William Shatner has quite the reputation for hamming up the Captain of the Starship Enterprise, and almost equal to this level of fame is his affection for destroying songs that many people love. His penchant for covering songs in enigmatic and bizarre ways has left 1968’s The Transformed Man sitting in the back of cupboards, possibly returning to a turntable for amusement purposes only.
So in 2004 he boldly returned to the recording studio to create Has Been. In 1968 he, of course, very much ‘was’, so it looks like there might be some self-deprecation coming up, and here comes the first surprise; this album has some impressive musicians joining in – mainly Ben Folds, who creates original music for Shatner’s own poetry and takes on the production. Right from the off comes Pulp’s Common People. Not only that, but Joe Jackson is joining in with vocals and guitars. This is useful because the Shat doesn’t actually sing as such, so the heavy lifting for the tunage is done with great aggression by Jackson and, goodness me, what’s going on? This cover is bloody good. Featuring pulsing punk guitars cascading into energetic crescendos that sound truly authentic, and including a chorus of voices joining at the end to build up to a crashing, breathless crescendo. It’s full on!
What this track achieves, initially, is to hold you back from the ‘off’ switch. If that happened you’d wonder, “Was this track a fluke of some sort? Let’s give this some more airtime…” The energy drops to a dramatic change of pace with Folds playing arpeggiating piano vamping behind a softly spoken lyrical poem on It Hasn’t Happened Yet. A kind of reflection on being crazy-famous with all that it brings, yet being ultimately unfulfilled. It’s a nice song, so that’s two good tracks already…
A change of tone comes for You’ll Have Time a cod-comedy gospel song straight outta Harlem, continuously professing that whether you like it or not, you’re gonna die. Nothing makes you smile as much as the choir spelling out ‘Y’, ‘O’, ‘U’, ‘Apostrophe’, ‘R’, ‘G’, ‘O’, ‘Double N’, ‘A’, ‘D’, ‘I’,’E’, followed by a closing list of things you’re probably going to die of. It’s richly and very darkly hilarious. Three excellent tracks in, I think I’m on board…
That’s Me Trying is a spoken prose poem with Aimee Mann and Ben Folds handling the singing duties in a touching song that apparently has Shatner apologising to his children for being a defensive absent father. It turns out this is a collaboration with the writer Nick Hornby, and the quality of the storytelling really shows. This is followed by a track that is a genuinely raw, harrowing poem about the true story of Mr S coming home to find his wife drowned in their swimming pool. It’s a tough listen and hard to imagine how difficult it would have been to record. It really does bring a lump to the throat.
A drone takes over for Together, a romantic tune that takes its time to drop into a compulsive drum pattern over a delightfully pretty acoustic guitar and pipe lead melody – it’s an irresistible groove from Lemon Jelly and it’s superb, a standout track. Next up is Familiar Love – and a delivery of ultra cheese – sounding like something that The Osmonds might have used as filler in one of their TV shows. It’s well done but I’m skipping this one next time around.
Ideal Woman sees more humour from the Shatster, clean grungy guitars grunt with cool Hammond solos backing up what is effectively a one joke track – but it’s very short and another skipper. At last we come to the titular track Has Been, derived from a mariachi accompanied hokey western tune defending his own honour as a character who was once a huge star. It’s funny and actually very good. This is followed by a fast, stark drum-based rocker, I Can’t Get Behind That, featuring The Old Bill having a barely controlled rant, competing with a similarly apoplectic Henry Rollins, sharing a first-world problems breakdown, while Adrian Belew skitters his guitar with the lead drum. It’s excellent.
We end with a country ballad, Real, written by and featuring Brad Paisley, where Shatner makes the straight point that he’s just as ordinary as everyone else. I’ll admit I’m not keen on country music, but this is a great song, very engaging and Paisley’s guitar solo is drop-dead gorgeous.
So there you have it. I approached this album fully expecting to be mildly entertained, but by the end of it, I was totally won over. It’s a wild ride of styles and ideas, but in the extremely capable hands of Ben Folds, the final product is 40-minutes or so of very engaging, varied, entertaining and beautifully produced music.
The sad truth is that you’re now going to have to make a whole bunch of excuses to everyone else as to why you’re listening to this without any irony whatsoever.
01. Common People (4:40)
02 It Hasn’t Happened Yet (3:49)
03 You’ll Have Time (5:18)
04 That’s Me Trying (3:48)
05 What Have You Done (1:46)
06 Together (5:39)
07 Familiar Love (4:00)
08 Ideal Woman (2:23)
09 Has Been (2:18)
10 I Can’t Get Behind That (3:00)
11. Real (3:08)
William Shatner – Vocals
Ben Folds – Keyboards
Joe Jackson – Guitar, Vocals
Aimee Mann – Vocals
Lemon Jelly – Beats
Henry Rollins – Vocals
Adrian Belew – Guitar
Brad Paisley – Vocals, Guitar
Record Label: Shout Factory
Country of Origin: Canada
Date of Release: 5th October 2004