This is the seventh post in a yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of all songs in the series here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Kate Bush’s “Hounds Of Love” is to her catalog what “The Empire Strikes Back” is to the “Star Wars” franchise: a huge commercial success that many fans and critics unquestioningly treat as the best in the collection. And if “Hounds of Love” is Bush’s “Empire,” then “Running Up That Hill” is her “No, I am your father” moment. There is no bigger moment in that movie, no bigger song on that album.
Bush originally named the song “A Deal With God,” but representatives at EMI asked her to change the name because they feared that radio stations in more religious countries would not play a song with “God” in the title. Bush ultimately acquiesced, but later releases of “Hounds of Love” had the song’s title as “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God).”
There’s a chill to the song before we even hear Bush’s lyrics, as the subdued keyboards come in, followed by the drumbeat. There’s a tension between the force of the drumbeat and the quietness of the keyboards. That tension then gives way to the back-and-forth Bush narrates:
You don’t want to hurt me,
But see how deep the bullet lies.
Unaware I’m tearing you asunder.
Ooh, there is thunder in our hearts.
Is there so much hate for the ones we love?
Tell me, we both matter, don’t we?
You, it’s you and me.
It’s you and me won’t be unhappy.
The implication is that the “I” and “you” are a couple, but that’s never overtly spelled out in the song. Thus, the strain of the relationship becomes more important than the nature of the relationship.
But according to Bush, she not only wrote the song about a romantic couple, but about a relationship between a man and a woman. In an interview, she said, “I was trying to say that, really, a man and a woman can’t understand each other because we are a man and a woman. And if we could actually swap each other’s roles, if we could actually be in each other’s place for a while, I think we’d both be very surprised! [Laughs] And I think it would lead to a greater understanding. And really the only way I could think it could be done was either… you know, I thought a deal with the devil, you know. And I thought, ‘well, no, why not a deal with God!’ You know, because in a way it’s so much more powerful the whole idea of asking God to make a deal with you.”
That explanation might sound too “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” for modern ears. But in 1985, when Bush’s “Hounds of Love” came out, there was not a mainstream consensus that it was sexist to assume men and women were different. Nor was there a mainstream understanding that a romantic couple didn’t have to consist of one man or one woman. Bush’s description of her song leaves out the possibility that a couple could be two men or two women, or that one or both people in the relationship might reject the notion of conforming to gender roles. Luckily, the song does not mention any gender roles, and thus the listener is allowed to project the lyrics onto any relationship between any two people.
How we interpret the song’s meaning and the situation described is up to us, of course, and how we hear it can depend a lot on our own experiences. As is the case with last week’s song, “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “Running Up That Hill” provides a frame for us to hang our experiences. Its lyrics sketch out a tone, but we the listeners get to flesh out the story. That’s essentially true with every song, but especially with songs that detail more in abstractions.
It’s an interesting exercise to consider the covers with Bush’s words about her inspiration in mind. In all versions, it’s a given that the relationship being discussed is in various states of stress, but depending on the version, the listener could get the idea the relationship is salvageable or beyond repair.
Placebo released a cover of “Running Up That Hill” on the bonus disc for its 2003 album “Sleeping With Ghosts.” The band also included the song on its “Covers” album in 2003 and the US version of its album “Meds” in 2007. The cover has become to the ’00s and ’10s what The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” was for the ’90s: a great song to use in the background for creepy or sinister scenes in movies and TV shows. Placebo’s “Running Up That Hill” has appeared in several TV shows, including “The Vampire Diaries,” “Bones,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” and “The O.C.”
In “The O.C.,” the song was used in the opening scene of the fourth season premiere. That scene picked up five months after the third season finale, which killed off a main character. Placebo’s “Running Up That Hill” played over a montage in which viewers could see what had happened in the aftermath. The series’ previous two seasons had been bogged down by secondary and tertiary characters and soap opera tropes. This scene signalled that the soap parts were over and this season was going to focus on the characters that had been so richly developed in the first season. And Placebo’s haunting take on a familiar classic indicated that this character study would not be pleasant, but agonizing and painful.
The first second or so of Placebo’s cover sounds eerily similar to the first second of Erasure’s “Chains of Love.” The music then kicks in for a few bars before we hear Brian Molko’s steady delivery of Bush’s lyrics. Molko sings with a restraint that would make lesser singers sound like they’re performing a spoken word piece. His voice doesn’t change much, but he’s certainly not monotone or apathetic. It’s more downbeat than Bush’s version, and thus colder and more ominous.
Dutch symphonic metal band Within Temptation released the song as single in 2003. Singer Sharon den Adel said the cover came about because “people were comparing me always with her as a similar kind of voice, and we were just fooling around in the studio.” The band was pleased with the results, so the band released it as a single between albums. In the Within Temptation version, den Adel focuses on different words than Bush, particularly “hurt.” She stretches that word longer, and punctuates it. The result is that den Adel’s version transforms “Do you want to know that it doesn’t hurt me?” into “Do you want to know that it doesn’t — HUUUUUUUURT! — me?”
Chromatics featured its cover of the song on the 2007 album, “Night Drive.” The album was a stylistic departure for the band, as the band embraced an Italo disco-inspired synth pop sound. This shift makes sense, given that all but one of the members to appear on “Night Drive” were new. The airy, dreamy version of “Running Up That Hill” jettisons the guitars that appear at the end of Bush’s versions and instead features a saturation of synth, such that Ruth Radelet’s vocals sound somewhat distant. Read about Chromatics’ cover of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” here.
A cappella group Club For Five featured a cover of the song on “You’re The Voice.” Rather than try to recreate the song’s familiar keyboards, the group takes advantage of its members’ ability to mimic drum machines and production techniques. The song then becomes an upbeat head bobber, and the relationship mentioned in the lyrics sounds less like a couple on the rocks and or like two people having a minor spat.
In 2011, former teen icon Tiffany released “Greatest Hits of the ’80s & Beyond,” a compilation that featured some of her hits and covers of other artists’ hits from the 1980s. The collection featured a straight cover of “Running Up That Hill” that sounds very much like a mimic of Bush’s original. It sounds like what you’d hear on a karaoke CD, which is to say it’s faithful to the original to a fault. “Greatest Hits of the ’80s & Beyond” also featured “Running Up That Hill (Trance Remix),” which recasts the song as a dance track.
In the previous “Cover Songs Uncovered” posts, we’ve examined covers that restructure a song or change its mood. The most obvious example of this was in last week’s aforementioned look at Frente!’s cover of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Frente! stripped the song of all electronics and made it an acoustic ballad in which you can’t help but pay attention to the disappointment in the lyrics and the heartbreak in Angie Hart’s voice. Thus, comparing the Frente! version with the New Order version is like comparing apples and oranges. Taking one of the most popular songs released in the last 30 years and making a version that holds up on its own is no small feat.
It’s with that Frente! standard in mind that we can look at these covers of “Running Up That Hill.” Tiffany’s version is safe, but it’s too safe. She did not change the keyboards, arrangement, tempo, or vocals. Placebo, Chromatics, Within Temptation, and Club For Five all made smart choices by changing something about the song. In changing the song, they added something. Placebo made it creepy and sinister. Chromatics made it airier and dreamier. Within Temptation made it angry and aggressive, stressing the word “hurt.” Club For Five didn’t even attempt to recreate the background music and instead used it to showcase the group’s impressive vocal capabilities.
I’ve informally surveyed many music fans about what they appreciate in a “good” cover song. There are some disagreements, but mainly, I’ve found, people want something that’s familiar, but also new in its familiarity. They want to recognize the song to an extent, but not feel like they’re listening to the original. Otherwise, what’s the point of listening to an identical-sounding version that isn’t Bush’s?