Tuesday, 30 April 2013

To Boldly Go: The Curious Musical Career of William Shatner

1968: “The times they are a-changin’” (if they haven’t in fact changed already); the world of popular music is certainly in flux. A transformation – from pop to rock, from single to album, from entertainment to art, from the frivolous and disposable to the deadly serious – is well underway. The White Album by the Beatles; Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones; Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; Astral Weeks by Van Morrison; Scott 2 by Scott Walker. All released in 1968, all frequently, and rightly, cited as testament to seismic changes in the western cultural – let alone the musical – landscape, and now part of the canon, featuring in countless ‘best of’ lists. Less well-documented (and certainly less celebrated) is a debut LP from that same epochal year, aptly titled The Transformed Man, by one William Shatner.

His journey from jobbing actor to international recognition as Captain Kirk is a transformation in itself, before even considering his irregular detours into literature (though the University of Leeds SF collection is curiously lacking in his written works – namely the Tek War series, once referenced in an episode of Father Ted) and especially his alternative career as a recording artist.

Capitalising on the Kirk connection, he shamelessly appeared in full Star Trek regalia on the sleeve of The Transformed Man – but the contents are not the cosmic journey into alien worlds and parallel universes that the casual record-buyer may have been deceived into imagining lay within. It is something very different that awaits the listener… strange and yet familiar. The album stands as Shatner’s attempt to capture the heady, experimental spirit of the times, before the decade went into meltdown; though ostensibly a spoken-word album, his unique delivery defied such narrow categorisation. In a nod to his roots in theatre, he included Shakespearean soliloquy (‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’) alongside re-workings of contemporary hits (‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’), all set to an easy listening backdrop. If questions had been raised about the wooden qualities of Shatner’s acting, this album, regarded by most as a novelty cash-in at the peak of Star Trek’s popularity, was savaged by reviewers: describing his “reading of Hamlet as a hammy doped-up cabaret turn” was unkind, and “his Romeo sounds like a child molester” possibly libellous, but “the worst record in the history of music” was surely excessive.

A re-interpretation of the re-interpretation of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’

After such brutal treatment, he retreated from music to concentrate on other projects, only surfacing during the 1970s for such occasions as this rendition of ‘Rocket Man’ at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards. Though some of these live performances were captured for dubious posterity, he remained silent over the following decades; during this exile Leeds-based band the Wedding Present paid tribute (of sorts) with 1987’s ‘Shatner’, whilst the man himself spent long years in the musical wilderness. Therefore his eventual return to the recording studio in 2005, with Has Been, was as unexpected as it was startling. Other than an opening deconstruction of Pulp’s ‘Common People’, it contained original Shatner compositions, the title track in particular reading as a cutting riposte to his critics. In collaboration with credible artists such as Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, and Henry Rollins, Has Been showcased Shatner’s remarkable ability to re-invent himself. This success was consolidated by his next album, Seeking Major Tom, his most recent to date, a return to cover versions, science fiction and space themes, with his strange career – in many respects a uniquely (post-)modern one – having come full circle.

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