The Night of the Swallow: Kate Bush and Artistic Independence


Kate Bush’s 1982 album The Dreaming was revolutionary in many ways. For Bush personally, it represented her first work that she had total creative control over. Likewise, it also represented her mastery of new musical tools such as the Fairlight CMI. An early musical workstation which could sample sounds and build songs digitally.  More broadly, the album represented an expansion of the incipient world music movement. Not to mention a mainstreaming of more experimental pop forms. And, of course, the increasing use of digital technology in composition and production.

               Discussing the overall impact of The Dreaming would go on to have would likely be worth several articles. Just a taste, Neil Gaiman named Morpheus’s realm in The Sandman after Bush’s album. So, why not something more manageable? A single song on the album, for example.

               Track number seven, “The Night of the Swallow”.  

               Among other things, “The Night of the Swallow” was the beginning of Bush’s fascination with Irish music. Uillean pipes, which are kind of like bagpipes except worked with an elbow-operated bellows feature prominently in the song. Bush had been listing to Irish music for years, and was especially enamored with the pipes. In fact, she described hearing them as “like someone tossing a stone in my emotional well, sending ripples down my spine”. Now that she could make the creative decisions, she was free to use anything she wanted in her compositions. To that end, she employed Planxty keyboardist Bill Whelan and the Chieftains. The latter being some of the elder statesmen of traditional Irish music. The resultant sound elegantly brings together the very classical Irish music of the Chieftains and Bush’s own very modern sound. And this expertly mediated with Whelan’s keyboard work.

               It’s a phenomenal choice. The swelling uillean pipes lift each chorus into the stratosphere, like a swallow, propelling Bush’s soaring vocals up and up. Dramatically, it also highlights the emotions of the character whose perspective Bush is taking.

               Bush often features contentious relationships in her songs. This is a rare example of two people having a disagreement in an established relationship. Of course, they aren’t just arguing about the silverware, Bush doesn’t do banal. Instead, a married couple are having a spat because the husband, a pilot, has accepted a smuggling job. The job straightforward enough. He just has to fly some people from Dover in the UK to the island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean.

               However, he has no idea why they want to be flown there. He will never know their names nor they his. His wife doesn’t like the sound of this. In fact, she fears not just for her husband’s safety, but fears that she may lose him altogether. “It’s funny how, even now, you’re miles away” she sings.

               The chorus consists of the husband’s attempts to assure her that he has things under control. He goes through the route he will take “meet them over at Dover, I’ll just pilot the motor”. He goes through the precautions he will take “I’ll whisk them up in no moonlight, though pigs can fly they’ll never find me posing as the night”. Aside from some wonderful wordplay by Bush, it shows that the husband is rather contemptuous of the police and perhaps has the typical arrogance of a fly boy.

               “Before you know it, I’ll be over the water like a swallow”. The image of a swallow flying free permeates the song.  It’s right there in the title after all. The husband frequently compares himself to a swallow, and this fits with a broader them of transformation on the album. For example, “There Goes a Tenner” features bank robbers transforming into tough-guy film stars. Meanwhile, the title track “The Dreaming” has aborigine Australians transforming into trees.  In the case of “Night of the Swallow”, the husband appears at first to be assuaging his wife’s fears by comparing himself to a small, light bird that few take real notice of. However, as the audience hears more of the song, it becomes apparent that the husband identifies with swallows on some deeper level. It’s possible that, like many people throughout history he admires and envys the seeming freedom of birds.

               One interpretation for his attitude, put forth by Bush herself, is that the husband feels trapped in his relationship. The wife, driven by a mixture of legitimate concern and simple possessiveness, is smothering him. So he pushes back by accepting dangerous work. However, some of Bush’s lyrics indicate that the husband may have something else going on besides a somewhat unhealthy relationship.

               Finally at his wits end, the husband snaps “give me a break! Ooh, let me try! Give me something to show for my miserable life! Give me something to take! Would you break even my wings, just like a swallow?”. While the thrust of this outburst is still directed at (what he perceives as) his wife’s smothering tendencies, he may also be wrestling with unresolved issues of his own. And, perhaps vainly, hopes that the sense of accomplishment that he gets from successfully completing his flight to Malta will boost his self-esteem. Or perhaps, even redeem him in some way.   

               Of course, the audience never learns the outcome of the flight. It hasn’t happened yet in the context of the song, and even with the husband’s stubborn determination to go through with it, it still may not happen at all. It just isn’t for the audience to know, and is beside the point regardless.

               Returning to the musical aspects of the song, like the rest of the material on the album has underlying electronic elements. These elements, courtesy of Bush’s Fairlight CMI, allowed her to move beyond typical musical idiom. Because the Fairlight is similar to modern musical editing and creation software, Bush could very easily mix elements of past and future. In this case, the electronic elements provided by the Fairlight and Irish pipes. This helps make the song, for lack of a better term, atemporal. People in relationships have been having arguments forever after all.

It’s also possible to read some of Bush’s personal life at the time into this song. After all, this was her first album where she had total creative control. The Husband’s desire for freedom can be seen as a reflection of a similar desire on Bush’s part.

               But more importantly, this song reflects the same artistic maturation that The Dreaming as a whole does. This was where Kate Bush finally struck out on her own. More broadly it also represents the integration of various traditional forms into pop music that continues to this day.

               Bottom line, give it a listen.

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