Shatner: I said to Ben ”What are we gonna do?” He said, ”Tell the truth"
August 6, 2018 9:28 PM   Subscribe

William Shatner’s ‘Has Been’: The Album That Broke Indie Rock for Good -- Dan Ozzi puts Shatner's first album since the 1970s* in context, in "a powerhouse [year] for indie rock" and the last year physical album sales trended up** in any serious way, then evaluates the album itself. "Has Been (YT Playlist; Wiki) is such an odd record—even the premise seems absurd: a then 73-year-old self-admitted past-his-prime C-list celebrity doing his. Trademark. Style of. Shattneresque break-talking. Over a. Pensive and… artful soundtrack? Composed. By. Respected musician... Ben Folds? ... [Pitchfork] praised Shatner as “the ultimate icon for Generation Irony” and noted that the album’s “humor and candor give it a fair amount of staying power.” "
It all amounts to a run-of-the-mill novelty album on paper, but Has Been was somehow taken seriously as a work upon its release, hitting number 22 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. Even Pitchfork heaped a 7.5 rating on it, a higher grade than they gave to Wilco (6.6), The Libertines (7.1), and Rilo Kiley’s (6.7) releases that year.
Looking back now, it all seems ridiculous, but somehow felt normal at the time. It’s like when you have a dream about hanging out with Jimi Hendrix. It makes absolutely no sense come morning, but in the infinite realm of your slumbering dreamworld, it’s totally logical that you’d be chatting it up with a famous rock star who’s been dead for 40 years. So yeah, at the time, of course an aging TV space man would release a serious and reflective album worthy of legitimate critical examination and we as consumers would pay real actual money for it. Obviously. Nothing weird about that!
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing for AllMusic, provided different context, focused on Shatner himself: in 2004, he is a revived actor who plays to his strengths and perception as something of a ham; Ben Folds is in on the joke, and plays along perfectly. In Stephen's own, more detailed words:
By the late '90s, Shatner's status as a serious actor had long since faded, and he was best known as a caricature of Captain Kirk -- not really for the work he did on Star Trek, but how it was parodied, and the songs from The Transformed Man [YT playlist] fed into that image, leading to a lucrative role as a spokesman. In those ads, he revived his musical career, but there was a difference this time around: he was in on the joke. Around the same time, Ben Folds enlisted Shatner for a guest vocal on his 1998 Fear of Pop [YT pl] project, beginning a friendship that later blossomed into a full-fledged collaboration on Has Been, Shatner's long-awaited return to recording. Arriving in the fall of 2004, Has Been was released at the height of a Shatner resurgence that those late-'90s Priceline commercials kick started. He had another round of commercials for the company -- this time also starring his longtime comrade Leonard Nimoy -- and a co-starring role in the prime time series Boston Legal, which was a spin-off of the long-running TV drama The Practice, where he had won an Emmy for his guest spot as a sleazy lawyer. Things were breaking in Shatner's favor because he had embraced the overblown, cheerfully smug caricature, playing his persona instead of playing a character. Because of this, it was reasonable to expect that Has Been would be a cheerfully comic record, an album designed to be a comedy album, unlike The Transformed Man, whose humor was unintentional. That's not the album Has Been is. Sure, there's a good dose of humor throughout the record -- not only is Shatner hamming it up, but Ben Folds can never resist a joke -- but that's only one element on an album that's as weird and bewildering as The Transformed Man. In many ways, Has Been is its polar opposite -- there are no baroque arrangements or psychedelic effects, it's grounded in rock & roll and jazzy lounge instrumentals, its message clear, not deliberately cryptic. But the most shocking thing about the album is its sincerity. There's only one cover of a big pop tune, and it's Pulp's "Common People" [music video; previously] -- one of the great singles of the 1990s, but a standard only in Europe, and largely unknown in America. While it's played on Has Been with a knowing wink, the song itself is intended to be funny: in Jarvis Cocker's hands, the wit cut like a blade, while Shatner blusters his way through it, but the difference is in delivery -- Shatner knows what the words mean, and he delivers it with an actor's precision. It's funny, but it's sincere, right down to how Folds brings his idol Joe Jackson in to snarl the chorus, so the cover works as a piece of music, not just as a novelty.

