William Shatner's first foray into music was 1968's The Transformed Man, a novelty of Shakespeare and Cyrano de Bergerac passages paired with a couple of pop tunes, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” They were unintentionally funny thanks to Shatner's famous spoken-word delivery.
By the aughts, after becoming Priceline.com's pitchman, Shatner was finally in on the joke and un-ironically hip among kids, leading to a collaboration with Ben Folds for 2004's Has Been, the actor's second record of mostly originals. Then there was the wonderfully bombastic version of Pulp's haughty “Common People,” which was a hit in Europe, if barely heard here.
Now, on his just-released third album Seeking Major Tom (Cleopatra Records), Shatner goes back to embracing his status as geek commander and gives Trekkies the gift of space- and sci-fi-themed covers, recorded with folks like Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, Peter Frampton, and Brad Paisley. He'll be signing the work today at Amoeba Music — and it's pretty wild.
Bowie's protagonist Major Tom weaves in and out of the two discs, but there's plenty of covers here for everyone, from '70s classic rock to '80s new wave.
Shatner's still shat-ing out those long….dramatic….pauses that are equal parts deadpan, urgent and smug, especially on Peter Schilling's “Major Tom (Coming Home)” with The Strokes' Nick Valensi, where almost every word is a sentence: Earth. Below us. Drifting. Falling. Floating. Weightless. And whenever he asks, “Are you suuure?” — as he does on “Common People” — he sounds like he's coming on to some Comi-Con slut.
Shatner's version of Elton John's “Rocket Man” with British guitarist Steve Hillage is not nearly as amusing as his live 1978 cover, back when you could still smoke on TV. When he belts out, “I'm gonna be hiiiigh as a kite,” he probably was. And though reworking “Space Oddity” with Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore is an obvious choice for the album, the song just sounds funnier coming from Bowie's Cockney accent. Same goes for including The Police's “Walking on the Moon” with Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals. It's more amusing coming from Sting's faux Jamaican accent.
If it's laughs you're looking for, listen to Bootsy Collins trippin' and ad libbing, “William Shatner here, riding on the mothership, just for the funk of it,” on Thomas Dolby's “She Blinded Me with Science.” The funkmaster sounds more Shatner than Shatner.
Oh, and there's this. In a recent NME.com interview, Shatner admitted that he'd not only never heard of “Bohemian Rhapsody” but wasn't all that familiar with Queen either. Hard to believe considering it's one of rock's biggest classics, and even parodied by non-humans. (How cute was The Muppets' viral hit two years ago?). Shatner is no match for Miss Piggy. But Freddie Mercury can at least have a good laugh up upstairs listening to Shatner try to pronounce “bismillah.”
Things get a little heavy on the second disc with a cover of Pink Floyd's “Learning to Fly” and reading of Kurt Weill's “Lost in the Stars.” This also applies to Crow's super long and syrupy solo take on Canadian producer K.I.A.'s obscure “Mrs. Major Tom.”
But Shatner soon goes back to being creepy and fun, channeling Ozzy Osbourne on Black Sabbath's “Iron Man.” At 80, the captain doesn't sound as Satanic and menacing as The Prince of Darkness. But it's a metal classic that sounds metal-er thanks to Ozzy ax men Wylde and Mike Inez. At least no animals were harmed in the making of it.
William Shatner signs Seeking Major Tom at 6 p.m. at Amoeba Music today, Oct. 14.