As we have observed in our birthday recap of William Shatner, the mind of the Shatmaster has certainly given our world many golden geek gems. However, more than his resume or his charisma, it is his vocal cords, his radiant antennas to human existence, that provide Shatner with his distinct Shatner-ness. With unpredictable inflection and great clarity, Shatner’s voice is an unparalleled force, and is of a rare audible vocal quality that inspires the clamor, “I’d even listen to him read a phone book!”
Shatner certainly has put such credibility to the test with his musical career, a confounding saga of bizarre artistry, in which his level of seriousness is constantly brought into the question. Nonetheless, with three studio albums released over the course of more than forty years, Shatner’s input to the world of music is much like his other endeavors: bizarre, geeky, and wholly singular to Shatner’s expressiveness.
The world first experienced Shatner as “recording artist” in 1968 with the release of his first album, The Transformed Man. Its title written in rainbow colors and a classic futuristic font, Shatner is photographed looking up, at the beyond, with half of his face in shadow. While he is still billed on the cover as “William Shatner: Captain Kirk of Star Trek,” Shatner nonetheless gives the impression that this album will be much more than another star trying to make it in the recording industry. Indeed, this album would be a science fiction voyage through the dark unknown all on its own.
Featuring six tracks which include two pop covers (“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,”) The Transformed Man is indeed the work of a flawed mortal/wannabe storyteller who has spent far too much time with his head in space. Accompanied by labored pop symphony arrangements, Shatner heaves massive helpings of poetic imagery at his audience with his distinct spoken word delivery, which is so jazzy (beatnik-y) and unpredictable that these extensive tracks easily nudge its viewers out the side door. On an album that should have been called “I AM A SERIOUS ARTIST,” ’68 Shatner expresses his immediate desire to gain his listener’s intellectual acceptance through his Shat-tastic harpings on “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
The almighty Shatner, not only acting but acting like a snobby jackass, shows that he thinks himself to be a one-man orchestra (and not just an ac-tor). The entire album is very theatrical. At best, it probably makes for excellent music for doing chores around the living space, especially dish washing or vacuuming.
Pop culture might try to nudge everyone into thinking that this album is fully funny, but this isn’t the case. You’ll certainly understand this when trying to share these songs with friends, and having to skip through four minutes of B.S. just to hear Shatner sing “Mr. Tambourine Man” like he was reading each line one page a time while having hiccups, and as if his integrity as an actor relied on it. If anything, just skip to 6:40 on the song and you’ll get the gist of this sadly goofy art experiment: “MR. TAMBOURRINEE MAAAAN!!!”
William Shatner Performs “Theme from Cyrano/Mr. Tambourine Man”
It’s worth noting that both pop covers from this album would later be featured on the incomparable compilation album, Golden Throats, in 1988. These two Shatner tunes would be placed along other red hot club bangers like Leonard Nimoy singing “If I Had a Hammer,” Mae West doing a take on “Twist and Shout,” and certainly not to be forgotten, Jim Nabors’ blistering rendition of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
After The Transformed Man, Shatner made a live album, appropriately titled William Shatner “Live!” in 1977, in which he brought his self-proclaimed one man show aspect to Hofstra University. In the liner notes, Shatner wrote of the album, “The nightmare that all actors have from time to time is appearing naked in front of an audience – not knowing the lines, not knowing the play – I was living the dream.”
Though it doesn’t seem like he performed the album naked (he is wearing clothes on the album cover, which features him speaking into a numerous quantity of microphones), Shatner did take this opportunity to do more spoken word, such as when he reads from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. He also took a bit of the time to address Star Trek: The Motion Picture in a track entitled “The Movie.”
Despite rocking intellectuals with Cyrano de Bergerac and Wells on his live album, perhaps Shatner’s most iconic moment in his career in “music” came in 1978, in which he performed a special rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at the Science Fiction Film Awards. After the song was introduced by “Rocket Man” co-writer Bernie Taupin, the camera cuts to Shatner, who sings the famous Elton John song with his usual quality, turning the lyrics into a monologue…one that he eventually has with two other versions of himself, as little Shatner clones appear via TV magic at his side. Shatner’s cover of the song struck a major chord with his audience, gaining it a special place in pop culture (perhaps you’ve seen Family Guy‘s tribute), and best of all, the performance was not met with laughter, but with applause.
