I’m Free: Donna Summer’s “Cats Without Claws” Turns 30

Promotional poster for Cats Without Claws

Promotional poster for Cats Without Claws

Ten years had passed since Donna Summer arrived with Lady of the Night (Groovy Records, 1974). In the decade that ensued Summer rarely rested, reshaping popular music with a string of albums and singles that defined a generation.

Later, Summer shifted into the second phase of her recording career with The Wanderer (1980). Her inaugural set for Geffen Records heralded that the “Queen of Disco” was casting off to embrace her pop spirit.

Summer’s third Geffen release Cats Without Claws―and 11th studio album overall―was her first commercial miss. Subsequently, the record fell into obscurity, all but forgotten outside of Summer’s core constituency. Listening to Cats Without Claws 30 years removed from its inception, one can hear the complexity of pop’s most misunderstood voice steady in its exploration of new sonic shores.

The History

When Summer left Casablanca Records, home to the first half of her discography, she took up residency at the newly launched Geffen Records. An industry power player, David Geffen saw the rebranding potential in Donna Summer; she herself proved game for change with The Wanderer. The record secured critical acclaim and modest sales. Importantly, it made Summer one of the few viable black acts in the now alabaster post-disco, pre-Thriller (1982) pop world of the early 1980’s.

What came next were a series of career hiccups for Summer. I’m a Rainbow―the last record Summer cut with principal partners Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte―was shelved by Geffen. The ambitious new wave dancer―later issued in 1996 via Mercury / Polygram Records―didn’t seem sales savvy to the label head. As a result, Summer was paired with modern maestro Quincy Jones for her eponymous effort that appeared in 1982. Donna Summer invoked ire and praise with it being Summer’s debut trek into R&B; it produced the charter “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)”.

"Supernatural Love" single cover

“Supernatural Love” single cover

To add to the pressure, Polygram Records, who now owned the Casablanca Records label, reminded Summer that she contractually still owed them an album. Summer saw this as an opportunity to release a record she’d recently cut with producer Michael Omartian.

A potpourri of rock, synth and soul-pop, She Works Hard for the Money (1983) became the prize record of Summer’s 1980’s stretch; the hit Geffen wanted for himself but, effectively, rejected had come and gone. She Works Hard for the Money was merely the blueprint for what came next, musically, for Donna Summer.

The Record

Summer remained partnered with Michael Omartian for the follow-up to She Works Hard For the Money. Omartian, a former A&R staffer, had become an in-demand producer of the period. Excusing input from Summer’s husband, former Brooklyn Dreams vocalist Bruce Sudano, Omartian commented on he and Summer’s working relationship:

On the last album we began writing together and found that we really enjoyed the procedure. Donna and I would spend about 5 or 6 hours a day workingyou know, she’s (Donna) really gifted with melodies. So we’d put together a tune with drum machines, then put it away. Two weeks later we’d take it all out, review it and select what we wanted.

We decided up front not to clog up the tracks, so we really didn’t cut them with a lot of folks. We used the drummer’s tracks and my keyboards as a basic guide, which left everything wide open and uncluttered. So, from the beginning, you’re not committed to a certain direction. This makes things more flexible and you end up with much less in the way. We also decided not to involve other names in duets and backgrounds, so this album really is a personal statement, very straight-ahead. Besides, everybody’s doing duets and stuff; where does it end?

Cats Without Claws photo shoot contact sheet; shot by Harry Langdon

Cats Without Claws photo shoot contact sheet; shot by Harry Langdon

Cats Without Claws, a focused song cycle about humanity (at its best and worst), was inspired by Summer’s own spiritual travels.

Barring two emotionally driven covers―“There Goes My Baby” (The Drifters) and “Forgive Me” (Reba Rambo)―Cats Without Claws was a Donna Summer original. Looping back around to “There Goes My Baby” and “Forgive Me,” both songs gripped an understated warmth thanks to their sensitively sequenced synthesizers. In particular, “There Goes My Baby” had Summer tease the song’s teen angst into a much more palpable pathos than heard in the original recording by The Drifters.

