Track of the Day: 'Wuthering Heights' by the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From reader Steve Hunter:

Hiya Chris, I’m enjoying your cover series, so thought I’d have a go myself. Kate Bush is my favourite artist, and she has been since her first jaw-dropping appearance on Top of the Pops in January 1978. “Wuthering Heights,” a song about a ghost calling on her lover to join her in death and based on the classic novel, went to number 1 in the British Charts for four weeks—the first time a female artist reached number 1 with a self-penned song. And all this from a 19-year-old “girl” appearing, it seemed, from absolutely nowhere.

“Wuthering Heights” marked the start of a career of singular originality and innovation, and it’s been covered many times—mostly badly or indifferently. However, I just love the cover by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain [embedded above], which turns “Wuthering Heights” into a swinging song you could almost imagine Frank Sinatra singing. Yes it’s a mickey take, but an affectionate one, and I know that Kate herself really enjoys it.

The YouTube link that Steve provided for Kate Bush’s version of “Wuthering Heights” is a pretty fantastic live performance at Hammersmith Odeon in 1979. To give you a sense of the spectacle, the stage credits include one for “Illusions, magic and mime.”

I don’t know much about Kate Bush but she seems fascinating, so I found a BBC documentary from a few years ago and watched the first six minutes—on the impact of her “Wuthering Heights” debut:

Several of the talking heads discuss her “high-pitched voice, warbling and dropping,” as Viv Albertine of the punk band The Slits put it. And this quote from John Lydon of Sid Vicious especially stood out:

[Kate Bush’s voice in “Wuthering Heights”] was extremely challenging, the vocal—it was almost hysterical, and so up there, the register. But it was absolutely fascinating. And I know at the time a lot of my friends couldn’t bear it—that it was too much. But that’s exactly what drew me in.

I felt the same when I first heard Joanna Newsom years ago on her first album Walnut Whales (e.g. “Peach, Plum, Pear”). Newsom has a similarly eerie and challenging voice as Kate Bush’s, but it became irresistible. Ditto for Alec Ounsworth with his band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah when I first heard their self-titled album (e.g. “Let the Cool Goddess Rust Away”). If you have a favorite artist who initially grated on you, and you want to write a short note about it, let me know. Update from Steve: “We’ve had a pretty depressing week here in the UK, this has cheered me up no end.”

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