Last weekend's double feature from the East Anglian Daily Times about my learned colleague Kimberley Rew. Text after picture...
Sixty or so years ago, having just moved to London from Bristol, 12 year-old Kimberley Rew got his first guitar. It was, he said, like most people’s first guitar – like my own first guitar, in fact – a plain instrument with an action like a mandoline veg slicer. It came with the house which his family had moved into. There it was, in an empty room, left behind by someone who’d given up on it. But it was a guitar. Kimberley persevered with it, and, as is the way of these thing, ended up in a band. Time passed.
Among Kimberley’s subsequent achievements, is a song which he wrote called Walking on Sunshine. You’ll probably have heard it on the radio from time to time. Katrina and the Waves, a Cambridge band, weren’t expecting a worldwide hit single from a debut album initially released only in Canada Britain in the early 1980s was not necessarily the best time for provincial indie bands to haunt the charts. Fronted by Katrina Leskanich, the daughter of a US Air Force officer stationed in Suffolk, the band were not your obvious 80s pop stars. For here were no epic hair sculptures, no New Romantic tablecloths and no quasi-operatic vocal stylings. The Waves were three long-haired indie lads, while Katrina was an open-faced American girl, who’d have probably fitted equally well into an alt-country band.
Kimberley Rew, a quiet chap barely out of his 20s, unexpectedly struck gold with Walking on Sunshine. It was one of those never-have-to-work-again, international feelgood smashes. Forty years later, nothing’s changed. Everybody loves it and the song still features in numerous films and adverts. In 2015, the Bertelsmann Music Group, a music biz multinational, snapped up Katrina and the Waves catalogue for a fortune.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that BMG hadn’t exactly purchased a one-trick pony. Kimberley had also written Going Down To Liverpool, which was covered by the Bangles. Then, in 1997, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, the UK for the first time in many years, won the Eurovision Song Contest with Love Shine A Light. The song was performed by Katrina and the Waves and again, composed by Kimberley.
As a working songwriter myself, I can assure you that to write an optimistic or fast-paced song, which makes everyone want to dance, is one of the hardest things in the world to accomplish. For every song like Pharrell Williams’ Happy or Kimberley Rew’s Walking on Sunshine, there are many more inward-looking personal laments composed. If you wish to hear examples, go and visit any open-mic session of the kind staged weekly in backstreet pubs. A brooding lament to urban desolation is easy to do. A song proclaiming “I’m in love, so let’s do something utterly bonkers.” is far more likely to buy you a country estate.
So why is it that many people don’t know more about Kimberley Rew, who, as a songwriter has outsold other noisier and more visible artistes? Well, it’s possibly because he ticked the No Publicity box. Most people in the music industry are unaware of the existence of such a thing. Yet, not all of us want to perform for the media circus, having to shake hands with the many wazzocks who populate the industry. Besides, they can’t force you to go on TV, can they? There are still a few of us who don’t want to stay up all night in some half-cut, chemically-enhanced fairyland. Not after we’re thirty, anyway. It’s never been compulsory, is what I’ve concluded.
But Kimberley had lived an intriguing earlier life. Fifty years ago, during summer of 1973, while David Bowie was busy killing off Ziggy Stardust, while the members of Pink Floyd were promoting the newly-released Dark Side of the Moon, 21 year-old Kimberley was in West Stow, Suffolk, attempting to build an Anglo-Saxon house.
An undergraduate, then reading archaeology at Jesus College Cambridge, he and a group of fellow students wanted to know exactly how the Anglo-Saxons had constructed their dwellings. There were no pictures, you understand. Another thing with the Saxons is that, unlike the Romans, they mostly used bio-degradable building materials. This, coupled with the fact that there’s very little stone to be found in East Anglia, dictated that nearly everything they made – apart from some rusty ironware, tarnished jewellery and the odd buried royal ship – has returned to dust.