William Shatner Performs “Rocket Man”
In 2004, Shatner released his second studio album, Has Been, which was produced by Ben Folds (Shatner had appeared on Ben Folds’ odd Fear of Pop: Volume 1 project back in 1998). From even just the difference of titles between his first and second album, one could ascertain a huge difference between the two; the man who claimed to be transformed was now just a “has been.” This feeling is also joked about on the second album’s cover, as no longer is “Captain Kirk” gazing into the pretentious unknown, but instead with “Has Been” is covering his eyes with his hands in embarrassment, a single lone light bulb illuminating his presence.
The irony in Shatner’s expression on this album cover is that Has Been is actually an endeavor to be proud of, and it is especially much more welcoming than The Transformed Man. This second album maintains Shatner’s iconic delivery, but like a film director, producer Folds gives these tracks personality, with arrangements that can stand on their own as ear-involving instrumentations. Within the collaborations of Has Been, which feature Shatner speaking alongside singers like Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Brad Paisley and Folds, Shatner is not stepping on the toes of his musicians like with Transformed Man but standing with them.
While Shatner’s special spoken word style is maintained, there is certainly a change in seriousness regarding the content, in which the artist eschews heavy Shakespearean references for much more informal monologues to his audience, and sometimes with a needed sense of humor. “You’ll Have Time,” for example, is probably the funniest gospel song ever written to have the repeated phrase, “You’re going to die, you’re going to die, you’re going to die,” whilst accompanied by a laidback rhythm and choir. Or, there’s the pretty awesome “I Can’t Get Behind That,” which essentially features Shatner and Henry Rollins screaming back and forth about things they just can’t support. As one of a few nods to his place in pop culture, Shatner has the following lyric in the song: “I can’t get behind so-called singers that can’t carry a tune, get paid for talking…how easy is that? Well, maybe I can get behind that.”
The entire album isn’t full of lighthearted songs, nor does Shatner forfeit his interest in serious poetry. A tune with Brad Paisley (which Paisley wrote specifically for Shatner) titled “Real” closes the album, and was later used to close Shatner’s play, “Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It.” A fully spoken word track, “What Have You Done?” has Shatner’s distinct voice sharing more somber phrases, but packaged within such a well-balanced album, it doesn’t fail to grab the listener’s attention.
The spark that is Has Been later lead to the creation of a ballet called Common People, as written by Margo Sappington. Performed by the Milwaukee Ballet, Common People utilized songs from Shatner’s second album, with the creation of this ballet documented by the documentary William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet, which was released in 2009.
William Shatner released his third and most recent studio album in 2011, titled Seeking Major Tom. With the cover featuring a goofily photoshopped Shatner head inside a spacesuit floating near a random rocket or whatever, this album marked another change in direction for Shatner’s recording career, showing that Has Been was a path on the way down from the original high art of Shatner’s first album. With Seeking Major Tom, Shatner works on a cheaper, kitschier level, with a collection of songs that are almost all about space, and are almost all covers. While he doesn’t have the crucial presence of Ben Folds (and is working with a notably cheaper production value) the album does feature a long list of collaborators, including Peter Frampton, Zakk Wylde, Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, Brad Paisley, and Alan Parsons. With a track list that includes popular tracks like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Iron Man,” and even another rendition of “Rocket Man,” Shatner showed with this third album that he is more interested in playing into cheesiness more so than any of the serious artful motivations from his previous two albums.
William Shatner performs “Bohemian Rhapsody”
The golden voice of Shatner has certainly appeared in musical moments outside of his three albums; in 2005, he sang his own version of “My Way” to George Lucas for the director’s AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony (backed up by dancing Stormtroopers). His distinct style of singing has been used for various jokey segments on TV, from his performance of Cee Lo Green’s “F**k You” on Lopez Tonight to “performing” Sarah Palin’s tweets on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien in 2009.
Whether Shatner eventually will lose his serious focus in spoken word to fully embracing kitsch or not, his recorded work stands as an unparalleled venture of a gifted Hollywood actor with a wholly unique voice. A surprising number of Hollywood actors have taken a stab at vocal performances, a much younger Clint Eastwood used to sing country tunes, Leonard Nimoy gave us “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” and Eddie Murphy wanted us to “Party All the Time.” However, none have done this with such Shatner-ness as Shatner. His work divides fans and non-fans between the categorizing of comedy or plain artistic insanity, Shatner’s recordings stand apart those of his peers, his golden throat with its own bizarre glow amongst the stars.