18th April 2021
It has been one of those weeks that left me feeling emotionally, creatively and spiritually drained and I think some serious cheering up is in order. The stand-out laugh of the week came when my long-suffering housemate shared a surprising version of William Shatner (yep, Captain Kirk himself) ‘singing’ Pulp’s huge hit ‘Common People’.
I knew that Shatner had released an album before and had heard it was a dog, but on researching a bit I found out why it had received such scathing reviews. We’ll go into that later, but I’m starting with a track from his second album, Has Been.
My knee-jerk reaction on hearing Shatner do Pulp was WTF. This was followed by things like Clever – Novelty – High Camp – Seriously – You’re Kidding Me… These feelings revolved until the song ended and I was back at WTF!
I’d always liked the song but, until that moment, hadn’t paid much attention to the lyrics. To me it was a really good Britpop song, catchy tune, non-invasive and the gist of the story was clear enough and didn’t need analysis. William Shatner, however, brings the lyrics to the fore with an impressively theatrical delivery that turns the song into powerful prose. It could all be just too much, but setting parts of it against Joe Jackson who takes on Jarvis Branson’s original vocals, relieves the tension enough to make it listenable through the 4:42 minutes.
I was surprised at Joe Jackson’s involvement but found this on good old Wikipedia: “It came through Ben Folds (producer and co-writer), who’s a big fan of mine. You’d have to ask him how he got hooked up with Bill Shatner, I don’t remember. But I think he did a really great job of putting an album behind Shatner that is fun and not completely cheesy, though when it is too cheesy, it’s deliberately so. (laughs) It’s just a very musically satisfying record, and when he asked me to be a part of it, why would I not? How could I refuse? I went to Nashville for a few days and hung out with the two of them, and we created a couple of masterpieces. He added, “He’s wonderful, very musical, and very funny because he’s so obviously in on the joke”.
Decide for yourself, here’s Common People.
William Shatner’s first album, The Transformed Man, was released in 1968 and has been described as an utterly perplexing experience. He had always wanted to do something with the spoken word and music, something many actors have done in the past, but Shatner took it to a whole new level.
Greg Prato of music AllMusic said in his review that “it’s unclear if Shatner is merely having a good time and goofing around, or if he’s embarrassingly dead serious, and creating an overly indulgent work. Most of the album turns out to be a bit too tedious…” It also holds accolades for:
#45 Worst Album Ever – Q Magazine
#3 Worst Album Ever Made- All-Time Top 1000 Albums
#11 Worst Album of All Time – Riot Act Podcast
#1 Top 10 Musical Oddities – Alternative Nation
The track-list is confusing in itself. Shakespeare’s speech from Henry V would inspire any army to battle, while Romeo & Juliet takes the Bard to Disneyland with a syrupy kiddy-toned feel. Very odd. These are interspersed with a beat-poet narration of Dylan’s Tambourine Man, the cheesiest version of ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ ever, and our second choice for today, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’.
As for the orchestration I cannot improve on this snippet from an uncredited clip I found: ‘The music in the meantime usually adapts to the vocals… one moment, your speakers will be terrorized by militaristic salvos and grotesque crescendos, the next (“Elegy for the Brave”) it transforms into a kind of slick campy lounge that could be used for a French soft-porn flick. Nothing is held back: harps, bassoons, sudden trumpet interruptions, ringing sleigh bells, flutes, tension-creating percussion – it all serves to create an effect that’s as artificial as Shatner’s art.’
I think you’ll understand what they are talking about after this…
Remarkably William Shatner has released twelve spoken word albums during the course of his career, proving that there is a definite market for his brand of OTT narration.
The calibre of musicians who feature on his various albums is astounding. On 2011’s Seeking Major Tom we find Peter Frampton, Brian May, Steve Howe (YES), Richie Blackmore, Alan Parsons… the list is impressive as it is long. Or how about 2013’s Ponder the Mystery on which you can hear Al Di Meola, Steve Vai, Rick Wakeman, George Duke, Edgar Winter and Mick Jones. I can’t help but wonder what the attraction is for these top names to align themselves to a project so obviously open to ridicule.
Shatner isn’t the only Star Trek cast member to have recorded albums. Leonard Nimoy (good old Spock) released five Folk albums over the years, which although not quite as flamboyant as Captain Kirk’s, has never-the-less been categorised as a high-camp novelty. In 1996 MCA Records released a compilation of Shatner and Nimoy’s collected music catalogue under the title Spaced Out – The Very Best of William Shatner & Leonard Nimoy. A must-have for true fans!
Shatner’s latest release (2020) is titled ‘The Blues’, and as it suggests, is a collection of mainly Blues chestnuts from the greats that are narrated in his inimitable (and after a short while, irritating) style. Here you’ll find guitarists Kirk Fletcher, Brad Paisley, Sonny Landreth, Ritchie Blackmore, Ronnie Earl, Pat Travers and Harvey Mandel along with Canned Heat, who all sit in on one cut each. Also featured are Steve Cropper, James Burton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Arthur Adams, Tyler Baxter and Albert Lee. They’re flushed out with an uncredited roster of session musicians.
As BluesBlastMagazine.com said in their review ”The music quality on The Blues is exceptional throughout – as you’d expect after a quick glance at the roster, and Shatner fans probably will love this one to the moon and back. If you’re a true blues lover, however, you’ll probably feel more like I do: Sorry, Bill, but the thrill is gone, I can quit you, baby. I feel like I’ve been born under a bad sign, made worse because listening to this felt like the years were passing me by. I’m already in hell. Beam me up, Scotty! I’m done!”
I’m leaving you with a torturously strange rendition of one of my favourite Canned Heat songs, ‘Let’s Work Together’.
I hope this trip into the unusual, and maybe the never-should-have-been, has been fun and that the pending week is a wonderful one for all. I think we all need it.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that does more than just share a song.
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Words © Andrew Knapp 2021