The Stranglers, from Guildford, in England, are a band that had a great impact on me. They were a bit older than the young ‘punk’ upstarts in England in 1977 and they already knew how to play. But age and skill did no harm in making their first two LP’s, Ratticus Norvegicus and No More Heroes both stone-cold punk classics (and both produced by the incredible Martin Rushent), and their weird, third apocalyptic record Black And White remains to this day one of my all-time favorite records. The band was known for a tough-guy, in-your-face, misogynistic stance. I believed this to be a bit of an act, as proved by the later records.
After recording their ‘classic’ LP’s for EMI/United Artists, and after the success of their sixth LP La Folie featuring the waltz ‘Golden Brown’ and a mellower pop sound, the band was at a bit of a crossroads. They had jettisoned their management, grown tired of EMI, and had signed with Epic in the UK, getting the infamous ‘complete control’ over the product. The first LP for Epic, Feline, was released in January 1983. It was a great departure for these grizzled punk vets, the music having been informed by new, lovely acoustic guitars purchased by singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell and singer/bassist JJ Burnel.
Feline is a real pop surprise, all muted tones, acoustics combined with drummer Jet Black’s new electronic drums, and much more organic piano and organ sounds from keyboard man Dave Greenfield. The music hearkens back to the punk Stranglers doing Burt Bacharach’s ‘Walk On By,’ the point being they were old enough to know about some of the pre-beat era pop and they had the chops to play it. There is some real crooner stuff on Feline, and it’s all pretty great.
So, I’m really not sure why, but in February the Stranglers store offered a new, limited version of Feline on two LP’s. It’s on 180 gram vinyl, remastered, and limited to 1000 copies including a signed (by the current band members, notably missing front man Cornwell) art print. The first vinyl disc is black vinyl and has the original LP, and the second disc Clawing At The Sky is on red vinyl, all bonus tracks, 7-inch edits, 12” mixes and two unreleased tracks. It’s a Stranglers fan’s dream. https://stranglers.tmstor.es/cart/product.php?id=42010
Feline opens with ‘Midnight Summer Dream,’ a classy sounding melody sung-spoke by Hugh Cornwell over gypsy guitars and JJ Burnel’s insistent bass. It’s like Kraftwerk trying to play Hot Club Jazz. This is a strong opener and Feline’s second single (featured in a remix on the Clawing At The Sky disc, the second disc in this release). It’s at a leisurely tempo and oh-so Euro sounding, plus it clocks in at over six minutes. ‘It’s A Small World’ opens with an XTC-like acoustic riff and those strange electro drums. Hugh again sings in an offhand manner, but the choruses are quite strong, JJ lending vocal backups. This one has a bit of a teutonic feel. Dave Greenfield and his choral synth sounds give a great ascending ending. ‘Ships That Pass In The Night’ opens like a slow-burn funk song, due to JJ’s killer bass line. It quickly morphs into a Thomas Dolby type of tune with some off-kilter synth work and Hugh crooning away.
Suddenly you see a mast/ Approaching you pretty fast
‘Hope it’s not like the last/ But it just sails right past
Midnight Summer Dream on The Kenny Everett Show from You Tube
Side one ends with ‘The European Female (In Celebration Of)’ a killer tune from JJ Burnel, crammed with Greenfield’s synth-celeste, Hugh’s faux-Django guitar, and Jet Black’s tamed electro drums. A beautiful melody and a truly strong song, this one reached number 9 in the UK record charts. It’s a later period Stranglers classic.