That's the approach of Has Been in a nutshell, but the album gets far stranger very quickly as Shatner begins a series of spoken song-poems, all but two written by him and revealing his introspective musings on love, life, work, fear, disappointment, regret, and everyday mundane things that get on his nerves. Even the two songs not written by him -- "That's Me Trying," Nick Hornby's tale of a neglectful father ham-fistedly reaching out to his adult child, and Brad Paisley's peak behind the personal ballad "Real" -- feel autobiographical, feeding into the sentiment that this record functions as a kind of last testament, Shatner getting everything off of his chest while he still has a chance to do so.
Bonus facts and videos: inspired by an NPR interview with Shatner and an enthusiastic, young Tower Records employee, developed due to an orchestra strike (interview clip), Margo Sappington made a ballet from Shatner's version of "Common People" (preview clip), resulting in William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet (pro-shot video of ballet set to "Together," the track co-produced by Ben Folds and Lemon Jelly). The ballet lead to a documentary about the making of the album and the ballet (clip with Ben Folds & Henry Rollins plus the choreography) [previously].

Henry Rollins has an extended story about his experience with Ben Folds and William Shatner (continued) from his Shock & Awe tour DVD.

And here's Brad Paisley with, in his words, "the most amazing actor that has, basically, ever lived," William Shatner, performing "Real" together, live, with a preamble to the making of the song (shaky audience-shot video, good audio quality).

If you want to read along, here's Has Been lyrics and annotations from Genius. And here's Ben Folds and William Shatner talking about the album for Entertainment Weekly.

* Shatner has a few recordings to his name between his recording debut of The Transformed Man in 1968 and Has Been in 2004, but the 70s were mostly sci-fi focused works, and in the 1990s, he recorded Star Trek-related audio materials.

After Has Been, he made three more recordings: Exodus - An Oratorio (2007; Amazon preview), Seeking Major Tom (2011; YouTube preview tracks), and Ponder The Mystery (2013; music video for the title track).

** Ozzi's example of physical media trends focused on CD sales specifically, but I couldn't find a clean link to the history of CD sales, so I provided this link as a stand-in.
posted by filthy light thief (59 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Is this going to start a major Kirk Vs. Picard kerfluffle? If so, I need to find a well-reinforced hiding place with comfy cushions and chips-n-dip to ride out the storm.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:42 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]

"Ideal Woman" amuses me no end.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:44 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]

Is this going to start a major Kirk Vs. Picard kerfluffle?

Well it shouldn’t as the answer is always Sisko...
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:45 PM on August 6 [12 favorites]

Shatner is generally cancelled for being politically awful but I love that version of "Common People."
posted by Lyn Never at 9:48 PM on August 6 [27 favorites]

We played the Shatner "Common People" at our wedding. I unreservedly think it is better than the original.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:57 PM on August 6 [16 favorites]

I’m going for a hard derail. When I was a teen, my mom and I were at a bookstore. I bought A Swiftly Tilting Planet, which ended up being one of my favorite books. My mom bought my dad a book of Leonard Nimoy’s poetry. None of us, least of all my dad, could ever figure out why. He didn’t care for Leonard Nimoy or poetry. I think my mom just wanted someone who would have liked a book of love poems, and gave it a shot. But I’ll tell ya what. I’d rather read that poetry book today than listen to Shatner.
posted by greermahoney at 9:57 PM on August 6 [9 favorites]

I can't get behind that.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:17 PM on August 6 [22 favorites]

This album is inexorably linked with Tom Jones' Reload for me. They're not too similar, obviously, but they both have some banging covers which really hooked me despite being put out by guys I had though I was too young and cool for.
posted by ODiV at 10:35 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]

I agree, whole-heartedly.
I used to play that at goth/industrial clubs to break up the oontz and melancholy. It was always a hit.

Also, that chorus at the end.
posted by daq at 10:44 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]

The genius of this album is that among the humor and novelty it also finds space for "What Have You Done?" which is about a real tragedy he lived through and it's raw and vulnerable and rips your heart out.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:52 PM on August 6 [8 favorites]

"You'll Have Time" (track 3) has been one of my favorite carpe diem songs ever since I first heard it. It's genius.
posted by /\/\/\/ at 11:13 PM on August 6 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I was only vaguely aware of the Pulp version of Common People when it came out (there’s probably a master’s thesis to be written about why Pulp was so big in Europe and never really resonated that much in the states) but I first heard Shatner’s take and thought “What is this amazing record?”
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:20 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]

Wow, that album is in my iTunes Library. William Shatner's Has Been, right underneath William S. Burroughs' Spare Ass Annie.

Let's check out some of those statistics:

TRACK                   PLAYS  LAST PLAYED
Common People           7      2009-11-11
You'll Have a Time      10     2009-5-08
That's Me Trying        8      2010-6-17
I Can't Get Behind That 7      2010-7-13
Familiar Love           1      2006-5-20

Those tracks made it into light rotation for a while, but I guess I banished the album in 2010. Maybe I should give it another chance.

