Experiment IV – Kate Bush

A couple of years back I wrote a piece about the influence of horror cinema and literature on the music of Kate Bush. I recently acquired The Whole Story, a ‘best of’ compilation released by Kate in 1986, and have since become rather ‘obsessed’ with one of the tracks featured on it: Experiment IV. Said track was written especially for the compilation and released to promote it. Along with the accompanying video it once again demonstrates Kate Bush’s singular vision as a musician, an artist - and a lover of horror. Taking the ‘storyline’ from the song quite literally, the video tells of a top secret and highly dubious government experiment to create a sound that can kill. That sound is, of course, portrayed by Kate in the video – initially as an alluring siren-like wraith (underpinning the notion of deadly music at the heart of the song; sirens lured seamen to watery graves by bewitching them with their irresistible but deadly voices), and then as a nightmarish spectre reminiscent of a banshee (the wails of which act as a harbinger of doom to those who hear them). Shadowy government activities are also alluded to in other songs by Bush – notably Army Dreamers, Breathing and Cloudbusting, and in Experiment IV, the government is at it again, this time taking music and subverting its associations with pleasure, creativity and beauty, and transforming it into a weapon that can kill.

Throughout the song the listener is fed snippets of exactly what has gone into creating this devastating sound – From the painful cries of mothers, To the terrifying scream... We recorded it and put it into our machine. The dark subject matter of both the lyrics and the video - sinister music that can harm and kill the listener, coupled with the strange technology the scientists use to create it (most hauntingly of all it’s never revealed why) - calls to mind the work of British sci-fi/horror writer Nigel Kneale, who frequently blended science and supernaturalism with anti-authoritarian undertones. In works such as Halloween III and The Woman in Black – and indeed John Carpenter’s homage to the work of Neale, Prince of Darkness – technology is presented as a quasi-magical force with severely sinister connotations.
Dawn French and Hugh Laurie provide a little comic relief as two scientists ensconced in the dubious research, and the reluctant Professor overseeing the research is named Jerry Coe; perhaps a reference to Jericho, the walls of which crumbled at the sound of the Israelites’ trumpets at the end of a war, as described in the biblical book of Joshua.

It was music we were making here until...
They told us all they wanted...
Was a sound that could kill someone from a distance...
The horrific effects of the scientists’ research is featured throughout the video, as various test-subjects are shown writhing around in straitjackets after hearing the sound. Finally, when the sound is 'unveiled', it appears as a spectral siren which suddenly takes on the form of a terrifying winged ghoul, which then proceeds to wreck havoc in the lab, slaughtering the scientists and test-subjects alike. The camera then assumes the role of the creature and pursues various scientists along the starkly lit and increasingly chaotic corridors of the facility, eventually tracking outside to reveal the rather apocalyptic aftermath of the incident – pre-empting ‘contagion horrors’ such as 28 Days Later etc. A cordoned-off vicinity around a music shop (revealed to be a front for the shady government project) – in which the shopkeeper is displaying copies of Experiment IV – is strewn with the bodies of the dead. Lastly, we see Ms Bush hitch-hiking on a nearby stretch of road and clambering into a van, but before she does, she turns to wink at us knowingly, suggesting this is only the beginning of her deadly mission… It could sing you to sleep, But that dream is your enemy! Incidentally, the sound of the helicopter heard at the end of the song as the military make a hasty retreat, is the very same helicopter sound heard in Pink Floyd's The Happiest Days of Our Lives from The Wall. Dave Gilmour and Kate are good friends. 

So we go ahead and the meters are over in the red...
It's a mistake in the making...
A simliar image from Aphex Twin's creepy Come To Daddy video
Experiment IV is also notable for its hauntingly beautiful violin work courtesy of Nigel Kennedy, who at one point replicates Bernard Herrmann's famous stabbing strings from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It's a beautiful moment if you're a horror fan. Elsewhere, his string arrangements flit between unearthly beauty and shrill, sinister edginess. The violin solo which opens the 12’ Mix of the song must surely rank amongst Kate Bush’s finest compositions.

Check out the actually-pretty-disturbing video here, and read more about the influence of horror on Kate Bush’s music here. Oh, and don't you think the programmed drum beats and guitar riffs from Experiment IV sound like they could provide the opening music to a gritty Eighties thriller set in New York City? Just me then.


Dr. Theda said…
Cool and "creepy" post, good Sir... I found your post and the music video enjoyable ...
Thanks for "brightening our day here.... the Doctor
James Gracey said…
Thanks for checking it out and commenting! Glad you dug it. Any excuse to wax lyrical about Kate Bush, really. ;)
Anonymous said…
Interesting side note.
I had heard of this experiment some years before Kate Bush had released this song.
There were very little information, just that the British had a secret program (maybe back in the 40's) where by they had been trying to develop such a "sound". The idea was to use "modern" technology to come up with a solution to trench warfare, that was more controllable than poison gas.
The project had no name, just an seemingly insignificant number and only came to public light long after it had been abandon. The natural assumption being that it had been a failure. Leave it to the hauntingly lovely Ms. Bush to show us the far more frightening possibility!

By the way, the only mention I can now seem to find of that project is (of all things) a Monty Python sketch from the early 70's that spoofed it with the British Army developing "A Joke that could kill".
James Gracey said…
This is indeed an interesting side note! Thanks very much for commenting. Government secrecy and weird science are common themes throughout Kate's music - plus, she's a self-confessed fan of horror.
I also love that Monty Python idea of a joke that could kill!
Anonymous said…
Perhaps you never heard of the great movie 'The Shout' with Alan Bates..
James Gracey said…
Fair point, Anon! I have indeed heard of The Shout but alas, I have yet to watch it. From what I know of it, I can certainly see why you'd mention it here.
My best (and potentially scariest) line?

'We won't be there to be blamed
We won't be there to snitch
I just pray that someone there
Can hit the switch'
Anonymous said…
James, the actual experiment the other poster mentioned was post WW1
before Germany motorized their forces before WW2.
But more about the song: she did an appearance on the Terry Woggan show, a stage performance in which she is the scientist on the project
recounting the project and her misgivings knowing she's in too deep but can't stop the results
James Gracey said…
Thanks Anon. I have seen that performance on YouTube. Great stuff.
qrter said…
Interesting, I never thought about Bush reusing the idea and imagery of rogue government activities, but you're right. It even pops up in her video of Hounds of Love, where Bush and her male companion seem to be pursued by what look like shadowy government agents (the whole WWII art design of the video particularily reminds me of Michael Radford's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I'm guessing that's coincidence).
James Gracey said…
Yes, the idea of dubious government activities also appears in Cloudbusting...

You looked too small
In their big, black car
To be a threat to the men in power

I hid my yo-yo
In the garden
I can't hide you
From the government
Oh, God, Daddy
I won't forget
Will said…
Thanks for the details provided here. I like your connection of ideas with this and the 'contagion' films that followed!

I've always thought this was one helluva innovative concept.

Films/stories like 'Pontypool' and 'The Cell' have used a similar concept: mass media as the medium to spread evil; as a corrupting influence; etc. (Peter Gabriel's song 'Signal to Noise' hints at this, too).

I think the demons in the Millennium episode, 'Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me' (S02E21) also talked about using the 'noise' to sway people to do evil ('Eeeeevil!! I say) things, too.

Other than 'The Shout' (either the film of short-story), too bad this idea hasn't been picked up on...

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