Inside Kate Bush’s Tour Of Life: “She created this whole massive world”

Kate Bush’s collaborator on the ground-breaking Tour Of Life reveals how the pair brought the singer’s unique vision to the stage.

Kate Bush performs on stage on 'The Tour of Life', Carre, Amsterdam

by Danny Eccleston |
Published on

REHEARSING KATE BUSH’S Tour Of Life was nearly the end of then budding illusionist Simon Drake. He was emerging from under a walkway at the back of the stage, when a section of plywood slid loose and cracked him on the head.  “I was knocked right out,” he recalls today. “And I came to with Kate sort of holding me in her lap. I was sick for a couple of days.”

Drake was lucky. If one of the section’s metal braces had hit him. he might not have lived to tell the tale. It was, sadly, one of several instances where the ambition of Bush’s staging for her single tour as a star outstripped the experience of the team lashing it together, a situation that ended in tragedy after the warm-up show at Poole Arts Centre, with the fatal fall of young lighting engineer Bill Duffield.

It was an outcome unthinkable in the innocent pre-dawn of Drake’s involvement with the tour, which had begun the moment he first heard Wuthering Heights on the radio in January ’78. Bowled over, Drake – a former plugger at Decca and EMI – sent a note to Bush through Capital Radio producer Eddie Puma.

“I knew Eddie was seeing her that night. I just wrote that the record was amazing and if she ever toured, I wanted to be a part of it.”

Later, Drake invited Bush to a magic show he was performing at J Arthur’s, a club at the “wrong end” of the King’s Road, Chelsea, a party for Roxy Music. “I was on a little half-circle stage. And I distinctly remember her sitting there watching me, sat on her own.”

She was a pioneer. There wasn’t anyone doing anything quite that ambitious.

Simon Drake

Subsequently, Drake was invited to tea-fuelled meetings at Bush’s flat in Lewisham. He watched the singer scribbling designs for the ankh-shaped set that later clobbered him (“she’s very aware of esoteric matters”) as the pair swapped ideas for bringing Bush’s already theatrical songs to the stage.

“She was a pioneer,” says Drake. “There wasn’t anyone doing anything quite that ambitious then. Maybe Peter Gabriel with Genesis. Certainly not with that amount of dance. Now it’s normal.”

Drake’s key scenes with Bush included two ‘dancing cane’ demonstrations on L’Amour Looks Something Like You and Strange Phenomena, and a spidery turn as a crazed fiddler during Violin.

“The violin was Kate’s own from when she was a kid. I cut out a bit of the back and put homemade pyro in it. The idea being I’d play the violin so fast, it would start smoking.” For the paranoid murder fantasies of Coffee Homeground, Drake had two liquids – one pink, another yellow – that turned black when mixed: “You know, like a poison. Then I’d come up behind her and try to strangle her. They were all these rather ‘panto’ attempts at assassination.”

Drake and Bush dubbed the assassin ‘Hugo’. The vibe was Berlin ’30s cabaret, Paris Moulin Rouge. “He’s partly based on ‘Valentin The Boneless One’ who you see in a couple of paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec with this very big, pointy chin, pointy nose and cheekbones.”

The tour itself – 24 shows between April 2 and May 14, 1979 – was a roller coaster: traumatic for Bush on account of Duffield’s death and the exposure to her own mounting fame. “I mean, fans would almost throw themselves in front of the coach,” says Drake. “It was scary.”

Factor in the demands of the show – its athletic challenges, the costume changes – and it’s miraculous that only one health scare (Bush lost her voice temporarily in Sweden) threatened to end the tour prematurely. “She was amazing every night for two and a half hours,” says Drake. “I mean, extraordinary. She created this whole massive world.”

Drake’s work on the Tour Of Life proved the beginning of a rise through the showbiz ranks, and a relationship with Bush that continued, providing magic at several of her son Bertie’s birthday parties. In 1990 and 1991 he acquired another level of fame fronting Channel 4 TV show Secret Cabaret, and at 67 continues to make a career from magic at the heart of Simon Drake’s House Of Magic. In 2014 he was pleased to receive an invite to Bush’s Before The Dawn residency at the Hammersmith Apollo. Why does he think it took her so long – over 37 years – to get back on the stage for a comparable run of shows?

“I don’t know. I can only guess,” says Drake. “Basically, a production like the Tour Of Life is hard to control. The fact that when she did do anything again, it was all in one place, with a stage crew from more of a theatre background, something extremely controlled, I think that’s probably a clue. For someone like Kate, who’s that good, it’s hard for anything to be good enough. It’s just got to be better.”

What did he make of the show? “I was so pleased and proud to see her do this incredibly grownup version of what she’d done all those years before. It was really like walking into a dream, wasn’t it?”

After the gig, Drake was ushered into VIP drinks, then the super-VIP drinks, “which was weird – only six people in there.” When Bush entered with Bertie, they hugged and she asked what he thought, whereupon Drake endeavoured to reassemble his blown mind.

“I just said, Fuuuuuuck! And she said, ‘Is that all you’re gonna say? Fuuuuuck?’”

Simon Drake hosts private and occasionally public shows at his own London theatre, where Tour Of Life memorabilia can be found. See

“I’m not a star. I’m still just me…” Get the latest issue of MOJO to read the full story on Kate Bush early metamorphosis, from childhood songwriting to becoming an art-pop phenomenon. More info and to order a copy HERE.

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Pictures: Getty

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