A Deep Dive Look at Kate Bush’s Heads We’re Dancing: The Song in Which a Woman Slow Dances with Hitler

Kate Bush’s 1987 album The Sensual World was something of a coming-of-age album, for a singer who had long been established as a prodigious talent far beyond her years. Her previous album, The Hounds of Love, was a smash-hit, and still today stands as her most critically and commercially acclaimed work outside of her debut single Wuthering Heights. But between her debut single and the triple whammy of the singles Hounds of Love, Cloudbusting and Running Up That Hill, Bush had dabbled in bizarre territories at the edge of pop appeal — her 1983 album The Dreaming was all crashing drum machines and shrieked vocals, closer to post-punk than the pastoral piano on The Kick Inside. Critical and commercial reception of The Dreaming(that is to say confusion, bemusement and indifference) caused Bush to retreat into isolation for three years — and the follow up success of Hounds of Love suggested that Bush had perhaps exorcized the more radical aspects of her artistic personality. There were still flashes of her prog-rock roots — the narrative song cycle The Ninth Wave, which covered the entire second side of Hounds of Love, was unlike anything any other major pop stars were doing at the time. But by the time The Sensual World rolled around, its shimmering, romantic textures, its more organic rhythms, and its lyrical subject matter that dealt with sensuality and romance suggested that maybe Bush had finally settled down as a matured artist. Its debut single, the title track, even interloped a quote from a classic novel (James Joyce’s Ulysses), in seeming deference to her most well known hit. But buried within The Sensual World’s lush, romantic atmosphere is a dark, threatening core. A song with claws, a song that is threatening and bleak. The song in question is Heads We’re Dancing — and anyone who thought Kate Bush had lost her bite was in for a nasty shock.

Right from the opening bars, the listener knows they are in for something different. The bubbling synths, the stop-start rhythm of the (entirely synthetic sounding) drums, the shriek of a distant guitar. Then in comes the bassline — a rubbery, fretless bass courtesy of ex-Japan bassist Mick Karn. Then enters Kate, and her demeanour is very different to the gentle touch we’ve heard thus far — though smooth, her voice carries a certain sense of panic, frayed at the edges with uncertainty. And then we begin to absorb the lyrics — some of Bush’s most audacious lyrics to date. The opening couplet is already anxiety inducing: “You talked me into the game of chance/it was ’39, before the music started’’. The ‘you’ in question is a charming stranger, who has approached our protagonist at a dance and asked them to be his partner — he even flips a coin, to see if they will. They do, and they have a wonderful time, but an impending sense of evil is building: “they say that the devil is a charming man/and just like you, I bet he can dance.” It isn’t until the song’s second chorus that we find out who the man is, though the first chorus suggests that it is someone of pure horror. Our protagonist picks up the morning paper, and is horrified at what they see. They deny that it could possibly be who they know it is: “There was a picture of you, in uniform… it looked just like you, in every way…but it couldn’t be you!”. In the second chorus, the identity of the charming stranger is finally revealed: “It’s a picture of Hitler.”

Such bizarre subject matter was nothing new to Kate Bush. Bush’s particular power as a lyricist is to take unthinkable tales and characters, those which would become jokes in the possession of anyone lesser, and delivers them with such ferocious conviction that they become wholly convincing. Such songs include those where she turns into a donkey (Get Out Of My House), seduces a snowman (Misty), and plays the role of an unborn foetus terrified by the possibility of nuclear annihilation (Breathing). Head’s We’re Dancing carries on in that tradition, but it tiptoes so carefully around the limits of ridiculous, hyperbolic and unbelievable that it comes off utterly terrifying. The song was apparently inspired by a story Bush heard from a friend, who had spent a pleasant evening talking to a man at a dinner party only to later learn it was the man who designed the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. By driving the situation to its most logical extreme — by having our naïve heroine dance with the most evil man of recent history — Bush elicits a genuine feeling of terror. Even more egregious is that the woman was totally seduced by her partner, and the inference is that we probably would have been too.

