William Shatner is best known for his portrayal of Captain James T Kirk in the original Star Trek series and several subsequent films. He is not known for his musical leanings, nor for his singing ability. This 1968 album may help to explain why.
The Basic Concept
At the time Shatner liked to think of himself as a serious actor1. He had harboured a desire to put Shakespeare to music, an odd desire since many believe that Shakespeare's works stand up quite well without accompaniment, but Shatner wanted to try it nonetheless. While filming Star Trek he met Cliff Ralke, who was interested in the idea. He introduced Shatner to his father, Don Ralke, who would produce the album, compose any music necessary, and arrange any that wasn't. In addition to Shakespeare, Shatner had also developed an interest in the poetry of Frank Devenport, and so they drew him into the project and set his words to music as well. And then, for reasons best known to themselves, they decided to include some actual songs.
- 'King Henry The Fifth' (Music by Don Ralke)
- 'Elegy For The Brave' (Words and music by Frank Devenport)
- 'Theme from Cyrano' (Translation by Frank Devenport)
- 'Mr Tambourine Man'
- 'Hamlet' (Music by Don Ralke)
- 'It Was A Very Good Year'
- 'Romeo and Juliet' (Music by Don Ralke)
- 'How Insensitive'
- 'Spleen' (Translation by Frank Devenport)
- 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'
- 'The Transformed Man' (Music by Don Ralke, Words by Frank Devenport)
The High Concept
At the heart of the album is a concept that reads, regrettably, like overblown pretentious nonsense. The tracks are arranged in pairs, in order to show the contradictions inherent in the human condition. To quote from the cover notes:
In 'King Henry The Fifth' the intense speech inciting the soldiers to battle is constrasted with the quiet and poignant aftermath of war in 'Elegy For The Brave'. The other parts follow a similar design.
Tracks 3 and 4: Confident self-assurance - total psychopathic subservience
Tracks 5 and 6: a desire for death - the joy of living
Tracks 7 and 8: fresh young love - insensitivity
Tracks 9 and 10: utter dejection - super elation
Transformed Man (Track 11) stands alone because of its contrasting three-movement form: earthly unreality - transitional awareness - contract with divinity
The problem is that Shatner simply cannot sing. Thankfully, on this album he doesn't even try to. He just reads the words, in his own very distinctive fashion, with some attempt at displaying emotion. Where something approaching holding a tune is needed, a few backing singers suddenly turn up, so that Shatner need not stretch himself. The music, for the most part, sounds like it belongs on an easy listening album somewhere. Shatner, on the other hand, is definitely uneasy listening. His guttural scream at the end of Mr Tambourine Man would be quite disturbing, if the listener weren't already induced into gales of laughter at the whole tragic mess.
The album may well be the most unintentionally hilarious recording ever made. It is worth listening to, if only for Shatner's 'reading' of 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' - it must be heard to be believed. But should you buy it? That rather depends on how much of a glutton for punishment you are. If you really feel that you must, then it can found in music shops, though it's usually tucked away between Star Trek soundtrack albums, in order to hide it from the unwary.
Despite Shatner's dismal failure to be taken seriously in his efforts with this album, it hasn't stopped him from trying again.