This will be my last blog post to be crossposted to Eruditorum Press, as Elizabeth’s Tori Amos project, “Boys In Their Dresses,” will begin its run on the site come Monday. In the meantime you can still follow me at katebushsongs.wordpress.com, or financially support me in exchange for exclusive writing and personal editing at my Patreon. I am literal days from moving out of my current apartment and haven’t found an affordable replacement, so my partner and I could really use your help. Thanks so much for reading. It means the world to me.
Numerous times on this blog we’ve talked about Kate, Bush’s classic 1979 Christmas special. As one of the few extended performances of her music Bush has done, and the only one made for television, it documents some of her less performed songs. While the bulk of Kate’s setlist was played on the Tour of Life, with the exceptions of Peter Gabriel’s contributions and a couple of Never for Ever songs, the BBC’s style of “televised theatre” differs from the musical theater Bush spent the tour performing. 20th century BBC shows were often boxed into a single room of a studio, and wholeheartedly embraced their limits by emphasizing their producedness, operating as filmed theater. Bush capitalized on the theatrical aspect of TV, particularly in her early career, relying more on costuming and mime than special effects and cinematographic precocity. Most of the songs performed in the Christmas special have visual counterparts from Bush or Gabriel elsewhere, barring “Another Day,” but we’ll leave that post to itself. The other exception, “Ran Tan Waltz,” is a B-side, an eccentric piece of smut that would have made de Sade drool.
“Ran Tan Waltz” has one of the strangest videos of Bush’s career. It’s a three-dancers-on-one-stage setup that’s not atypical of Bush in this era, but the costuming tips it into what-the-fuck-are-we-looking-at territory. Bush is decked out in Tevye-like garb, boasting a chinbeard, waistcoat, and bare feet, an exemplary sample of how middle-class English girls think the working class looks (à la some cabaret). To her left and right are dancers Stewart Avon Arnold and Gary Hurst dressed respectively as an upper class woman in purple and, I swear to God I am not making this up, a fucking baby in a diaper. Kate Bush has made a music video that’s a weird mix of cabaret, Victoriana, early 20th-century Russo-Jewish musical theater, and AB/DL. In a BBC Christmas special. Having written these last two sentences, I shall now retire Dreams of Orgonon and languish in obscurity.
Alas, if every blogger who covered BBC television from the Seventies quit after seeing things like diaper men, there’d be a complete deficit of media criticism about this era. So umm… yeah, “Ran Tan Waltz,” the song and the video, has a lot going on. Normally we could contextualize the substance of a video with its song, but really, how do you get Tevye and diaper fetishes out of a song like this? Well, musically, “Ran Tan Waltz” is the third part of a loose trio following “Coffee Homeground” and “Magician,” all gloomy Kurt Weillesque waltzes. Weill’s influence is useful for figuring out the class aspects of the video: while Brecht and Weill’s plays weren’t always about the working class — not by a long shot — they did often feature a dramatized ideal of working class decadence. Bush’s interest in this aesthetic is grounded in musical theater rather than Marxist class consciousness, but there’s still a latent political base to it, consisting of warped gender politics and domestic life.
In “Ran Tan Waltz,” the nuclear family is rapidly collapsing. Bush’s character is a cuckolded husband who’s left to take care of his baby while his wife shags his friends. Really. It’s a willfully crass adultery song, laden with entendres which intentionally flunk their doubleness and show off their flunking. The very first verse has some rare lyrical profanity from Bush when she sings that some nights, the adultress runs home terrified because she’s “[picked] on a dick that’s too big for her pride.” The chorus has the phrases “she saw me coming for miles” and “she saw me open wide” in them and repeated ad nauseum (Bush uses “open wide” to usher out the song. Even the title, “Ran Tan Waltz,” applies a rhythm to “ran tan,” a synonym for “banging noise.” Bush is abandoning her usual treatment of sex as a sensuous heterosexual union for a coarser and more rustic approach. This Kate Bush song doesn’t just have sex: it fucks.
There’s a lot to this. This is a blatantly negative song about relationship dysfunction, which is in part the bread and butter of Never for Ever, which has tracks like “All We Ever Look For” and “The Infant Kiss.” It deals with a marriage break in a material way: sex is referred to entirely as a rough act, one that’s driving a family apart rather than keeping a relationship’s magic alive. The hisband is getting nothing at home: he is, in Internet fuckboy lingo, getting cucked.
The cuckoldry bit is perfectly in keeping with the sort of thing Bush does. She often writes about issues concerning women from a man’s point of view, a subgenre of Bush songs which is going to culminate in Never for Ever’s most famous single. It’s a strange pathology of hers, one that sets her as a rare woman in a tradition of masculine songwriting, but it often allows for interestingly fractured views of gender. In the case of “Mr. Mom: Kurt Weill Edition,” Bush destroys the nuclear family. The mother is a playgirl while the father stays home and takes care of the baby. This is Bush’s model of desire-from-a-distant played through a Feydeau farce: everything becomes dirty and obscene, even romantic relationships. Kate Bush is doing an anti-Kate Bush song. The magic of the universe has been lost to these characters. There’s not enough sex in their lives.
Sex is often a luxury, one that can be dangerous if those involved lack means. People all over the globe succumb to STDs, and in some countries queer people can be legally murdered for expressing their sexual orientation. For many working class people, including women and others, sex is a way of subsistence and maybe even making the rent. It’s a way for people to keep their bodies and minds alive as well as often a financial mode of subsistence. “Ran Tan Waltz” reflects this lack of luxury, where some not-well-off people have nothing to think about outside of labor and childcare than their sex lives. Families can easily fail and break apart under the wrong circumstances. If one were to explain the music video, it would be this way: Bush is tapping into modes of working class theater to touch on how sex locks into struggle. To be sure, it’s a romanticized vision of the working class, but it’s not a judgmental one. Beneath the surface, there’s some genuine probing of proletariat circumstances and how it shapes people’s sex lives. It’s not the optimistic romanticism that underpins The Kick Inside, but it’s more mature and wide-reaching.
It is also fucking goofy. This is a song that’s probably given fodder to diaper fetishists for decades. Probably none of the aforementioned class and sex dynamics actually entered Bush’s mind when she wrote this song. She just wrote a sex farce. And yet as always, even the throwaway parts of Bush’s career are worth looking through for salvage. Puzzles pieces still tell you something about a larger picture: the way to progress is blowing up its goofiest parts.
Dreams of Orgonon will be back next week with “December Will Be Magic Again” at WordPress.
Recorded in 1979, presumably in autumn at London AIR Studios. Performed on the BBC special “Kate” on 28 December 1979. Released as the B-side of “Babooshka” on 27 June 1980.