WILLIAM SHATNER – Seeking Major Tom (2011 Cleopatra)
Why? Why do I keep doing this to myself? I spend hard-earned money on something I knew would be shit. I knew it! Didn’t I?
The hype was palpable in the air. Two of my favourite worlds collided — heavy metal and Star Trek. Captain James T. fucking Kirk, doing sci-fi rock classics, with luminaries of the art such as Ritchie fucking Blackmore, Zakk fucking Wylde, Dave fucking Davies and many, many more. It’s almost as if it was a compulsory purchase.
I…wished I had…resisted. (notice the Shatner-like pauses?)
You know how many times I have listened to Seeking Major Tom? Once.
Let’s go in for round two. Let’s see what happens.
Did I mention this is a double album? This is a double album. The original versions of a lot of these songs are deeply ingrained in our hearts and memories. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Learning to Fly”, “Iron Man”. I have a lot of feelings invested into these songs, and deep respect for every musician playing on the album. There is even a mini Ozzy Osbourne band reunion on Iron Man, as Zakk Wylde and Mike Inez reteam once again.
Shatner first teams up with Nick Lalensi of the Strokes for “Major Tom (Coming Home)”, and musically it’s perfect, and very Strokes-like…Bill’s vocals take some getting used to. Not bad though! He’s not attempting to sing, it’s a spoken word performance. It’s performing the lyrics as if it was poetry. For “Major Tom”, it actually works kinda brilliantly. The original “Space Oddity” is next, and this one features one Ritchie Blackmore and his lovely wife, Candice Night. Candice adds melody enough with her backing vocals, and Bill makes his style work on the song. Blackmore is the real star here, and it is too bad his electric guitar is low in the mix. He takes a solo where there would normally be saxophone.
I’m actually surprised by how listenable this is! Bill manages to evoke emotion with his monotone, which is remarkable to me.
I’m not familiar with the U2 song “In a Little While” at all. The space connection here is that astronaut Frank De Winne once read the lyrics live from the International Space Station, beaming his vocals to a U2 concert, recorded for the DVD U2360° at the Rose Bowl. Bill is joined by an unlikely guest, Lyle Lovett, but once again I am surprised by how well this works. Lyle’s still got it, I’ll tell you that much! This segues into a reprise of “Space Oddity”, and then the Steve Miller favourite “Space Cowboy”. Brad Paisley and Steve Miller himself (he still plays brilliantly) join Bill on this one, which…well, it crashes and burns in the atmosphere. Bill takes on the persona of a drunken cowboy (?) and it’s just a bit too weird.
“Space Oddity” returns once again, but this time, we’re going “Space Trucking” with Ian Paice and Johnny Winter…acoustically. “Come on! Come on, let’s go Space Truckin’!” invites Bill, coming across more as a creepy old guy than the kind of person who drives a space truck you’d feel comfortable jumping into. Just wait until he screams, “Yeah, yeah yeah yeah!” No, no, no, no. “Rocket Man” (Elton John), featuring progressive rock veteran Steve Hillage, works much better. Hillage creates sounds similar to the “space whale” call from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Bill’s interpretations of old classics work better when he’s not hamming it up. Much like his acting. And ham it up is exactly (predictably) what he did with “She Blinded Me With Science”, featuring Bootsy Collins. Since the original is so goofy, this works plenty well. Reggae veteran Toots Hibbert lends some credibility to the Police classic, “Walking on the Moon”. This is pretty good too! The ever-excellent Peter Frampton drops by for “Spirit in the Sky”, a song I usually find irresistible due to the vocal melody. Unfortunately that melody has been gutted, and without it, there’s not much left in terms of a song.
The first (and last) time I listened to this album, I remember being repulsed by “Bohemian Rhapsody”. You can picture it, can’t you? It’s terrible. “I’m just a poor boy,” whimpers Bill, and it’s awful. “Mama,” he cries, and I’m crying too.
Thankfully, Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” (with Wayne Kramer and Carmine Appice) is a lot better than that. It actually rocks pretty heavy, and Bill finds the right tone for his vocals, no problem. This is noisy goodness and quite possibly the best track on the disc. A segue back into “Major Tom (Coming Home)” leads into a Sheryl Crow original called “Mrs. Major Tom”. This is a very nice piano based ballad, showcasing Sheryl’s powerful pipes. It’s a sequel of sorts to “Coming Home”, about what happens if he doesn’t come home. Bill doesn’t even appear on this one, strangely enough! It closes the first disc on a somber but very classy note.
I don’t know where Bill heard The Tea Party, but that’s who he’s covering on “Empty Glass”, featuring Michael Schenker. This track was from The Tea Party’s final album before breakup, Seven Circles, which I own but can’t remember at all. I should revisit it soon, because “Empty Glass” (which references Major Tom, a Starman, ground control, and Diamond Dogs) is damn good and heavy. “Lost in the Stars” is from the 1949 musical of the same time. The dusky, sparse piano accompanies Bill’s deep speaking voice perfectly. Still mellow but in tune with the Pink Floyd original is “Learning to Fly”. The only thing wrong with this version is that there is nobody who sounds like David Gilmour, and his guitar hook is such an important part of the original classic. Bill sounds perfectly at home, and the musical background is sturdy enough.
The Kinks’ Dave Davies helps Shatner out on guitar, for the Byrds’ “Mr. Spaceman”. It has that campy feel that doesn’t particularly work well. It’s amusing, but a novelty. “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring (known for that chorus of “When the bullet hits the bone), rocks. Warren Haynes from the Allman’s kicks every ass in the room on his extended guitar solo. There is then a Shatner original called “Struggle”, written with his producer Adam Hamilton (ex L.A. Guns). This soft dramatic piece seems vaguely familiar, like a U2 outtake, and is very good in fact.
Winding things down, Sabbath’s “Iron Man” featuring Ozzy’s old band members Zakk Wylde and Mike Inez is an easy one to screw up, and Shatner does so gloriously. He sounds appropriately Dalek-like on the opening line, “I am Iron Man!” but he attempts to sing the song. I repeat: he attempts to sing the song “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. This goes about as well as you would expect. Zakk backing him on lead vocals only creates an irritating cacophony. The album ends on a very different note: “Planet Earth” by Duran Duran. Not having any particular attachment to the original, I quite liked this one. Hamilton plays some killer disco bass on it. It sounds like “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”.
Going into this for the second time, I fully expected the album to suck again. The truth is, it doesn’t. It sure didn’t click with me the first time, but it is truly not a bad album. Metallica made a double album with vocals like this once; I think it was called Lulu. From this two disc set, you could extract one good solid CD of enjoyable William Shatner interpretations. So, given that: