CW: child sexual abuse.
We must address some important facts in this blog post. For starters, folk musician Roy Harper is a songwriter of note. He’s got solid and interesting work in his discography, bits of which get covers by remarkable artists like the Cocteau Twins or, as this post demonstrates, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. It’s intuitive that Bush and Gabriel would choose to duet on a cover of “Another Day”; an sturdy and compelling break-up song, whose themes of wistfulness and the cognitive dissonance of desire overlap with both artists’ interests. The Harper album “Another Day” hails from, Flat Baroque and Berserk, has songs that are the equal of mid-tier tracks from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, or Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer’s Flowers of Avalon. Harper’s work is firmly second-tier folk music, respectable but not transcendent. Given that he’s a direct influence on Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd (with whom he cut a lead vocal on “Have a Cigar”), and Pete Townshend, he’s clearly a figure with some relevance to both rock and folk music and a force to be reckoned with.
The other thing we need to address in this blog post is the revelations about Roy Harper that have been made over the years. He is the subject of child sexual abuse allegations by two women, who were 11 and 16 at the time the abuse occurred. These women, who have chosen to be anonymous, have recounted their trauma in accounts too harrowing to quote on this blog but which can be read here. As is typical of these cases, Harper was cleared of these charges in 2015 and served no prison time. Any discussion of Harper must at least acknowledge the violence he’s committed against these women, and that he effectively ruined their lives.
It’s not often when relating the story of Kate Bush that I have to talk about things like this. Most figures in this narrative aren’t actively monstrous, although we’ll talk about Rolf Harris in time. But in the era of #MeToo, it’s vital that we talk about the violence committed by influential persons. When you write about Roy Harper, you can’t simply stop at saying Flat Baroque and Berserk is pretty good. While the objective quality of his work isn’t diminished by his actions, what he’s made is necessarily tainted by his crimes. The fact that these songs were written by a rapist has them in the same way that the revelations about Louis CK and Kevin Spacey have affected their work.
Harper is also influential enough that in 1979, “Another Day” was covered on TV by two popular artists. Bush and Gabriel covered it on Bush’s BBC Christmas special, “Kate,” the most gonzo thing the BBC has aired that’s not The Web Planet. It’s an eclectic piece of stage theater that serves as a 45-minute sampler of the Tour of Life as well as a warm-up for Never for Ever. It has Bush cozying up to star power, bringing Peter Gabriel in to do some songs, including a solo performance of his own “Here Comes the Flood.” Bush and Gabriel’s collaboration ends up with a duet of “Another Day.”
What’s interesting about this cover is that the original song is an implied duet. “Another Day” unfolds in a post-breakup environment, where the relationship is permanently over but the wistfulness and desire remain (for a similar track written by probable non-abusers, try R.E.M.’s “Country Feedback”). Harper switches back and forth between the perspectives of the male and female partners in this relationship, moving between the man’s observations from his enthroned position — “she’s at the door/she wants to score/she clearly needs to stay” — to the woman’s more subservient introspection — “I should have had one of your children.” It’s a thoughtfully sad piece of music that has intriguing bits poetic language like “as the flames of eternity rise/to lick us with the firstborn lash of dawn,” the sort of line John Carder Bush could have written.
In the Christmas special, Bush and Gabriel are seated on opposite sides of a kitchen table, looking away from each other and at the camera. This blatant literalism is typical of Bush yet not necessarily for Gabriel, who’s clearly less into the performance than his collaborator. While Bush is clearly into the performance, dramatically heaving her body with implied sighs and casually sitting on one of her feet, Gabriel seems markedly less interested in the proceedings of the video, mostly staring off into space and occasionally closing his eyes in a “looking to heaven” pose like Roger Daltrey on downers.
The contrast between the two performers is by some margin the most interesting part of the performance, which is really just three minutes and forty-one seconds of two people sitting at a table. It’s a slow and arduous with minimal changes in composition and production design. A moment of rising action places Bush and Gabriel, both clothed in black, face-to-face against a white curtain before the original domestic scene takes the screen again. A little screen is superimposed on the black background behind Bush and Gabriel, projecting the aforementioned “black clothes” scene as well as extreme close-up shots of Bush, but it’s a small part of the screen that brings little to the drama.
The reality is that one of the few collaborations of Bush and Gabriel on film is rather dismal. The verbal subtlety of “Another Day” is mostly lost in this cover. Bush and Gabriel are fundamentally melodramatic singers: their songs are of big emotions and sweeping weirdness. Bush fails to land the “I should have had one of your children” line (although really, what woman could sing that convincingly?), and the chorus of voices that invade the track’s second half buries the song’s nuances under Seventies rock banality. At their core, Bush and Gabriel’s singing is best suited to their own songs. Them attempting Harper’s brand of rustic sadness is like pouring honey and cream on straw.
Bush and Gabriel’s cover is far from their best collaboration, but it’s not the most important aspect of this song. “Another Day,” despite its objective merits, is a song about domestic life written by an abuser. Irrespective of its quality, this is the most notable fact about it. The fact it’s one of Harper’s seminal tracks makes it crucial to his whole body of work. What he says in “Another Day” determines cadences and ideas across his music. On the one hand, Harper understands that some bonds don’t break and that the ending of relationships doesn’t end all the desires that were part of them. He writes powerfully about a standstill. Yet at the same time, the perspectives he writes from are rather telling. The man is served upon; he observes the woman’s desire for him and considers acting upon it: “I must make her, I must take her/while the dove domains.” Meanwhile the woman is subservient, admitting she wishes she had reproduced with her former partner while being too afraid to speak. The male part is more convincing than that of the woman, who ultimately feels like she was written by a male songwriter. Add Harper’s personal history to the mix, and the gender politics of “Another Day” crystallize all too well.
So I’m sorry that I couldn’t just write a blog post about how cool it is Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel are singing on TV together, but we’ll have other opportunities to talk about their work. They have better work together anyway, doing things like not recording subpar covers of songs by child rapists. “Another Day” should just be a footnote in their careers. I wish we could talk about neat it is these two artists are doing TV together. Instead we’ve had to spend 1300 words talking about an utter bastard who only avoids being the most evil person in Bush’s trajectory by having less known victims than Rolf Harris. It’s not Bush or Gabriel’s fault this song has aged poorly. But if you’re not at least somewhat uncomfortable during a discussion of this song, I don’t know why you’re sitting at the table at all.
Originally recorded by Roy Harper et al at Abbey Road in August and September 1969. Performed by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel for BBC special “Kate” on 28 December 1979.