Some sources describe the song as ‘darkly comic’, which is not only a complete misreading of the material, but also stands in direct opposition to Bush’s intentions, who described the song as certainly ‘dark’ but not intended to be funny at all. Bush’s thematic motivations for the song were concerned with the danger of naivety and persuasion, and the guilt that so often accompanies it:

“To have been so close to the man… she could have tried to kill him… she could have tried to change history, had she known at that point what was actually happening. And I think Hitler is a person who fooled so many people. He fooled nations of people. And I don’t think you can blame those people for being fooled, and maybe it’s these very charming people… maybe evil is not always in the guise you expect it to be” — Kate Bush, December 1989

Taken in this way, Heads We’re Dancing is actually not quite the outlier on the The Sensual World that may be first assumed. The whole album deals with the trajectory of growing and manoeuvring through a world of sensual experiences. It charts the highs as well as the lows, where the joyous imagining of Molly Bloom entering our three-dimensional world is contrasted against tales of dangerous obsession (A Deeper Understanding) and of desires being snuffed out by reality and leading to heartbreak (Never be Mine). A lyric on the latter, a confession of “I want you as the dream, not the reality’’, reflects an important component of The Sensual World’s vantage point on sensuality — that of recognising the barrier between fantasy and fact, of desires and realities, that takes on a new relevance when applied to Heads We’re Dancing. The song embodies that horrifying moment where pleasures become pain — perhaps where we recognise that our habits are dangerous, our vices degenerative, and that now it is too late to change and the damage is done. Here it is presented with extremity — being seduced by a fascist dictator, on the eve of a world war — but it can be easily scaled down to represent any person, thing or idea that enters into your life and seduces you into acting with careless abandon. As Bush states above, Hitler stands in as a perfect metaphor for destructive behaviours or obsessions because he was so seductive to the German public, and this was so intrinsically tied to his villainy — 1939 was both the year Hitler threatened the extermination of ‘the Jewish race in Europe’ in the Reichstag, and the year he was voted Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.

What’s more, the timing of the tale suggests that our protagonist is a victim of either their own self-delusion, or perhaps their own ignorance — after all, Hitler was a known figure worldwide before 1939. Which loops us back into one of The Sensual World’s other dominant themes, that of growing up. Of course, sensuality and maturity are intrinsically linked — it is through making our mistakes and exploring the pleasures of the flesh that we emerge into functioning adults. Head’s We’re Dancing is not only a warning, but something of a recognition — a recognition of the mistakes we must make in order to learn and become better people. Regret is a powerful and formative emotion, as expressed on the albums biggest hit This Woman’s Work: “I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking — of the things we should’ve said that we never said, of all the things we should’ve done though we never did”. But as dark as some of the material of The Sensual World may be, there’s always a glimmer of redemption. It isn’t necessarily found in Head’s We’re Dancing — its place on the album is as a cautionary tale — but the glimmer of hope lies elsewhere. Such as on The Fog where our protagonist is encouraged, by a disembodied voice, to put their feet down and walk into uncertainty. Heads We’re Dancing reflects some of the anxieties that come from taking that leap of faith, but the protagonist on The Fog learns quick enough that “the water is only waist high”. There is fear in letting go, and of course you may encounter troubles along the way, but the overriding message of The Sensual World is that all will be fine in the end, even with mistakes made. To drive the point home, the disembodied voice on The Fog is Bush’s father.

The song therefore obviously holds weight as a metaphor for personal struggle and obsession. But it is impossible to listen to it today without giving thought to its political ramifications, and its more overt commentary on the seductive powers of corrupt politicians. In the UK we are grappling with a government fronted by a man who won his position masquerading as a lovable buffoon, and sold as a preferable alternative to an idealist who was framed as a dangerous radical. Bush often tackled political subject matter at the beginning of her career (the aforementioned anti-nuclear war centric Breathing, or the critique of militarism in Army Dreamers), but by the time of The Sensual World her political commentary was mostly smoothed out, replaced by more internal, emotional affairs. Heads We’re Dancing may in fact stand as her last overtly political parable, and it retains all of the bite of its predecessors. In many ways Heads We’re Dancing serves as a watermark in Bush’s career, much like its parent album. Rarely again would Bush return to such an aggressive tone in her songs (The Big Lie on The Red Shoes being one exception), and though she continued to pen some outlandish lyrics going forward, Heads We’re Dancing was the last time she truly went off the wall and dabbled with controversy. As such, it remains one of her most undervalued and underappreciated songs, resigned to be a quirky deep-cut on a record overflowing with some of her most lush and romantic recordings. I hope that here I have made a case for it as one of her crowning achievements, a piece of art that unifies all of the things that make Bush such a landmark talent.

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