(All of the tracks from Spare Ass Annie have a play count of zero. I think that album has been on my to-do list for at least 20 years.)
posted by i_have_a_computer at 11:23 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]

More than once, William Shatner has performed Sarah Palin.
posted by eye of newt at 12:07 AM on August 7 [4 favorites]

Nick Hornby wrote "That's Me Trying" for this Shatner album - Ben Folds and Aimee Mann sing the chorus. For me, this was an incredible collection of beloved entertainers, coming together for four minutes.
posted by borborygmi at 1:47 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]

Loved it at the time, loved it when I played it again for the first time in a while last month.

It will be lost on North American listeners, I suppose, but the album also features a collaboration with Lemon Jelly, who were then at the height of their powers.

If you aren't shaken by "What Have You Done", you aren't listening properly.
posted by rory at 1:58 AM on August 7 [4 favorites]

Lemon Jelly continued the collaboration on 2005's '64-'95 with the final track of the album "Go" and a drawling Shatner walking the Earth in search of... something.
posted by Molesome at 2:23 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]

The Henry Rollins story is the best.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:04 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]

Love this album, played it for year but haven't heard it in a while. And I'm another who had never heard Common People until Shatner did it.
posted by octothorpe at 4:21 AM on August 7

I love this album and play it now and again. Sometimes, listening, I recall Shatner as the up-and-coming young actor that I saw performing The Andersonville Trial on TV (I think Richard Baseheart played Wirz.) After I first got the album, I made an effort to watch Incubus, starring Shatner and recorded totally in Esperanto. I never finished the movie. But, man! What a career this guy has had (so far). And, for what it's worth, every time I see him on TV, I smile. William Shatner makes me smile. Is that nothing to you?
posted by CCBC at 4:49 AM on August 7 [7 favorites]

Ah... post-ironic society has finally convinced itself that ironic society may have actually produced something good. This folks, is how you get Snoop Dog on a cooking show with a known felon. Also, how you get Fonzi on water skis - let alone the rest of the nonsense.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:25 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

We played the Shatner "Common People" at our wedding. I unreservedly think it is better than the original.

I agree. I got into an argument with a very polite Canadian while on a ghost walk in Chester, UK in support of the Shatner version. It was finally the guide's turn to stare incredulously at the strange tales coming out of someone else's mouth (they were Team Pulp and ended up siding with the Canadian).
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:26 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

CCBC, "The Andersonville Trial" was made in 1970, when Shatner was already a has-been, but he's quite good in it, as I recall.

"What Have You Done?" is amazing. I can't evaluate poetry, but wow.
posted by allthinky at 5:43 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

Pulp's "Different Class" was certainly the best album of come out of Britpop.
posted by Damienmce at 5:54 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]

I'm not the world's biggest Shatner fan--his recent tweets are pretty obnoxious, he's getting involved in some cryptocurrency mill in my state, and I've never even seen his work on Boston Legal because it's a David E. Kelley joint and I burned out on DEK back in the nineties when I couldn't even finish The Practice and Ally McBeal--but I respect the hell out of him for refusing to go gentle into that good night and becoming some flavor of dignified with the occasional cameo or con appearance. I think that Rollins is right, he has to have the energy of a 15-year-old.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:21 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

how dare you omit shatner's legendary performances for the mtv movie awards in 1992
posted by entropicamericana at 6:26 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

I like that album, without a hint of irony; there are some really good tracks...but no Shatner musical performance will ever come close to the hilarity and Shatner-ness of Rocketman (and subsequent Family Guy reference).
posted by furnace.heart at 6:39 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

CCBC: I recall Shatner as the up-and-coming young actor that I saw performing The Andersonville Trial on TV

allthinky: "The Andersonville Trial" was made in 1970, when Shatner was already a has-been

If you want to see pre-Star Trek Shatner as a charismatic youth, check out The Intruder - the link is still good, but the YT link in my post is dead, though it looks like there a few copies on YouTube (Duck Duck Go search).
posted by filthy light thief at 7:07 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

why Pulp was so big in Europe and never really resonated that much in the states

There are possibly dozens of bands in the same period alone like that. The Charlatans, Suede, Primal Scream had one track in 1992 and then gone.