Mood acted as an integral ingredient on Cats Without Claws; the titular piece, another of Summer’s social commentaries, put the listener into a dangerous cityscape. With its slasher-flick synths, various effects and colorful vocal, Summer captured the disillusionment of urban life. That voracious vocal acting heard on the title track reared its head throughout the rest of the long player. Torchy on “Maybe It’s Over” and cool on the freestyle flash of “Face the Music”―the flipside to “Supernatural Love”―Summer held fast to her chameleonic talent.

As a songwriter, Summer continued to advance as affirmed on the dank voyeurism of “Eyes” and the insistent “Supernatural Love”. The latter, along with “It’s Not the Way,” were 80’s beat-pop candies that melded contemporary dance music with pop melodies. Summer even added her flavor to the “island craze” sweeping popular music at the time with “Suzanna” and “I’m Free”.

The song structures were among her best; Cats Without Claws owned Summer’s finest middle-eight’s recorded. The bruised “Oh Billy Please” exemplified this with the song’s configuration changing without warning to a floorfiller halfway through. It made for exciting listening.

Not since Lady of the Night had Summer been so stylishly pop and succinct. Cats Without Claws promised to get the charts chatting with its contents.

The Impact

Cats Without Claws arrived Stateside on 9/4/84; “There Goes My Baby” preceded the album by several weeks as its lead single. The single became a mild hit―U.S. #21, U.S. R&B #20, U.S. A/C #17―though it was a disappointment after the frenzied reception of “She Works Hard for the Money”.

Single cover to "Eyes"

Single cover to “Eyes”

The year of 1984 saw established talent like Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan and Linda Ronstadt―peers to Summer―present projects that met commercial success; Turner obviously led the charge with her Private Dancer album.

Then there were the new girls on the scene: Pat Benatar, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna. All of these new voices had sprung up in rock, R&B, pop and dance―genres Summer had conquered at different points in the past. Summer’s competition was considerable this time around.

At home, Cats Without Claws made modest headway: U.S. Billboard 200 #40, U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop #24. The long player worked itself into the international markets later in the month of September with varying degrees of impact: U.K. #69, Germany #39, Denmark #13, Sweden #10, Norway #15, Netherlands #19.

Summer blazed through a decent promotional trail for the record domestically and abroad; notable American appearances included ‘American Bandstand and ‘Soul Train. The latter allowed Summer an opportunity to memorably elaborate on the themes of Cats Without Claws with the show’s host, Don Cornelius.

The album failed to find its audience and became Summer’s first recording to not achieve gold certification since her commercial ascendancy in 1975. Critically, the album mostly went over well with critics. Rolling Stone writer Christopher Connelly opined:

Buoyantly tunfeul, admirably restrained and only occasionally silly, Cats Without Claws continues the resurgence of Donna Summer. As on She Works Hard for the Money, producer Michael Omartian displays Summer’s considerable talents to their best advantage.

Producers tend to swathe divas like Summer in yards of backing tracks, but Omartian has wisely used spare settings, with a solid, uncomplicated rhythm section and just the right touch of high tech.

Others weren’t as charmed by Cats Without Claws; Ralph Novak of People Magazine selected the album as a “pan” for their “Picks and Pans” feature:

Prevention of Any More Songs Using the Metaphor “Flame Burn Higher” should be alerted, since that phrase is part of “Supernatural Love,” a Summer-Michael Omartian-Bruce Sudano song on this LP. That sort of unimaginative material is, in fact, all too prevalent. The title song has some possibilities at least, and Summer’s revival of the 1959 Drifters’ classic, “There Goes My Baby,” is fun—though it peters out as if nobody could think of a smart way to end it.

Summer’s voice and lyrics are so much at the service of the rhythmic thrust of these basically dull songs, however, that she has to be in peak form, singing something that is sharp and clever, to make much of an impact. Since Bad Girls she has too often ended up with pedestrian material.

“There Goes My Baby”

Directed By: Ian Leech

Two additional singles were pulled from Cats Without Claws as 1984 wrapped: “Supernatural Love” (U.S. #75, U.S. R&B #51, U.S. Dance #17) and “Eyes”; neither were able to revive the recording. All wasn’t lost as Summer netted a “Best Inspirational Performance” Grammy for “Forgive Me” that year. It was her second win in that Grammy category after she garnered one for “He’s a Rebel” in 1983, an album cut from She Works Hard for the Money.

