Even today, Feline remains a controversial and divisive album among Stranglers aficionados, with similar numbers either declaring it a triumph or decrying it as a low point in the catalogue. If you’ve heard the album, you’ll know which side of the fence you are on…
The Stranglers are, by any stretch of the imagination, a hard-to-categorise and generally curious beast. Coming to prominence with their debut album Rattus Norvegicus and follow-up No More Heroes at the height of the UK punk explosion, they were unsurprisingly swept up as very much part of that scene – what with their generally short-haired appearance, sneering vocals, spiky musical attack and, well, the band name, that was always going to happen. However, even then, they didn’t quite fit – their drummer, Jet Black, was already hovering around 40 years old, and Dave Greenfield’s keyboards always added a Doors-like influence to the sound. By the time of the transitional (and classic) album The Raven, they were adding more sophistication to the sound, before heading into the dense conceptual fog of The Gospel According To The Meninblack, before ending up with the big hit Golden Brown and its soft and mellow parent album La Folie in 1981. An almost complete reinvention had occurred within five years and without any change in personnel – though even then there was a hint of controversy as the single managed to get a song about heroin onto the radio and into the upper reaches of the UK charts for the first time since Lou Reed managed the same trick with Perfect Day!
It would be the following year’s Feline which would see the biggest and most startling reboot of the band, as they threw caution and safety to the wind and, adopting syndrums and generally avoiding electric guitar, they created what was essentially a 40-minute mood piece, with nine tracks all very much cut from the same smooth, unobtrusive and sometimes almost ambient cloth. This was as far from Something Better Change and Get A Grip On Yourself as you could get, and it understandably divided the fanbase in the UK – although it still reached the Top 5, and it became easily their biggest success in mainland Europe. Even today it remains a controversial and divisive album among Stranglers aficionados, with similar numbers either declaring it a triumph or decrying it as a low point in the catalogue. If you’ve heard the album, you’ll know which side of the fence you are on – or indeed if you are one of those in the middle ground. It hasn’t dated tremendously well – largely due to the synthesised drums which cast the unmistakable pall of ’80s’ over proceedings – but it remains a brave and, despite its smoother, easier-on-the-ears sound, uncompromising experiment. Strong melodies and instrumental showcases are pointedly avoided, as the whole listening experience blends together into a single, fog-enshrouded listen which envelops the senses. There are highlights – the opening Midnight Summer Dream and later All Roads Lead To Rome for sure – both of which use spoken-word vocals to hypnotic effect – and also Let’s Tango In Paris and to a lesser extent the single European Female. Essentially, however, with this triple-digipak, double CD reissue (which also comes on double pink-and-red transparent vinyl with the same tracklisting if that’s your thing), it is less about the actual 1982 album itself and more a question of whether you want to get this if you like the original – and the answer is certainly ‘yes’, as much of the bonus material on the second disc forms what is, to these ears, the most rewarding listening of all.
So, let’s have a look at what you get on that second disc with its collection of B-sides, rarities and other assorted ephemera. The first three tracks are the least essential, as it happens, being the 7″ single edits/mixes of European Female, Midnight Summer Dream and Paradise – but after that things get fascinating. The B-side of the Paradise single, the oddly titled Pawsher, is simultaneously one of the strongest tracks here but also the most frustrating. Essentially an instrumental, it is accompanied only by repeated chanting of the title (pronounced as ‘Porsche’, though any resemblance to cars may well be completely unintentional), while experimental ‘freak-out’ guitar soloing goes on in the background in a way not attempted at all on the main album itself. Sadly, those vocals are mixed so high as to overpower everything else, while the guitar is conversely mixed extremely low down, making it a strain to be heard, especially when the title chant looms up again. If the voices had been lower and the guitar to the forefront, this would have been a real classic, and even with those aforementioned drawbacks it remains something which, to these ears, should have gone on the main album (particularly with the ‘Pawsher’ word fitting the ‘Feline’ concept). The 12″ version of that Paradise single contained the additional track Permission, which is next up, and it’s another challenging but very rewarding listen, being a sort of dub reggae piece of a kind never really attempted before by the band. Another which was crying out to go onto the main album, to my mind.
One track which was earmarked for the album before being replaced very late by All Roads Lead To Rome is Savage Breast, taking its lyric naturally from the oft-misquoted Shakespeare line ‘Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast’ (and not, as so many have it, ‘savage beast’). On this occasion that decision was absolutely right, as this proves to be in fact a rather tame beast, and it runs out of steam even over its sub-four minute duration. There is the 12″ version of Midnight Summer Dream to savour here as well, running to ten minutes and given a significant makeover. At this juncture we enter extremely bizarre territory with the B-side of the Midnight Summer Dream single, and a song which must go down as one of the most surreal titles ever used on a record. With the short title of Vladimir And Olga, it is also credited here with its full name of – deep breath, now – The Strange Circumstances Which Lead to Vladimir And Olga Requesting Rehabilitation In A Siberian Health Resort As A Result of Stress In Furthering The Peoples Policies, by The Upper Volga Corngrowers Co-Operative Association Choral Dance Troupe Ensemble. So there. It’s actually not as interesting as the title promises to be (it was never going to be, to be fair), though the first half is a rather intriguing tale involving hallucinatory experiences arising from ‘the old wives’ tale’ of ‘Bread Mould Madness’ following a simple meal of borscht and some ‘strange-tasting’ bread, before things run rather quickly out of steam.
We’re getting towards the end now, but there’s still time for the best track on either disc to come up – a live version of Midnight Summer Dream / European Female as a medley, from 1985. It’s quite the revelation, as the difference made just by the regular drumkit is the proverbial night and day. Both tracks are exponential improvements over their studio counterparts, especially European Female which really shines here, and it’s a shame that a whole show promoting the Feline album wasn’t found. The live medley has appeared before, on the flip side of the Nice In Nice 12″ single, but it’s marvellous to have it included here. Things wind up on another odd note next; fans might remember initial copies of Feline on vinyl coming with a bonus single-sided 7″ disc containing a track called Aural Sculpture, which was later retitled as Aural Sculpture Manifesto when the next album took the Aural Sculpture title itself, though without this track on it. Confused? Well, you may or may not, but there’s a good chance you might be after listening to this track, which consists of a spoken word piece outlining the Stranglers’ ‘plans’ to render existing ‘music’ redundant via their blueprint for the new and revolutionary ‘aural sculpture’. It is never really explained what the difference actually is, and it’s utterly and completely barking mad, but it does fit right into this period which saw the band heading as far off the grid as they would arguably ever do (though The Meninblack might have a shout there I guess!)
So, the question to ask ourselves in summation of this release is, if you love the album, is this worth getting? The answer to that is certainly affirmative, as this is the most impressive version there has been, at least to my knowledge. The packaging is very nice, and that panther on the cover still looks beautifully striking. If you like some of the original album, but it’s never been enough to make you want to spring for it, this will now make it worthwhile. Of course, if you hated the original and took to the streets at the time demanding the return of Peaches or Nice And Sleazy, then this still won’t be for you . Mind you, you probably won’t still be reading will you, so I’m effectively talking to myself.
Feline. It’s The Stranglers, but not necessarily as you remember them. Crawl in through the cat flap, and see what you think…