I don't recall this album by Shatner, but I recall some song (I could barely listen to anything on this to find it - too cheesy) that started with him being a doting boyfriend and by the end laughing at leaving some lady. I could have sworn it came out in the late 1990s. It was not good per se, but kind of clever.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:14 AM on August 7

no Shatner musical performance will ever come close to the hilarity and Shatner-ness of Rocketman

Ben Folds didn't start the fire!
posted by thelonius at 7:45 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

Any Ben Folds album where Ben Folds just plays instead of singing automatically has something going for it.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:11 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

The Shatner Woo remix from his appearance on Conan O’Brien is far and away his musical high point.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:15 AM on August 7

My favorite early Shatner is the Man From UNCLE episode “The Strigas Affair.” He plays an exterminator recruited by Ilya and Napoleon to defeat Werner Klemperer and Leonard Nimoy(!!). It’s great.

This album is pretty good, “You’ll Have Time” and “I Can’t Get Behind That” are fun, and I’m also on team This Is The Definitive Version Of “Common People”
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:15 AM on August 7 [4 favorites]

I have to say that I truly and unironically love "Has Been". I'm a huge Ben Folds fan, and am generally ambivalent towards Shatner (though I was a fan of Denny Crane!) and Brad Paisley, but something magical just happened on that album.
posted by jferg at 8:21 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]

> There are possibly dozens of bands in the same period alone like that. The Charlatans, Suede, Primal Scream had one track in 1992 and then gone.

FWIW all of those bands are still together and putting out records, headlining festivals (or at least, playing a decent way up the bill) and doing perfectly well for themselves. Pulp are officially on hiatus, I think, but Jarvis has an active solo career.
posted by parm at 8:30 AM on August 7

Huh. The one Folds/Shatner collaboration I have in my collection is from 1998’s Fear of Pop: “In Love.”

It made it onto a running play list because I ran my whole mp3 library through an app that added metadata for beats-per-minute, but it’s sort of awful. Like someone did Markov chains with r/redpill and a $0.99 PUA Kindle book; and maybe Folds told Kirk that the best episode of Trek ever was “A Piece of the Action.”
posted by mph at 8:45 AM on August 7

You know, I'm a Shatner fan, having written an entire book about him. But the modern version of "never meet your heroes" is "never look at their twitter account." I am now blocked and pretty much done with him, merely for responding to some super-obnoxious tweets about Native Americans with "come on."
posted by maxsparber at 8:58 AM on August 7 [9 favorites]

This folks, is how you get Snoop Dog on a cooking show with a known felon.

Or how you get Martha Stewart on a cooking show with a known felon.

or was that the joke
posted by Guy Smiley at 9:06 AM on August 7

This is a great post! Thanks. I love that record and that time in music history. Had never heard of Fear of Pop, either.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:10 AM on August 7

Martha Stewart is the felon in the joke, although Snoop also has a rap sheet.
posted by maxsparber at 9:14 AM on August 7

The only Shatner I have is a CD I found in a thrift shop called Bozo and Pals - Get Down With the Clown. On it, Shatner intones the track What is a BOZO? The irony here is earth shattering. By the way, there is a Tony Danza track too called A Couple of Clowns Like Us. More irony.... It’s a 2003 release on the Music For Little People label.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:22 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

Huh. The one Folds/Shatner collaboration I have in my collection is from 1998’s Fear of Pop: “In Love.”

That's the one . So this 2004 album is basically album #2 of their collaboration. The lyrics are straight up terrible.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:54 AM on August 7

I strongly disliked the Shatner “Common People”, partly because at that time I felt I was too young for the things I loved as a teen to come back as camp. (I know—Pulp was always camp.)
posted by betweenthebars at 9:58 AM on August 7

Relistening now thanks to this post and "if we never had a problem, that's what life would be like" just got to me. I bought this CD when it came out and it was in my afternoon listen-at-work rotation for quite a while.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:06 AM on August 7

maxsparber: "Martha Stewart is the felon in the joke, although Snoop also has a rap sheet."

I understand that murder was the case that they gave him.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:37 AM on August 7 [6 favorites]

ended up siding with the Canadian

Not this one, the Shatner collaboration is perfect - I have listened to all the versions and remixes (vocoda?) over the last 48 hours while driving from Alberta to Ontario, as they are all in my "Road Trip" playlist...

Plus, while along the top of Lake Superior, absolutely had to un-ironically listen to The Arrogant Worms: "Rocks and Tree's" - my passengers hated me... (Suck it... driver gets the choice of music...)
posted by jkaczor at 11:37 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]

After I first got the album, I made an effort to watch Incubus, starring Shatner and recorded totally in Esperanto. I never finished the movie.

