Kate Bush is doing some concerts in London. You’ll have spotted this. It’s front page news, as she hasn’t done any concerts since 1979. I love Kate Bush’s LPs, especially the first four, which she isn’t apparently playing, and the fifth, which she is. I’ve lost my appetite for attending gigs, but these do sound rather special and a consensus seems to have been quickly arrived at that she’s on fine form, and, if you are old enough to have been at gig-going age in 1979, it was “worth the wait”. When an artist gets this much attention, and adoration, it can be a bit irksome if you happen not to like that artist, but really, move on, listen to something you do like. It’s not compulsory to kneel at Kate’s bare feet. Which is why I was taken aback to read the above-scanned letter in today’s Guardian. The full text goes like this:

• I played viola on Kate Bush’s last LP, and laughed myself silly at her nonsensical lyrics about snowmen. The obsequious, unquestioning critical acclaim heaped upon this manifestly overrated singer is rather depressing, and summed up by your reviewer when he describes an audience who “spend the first part of the show clapping everything; no gesture is too insignificant to warrant applause”. Enough said.
Bill Hawkes

When I started reading the first line, I expected to hear from a musician she’s worked with who wanted to add his or her own special perspective on this positive music event. But no, Bill Hawkes, Canterbury, is a viola player with an axe to grind. That he goes on to call Kate Bush “manifestly overrated” is ultimately a matter of opinion (to dismiss someone as “overrated” usually means you don’t rate them and can’t understand the fuss, but it’s still subjective and thus arguably valid). But to prefix this with a cheap dig at a former employer and to reveal that you “laughed yourself silly” at the “nonsensical” lyrics to which you were paid to provide viola accompaniment is simply bad manners.

GuardianKBushletter - Version 2

I looked up Bill Hawkes and he seems to be a viola player of some note. Born in Cambridge in 1967, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music and has been a violist in both the Balanescu and Nigel Kennedy String Quartets, also playing violin for Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars. He’s obviously very confident in his ability, and perhaps with good reason – he must be to publicly belittle someone he’s worked with and to admit to “laughing” behind their back in the studio. I don’t have my copies of 50 Words For Snow, her last album, to hand, so I can’t confirm his contribution to it, although the thorough Discogs.com listing makes no mention of him, and his own, fulsome entry on the same site omits to mention any Kate Bush album. Which leads me to wonder: was he left off the credits, and is that his beef? If so, he should have said.

Maybe she was horrible to work with. Maybe she trod on his foot during the sessions, or stole his parking space. Maybe there’s some other bad blood we don’t know about, but there are ways and means of processing this – tribunals, even! – and name-calling in a public forum isn’t one of them.

I posted the link to his letter on Twitter, and many agreed with my assessment that Bill Hawkes is at the very least, even in the context of a personal or industrial dispute we don’t know about, an impolite man – and one who seems unconcerned that his actions may also make him look unprofessional. Assuming he is a freelance musician for hire, this looks a lot like an own goal. By all means have your say about the overratedness or otherwise of a famous artist in the public eye – write a letter to a national newspaper if you feel so moved – but don’t mock their work from the privileged point of view of someone who’s previously contributed to it. Is the current mania for Kate Bush really “rather depressing”? A female artist who dares to be over the age of 30 being received with great enthusiasm by – again – mature music fans attending actual live gigs in a recession? Regardless of who that artist is, there seems little “depressing” about it.

To reiterate, my point here is not about Kate Bush, it’s about good grace and picking your fights wisely and thinking before you press “send” (dear God, let’s hope he didn’t send the letter in the post). A couple of people on Twitter who agree with the opinion that Kate Bush is “overrated” basically defended Mr Hawkes on the grounds that he was “right” (or, that they agreed with his opinion), but even if I thought she was overrated, I wouldn’t be very impressed with the wording of this letter.

David Arnold, one of the few people I know who might actually look to employ a violist, said on Twitter, “It’s an odd way of asking for your p45.”

12 thoughts on “Unbelievable

  1. I think you have over reacted. Someone doesn’t like her personally? or her music? or the show? So what? He made his point. I am neither particularly for, or against, Kate Bush. But it is true that there are better singers, better songwriters, better shows , and better innovators around. She is talented, and her publicity machine fearsome, good luck to her.

    • You’ve missed my point entirely. Didn’t I say it’s not about Kate Bush? It’s specifically about what I regard as the lack of professionalism displayed by a musician who worked with an artist on their last album and felt it was appropriate to share, in a public forum, that he “laughed” at the work he was employed to accompany. A cheap shot, as I said.

      You say: “So what?” Fine. But then you go on to explain that there are “better singers” than Kate Bush. I say to that: so what? It’s not about Kate Bush. Let me know if you need me to say it again.

      • You may well have found the Hawkes’ comments rude and unprofessional, but I fear you know professional musicians less well than you may imagine. They tend to be quite free with their assessments of the capabilities, or incapabilities, of those with whom they are working. You are right to acknowledge his musical credentials. Few cellists are require to have an understanding of, appreciation of, or liking for, the lyrics of music on which they happen to be playing so I don’t think Bills’ employment prospects are quite as blighted as you suggest.

