Friday, October 28, 2011

William Shatner: The Transformed Man and Has Been

There are several theories as to how it happened, but whatever the real story, William Shatner did indeed record an album at the height of Star Trek’s original prime-time run. Unlike other TV stars, he didn’t attempt to sing on the album, instead using his theater-trained voice to recite words over a not-so-hip backing. (By contrast, Leonard Nimoy put out five albums in the late ‘60s, and sang on each one of them.)
Shatner intended The Transformed Man to explain a journey of sorts, illustrated by juxtapositions of poetry and Shakespeare soliloquys with modern pop lyrics. The theater pieces are pompous enough, but he sounds a little drunk on “It Was A Very Good Year” and “How Insensitive”, and downright crazed on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (still the greatest-ever version of that song, if only for the final three seconds).
The album wasn’t a hit in the slightest, but gained notoriety over the years as an example of what ego and possible proximity to hallucinogenics can achieve. Once Rhino Records included a couple of tracks on their first Golden Throats album of actors singing badly, it was plucked from obscurity, much to its creator’s chagrin.
So is it really a bad album? That’s a matter of opinion. We feel that it belongs in the “so bad it’s good” category, and used to enjoy playing it on late nights at the CD store to see what customers would stay and who would leave. (The same experiment was performed using Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Frank Zappa.)

Once Bill decided to embrace his camp status, he started making the rounds of snarky comedy shows working his monologue magic, and used his status as the Priceline spokesman to do a series of ads in a faux-coffeehouse setting with Ben Folds in the band behind him. When he was approached by a Rhino offshoot to do another album, Shatner turned the tables by not only agreeing, but embracing the chance to make a sequel of sorts.
Has Been once again features the man on the microphone, but speaking mostly his own words. Ben Folds produced the album, wrote the music, and fostered the other selections—like the opening track, a hilarious cover of Pulp’s “Common People” that turns into a duet with Joe Jackson halfway through. Brad Paisley stopped writing songs about fishing long enough to contribute “Real”, a profound meditation on public image. And novelist Nick Hornby provided the lyric for the melancholy “That’s Me Trying”, one side of a conversation with an estranged daughter with choruses filled out by Folds and Aimee Mann.
In fact, most of Shatner’s lyrics reflect his thoughts about aging and his own fame, particularly on “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, “You’ll Have Time” and the goofy title track. A trio of songs about romance follow the harrowing “What Have You Done?”, wherein he recounts discovering his wife’s drowned corpse in their swimming pool. “I Can’t Get Behind That”, a rant shouted with Henry Rollins, provides excellent comic relief.
Half of Has Been is great, and the rest not so, but where else can you hear Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Henry Rollins and Bill Shatner in the same place? Best of all, it gives the man a chance to rise above the caricatures and actually move the listener.

William Shatner The Transformed Man (1968)—3
William Shatner Has Been (2004)—3


  1. I just want to comment that you seem to have a discography gap in your Ben Folds and William Shatner review

    There's this Fear Of Pop album which by the way is just a Ben Folds solo album under a pseudonym as it is completely different style. Essentially Ben Folds written a groove based mostly instrumental album

    However the most noticeable song on the album is a song called In Love which is a duet between William Shatner and Ben Folds and this was the first song they done together. Apparently Ben Folds loved Transformed Man when he was a kid and he actually written a song for William Shatner as a teenager even before he ever made it as an artist. So this song was a result of him fulfilling his "dream" of getting Shatner to sing his song. Although apparently Ben Folds re-written the lyrics as he thought they were stupid as he written those lyrics when he was a teenager over a decade ago.

    Anyway In love is a pretty funny song about Shatner being an arsehole seducer who pretends to be a sensitive new age guy to get in bed with woman. I think this is William Shatner best song as it funny and also Ben Folds sings a great backing vocal melodies over the song.

    THey enjoyed the collaboration so much that this eventually led to William Shatner Has Been

    Anyway I feel that you probably need to review that album as it's an important link and background before this album

    Anyway good review although I actually quite like Has Been. he is the only spoken word/rapper artist I can tolerate. I sometimes troll a bit and say that Shatner is the greatest rapper. I think what makes this album work and solve my skepticism towards spoken word music in general is that they manage to solve the issue that plague that genre of music (according to my personal taste). Lack of interesting music and overly focus on lyrics and lack of melodies.

    For one thing, Shatner is completely adequate as he recognised he is not a singer and he doesn't play any instruments. So he gets people who can play music and sing (this is in contrast of other spoken word people who simply just program a basic beat and talk on top of that). Ben Fold is a good composer and manage to create interesting music.

    In regards to melodies. Well they solve this by either a) backing vocals to sing to support Shatner speech or b) have a proper singer singing the chorus or c) have an instrument such as a piano playing a melody in a chorus (this hasn't happen yet)

    So yeah, a spoken word album that's actually listenable. Contrast this to his recent album Seeking Major Tom which was a disaster in my mind because he simply did covers of popular songs but replacing vocals with Shatner Speech. Shatner really needs someone to compose or arrange song taking in consideration that this is a spoken word song instead of a straight cover or the result is just something that can only be appreciated for the kitsch.

    In any case I like every song in Has Been and I don't think the 2nd half is weak at all but I still would only give it a 3/5 as well (is that the equivalent of a 10/15 or a hexadecimal 8, I have no idea how normal scales work anymore)

    1. This is the In Love song I mention. The first Shatner/Fold collaboration

      Here is a live version of the song (not as good as the studio as I don't believe the female backing vocals work) for curiousity sakes

  2. Thanks for the comment, and the info. I've heard "In Love" way more than I've heard Fear Of Pop, which mystified me the week it came out. I will likely not be reviewing it for the blog, mostly because I don't own it and don't plan to.

    As for my rating scale, it's 1 to 5 -- you can apply multiplication to the rating if it helps.

    I appreciate the time and attention! I've got plenty more reviews in the pipeline, so I hope you'll check back.