigmatic and singular as Kate Bush? “You have to facilitate — make them feel comfortable. Kate is quite secure in her own self-confidence. But with many artists, you have made them feel loved.
"If you want them to do something again you’ll say, ‘oh it’s my fault’. You want to turn any comment you might have into something positive.”
The Kate Bush Songbook 40th Anniversary Tour with Del Palmer visits Set Theatre, Kilkenny, on Wednesday Oct 17, Cyprus Avenue Cork, next Thursday, Oct 18; Dolan’s Warehouse, Friday 19; Monroe’s Galway, Sat 20; and Sugar Club Dublin, Wednesday 24