When I was in high school, my dad bought me a copy of Incubus because I was the sort of nerd who thought Esperanto was cool. I invited my best friend over and we watched it together. When it ended, he turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said, "We're not friends any more."

Anyone who's seen the movie knows why.
posted by biogeo at 12:11 PM on August 7

I actually think Incubus is terrific.
posted by maxsparber at 12:22 PM on August 7

(All of the tracks from Spare Ass Annie have a play count of zero. I think that album has been on my to-do list for at least 20 years.)

I haven't listened to it in years, but the title track has a good groove, and his reading voice was already pretty rhythmic so it lines up really well without obvious manipulation (it could be really, really excellent production, but from what I've heard of the spoken word recordings without the backing tracks, I don't think much trickery was necessary). Words of Advice for Young People is pretty good, probably a better example of the Disposable Heroes' talents.

On the other hand, "Common People" is the only Shatner recording I have.
posted by fedward at 12:29 PM on August 7

No tears for Caesar.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:54 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

TOS and animated mashups of Shatner's "Common People."

Leonard Nimoy, "Love of the Common People" from Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy (Spock side, Mission: Impossible side)
posted by kirkaracha at 3:49 PM on August 7 [1 favorite]

Peak Shatner for me is his parody of Se7en at the 1996 MTV Movie Awards, starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk, William Shatner as TJ Hooker, and William Shatner as Rescue 911's William Shatner.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:16 PM on August 7

I was saving this for an fpp, but who am I kidding? I'm never going to do that. The Blog and Definitive Information Resource on the Hairpieces of William Shatner

You'll find the last pictures of him without and first pictures with a hairpiece, the letter from CBS telling him to stop taking hairpieces home with him, and so much more.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:48 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

It's a really good album! Compared in large part to how not-good it probably should have been, but it's not just that. There are several actually-quite-good tracks, and the rest don't get any worse than well-produced novelty, which is itself yards better than basically all his other musical ventures.

Ben Folds did some tremendous writing and arrangement and production, and roped in a bunch of good people, and basically built a solid album around a weird synth/sampler named William Shatner, has always been my feeling about it. Some tracks are more irretrievably Shatner-infused than others, for better ("What Have You Done" is gut-wrenchingly personal) and worse ("Ideal Woman" is almost a bad USO routine) but it's fair I think to say that Ben Folds could have taken his production material and slotted in a different performer and still come away with a solid if different album; Shatner could have taken his material and thrown a random producer at it and come up with the kind of forgettable schticky mess every Rocketman survivor expected when they heard this thing was coming out.
posted by cortex at 5:52 PM on August 7 [3 favorites]

Is this going to start a major Kirk Vs. Picard kerfluffle?

Make it so.
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 AM on August 8

... Shatnerquake.
posted by WCityMike at 8:58 PM on August 8

I'm happy that so many of us unironically enjoy Has Been. I'd first heard That's Me Trying somewhere in college, and I thought it was some kind of wonderful ear worm. Then I actually tracked down the album and bought the cd.

It Hasn't Happened Yet is probably my most listened to track. Beyond the nods about being a celebrity, there's so much there that's really relatable, one of which is the scenery of crossing a snowfield in DC with all these dark thoughts swirling in your head. And the line about laying in bed eyes wide open is something I'm all too familiar with.

Together is definitely my favorite track, though, and I wish I was in the mood for it more often. It radiates with Ben Fold's vibe, and the lyrics are almost hopeful. It's a great song for road trips.
posted by numaner at 12:37 PM on August 9

from the first linked article:
Released that year were Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Napoleon Dynamite, Shaun of the Dead, Garden State, I Heart Huckabees, and of course, what conversation about indie culture would be complete without human Polaroid camera, Wes Anderson, and his underwater Bill Murray vehicle, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

It had slipped my mind that these were all released in the same year. I always feel like Eternal Sunshine and Garden State were some late 90's precursor to Napoleaon and Huckabees, the latter of which I swore came out after 2010, same with Shaun of the Dead.
posted by numaner at 12:45 PM on August 9

But there's a great point to be made in that perspective. 2004 was my sophomore/junior year of college. Oldlennials like me found the world suddenly scary post 9/11 and found a strange comfort with Jon Stewart's nightly assault on Bush's administration's BS about the Iraq War. The wave of "indie" stuff was our statement to the capitalists' world that we're tired of BS and I welcomed the era of sincerity, no matter how misdirected. Has Been was perhaps the cherry on top of that sentiment.
posted by numaner at 12:51 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

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