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Classic Rock or Lost in Space?
on 2 December 2011
There's an argument that, with Seeking Major Tom, William Shatner has finally done the album he always should have.
But there's perhaps an even bigger argument for a galaxy-wide restraining order that prohibits Mr Shatner from being within a light year of any recording studio, especially after his first release some 43 years ago.
The Transformed Man, released in 1968, is infamous for the Starship Captain's cover of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.'
His interpretation of that classic track is generally regarded as not only the worst ever cover of a Beatles tune, but a contender for worst ever cover, period.
In 2004 he fared a lot better with Has Been (based around Shatner's prose-poems) and his cover of Pulp's 'Common People' garnered some critical acclaim.
But that, you would think, would be that for William Shatner's musical career.
With Seeking Major Tom, the now 80 year old Captain Kirk stars in a space-themed conceptual work featuring many classic or truly iconic pop, rock or heavy rock songs, featuring some true greats of the rock world including Steve Howe, John Wetton, Michael Schenker, Warren Haynes and Patrick Moraz, to name but five.
And, for the most part, it works extremely well (there goes the rock-street cred).
Shatner, for the most part, is playing the part of Major Tom (the famous character from David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and later references) as he drifts through the star-fields and blackness of space on a journey of narration and music.
The album opens with `Major Tom' (originally written and performed by Peter Schilling) and is the perfect musical prologue to the album and segues (via some "Houston Mission Control" dialogue) into `Space Oddity.'
Shatner definitely puts his own vocal stamp on the Bowie song (which features lead guitar from Ritchie Blackmore), but therein lies the problem...
Great music and great musicians' aside, this is still a narrative driven concept.
For every listener who can appreciate or at least accept the style, another will see that "stamp on the Bowie song" as stamping all over a classic.
Similarly, Shatner's take on `Bohemian Rhapsody' will have the Queen aficionado's running to put their phasers-on-kill.
Yet I find the hard-to-listen-to songs are in the minority because overall song choice, quality of musicianship and the quirky spaced-out themes mean the tracks that work are very listenable. And some of them are actually very good.
Personal favourites are `Space Cowboy' (featuring country rock singer Brad Paisley), `Spirit in the Sky' (with some tasty six-string touches courtesy of Peter Frampton) and `Space Truckin' (featuring guest musicians Ian Paice and Johnny Winter).
Other notable tunes making an appearance and getting the Shatner touch include `Rocket Man,' `Walking on the Moon,' `Silver Machine,' and `Iron Man.'
Shatner actually sings - well, to a degree - on the Black Sabbath classic (with vocal backing and guitar work from Zakk Wylde) and his rough delivery suits the song.
'Planet Earth' closes out the album and the Duran Duran song works well as a finale, acting as an ending where Major Tom has perhaps found his way home.
But it's not all modern pop or heavy rock. `Lost in the Stars' by Kurt Weill (covered by Frank Sinatra amongst others) features Shatner at his most serious and comes complete with saxophone accompaniment by legendary jazz musician Ernie Watts.
So much for the travels of Major Tom, what about the missus?
That's covered here too, on the only song not to feature Shatner...
Sheryl Crow takes the role of the worried wife on `Mrs. Major Tom,' a song done originally by electronic music artist K.I.A (writer and producer Kirby Ian Andersen).
Here it works as an interlude or closing statement to what is, in effect, the end of Side One (or CD1) of the album.
It's a lovely little song and Crow delivers a beautifully sincere vocal.
As much as I have warmed to Seeking Major Tom, it is too long at 20 songs and 90 minutes (some of the numbers have been revisited to enhance the drifting in space theme).
And although I like and enjoy many of the songs, there are some I won't be revisiting. Top of that list is 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' which sounds like Shatner took his inspiration from The Muppets version. Which is fine. If you're The Muppets.
Some will find Seeking Major Tom amusing or quirky.
Others will like it while many will absolutely loathe it.
But one thing's for sure - it is a unique set of covers.
Because the undeniable fact is when Bill Shatner walks into a music studio and the microphone is turned on, he doesn't sound like any old Major Tom, Dick or Harry.