by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
For all the brilliance of their 1980 neo-psychedelic classic Underwater Moonlight, the Soft Boys were anything but a mainstream band, and their sales generally reflected that. Even after the band split up and frontman Robyn Hitchcock eventually found his way onto the roster of A&M, not even having the backing of a major label could help the ever-surreal Hitchcock find his way onto the Hot 100 in the U.S., though he would top the Billboard Modern Rock charts with “So You Think You’re in Love” from 1991’s Perspex Island. So it’s a bit surprising, then, that a band as fitting of the tag “cult act” as the Soft Boys could have so many alumni who went on to join acts that did cross over into the mainstream. Bassist Mathew Seligman was an early member of Thompson Twins and appears on their full-length American debut In the Name of Love and its hit title track, which would crop up in the film and soundtrack to Ghostbusters and top the Billboard dance charts upon being remixed and reissued in 1988. The group’s original bassist Andy Metcalfe would become an official member of Squeeze – serving as the band’s second keyboard player – just in time to enjoy the British band’s long-belated debut on the American Top 40 with the singles “Hourglass” and “853-5937” from 1987’s Babylon and On.
But perhaps the most commercially successful Soft Boys alumnus of all is guitarist Kimberley Rew, who weathered the breakup of his band by reaching out to Alex Cooper, the drummer in his pre-Soft-Boys band, The Waves. Cooper had since gone on to play drums in Mama’s Cookin’, a British cover band with two Americans in its lineup, lead guitarist Vince de la Cruz and vocalist/keyboardist Katrina Leskanich. Cooper invited Rew to join him in Mama’s Cookin’, and the newly-configured band renamed itself The Waves. After bassist Bob Jakins left the band, de la Cruz, Leskanich, and Rew would all swap roles, shifting, respectively, to bass, keyboards, and lead guitar, and the band would be rechristened Katrina and the Waves.
The band had already released an EP and two full-lengths in Canada through the indie label Attic and had a wealth of material in their repertoire by the time the band finally landed an international record deal with Capitol Records, so the band wisely used their 1985 self-titled U.S. debut to go back and re-record or re-mix its best material from its two prior Canadian full-lengths.
Rew was responsible for writing all but two of the cuts on Katrina and the Waves, and it’s the former Soft Boy, in fact, who’s responsible for writing the band’s best-known song, the Top Ten hit “Walking on Sunshine,” which may not be quite as big a hit as you think it was – it actually peaked at #9 – but has had a longer shelf-life than many other higher-charting singles from the ‘80s, continuing to pop up regularly not just on the radio dial but in television (Futurama, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sports Night), film (High Fidelity, American Psycho, Look Who’s Talking), and countless commercials. In fact, the song’s been estimated to be worth over a million dollars each year in royalties for Rew and has been referred to by at least one music publisher as “the crown jewel in EMI’s catalog.” It’s understandable why the song is so frequently employed in pop culture and advertising – it might be the happiest, most effervescent 45 of the ‘80s, one you can’t help but hear in your head whenever you’re bouncing off the walls in excitement, thanks to its jubilant stabs of brass (courtesy of Ray Beavis, Dick Hanson, and John Earle, all members of the brass section for Graham Parker and the Rumour), Cooper’s swinging drum work, and the song’s oh-so-simple guitar riff. The song also sports one of the more deceptively creative guitar solos of all-time – it’s just one note played over and over ad nauseum in a morse-code-like fashion, and yet it works so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine de la Cruz playing the solo any other way.
But don’t fall into the trap of mistaking this band for a one-hit-wonder as so many music publications or networks mistakenly do or thinking that the rest of this disc must merely be filler: you’d be wrong on both counts. There was, in actuality, a second Top 40 hit from the disc, the appealing #37-peaking power-pop of “Do You Want Crying.” It’s a bit unclear, though, whether this song was chosen as the follow-up because of its quality or in order to throw a bone to the rest of the band, since it’s one of only two songs here not penned by Rew (the cut was instead written by de la Cruz) – it’s a great song, but there are several even catchier songs here they could have chosen from instead.
“Going Down to Liverpool” is perhaps the most obvious candidate in the bunch. Its heavily British Invasion-tinged sound is a virtual hybrid of some of that era’s biggest groups: the gritty guitar work echoes the Kinks, the drums distinctly recall the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” and the song’s lovely melody and the harmony vocals in the chorus vaguely recall Herman’s Hermits. The song is so ridiculously catchy that you wonder what in the world the band was thinking sticking it on the B-side of “Walking on Sunshine” – it very much should have been an A-side in its own right, and apparently, Vicki Peterson thought the same thing because The Bangles (with Vicki’s sister Debbie singing lead) would cover the song themselves on their major-label debut All Over the Place and choose it as the A-side of their second single for Columbia. (It’d miss the Hot 100 – as would all their singles until “Manic Monday” – but it’d help put the band on the map and its video – featuring a cameo from Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy – would get a fair amount of play.)
“Que Te Quiero” is nearly every bit as catchy as “Going Down to Liverpool,” its bilingual, castanet-laden, Spanish-tinged sound so charming that it’s hard to resist cracking a smile as you’re listening to the cut, and even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish, you’ll likely still find yourself attempting to sing along with the chorus, anyway! The band wisely eventually chose it for the album’s third single, the song sadly petering out at just #71, but it’s highly likely that the song would have done much better had it immediately followed “Walking on Sunshine” rather than being issued so belatedly.
This surprisingly back-loaded disc – “Walking on Sunshine” and “Going Down to Liverpool” actually don’t show up until the first two slots on the second side – also ends on a solid note with the 1-2-3 punch of the frantic “Mexico,” the organ-drenched ballad “The Sun Won’t Shine Without You,” and, even better, the deliriously fun closer “Game of Love,” a muscular rock-twist number that sounds as if it’s a cover of a sock-hop classic when, in fact, it’s actually a Rew original, and the band sounds like they’re having the time of their life on the cut, Leskanich particularly letting loose and vamping over the song’s final minute with every bit as much passion as she injected into the extended fade of “Walking on Sunshine.”
And then … the band all but disappeared. The follow-up disc, 1986’s Waves, stiffed, but not altogether surprisingly: it departed quite a bit from the formula that brought the band so much success, not in the least due to the fact that Leskanich – who hadn’t written any of the songs on the prior album – contributed five of the ten songs and de la Cruz three of the remaining five, while Rew was shockingly limited to just two songs. The band apparently learned its lesson, because Rew would have at least a partial hand in writing all of the ten tunes on the band’s next disc, 1989’s Break of Hearts, issued on the SBK label, which briefly revived the band’s commercial fortunes and returned them to the Top 40 with the sadly-long-forgotten Top Twenty hit (and Leskanich/Rew co-write) “That’s the Way,” the group’s third and final Top 40 hit. The band would split up after 1997’s Walk on Water (which spanned a massive U.K. hit in “Love Shine a Light,” which went all the way to #3 and was the winner of that year’s Eurovision Song Contest), but Katrina has soldiered on as a solo artist, though she’s made few waves – pardon the pun – outside of Europe without her old bandmates in tow.