Most musicians dream of having an internationally-famous single. Few ever achieve it, fewer still do it twice. An every once in awhile, those who hit the top find that a smash hit can end up being a bit of a mixed blessing. Enter Katrina and the Waves. The British band with the American singer who’d hit gold in the ’80s with “Walking on Sunshine” had an encore on this day in 1997 when they won the Eurovision Song Contest with “Love Shine A Light.” It gave their career a much-needed shot in the arm…but ended up being largely responsible for their end.
The Eurovision Song Contest is quite a big deal in Europe. It grew out of an Italian music contest begun in 1951, and organizers saw it as a way to heal and reconcile Europe while wounds from WWII were still fresh. They started a contest where every country on the continent could pick one song from one of their artists and play it at a big show, with a winner being voted on. It officially kicked off in 1956, was televised across the continent right away (making it one of the world’s longest-running annual TV programs) and it’s continued through to this day, with the unfortunate exception of last year when the pandemic caused it to be canceled. Plans are afoot to resume it this year in Rotterdam though, which should be a boost for that city. The show not only showcases musical talent, but since it’s held in the previous year’s winning country, it is also a competitive event which helps promote tourism in the winning lands. A fair bit of national pride goes with winning and hosting. Over 50 countries have taken part, including almost all of Europe’s plus more recently Australia, some Middle Eastern and north African ones. Ireland has chalked up the most wins, seven. It can boost the career of the performers to be sure, yet although Olivia Newton John, Lulu and Celine Dion (representing Switzerland at the time) have taken part, few well-known names have emerged from it and only one real big name act and song have won – Abba with “Waterloo” in 1974. This might be because although popular, as Katrina Leskanich of the Waves says, “people who take this contest seriously are the kind of people who get into Miss Universe.” So yes, Eurovision is quite a big deal…but in the same sort of way American Idol is a big deal over here. So how did a slightly dusty popular pop-rock group of the ’80s resurrect themselves through it in ’97?
Well, here a lot of things happened coincidentally. Warner Brothers were interested in signing the band who’d not had a hit that decade, but they clearly said they needed to hear a hit single to help sales before they’d provide the contract. Guitarist Kim Rew, the main writer for the band, was a supporter of a charity called The Samaritans, who offer mental health counseling and other forms of help in the UK. He’d written a cheery “anthem” for the organization, designed to back bouncy, feel-good commercials one might expect. Katrina and the Waves had recorded it, but didn’t use it because (again in the words of Katrina) “it’s too cheesy.” But Warner Brothers liked it, and someone in the band was friends with someone in the Eurovision office. They contacted the band about whether they’d be interested in competing. The record label said “we want you to do it” and Leskanich told the contest “we have this song called ‘Love Shine a Light’ (but) it’s too cheesy, too ‘Abba’… it’d be perfect for you!”
So they entered the British semi-finals, paying 250 pounds to do so, and won that in February of that year…without Rew. The songwriter/guitarist didn’t want to have his band associated with the commercial jingle, and sat out.
Winning the British segment got them to the Eurovision stage in Dublin, where they were 24th of 25 performers on the night. Katrina had a couple of backing singers, Miriam Stockley (who’d go on to appear on the recorded version) and Beverly Skeete. Bassist Vince de la Cruz took over from Rew on guitar, while a session bassist played that off-stage, drummer Alex Cooper doing his usual thing. The crowd went wild, and they got about 79% of the vote…the biggest landslide in the contest’s history to that point, besting even Abba’s total.
Warner was pleased, put out the single and album Walk on Water out quickly and the single, which was a big hit in Europe. It got to #3 in the UK, #2 in Austria, and was a top 5 hit in many countries including Ireland and all of Scandinavia, where in Norway it went gold. Over on this side of the ocean, where few pay attention to Eurovision, the song barely even got noticed despite the band’s earlier smash “Walking on Sunshine” being an almost constant-presence on pop and oldies radio by then. “The song was quickly forgotten,” Katrina admits, and when it was so too were the Waves. They split up in 1999, largely because they felt their credibility as a rock act was now shot. Ironically therefore, the Eurovision stage ended up being Katrina and the Waves “Waterloo.”