Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Celebrating "Walking on Sunshine," 25 Years Later

With oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico and the economy struggling in recession, this is one of the most distressing summers in memory.

Given that we have a sizable number of citizens who are so dense they have to be told that driving and texting is not a good idea, I'd say it's the most distressing summer of my lifetime, which began in 1956.

So it seems like a good time to remember one of the great "happy songs" ever written. And National Public Radio (NPR) did just that recently when it paid tribute to "Walking on Sunshine," the smash hit from Katrina and the Waves that was all over the radio in the summer of 1985.

We were particularly pleased to see the NPR tribute because I am proud to say that I own a vinyl copy of Katrina and the Waves, the introductory album that included "Walking on Sunshine."

That was the only album of any significance the band ever did. But it's so darned good that, on my Blogger bio, I list Katrina and the Waves as one of my favorite bands. And I still break the album out and give it a spin on a regular basis.

"Walking on Sunshine" is in the top 10 of just about every list of great summer songs that I've seen. A remastered 25th-anniversary edition of the single has been released, with a B-side that features the Soweto Gospel Choir's version of the song. The choir's version is a rouser and should not be missed. You can check it out here.

You can catch the original version below, with the fetching Katrina Leskanich on lead vocals. Kimberly Rew, who wrote the song, is on lead guitar to Katrina's right. Vince de la Cruz on bass and Alex Cooper on drums round out the British foursome:

Some folks probably would consider Katrina and the Waves to be "one-hit wonders." But they were much better than that. Their debut album, which actually was a compilation of two albums that had been released only in Canada, is superb from start to finish.

In our view, Katrina and the Waves would have had a much more distinguished career if they had been managed and marketed better. Leskanich tells NPR that after the success of "Walking on Sunshine," the record label wanted every song to sound pretty much like that.

In essence, the label wanted Katrina and the Waves to be The Monkees, with a female lead singer, and generated a series of goofy videos that made the band look silly. But Rew, the band's primary songwriter, wrote about a variety of subjects. The debut album includes songs about break-ups ("Do You Want Crying"), substance abuse ("Red Wine and Whiskey"), unemployment ("Going Down to Liverpool"), and big-time criminals ("Machine Gun Smith.")

Record execs wanted to force Katrina and the Waves into a narrow box, and it almost certainly stunted the band's career. The Waves made a brief comeback when they won the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest with another Rew composition, "Love Shine a Light." But Leskanich soon departed, and the band dissolved in 1999.

"Walking on Sunshine" is far and away Katrina and the Waves' best-known song. But it might never have been widely heard if not for "Going Down to Liverpool." The American girl group The Bangles covered that song, and it gained the attention of Prince, who wrote "Manic Monday" for The Bangles. A good word from Prince was enough to convince Capitol Records to sign Katrina and the Waves to a recording contract.

Here is "Red Wine and Whiskey," one of the songs that did not fit with the record execs' image for the band:

The band did produce a number of up-tempo numbers that would have been fitting followups to "Walking on Sunshine." One was "Que Te Quiero" ("How I Want You," in Spanish), which is a terrific song if you can forgive the goofy video:

If I had been the band's Brian Epstein, my choice as a followup would have been "The Game of Love," an infectious rocker in the "Walking on Sunshine" mode. You can check it out here:

The Game of Love

Katrina and the Waves did not have the sustained mega career that they should have had in rock and roll. But don't feel bad for the band members; they are doing just fine--thanks mainly to one unforgettable song. Reports NPR:

Tim Lee heads up Tummy Touch Records, Katrina and the Waves' current record label. "Every time a song gets played on the radio, you get, what, a buck, a buck 50," Lee says. "If the song's played 2 million times, as 'Walking on Sunshine' has been, it really adds up."

The members of Katrina and the Waves were wise enough to hang onto their publishing rights, and that has paid off:

That's the money that typically goes to the songwriter, in this case the band's guitarist, Kimberley Rew. Lee says Rew shares that money with the rest of the band.

Over the years, the song showed up all over the place: in movies like American Psycho and High Fidelity, and in countless commercials, for everything from diapers to medicine.

" 'Walking on Sunshine' was the crown jewel in EMI's catalog," says Jarrett Mason, who worked for EMI Publishing from 2004 to 2008. He says that of the roughly 1.3 million songs in EMI's catalog, "Walking on Sunshine" was one of its biggest earners—and that advertisers would pay $150,000 to $200,000 to use it for one year.

Katrina and the Waves were a much better band than most people know. But one really big hit can do wonders for the pocketbook:

By some estimates, "Walking on Sunshine" has made the band about $1 million per year over the past decade. Rew has written more than 200 songs since then, but he lives off the money from "Walking on Sunshine."

"If we had more songs which more people knew, that would be so much the better, but basically we're lucky to have one," Leskanich says.

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