Like most people, I became aware of Katrina and The Waves at a very precise moment in 1985 when “Walking on Sunshine” suddenly seemed to be absolutely everywhere. It’s weird to reflect that it only went to #9 on the US charts, because it doesn’t seem like it’s left the culture for a minute since then. I’d never heard of their previous two records before this, their major label “debut,” but apparently neither had anyone else outside of Canada. The band had a long and somewhat complex history before their “overnight” success, and that hit song was on its second incarnation.
Spring of 1985. We’d been in our lovely, light two-story apartment in a huge converted Victorian in the Hawley Green neighborhood of Syracuse for five or six months. Lee was working the same advertising job she’d had for a couple of years, and I was well settled in the typesetting business. We were young and happy and full of energy, but also a bit . . . adrift? In some ways. We had very few friends in the city because of course all our college friends had moved on and most people in the printing industry were way older than we were; we didn’t go out drinking (though we still went out to clubs to dance and hear music), so there was just a bit of social isolation. And there was a sense of . . . well, what do we do now?
There’s no particular reason I can think of that I associate “Walking on Sunshine” with a visit to a nearby park. We didn’t even have a tape deck in our car, though we did have a little Sony QT-50 portable cassette player we carried around a lot. Maybe we had it with us when we walked up to the park on a bright sunny March day, or maybe it’s just one of those things were the song was somehow lodged in my mind, but I have vivid memories of wandering around the melting snow at Rose Hill, that song in my head, just exploring the park that had once been a cemetery. In fact, they never really finished the job of moving bodies and monuments, so there were still quite a few headstones and larger monuments scattered around some parts of the park – which made things very interesting because it was also a fantastic park for tobogganing, but you really did need to be careful not to hit the stones.
I remember that song, and that park, and feeling an agitation, a need, a desire to shake things up. As pleasant as things were, I was feeling a little stuck. (Anyone who’s ever endured a Syracuse winter might appreciate that no matter where they are in life). I felt a little closed in, a little static in life, in the city, in what we were doing. I felt the need to do new things.
So I believe I said, “Let’s go to Lake Ontario!” The lake is only about 45 minutes away from Syracuse, but we had never been. Normal people might wait for warmth, as it’s not exactly a tourist destination in the winter (more the source of our winter of discontent, to be honest). There was nothing to do there, nothing in particular to see, but we just went. It was bright and sunny and cold AF but it was something new and different, and “Walking on Sunshine” will always remind of that, too, because by doing that, by just getting up and going someplace we’d never been, just for the sake of going there, it felt like we were opening up a world of possibilities. And in a sense, we were, as we started to venture further and further afield that spring and summer. We went camping together for the first time, which led to year and years of camping adventures. We traded a dorm fridge for a canoe, and started going to every body of water in Central New York and beyond. We really kinda started living our lives, it seemed to me. And it started in Rose Hill cemetery, and it started with “Walking on Sunshine” in my head.
The rest of the album is quite good, as well, strong power pop. Maybe the production is brighter than I’d like in spots, but compared to all the synth-laden Euromope that was all over the charts at the time, it seemed like a breath of fresh air. There’s the original “Going Down To Liverpool” (covered very well by The Bangles), “Do You Want Crying,” and “Red Wine and Whisky,” all great songs. We played this record quite a lot in the mid-’80s. Since then it’s fallen off, but it’s really nice to revisit every now and then.
And despite the ubiquity of “Walking on Sunshine,” which is featured in every commercial on earth, if one can sit back and really listen to it, experience it with fresh ears, it’s a perfect song. Exciting and joyous from start to finish, filled with perfect little builds and frills. As with any piece of musical wallpaper, there’s a reason it got pasted to the wall, and in this case the reason is that it’s perfection.