"It's a windy night / Off first and main / Of any city / Of a hundred names / Spirits fly high and the sparks fly low..."
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.
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)”.
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.
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 working―you 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, 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.
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”.
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. His subtlety, and Donna's heart-hurt but hale vocal performance, turns the cover of the Drifters' There Goes My Baby into an outright winner.