William Shatner’s ‘Has Been’: The Album That Broke Indie Rock for Good
The actor’s brief, strange foray into indie culture turns 10-years-old this week.
Ten years ago this week, William Shatner’s album, Has Been, was released and really, there was no other time when this bizarre, quirky financial risk of an album could have seen the light of day. If some young record label exec had brought up the idea of producing an artsy full-length studio album by William Shatner, even the following year, well, let me imagine how that scenario would have played out…
“So I was thinking—you know that guy with the toupee from the Priceline ads? Well what if we put out a full-leng—” [cut to man being escorted out of the building, holding a box of his belongings, never to work in the music business again]
But in 2004, a pivotal and much-celebrated year for music, the album was given a chance.
On one hand, 2004 was a powerhouse for indie rock—or at least what has become known as “indie” rock (bands who craft songs with a hint more delicacy than the Nickelbacks of the world), delivering one critically acclaimed album after another. Come, hop on the nostalgia train and marvel at all the stops along its route. Those 12 months produced all of the following:
Arcade Fire’s Funeral, Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled debut album, The Walkmen’s Bows + Arrows, TV On The Radio’s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, Sonic Youth’s Sonic Nurse, The Killers’ Hot Fuss, Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, The Futureheads’ self-titled, The Hives’ Tyrannosaurus Hives, Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous, The Libertines’ self-titled, The Black Keys’ Rubber Factory, Interpol’s Antics, Death from Above 1979’s You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, and Elliott Smith’s posthumous (and my personal favorite of his work) From a Basement on the Hill, among others.
Not to mention, the year saw a slew of artier well-regarded, small-budget movies which were basically the indie rock of cinema, and whose soundtracks were indie rock tastemakers unto themselves (looking at you and that damned Frou Frou song, Zach Braff). 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.
In hindsight, that’s a thoroughly impressive output for a single year. We had reached critical mass with indie culture, which is why now, a decade later, we’re being subjected to a barrage of commemorative edition reissues, media critics’ anniversary thinkpieces, and full-album tours—aged ten years to perfection. All while we pat ourselves on the back for remembering how we were once alive in such a marvelous and prolific time.
On the other hand, we often forget that in 2004, there was a looming sense of impending doom in the air. With Apple’s newly released click wheel-having fourth generation model, iPods were becoming the go-to gift to request for Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever respective religion’s holiday you pay lip service to in order to get the sweet, sweet presents. The iTunes store’s 99-cent song model was also becoming increasingly popular among old people, while file-sharing programs and Bit Torrents were the primary source of music among those with a basic understanding of how to turn a computer on. As a result, 2004 would be the last year CD sales ever saw a rise, selling 651.1 million units, which was up from 2003’s 635.8 million units—a final glimmer of false hope for the CD. That number would go into a death spiral over the following decade, never to rise again, and would dwindle down to just 165.4 million by 2013. Soon, Tower Records and Virgin Megastores would begin closing their doors en masse. It was the beginning of the end for the compact disc.
It was during this time—when the music industry was enjoying its last hurrah of commercial excess—that Has Been, was released.
Has Been 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? And marketed to an audience too young to remember Shatner’s 1968 foray into the music world, The Transformed, or his work as Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek? (Yeah, I know he didn’t play Captain Picard but I like the idea of giving Star Trek nerds brief internet outrage attacks. He actually played Dr. Spock. ...Kidding again—Mr. Spock was not a doctor.)
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, The Libertines, and Rilo Kiley’s releases that year. They 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.”
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!
Truly, Has Been was a distinct product of its time—the last of its time for that matter. It stands as an audio monument to the hubris of the golden age of indie rock.
So throughout 2014, while 2004’s major releases like Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Morrissey’s You Are the Quarry are trotted out and given the 10-year retrospective treatment, doesn’t Has Been—an album that lucked out and hitched a ride as a stowaway on the indie truck—also deserve the prestige of a proper critical revisit? The answer, of course, is: No, what a waste of time. But fuck it, let’s do it anyway…
Has Been starts off with the only track most people remember off this often forgotten record—a cover of Pulp’s “Common People.” Just like that, right off the bat, Shatner lured the indie rock crowd into his van with candy. But amazingly, the cover is not terrible. Shatner does a commendable job of paying homage to the original, while still swinging for the fences, putting his famous ridiculously overdramatic spin on Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics, “I wanna LIVE like common people! I wanna DO what common people do!” Though at times, the song does possess the cringe-worthiness of hearing your grandpa trying to read off a list of artists on your iPod. Part of me wonders what songs were runners up in the album’s token “cool” cover song slot. I’ve got to think Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and something from Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea were in the mix. Oh, what would have been.
After “Common People,” Has Been quickly loses a bit of steam, breaking down into two lounge songs more characteristic of Shatner’s speak-sing style of “music.”
The album’s fourth song though, “That’s Me Trying” is where the experimental creative pairing of Shatner and Folds works best and is at its most poignant. Written by High Fidelity and About a Boy author, Nick Hornby, the song is told through the perspective of a deadbeat dad trying to mend his relationship with his adult daughter. The chorus is provided by Folds and Aimee Mann. Shatner seems to have learned a lesson in songwriting here: Let talented people do most of the heavy lifting. He applies this strategy a few tracks later on another of the album’s bright spots, “Together,” a collaboration with electronic British duo, Lemon Jelly, where he keeps his vocal contributions to a bare minimum.
Towards the end of the album though, this enlist-a-famous-person model goes horribly awry. Shatner teams up with former Black Flag frontman and fellow distinct talkin’ guy Henry Rollins for Has Been’s penultimate track, “I Can’t Get Behind That.” Over a jazzy scat-beat, the two men trade off a list of gripes they respectively can’t “get behind”—commercials on TV, the way young people talk, the price of gas, student drivers, etc. The result falls somewhere between a stale George Carlin rant and your dad trying to get the clock in his car not to blink 12:00… 12:00… 12:00.
Rollins would later discuss the recording process in his spoken word show.
And those are pretty much the highlights of Has Been, in a nutshell. Much of the rest of it seems silly—a spaghetti western title track, a bombastic dance number, and plenty of Shattnerisms to go around. But also, buried somewhere in between, there are the occasional deep moments of self-deprecating introspection on mortality and the perils of celebrity which were potentially captivating, depending on how interested you are in the inner workings of a man who once co-starred alongside a bunch of tribbles.
Shatner went on to make two more albums in 2011 and 2013 which you might guess from the respective covers were not given the same, uh… reverence to the craft as Has Been:
And maybe Has Been was nothing more than your standard record industry blunder wrapped in an indie package all along. Maybe we were all so misty eyed from watching Kate Winslet and Serious Jim Carrey hopelessly trying to forget each other that our vision was blurred to the fact that we were listening to an album by the most famous mid-aughts online travel website spokesman who was not the Travelocity gnome.
Truly, on Has Been, we flew too close to the sun on wings made of indie rock. All because William Shatner wanted to live like common people.
Dan Ozzi looks forward to Chris Pine’s pensive art record in 30 years. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi