‘Running Up That Hill’ is a song so transcendent it could make even an agnostic believe that Kate Bush actually struck a deal with the Lord to create it. Since its release in August 1985, the lead single from Bush’s seminal fifth album Hounds of Love has become the most enduring hit from Britain’s most elusive pop star. It’s beloved across generations, has taken on a life of its own in the world of film and TV, played an integral role at the London 2012 Olympics, and covered by acts as diverse as Placebo, Kim Petras, and Chromatics – all without ever losing its potency.
The latest Bush renaissance comes courtesy of Netflix’s Stranger Things. The song appears in the 1980s-set sci-fi show’s fourth season, central to the storyline for the character Max and her battles with PTSD over the death of a sibling. Tasked with finding a track that was symbiotic with Max’s emotions, Stranger Things music supervisor Nora Felder said that the deep chords of ‘Running Up That Hill’ immediately struck her with “the possible connection to Max’s emotional struggles and took on more significance as Bush’s song marinated in my conscious awareness”. Since its placement, fans of the Netflix show have made Bush a new darling of TikTok, streams of the track have increased 8,000 per cent, the track has re-entered the charts, and Kate Bush herself – a fan of the show – has made a rare public comment, expressing delight that ‘Running Up That Hill’ is “being given a whole new lease of life by the young fans”.
All of which is quite incredible, given the song was nearly never released in the first place. Bush’s label EMI thought the track, with its original title ‘Deal With God’ (which was only added to the track title in brackets, but which Bush still refers to the song as) could be perceived as blasphemous and would not receive airplay in some key territories. To have it released, a compromise had to be found between artist and corporation – something that wrangled Bush years later. In 1991, she told Classic Albums that it was absurd to change the title, given the song isn’t about religion or faith or God at all, but the complexities of male-female relations. “I couldn’t believe this, this seemed completely ridiculous to me and the title was such a part of the song’s entity. I just couldn’t understand it. But nonetheless, although I was very unhappy about it, I felt unless I compromised that I was going to be cutting my own throat.”
“Its lyrics and its vocals clash in contradictions. Bush says ‘it doesn’t hurt’, but she sings with a traumatic howl”
Bush said in 1985 that ‘Running Up That Hill’ is almost like a love song: “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! And I think it would lead to a greater understanding.” Its lyrics and its vocals clash in contradictions. Bush says “it doesn’t hurt”, but she sings with a traumatic howl before driving forward to the bridge that’s almost sensual as she incants “Come on, baby / Come on, darling / Let me steal this moment from you now” almost directly to the listener. It’s an elastic song, mutating into romantic ode or lovelorn cry, depending on the mood.
Beyond its lyrics, the song’s production has given it a lot more longevity than many other songs of the era. Bush used cutting edge technology to create it – its chugging rhythm was composed on a LinnDrum drum machine, while she used a Fairlight CMI, a synthesiser with sampling capabilities, to craft its waifish strings – but the result sounds a lot grittier than other mid-80s pop music. This sound, combined with the song’s unquantifiable pop euphoria, has made it endure in a way that many other 80s time warps haven’t.
Despite the singular idiosyncrasies of ‘Running Up That Hill’, it has been a cover favourite for other artists, who all take a unique angle on it. Placebo’s 2003 reinterpretation turned the track into a ghoulish downtempo alt-rocker with even more youthful angst than the original. Their take on the track quickly became US TV’s version of choice, largely thanks to Bush’s refusal to sanction her original song’s use in shows like The O.C. and C.S.I. Chromatics also put a suspenseful, cinematic twist on the track in 2007, with Ruth Radelet’s lo-fi vocals emitting a diamond sharpness that turns the song into a nocturnal loner anthem.
More recently, country star Jade Bird performed a piano cover of the song for Radio 1’s Live Lounge, which stripped it back to voice and keys, conjuring loss and longing in her brusker baritone. UK artist Georgia delivered a dance-inflected though otherwise faithful rendition in 2020, while just last week pop singer Kim Petras released a cover for Pride Month, and offered her own thoughts on the classic track: “It means so much and it’s so elusive. You can definitely decide what you want it to mean. For me, it’s about equality. And my timing for this was strangely perfect!”
“Beyond its lyrics, the song’s production has given it a lot more longevity than many other songs of the era”
Kate Bush herself revisited her classic anthem in 2012, recording new vocals for a version that premiered at that year’s London Olympics. While the instrumental backing track remained the same, it was pitched down to accommodate Bush’s new vocal range – her voice was deeper than it was three decades prior. And so, not for the last time, ‘Running Up That Hill’ re-entered the UK top 10 – and it would return to the charts again two years later, when Bush announced her first live performances since 1979. That time, the world didn’t just go crazy for ‘Running Up That Hill’ but the entire Kate Bush catalogue, with eight of her albums shooting up the charts simultaneously, and her website crashing from the demand for tickets. At the residency at the Hammersmith Apollo, ‘Running Up That Hill’ was the only song that had previously been performed live, such is the special place it holds for Bush and her fans.
In an interview with Open in 1985, Kate Bush said that the song was “really saying if there’s a possibility of being able to swap places with each other that they’d understand how the other one felt, that when they were saying things that weren’t meant to hurt, that they weren’t meant sincerely, that they were just misunderstood”. A cry for empathy and for understanding – these are timeless themes. Looking at how Bush views the song herself, no wonder it’s endured for so long.