It’s Shatner Claus! Star Trek actor boldly goes into another strange new world: holiday music
- William Shatner gets help on album from Iggy Pop, Judy Collins, Brad Paisley, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Rick Wakeman
- ‘Every song has my interpretation,’ says 87-year-old, who’s been applying his hyper-dramatic style to albums for 50 years, even though he ‘can’t sustain a note’
Who’d have guessed more than 50 years ago when actor William Shatner brought Captain James T. Kirk so vividly to life and helped turn Star Trek into a cultural touchstone that his “final frontier” might turn out to be … Christmas music?
We kid you not: the veteran actor, 87, recently released an album of Christmas classics: Shatner Claus – The Christmas Album. He’s joined on the album by a galaxy of pop, rock, country and other stars of contemporary music.
Proto-punk rocker Iggy Pop, folk-pop queen Judy Collins, country singer-songwriter-guitarist Brad Paisley, Jethro Tull flautist Ian Anderson, prog-rock keyboard wiz Rick Wakeman and ZZ Top guitar hero Billy Gibbons are among the guest collaborators.
“Every song – good or bad – has my interpretation with the desire to bend it a little or fulfil more fully its original desire,” Shatner said.
That’s his way of pointing out that, rather than simply stepping into a studio and reciting lyrics over prepared backing tracks to seasonal favourites such as Jingle Bells, White Christmas and Winter Wonderland, Shatner worked closely with album producers Adam Hamilton and Jurgen Engler in applying his vision of how each number ought to play out.
Take Jingle Bells, which starts the album at a breakneck pace; Shatner almost hyperventilates as he relays the song’s lyric.
“How do you do Jingle Bells differently?” he said. “I thought, ‘What happens if the horses are running off?’ There are two guys on the sled and the horses are running off. I’ve been on run-off horses, and you don’t stop them – you just guide them. So for my version, the horses take off.” When he listened back initially, “I said ‘That’s not quite right. Let’s put [the sound of] some hoof beats on it’.”
The result is in keeping with his previous cult-classic recordings, which feature his often hyper-dramatic style of spoken-word recitation. Those date to his 1968 debut album, Transformed Man, which included his renditions of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man and The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
In recent years he’s also recorded collaborations with indie rock singer-songwriter Ben Folds (Has Been in 2004) and the prog-rock effort Ponder the Mystery in 2013.
“This album reflects my continuing desire to fuse words and music, because I can’t sustain a note,” he said, a musical limitation that aligns him with non-singing actors who’ve taken on musical projects including Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), Robert Preston (The Music Man), Richard Burton and Richard Harris (Camelot).
“I’m looking at this album as the culmination of this [long-time] yearning to make music and to try to do it the only way I know how,” Shatner said.
His partners on each track help up the musical content – Paisley adding his felt electric guitar work to their version of Blue Christmas, Gibbons doing likewise on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Collins singing sweetly against him for White Christmas.
The diversity of those collaborators shows the reach of his ever-expanding fan base.
“It’s the highest compliment possible when somebody will take their precious time and lend their talents to a track, a song I’m trying to do,” he said. “I’ve been emotionally moved by these talents that have said, ‘I’ll give you something more precious than money – my time.’”
Shatner Claus adds the veteran of TV, film and stage to a long line of celebrated Jewish performers who have tried their hands at Christmas music.
That roster may well begin with songwriter Irving Berlin, who wrote White Christmas, the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time thanks to Bing Crosby’s signature recording, as well as performers such as Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Mel Torme, Barry Manilow and Neil Sedaka.
An easy way around the mixing of faith-based messages would be to stick with secular holiday songs. But Shatner has also included Christmas-centric carols including O Come, O Come Emmanuel, The Little Drummer Boy and Silent Night.
“I’m totally aware of the religious implications of Christmas, and I honour it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fly in the face of that in any way, so I tried to fulfil the religious component of the songs as fully as possible.”
The song he considers to be the album’s centrepiece is a new one, One For You, One For Me, which sets to music a poem written by Blades Anthony, a US military veteran who served in Afghanistan, and wrote poetry about his experiences there.
“That poem anchors the album,” Shatner said. “I met Blades Anthony, a veteran who had been very disturbed by a battle he was involved in in Afghanistan. He showed by a sheaf of poems about the tragedy of that battle. I asked him to write m a Christmas poem, and he came up with One for You, One For Me, about all the soldiers in Afghanistan wondering what Christmas is like for the people back home.
“I took it to them [Hamilton and Engler] and said, ‘Let’s put music to this.’ It took quite a few changes from me as listener and director: ‘There’s not enough military feeling here, not enough pathos in that part.’ The music evolved from me as an actor and director.”
The idea that Christmas music might represent for him the final frontier of which he spoke in such sober tones back when Star Trek visited TV screens weekly made him chuckle. But he continues to go boldly where no Star Fleet captains have gone before.