The 80s Cruise Omnibus: Katrina and Thomas Dolby
This is a part of our full coverage of the 2018 80s Cruise. Read more about the floating music festival here.
The 80s Cruise excels by not only booking big names for the main stage but by finding the right bands to play in the smaller venues. The bands picked for the 400-seat rooms often walk onto the ship being considered “one-hit wonders”, but quickly become Cruise favorites. Modern English, Wang Chung, and Information Society were all booked as “smaller” acts on their sailings and all three now top “favorites” lists for past sailings.
Katrina Leskanich, former lead singer of Katrina and the Waves, fell into the “one hit wonder” category when the Celebrity Summit left Ft. Lauderdale in 2018, but like those who came before her, when the ship returned a week later, she was one of the performers everyone was talking about. Leskanich is best known for the cheerful anthem “Walking on Sunshine”, but the singer struggled with the band when they first formed in 1979. It took four years before they were signed to a small Canadian label to release their debut album, Walking on Sunshine. The record had modest success, but around the time the band released their second album, they finally broke into the U.S. thanks to The Bangles.
The California natives covered the Katrina and the Waves song “Going Down to Liverpool” for their first album. The exposure they received when the cover version was released as a single was enough to get them a recording contract with Capitol Records. They reworked songs from their two Canadian albums and released the hugely successful, Katrina and the Waves in 1984. The new version of “Walking on Sunshine” made it to the top 10 in the U.S. and proved to be incredibly popular all over Europe. But just as their luck had flipped one way, it quickly flipped in the opposite direction.
Leskanich told audiences on the Cruise that their second single, “Red Wine and Whiskey,” was caught up in the record labeling scandal of the 1980s. The track was put on a list of songs deemed dangerous to teens, despite sounding more like a cautionary tale than a party anthem. It was suddenly too toxic for public consumption and the loss of momentum caused by the controversy all but sealed the fate of the band. Several singles followed, but lagging sales saw them dropped by Capitol. The band retreated back to England at the end of the decade where they released a few modest-selling albums until lady luck struck again in 1997.
The band won Europe’s Eurovision contest that year with the song, “Love Shine a Light.” It went on to become a top 10 hit in six countries, but despite renewed success, Leskanich quit the band a year later. Since then, she has released several solo albums in Europe, worked as a DJ at BBC Radio 2, starred in a musical, and wrote a guidebook to London featuring her dog, Peggy Lee.
Leskanich was quick to open up during a meet and greet she shared with Berlin’s Terri Nunn and Jessie’s Girl vocalist, Jenna O’Gara. Funny and forthcoming, the singer spoke to audiences about growing up as a military brat and her experiences – good and bad – with Katrina and the Waves. She proved to be charming and animated when performing, expounding on her life and songs.
The audience heard about her connection to the cover songs she added to the set, including “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins and Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell.” A melody of hits by her female contemporaries, including “Sweet Dreams (are Made of These)” and “Kids in America,” went down particularly well with the crowd, but it was when she was singing her own songs that she truly shined. The songs themselves were catchy and her enthusiastic, sometimes wistful, performances of them made them something special.
Another surprise on the 2018 Cruise was synthesizer virtuoso, Thomas Dolby. He was never your run of the mill rock star, in fact, that moniker never fit the music visionary that built a career not out of album sales and tour numbers, but by fusing together sound and technology. Often mistaken as a one-hit wonder thanks to the success of his 1982 song, “She Blinded Me With Science,” Dolby has had a long idiosyncratic career that found him revolutionizing two industries.
Dolby got his start as a teen in the late 70s working sound mixing jobs in London’s punk and new wave clubs. That scored him a spot as the keyboardist in The Camera Club, a band virtually unknown outside of the deep, dark reaches of obscure music trivia where it’s known that they recorded the original version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”. He went on to work and write for a myriad of musicians, all while stretching the bounds of electronic instruments.
The session work he did on Foreigner 4 paved the way for him to find success as a solo artist. His innovative technique for creating the keyboard sequence for “Waiting for a Girl Like You” involved recording a sustained note and manipulating it to create complex harmonies in the days before computers were commonplace. The band wasn’t quite what to make of his work, the bass player saying at the time, “It’s a bit like massage music, isn’t it?” Dolby took the money he earned on the record to fund his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, which featured “She Blinded Me With Science.”
He went on to have an almost nonlinear career in which he recorded his own, often unconventional, albums while doing somewhat mundane work with for The Thompson Twins, Joni Mitchell, and Def Leppard. In the early 90s, he moved to Silicon Valley and created the software that made polyphonic ringtones possible while also taking time to score video games and movies. After abandoning the tech industry in the early aughts, Dolby put out two albums and directed an award-winning documentary. He became the Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University in 2014 and now heads the University’s Music for New Media program.
Mirroring his unconventional career, Dolby has shied away from conventional concert tours. His offerings have most often been multimedia affairs involving music, visuals, and storytelling. The smaller venues available on the ship forced him to stick to a more traditional type of show. Yet even standing behind his synthesizer and computer, just a drummer and guitarist in tow, he brought something fresh and compelling to his performances.
Dolby’s music was always ahead of its time, but he updated the older songs by infusing them with new ways of creating sound. Songs like, “Europa and the Pirate Twins”, “One of Our Submarines”, and “Hyperactive!” felt like they could be on heavy rotation on SiriusXMU. Perhaps that was because the most critically regarded bands in recent years, such as LCD Soundsystem, DBFC, and St. Vincent, form a direct line from Dolby. The gadgets and methods that made him a curiosity in the 1980s have transformed into a legend to younger generations. Not bad for a man who was once accused of making “massage music”.