The group of young Cambridge students, therefore, gave up their summer vacation and began trying to recreate accurately the first Anglo Saxon house to be constructed in England for almost a millennium. The project became the subject of a short Anglia TV news feature, which can still be found on the internet. B The 6-minute feature shows the team members lugging spars of wood around, binding them together or hammering them into position with primitive-looking mallets. These likeably serious youngsters explain to the camera that all they have to go on for their building dimensions, are the positions of ancient post holes. A young spokeswoman adds that the team also thought it important not to use modern tools for their construction. The students, who are mostly dressed in that early 70s uniform of bell-bottom jeans and checked workshirts, were given one of three nearby cottages to stay in during their time on the site, which is about 10 miles north of Bury St Edmunds.
Kimberley remembered the location as being pretty rural for a ‘townie’, as he described himself then. “At night all you could hear were the crickets.” He went on to explain that when people have settled a place, the top layer of soil is changed and will look different to that soil which is found underneath. Dig down deeper in that part of Suffolk, and you’ll find light sandy stuff which comprised the original soil. Above it, though, where the old dwellings had been, there is darker soil, transformed by the various deposits of its former occupants.
When we discussed the recent film, The Dig, made about the uncovering of the Sutton Hoo ship by a local archaeologist, Kimberley said, “Someone like Basil Brown ,who was self-taught, would have been able to take a look at a site like West Stow and say, ‘There was a Saxon village here.’” Earlier this year, a group of the original West Stow student team, returned to the site for a reunion picnic. Fifty years after that first house was constructed West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, has seen the addition of several other houses. It’s now famous worldwide as an experiential heritage centre. Kimberley, with characteristic modesty, was keen to add that the newer Saxon houses at West Stow are rather better-built than the team’s original prototype. He says that this was because people with greater building skills became involved in their construction. The original project nonetheless, remains an impressive feat. As a bit of an archaeology groupie, a few years ago, I introduced Kimberley to Dr Philip Crummy, head of the Colchester Archaeological Trust. Phil Crummy was the man who one day, while puzzling over some oddly-positioned blocks of stone which his team had uncovered on an old Cavalry Barracks site, suddenly realised that he’d stumbled upon the only Roman circus, ever to be found in Britain. The nearest other one that anyone knew about was 800 miles away in Arles, France. It was quite a thrill, therefore, a few years back to be able to introduce these two men and say, “Kim, this is Dr Philip Crummy, who’s recently found a Roman Circus. Phil, meet Kimberly Rew, part of that team who reconstructed the first Anglo Saxon house, just up the road at West Stow. Oh and he also wrote Walking On Sunshine.” Dr. Crummy said, “ I’ve heard of that one.” Well, you had to be there, really.
I’ve often felt that there’s a highly instinctive if not slightly occult aspect to the uncovering of important historical finds. As with song-writing, there’s a fair amount of unsung donkey-work involved -- there really is. But in the end you still need that little bit of divination – some holy luck. I once interviewed the late Dr John Ashdown-Hill, a man who was instrumental in discovering the body of King Richard III in a Leicester car-park. He only reinforced my opinion that the past with all its truths and treasure, is most of the time, only just beneath our feet. Finding out exactly where beneath our feet it is, however, often needs perseverance, because it won’t just come and announce itself.
In 1981, Kimberley joined Katrina and the Waves. In 1983, he wrote the big one, the b-side of which, Going Down To Liverpool – a song about unemployment -- became a single for the Bangles. The video of the Bangles song, incidentally, featured the actor Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek’s Mr Spock, in the role of their chauffeur. Despite long-lasting worldwide affection for their single Walking on Sunshine, by the mid-1990 the lights were fading down for Katrina and the Waves. But then, in 1997, suddenly and unexpectedly, they won the Eurovision Song Competition for the UK with Love Shine A Light. The band finally split up in 1999, with Katrina Leskanich, a former Lakenheath schoolgirl going solo. Kimberley Rew: musician, former archaeologist and serial over-achiever, continues steadily to play, record and write those insanely cheery songs of his. And all without a single trace of the tortured artiste about him.