Summer took everything in stride and emboldened by a decade of more successes than failures, she took respite with her family for the next two years. Summer produced another quality effort for Geffen Records before closing that tenure of her career—All Systems Go (1987). Summer scaled the charts again with her Atlantic Records backed Another Place and Time (1989) LP.

The usually lazy generalization with Summer’s 1980’s output was that she struggled to find her footing post-Casablanca Records. Cats Without Claws, like any of the records she cut from 1980 through 1989, had Summer trying out new sounds on her terms. The music was eclectic, axiomatic proof that Summer had come “out from under shadows” and that pop had worked its “miracle” on her once again. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: For years, Cats Without Claws was the most expensive out of print recording in Summer’s discography. This album, along with the remainder of Summer’s Geffen and Atlantic records, will finally be reissued on 12/1/14. For information on the reissues and Summer’s continuing legacy, please visit her official Facebook page. Special thanks to the dedicated fan space Donna Tribute for valuable research information. Recast Harry Langdon photograph artwork courtesy  of Travis Müller.-QH]

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “I’m Free: Donna Summer’s “Cats Without Claws” Turns 30

  1. Andrew

    It was the storming Nrgetic track ‘Oh Billy Please, that was [allegedly] Donna’s choice for first single from this project.
    But ‘no’, some Genius thought….. “Let’s go with the nearest sounding one with a ballad intro ‘coz THEY were Hits in the past !”
    Which sums up the marketing brains train of thought for virtually every post Casablanca LP.
    With a hit straight out the traps in the same way that almost all of say Madonna’s albums have had. The story of this albums sales might have been quite different ?
    The [UK] NME’s review of There Goes My Baby basically said it stunk and they’d paired her with a Karaoke backing track which took away from the best bit ie her voice.
    Supernatural Love got 2 [ish] words in the same paper = ‘Strident Electro-screech’.
    This is a great album which was written off as a Flop even though it dented the Top 40.

    Nowhere in your article do you mention that the mid-Eighties was the era of what Donna ‘Disciples’ refer to as The Rumour !
    Which along with bad Singles choices contributed to the Donna ‘Who’ ?
    Of the times.
    Anyone remember the ‘slap in the face’ Cover by Bronski Beat with Marc Almond ? There was comments in Smash Hits etc about whether she would ‘accept the royalties’ !
    Donna may have been advised to keep quiet and let the whole sorry mess blow over [even though she actually wrote to Act-Up to try and clear things up].
    Even if this album was the best of her career and the Singles were amazing.
    She would have still had to face a Pop market that just didn’t want her.
    This pre-internet sh*t-storm became such a media invention that when straight people were being ‘oh so upset on behalf of Gays’ not one person joining in ever stopped to examine the actual facts.
    It was in that climate that this album was released, so to listen to it without certain memories may be quite difficult for some.

    • Honestly, the anti-gay rumor has held so much sway, been spoken of so much that the other variables around Donna’s musical hiccups had been shortchanged. I do think that the situation is more human & complex in terms of what is needed to discuss its implications. One day I would like to address it sensitively. Donna wasn’t a bigot, but like many was flawed & thankfully realized the truth that we all are who we are divinely made to be. It’s one of the reasons I love her.

      In regard to the other variables, such as her non-stop activity since ’74, new talent & just being at that commercial summit in 1983, Donna was bound to have a misstep commercially. It is sad that it had to be this fine affair. I think it is one of her tightest body’s of work thus far.

      I really enjoyed your comment, your insight & love of Donna came through. I hope I did her justice. Please come back to read more. Thanks for the comment & support. Q.

  2. sebastião luz de brito

    Well, I love Donna´s music. It was a great loss. As na unconditional fan, I appreciate all her albuns, and I hope that new and old fans should like the remastered cd´s that are coming.

  3. Jason

    Thank you for posting this! Donna is in my personal top 5 favorite artists lists, but only for her music 1980 and onwards. I could honestly care less about her disco material. The 80’s and 90’s were unkind to her, but she released her most creative stuff during that time. There is never enough Info or commentary out there about her music from this era. I hope one day you do a post about my other favorite by her: “Mistaken Identity”. Thank you again. I enjoyed reading this! Take care!

  4. Stamp

    Good album. Great Lady!!!

    ‘It’s Not The Way’ was the treadmill JAM! And ‘Cats Without Claws’ was sort of the Michael Jackson-esque ‘Thriller’ in tone on the album:

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