Katrina and the Waves’ best known hit Walking on Sunshine is still going strong 25 years after it was first released. The band’s songwriter Kimberley Rew describes the 80s music scene that formed a backdrop to the song.
Despite being based in the UK, English songwriter Kimberley Rew and American singer Katrina Leskanich, were struggling to find success on home turf.
‘We formed in 1981 and spent the next four years trying to further our career,’ Rew told M. ‘We didn’t get any major recording contracts but were fortunate to get signed up to [Canadian label] Attic records, which I had inherited from my previous group The Softboys. Our album at the time included the song Going Down to Liverpool. It was quite unfashionable at the time - because most of the successful 80s acts were dance and pop movements. Luckily for us, a lot of American acts were still into guitars.’
It was a small scene in mid-80s Los Angeles that welcomed Katrina and the Waves. Rew’s ability to pen tracks with the rich vocal melodies that mirrored 1960s West Coast pop was becoming popular in the area.
‘There was a little underground scene in LA at the time called the Paisley Underground,’ explains Rew. ‘It was a useful grouping that included the Bangles, among others, in the days before they had a record contract. Guitar bands tended to all stick together then, and they loved Going Down to Liverpool. I think this was instrumental in helping us get our deal with Capitol, and subsequently Walking on Sunshine out to a mass audience.’
For many years now, Rew has had a studio just outside of Cambridge where he writes music and practices. But, at the time he was writing Sunshine, things were very different.
‘We didn’t have a studio then. Home was a tiny little room in a rented house where I sat writing away as that was my full time job. I’ve always been a positive person and find it easy to write happy songs. I’ve never been good at writing miserable ones.’
Rew claims to never write for a particular concept or with the idea of having a ‘hit record’ in mind, but when the band signed to Capitol, the label immediately recognised his talent for writing chart-friendly tracks.
‘We didn’t know Sunshine was going to be a big hit,’ says Rew. ‘But Capitol records, to their credit, did know and put it out as our first single. It immediately started getting played on American radio.’
The success of Sunshine led to the band supporting acts like The Beach Boys and The Kinks – as well as performing one memorable gig in Ventura, Switzerland.
‘We were in a tiny club with no air conditioning,’ says Rew. ‘We had been playing for around for an hour. By the time we reached Walking on Sunshine, I could hear the drums getting slower and slower and s-l-o-w-e-r. I turned around and saw that Alex Cooper, our drummer, was fainting because of the heat, but was still managing to keep on playing even as his head was slumping towards the kit.’
Following the success of Walking on Sunshine, the band’s second biggest hit would come later, at the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest where Rew penned the winning song Love Shine A Light.
‘Although I won Eurovision, I’m not the kind of writer who can picture what they are writing for or have the winning formula. If I get an idea, I don’t really know where it comes from. I have inspirations from my life but they aren’t necessarily connected or useful at predicting what a certain audience will like. Even though I won Eurovision, that was thanks to the system at the time as it was open to listeners to choose.’