Through the late winter of 1976-77 and into spring the group rehearsed regularly at Wickham Farm, working up a 20-song set. It was so cold in the barn that sometimes they would decamp to the front room, putting the drums on the hearth rug and playing with acoustic guitars. Because there was a piano in the room they started rehearsing more of Bush’s original material, and the band of older, seasoned semi-pros was given a direct insight into her astonishing gifts.
“Kate used to write a lot each week and come up with these ideas and bounce them off you,” says drummer Vic King. “I don’t know how many songs she had for the first album that weren’t used. [I remember] some strange song about ‘tick tock the clock…’ She had a unique style of writing and composing music. Books, stories, films – she loved The Red Shoes – it was that world of art and portraying characters, detectives with trilby hats and old raincoats, old Forties and Fifties films. It became something to write about. From our point of view, it was just chords and rhythms and beats.”
King was the oldest of the male trio, socially set slightly apart (he was dubbed ‘Nosmo King’ for his aversion to cigarettes), and he became the band’s de facto organiser: buying the equipment, organising rehearsals, picking up, dropping off. He often collected Bush from her dance classes in his Hillman Imp and brought her to rehearsals and later gigs. Brian Bath was the musical dynamo, a gifted player and songwriter who had won a deal with Essex Music, one of those vastly talented musicians always just a whisker away from seizing their big chance. Many years previously he had taught his old school friend Del Palmer the rudiments of 12-bar blues on the bass, and Palmer had progressed from there. A plain speaking extrovert with a lively sense of humour, Del “was naturally rhythmic, he won dancing competitions,” laughs Bath. “He used to do Mick Jagger impersonations. Del was obviously up for it. He’s just really solid, you know there’s a bass player there when Del’s playing, he’s got such a heavy anchor point. A tremendous player, he can really hold it down.”
They worked hard 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 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 they 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 live performance, but finally Bath used his contacts to organise a residency at the Rose Of Lee, a popular local pub [now called Dirty South] 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,” agrees 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 always by Bush. “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.”
There was no shortage of material, but only the songs that most obviously leant themselves to the standard band format – and the ones that stood the most chance of being easily digested by a pub crowd – made it into the set. The strange beauty of ‘Them Heavy People’, ‘James And The Cold Gun’ and ‘The Saxophone Song’ insinuated themselves into the cracks between Marvin Gaye, the Stones and an attempt to turn ‘Nutbush City Limits’ into ‘Kate Bush City Limits’, which, says King, “didn’t quite work”.
Bush started putting into practice some of the techniques she had learned first through Lindsay Kemp, and now Adam Darius, Robin Kovac and her teachers at the Dance Centre. ‘James And The Cold Gun’ in particular became a showpiece. “Rob [Bradley] got a dry ice machine from somewhere,” says Bath. “We used that on stage for ‘James And The Cold Gun’ and it looked great. We had a bit of a show going, Kate did a costume change, she’d put on a bloomin’ western cowgirl dress for the second set! The theatrical thing was starting to get there. She wasn’t shy on stage. She would move around, she didn’t stand there like a prop. She was pretty dynamic, she used to live it all.”
As the band’s circle grew wider, they began amassing more equipment, bigger PA system, and signed a contract with Len Fletcher’s South Eastern Entertainment Agency to play nightclubs at £60 a show. “Once they came to see us they were just ringing up all the time,” says King. “We did build up a following, especially in the London scene. It was great driving around and seeing our posters on the hoardings.” At Tiffanys in Harlow they played a Sunday afternoon cabaret spot in a restaurant where fake palm trees gazed back at them forlornly and faded photographs of distant beaches adorned the walls. They were asked back but declined. If they were playing places like the Target in Greenford, west London, on the way home they would park King’s Hillman Imp and Bath’s Morris 1000 van and stop off at Mike’s Diner, an all-night cafe in New Burlington Street, off Regent Street. Over 4 a.m. omelettes and cups of tea and strong coffee, they would dissect the night’s gig and discuss plans for the next day: Shall we meet tomorrow at the farm? Does Kate have any new songs?
© Graeme Thomson, 2010