"I don't know if what I'm about to do has significance or whether I'm about to make an idiot of myself": William Shatner, progressive rock icon

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise in the classic science fiction television series 'Star Trek', circa 1968.
(Image credit: Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images)

Star Trek legend William Shatner’s debut album, 1968’s The Transformed Man, allied Shakespeare with Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Thirty-six years on, Has Been contemporised his prose-poetry, before 2011’s Seeking Major Tom was embraced by fans of progressive rock. Then, in 2013, he unleashed Ponder The Mystery, his first exclusively original album, co-written with Yes's Billy Sherwood and backed by Circa (guests included Rick Wakeman, Steve Vai and Robbie Krieger). Naturally, we wanted to know more.

How did you come to record Ponder The Mystery with Circa? 

I had already done an album on the Cleopatra label called Seeking Major Tom and Brian Perera, who is the head of Cleopatra, asked if I would be interested in doing another. I said, absolutely, but what to do? Brian put me in contact with Billy Sherwood, we hit it off right away. Billy has a group called Circa, Tony Kaye from Yes, Ricky Tierney and Scott Connor, so it’s a four-man group and me as the lead singer. 

We’re doing three club gigs in the Los Angeles area in late October with the idea of discovering what we’ve got, whether the material is good enough, whether I am good enough – they’re certainly good enough – and whether we have a future in making music in front of the public. 

The Transformed Man mixed Shakespeare with dramatic interpretation of contemporary pop songs. 

At that time I was a young actor from a Shakespeare background who loved the musicality and beat of the iambic pentameter I’d been brought up on. So the concept of The Transformed Man was to take a modern song with a good lyric and musically segue it into a classical piece of literature with Don Ralke’s original music behind it. It was an attempt to show that spoken word in a song, and in a piece of literature like Shakespeare, has common denominators. 

That was my intellectual attempt and I wasn’t always successful in that record, but I’ve since evolved the idea into Ponder The Mystery where the lyrics I’ve written have extended meaning beyond the surface words. There are things going on in those lyrics that bear repeated listens. The factor of being able to meet up with a genius like Billy Sherwood was opportune, he’s a true genius and I think that’s reflected in this album. 

Is theatrical performance effective in conveying a lyric? 

I think so, the great singers are able to project the extended note and the emotion, the less talented singers extend the note without the emotion while concentrating on technique. At the other end of that spectrum is the actor, who tries – sometimes vainly – to find melody in the onomatopoeia of the words.

Do you study the lyric as you would theatrical dialogue? 

When I record cover songs I think about the lyric as a role. Something’s going on in the song and I seek to give it a truth that I think is inherent in the song, but perform it in my own unique way. So Mr Tambourine Man is a guy looking for a connection, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, a guy high on LSD and so forth. 

Did being a face on TV inhibit your enjoyment of the 60s? 

I swung to the best of my ability. 

While committed to Star Trek you couldn’t grow your hair. 

I did grow the sideburns. And while I was never into drugs, I got into my share of trouble. 

When studying American Kenpo karate, you shared a trainer with Elvis Presley. Did you ever spar with him? 

Wouldn’t that have been a story? “I sparred with Elvis Presley and won, but got beaten up by his handlers.” Unfortunately, the closest I came was recording Has Been in his Nashville studio, which [producer/arranger] Ben Folds had bought, long after he had died. 

Has Been’s lyrics seemed extremely personal. 

It came from my heart, as does Ponder The Mystery, which I fervently hope people will also like because I’m seriously in love with it. I wrote most of the songs on Has Been and I’ve written all of the songs here. I’ve just sort of wandered on, trying to perfect this actor musicality thing I’ve got in mind.

The prog rock community have taken you to their hearts. 

Well, these wonderful artists, 14 people playing on all the songs, the 15th song is like an overture with only Billy playing on it, but all the other songs have an extraordinary individual playing a solo instrument and it gives the songs such character that I could never have dreamt of. 

What do sci-fi fans and prog-rock fans have in common? 

Look at the similarity in the intention. Science fiction seeks to explore the boundaries of the imagination about what the future of the world will be, [to] take a laboratory possibility and extend it into reality. Progressive rock seeks to extend the boundaries of music, and that’s the natural area of meeting between sci-fi enthusiasts and progressive rock followers. 

Any other musical projects on your immediate horizon? 

I’m still teetering on the edge of this one. I mean, here I am, lead singer in a progressive rock group, that’s like being taken from the North Pole to the South Pole really. I’m standing at the South Pole, Amundsen on one side and Scott on the other, wondering where I am. I’m in the middle of nowhere, I don’t know if what I’m about to do has significance or whether I’m about to make an idiot of myself. 

It concludes what was set in motion by The Transformed Man

It’s been quite a journey, from the first idea of thinking of a song as an acting piece to coming together with a fabulous musician like Billy to write songs. I say to him, “I don’t know whether this is any good.” And he’s giving me all the rock’n’roll language: “It’s rocking, I dig it.” And I’m thinking, “Hey, I’m talking rock’n’roll here.” It’s an extraordinary experience and I’m so delighted that I’ve done it, but whether I’ve made a success of it is in the hands of people like yourself.

This feature originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Classic Rock. William Shatner has since released another five albums, including, last year, a "revisited" version of Ponder The Mystery.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.