        • I respect your more intimate knowledge of musicians. I don’t wish blighted employment prospects on the bloke. I merely observe what I consider to be self-defeating behaviour. If I was employed as a freelance writer by a TV production company and worked for a famous comedian, let’s say, and was paid for my work, I would think twice before airing any grievances I had about the way that panned out in public. If I found the comedian unfunny, for instance, I can’t imagine myself writing a letter to a newspaper making this known. If I had some deeper problem with the comedian or the production company, I would seek regress through other channels. Or just move on.

          That’s how I think I would behave, as I hope to be viewed as a professional writer that others may wish to hire, and not someone bitter, trying to score points. This is the crux of my problem with the letter.

          I’m interested in your observations that “few cellists [he’s a violist but your point remains] are require to have an understanding of, appreciation of, or liking for, the lyrics of music on which they happen to be playing.” I can appreciate that technicality. A hired musician’s job is to play music as required. But if I were a musician who played with a singer whose lyrics I did not like, I think to broadcast that fact (“I laughed myself silly”, “nonsensical”) has the whiff of the playground boast.

          • Brave, bitter, or brash? I don’t know. I guess it’s a matter of opinion, his, and ours.

            I agree that, generally, artists are cautious about airing their opinions publicly. Yet, as you suggest, that may have more to do with self-interest than politeness.

            I can understand your thinking he was rude, For my part, I think a siren voice, faintly heard amongst a tumult of acclaim is no bad thing. And anyone who can sell out 22 dates at what I still think of as the Hammersmith Odeon, is doing enough right not to have to worry unduly about a bit of carping criticism.

            • I feel fairly certain Kate Bush isn’t worried. And Bill Hawkes is as entitled to his opinion of her as anyone else. He could have expressed every word of it, and still been a “siren voice”, without letting the world know that he was laughing at her behind her back while in her employ. Here, more diplomatically, is how his equally critical letter might have read:

              The obsequious, unquestioning critical acclaim heaped upon Kate Bush, a manifestly overrated singer, is rather depressing, and summed up by your reviewer when he describes an audience who “spend the first part of the show clapping everything; no gesture is too insignificant to warrant applause”. I found the lyrics about snowmen on her last album nonsensical and laughed myself silly at them. Enough said.

  2. It does come across a little as though you do have a bit of a soft spot for Kate though and that is why you jumped on Bill’s letter. The ploy of attacking his professionalism to lend yourself an air of objectivity does seem a wee bit transparent. I might be wrong but I suspect you do quite like her and that is your motivation, otherwise I’m sure you could find countless critical letters and comments to write about but the fact that you’ve chosen this one does kind of let the Kate out of the bag, no matter how many times you protest (too much).

    • That is your reading of the situation. You are entitled to it. (I did say that I love her first five albums, so “a bit of soft spot” and the conclusion that I “do quite like her” is not too much of a leap.) The fact that I have “chosen” this letter to write about is down to the fact that its author claimed special insight by announcing that he had worked on her last LP before calling her “manifestly overrated” which – and I can’t actually believe I’m still having to say this – I found impolite.

      I have not seen Kate Bush’s gigs so I have no opinion on them whatsoever, but do not personally find her “manifestly overrated.” If I did, I would still find the letter in question rude. My attack on his professionalism was not a “ploy”, it was an attack.

      • Yes, but you laboured the point that it was “not about Kate Bush” and I was pointing out the disingenuity of that statement, a point which you seem aware of yourself judging by the above reply. Nothing wrong with that at all. I quite like her middle period albums (The Dreaming/ HoL/Sensual World) but do find myself agreeing somewhat with the errant session musician’s opinion, especially regarding her more recent output. It may be somewhat rude to call a fellow human being “manifestly overrateed” but surely all artists and public figures knowingly place themselves in a position where to receive criticism besides acclaim and if they are very lucky, riches is par for the course. Criticism is an inevitable byproduct of artistic and commercial creativity and some individuals have made successful careers out of this line of work. i don’t think this man should be denied his opinion just because he was briefly employed by her. I have quite a few choice words for one of my ex-employers and I stand by them (bloody Civil Service). I enjoyed your last comment, “it was an attack”, though I still think you tried to do a wee swerve around your subjectivity. Love the blog, keep up the good work.

  3. It is obviously impolite. Maybe he sees himself as a Ginger Baker figure. I doubt he’s affecting his employment prospects though – if he is that good. Ultimately it is unprofessional, and it does sound like there’s some ulterior motive. But the world is hardly short of this kind of commenting at the moment. (And I’m something of an expert on glass houses, so I know what I’m talking about.)

    “Overrated” is a much better way to dismiss something than to say “This is really popular and I don’t understand why.” I mean, the latter makes it sound like maybe it’s you – maybe you’re just too stupid to get it, or something. “Overrated” is attack as the best form of defence – you’re basically saying: “If you like that then you’re stupid!” And “manifestly overrated”? That’s got an extra layer to shield your insecurities: “You’re stupid and if you have to ask why then you’re just proving my point.”

    Perhaps he really does think that Kate Bush is “manifestly” in the altogether, and if he just says it we’ll all suddenly be able to see it. But you’d have thought by his age – and in his line of work – he’d have realised that when it comes to taste in music at least, the world doesn’t work like that.

  4. Bit late to the discussion, but still – I’m inclined to think that mr Hawkes mentions his work on her last album to create a sense of authority. He isn’t just another layperson with an opinion, he has actually worked on it, so his opinion supposedly has more weight.

    Which is pompous nonsense, ofcourse. I agree the whole thing is just incredibly rude (I bet he didn’t start laughing until the cheque cleared).

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