Side two opens with ‘Let’s Tango In Paris,’ another strong and sophisticated vocal melody from Hugh Cornwell. The intro is a little bit reminiscent of ‘Golden Brown,’ Listening to it over again today I’m impressed at how complicated the arrangements are. ‘Paradise’ was the third single from Feline, sung by JJ with backing vocals from his then-girlfriend Anna von Stern and France L’Hermitte, it’s a frothy bit of synth pop that could be on a Thompson Twins LP, until JJ speaks in the middle:
I don’t think anyone’s ever found paradise
Because paradise is based on lies
European Female on The Tube from Youtube
‘All Roads Lead To Rome’ has a real Kraftwerk feel, Hugh speaking his way through most of this one. It’s heavy on the synths and four-on-the-floor electronic drumming, but the keys on parade are a real showcase for Dave Greenfield. ‘Blue Sister’ is a beauty of a song, a bit more uptempo, still very Euro and synth based, but has some of the old-school Stranglers stops and starts. Hugh croons again through this one. It’s a little gem of a tune.The LP closes with ‘Never Say Goodbye,’ utilizing the acoustic guitars, real piano, and JJ’s ever-present bass. It sounds like a melody from the 18th century, some kind of cool, lost folk tune. Again amazingly sophisticated with a piano riff reminiscent of ‘Don’t Bring Harry’ from The Raven. Hugh’s voice is in fine form. It’s a great way to end a great LP.
The second disc, Clawing At The Sky, on a cool red 180 gram vinyl, gathers b-sides and remixes from this record, with varying results. First up on Side One is a ‘radio edit’ (presumably for the BBC in England) of European Female. It’s a punchy, better mix, with the jazzy acoustic guitar brought up in the mix, and about twenty-five seconds shorter than the LP version. Then a ‘Special Single Mix’ of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ only three minutes forty-nine seconds instead of six minutes and eleven seconds. They drop the lengthy keyboard intro, but the mix sounds similar, just edited. This song lends itself well to the editing. Rounding out the singles from the LP is a ‘radio edit’ of ‘Paradise,’ a bit shorter and to the point.
The b-side, ‘Pawsher,’ is a bit of an atmospheric workout, very euro-mecha pop with some free-form Hugh guitar. The only lyric is the word ‘Pawsher’ repeated over and over: there’s yer experimental Stranglers. The b-side ‘Permission’ is a treasure, honest to God reggae (even more than Black and White’s ‘Nice N’ Sleazy’). JJ’s bass is outstanding, and the vocal melody is unbeatable. This may have been too upbeat for the Feline LP, but it’s a great tune and well produced.
Side 2 of Clawing At The Sky opens with the (12” Special Mix) of Midnight Summer Dream. Clocking in at ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds, it’s an epic of epic proportions. It sounds perhaps a bit sped up, unbelievably. But the edits and the remixing are a triumph for the production team of The Stranglers and Steve Churchyard and the mixing of Tony Visconti. The song is atmospheric and hypnotic. As I said above, I loved this song with some editing, but I love this extended version as well. A good song is a good song, I suppose.
The b-side ‘Savage Breast’ has a weird recorder-sounding keyboard and a bit of a sixties psychedelic feel. Hugh’s vocal is very good, but you can see why it’s a b-side after a few listens. The next b-side is the first in the Vladimir and Olga series, a number of related b-sides The Stranglers would spin across their next few records. This is a hilarious easter egg. The full title of the tune is:
(The Strange Circumstances Which Lead To) Vladimir & Olga (Requesting Rehabilitation In A Siberian Health Resort As A Result Of Stress In Furthering The People's Policies) By The Upper Volga Corn Growers Co-Operative Association Choral Dance Troupe Ensemble
Set to a Russian folk melody, Hugh narrates the story of Vladimir and Olga, travelling and getting ‘bead mold madness.’ tripping balls, they cause a huge traffic jam in Odessa. This is weird and funny and very, very clever.
Last up is the ‘Aural Sculpture Manifesto,’ a mostly spoken word piece in which The Stranglers are definitely “taking the piss.”
There you have it. Feline was successful in the UK and truly established The Stranglers all over Europe. They were always (JJ Burnel being a Frenchman) a Euro-centric band, ignoring (and being ignored back by) the US. This particular package is beautifully done and a must have for fans. Those with a milder interest and a love of Euro pop should definitely check out Feline. It’s a pop, post-punk record with a little bit of the snarl of the old Stranglers. All hail the European Kings!