As Randy Newman once said to Karl Marx, “The world isn’t fair”. It’s based on that principal that I sought out Katrina and the Waves, The Original Recordings:1983-1984; I’ve always wondered whether this Canadian group that waxed the infectious and delicious “Walking on Sunshine” didn’t unfairly fall by the wayside of popular culture in the 1980s. And in a way, what I discovered was that the twenty-some tracks of The Original Recordings proved Newman’s thesis correct: in a world where so many good bands never even reach the surface of international media attention, it’s patently unfair that Katrina and the Waves ever did.
But first, a little background: here’s more about Katrina and the Waves than perhaps you ever wanted to know. To begin with, KATW (as their fans call them) are a Canadian quartet who recorded three albums together before permanently etching themselves on our collective cultural consciousness with “Walking on Sunshine” (which I doubt KATW fans refer to as WOS). The strength of WOS landed this R&B rock quartet—who had a sound not unlike the Romantics—a rather big-time deal on Capitol-EMI, for whom they re-recorded WOS with the new addition of a killer horn section. Unable to capitalize on the success of WOS, KATW was cut from EMI after the failure of its second major-label effort, Waves. Undeterred, the band continued touring and releasing albums—six of original material along with four best-of collections—all the way through 1997, when “lawsuits, relationships and all the usual stuff” finally made the Waves ebb forever.
If Katrina (Leskanich) is the Wave we all know, Kimberley Rew is the one who really matters. Rew is the group’s songwriter, lead guitarist, and, on their best track that isn’t WOS, sometime lead singer. Rew plays his part with the pop precision of bright chords and perfectly conceived solos that are in keeping with, but fall short of, the likes of the Cars’ Elliot Easton or Blondie’s Chris Stein. His peppy, poppy clean tones are backed by the solid rhythm section of Vince de la Cruz and Alex Cooper, who draw a tight enough groove to feed KATW’s self-perception as a dance band. The band’s talent is most evident in their revisiting R&B standards like “River Deep, Mountain High” and Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat” and imbuing old classics with new life
The band’s weakness is Katrina. Granted, she turns WOS into a powerhouse, and does a more than capable job copying Tina Turner on “River Deep”. But for the most part, she is unconvincing as a vocalist: while sometimes Rew gives her a poor script (singing “I really taught me to Watusi” over and again), she is nonetheless unable to take a borderline lyric (“Ain’t no money buy you love” or “Do you want crying”) and give it enough emotional power to make it work. The proof of this pudding is the fact that Katrina is bested at her own work by the Bangles, whose version of KATW’s “Going Down to Liverpool” is the definitive take.
What KATW have left us on The Original Recordings is a remnant of the days before any of us even knew somebody named Katrina. Combining both complete early Canadian-only albums into one collection (along with some outtakes, and an early live version of WOS), we supposedly have a document of the band before they made it big. Yet the collection, on its own terms, and without judging the artistic merits of the Waves, has some serious flaws. To begin with, it lacks even a track from Shock Horror, the pre-Katrina Waves album that I’d actually want to hear; it’s hardly a complete set in that sense of the term. Furthermore, the packaging and promotional materials fail to mention the disc’s dirty little secret (which is, however, revealed in the liner notes). If, perchance, you go out and buy The Original Recordings because, at the very least, you figure you’ll own a copy of “Walking on Sunshine”, you’ll be bitterly disappointed. For if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong as you fast-forward to track five and hear the song you love sound strangely lifeless, I’ll tell you why in advance: the version of WOS we all know and love/hate was re-recorded (along with much of the material on The Original Recordings) for the eponymous album Katrina and the Waves released world-wide in 1985. That great horn line, along with an improved production value, are simply not what you will hear on The Original Recordings.
What you will hear on The Original Recordings are two early albums: Walking on Sunshine and Katrina and the Waves 2 (which, oddly, preceded EMI’s Katrina and the Waves by a year.) The two albums consist of similar material, termed by the album’s sleeve “guitar driven R&B rock ‘n’ roll”. Both albums have far too many songs whose predominant theme is dancing: “Dancing Street” and the aforementioned “Watusi” from the former, “She Loves to Groove” and a La Bamba-swiping “Mexico” from the latter. Despite the similarity of songwriting, the two albums have distinctly different feels: Walking on Sunshine is like the early work of Joe Jackson or the Jam, while Katrina and the Waves 2 is more directly influenced by the sounds of Blondie and U2. While the albums are bright, clear and fresh (in retrospect), they are hardly groundbreaking.
“Hardly Groundbreaking” could be the epitaph on this band that was belatedly laid to rest seven years ago. If you don’t believe me, then go out and spend your own money on either The Original Recordings or the more popular Katrina and the Waves, and allow yourself the rueful dissatisfaction of having been proved wrong at your own expense. But if you really want to give yourself a present, then go and see if K-Tel Records has made it in the CD business, and buy yourself a good compilation of ‘80s tunes. Then you can dance and sing along with “Walking on Sunshine” exactly how you’re supposed to: in all of its one-hit wonder.