Behold: The Bizarre Singing Careers Of William Shatner And Leonard Nimoy
Today, starring in an action-adventure TV show and being a musical artist are seen as two very different careers, but back in the '60s, there was no such distinction. As soon as you shot a certain number of episodes, you were automatically entitled to a recording contract and 10,000 screaming, panty-slinging fans. Even the Penguin and the Riddler from the '60s Batman show had their own music singles, which Colin Farrell and Paul Dano have unfortunately yet to cover. But in terms of "Why TF does this song exist?" nothing will ever surpass this:
Leonard Nimoy, the highly logical Mr. Spock from Star Trek, didn't just record one wacky song about hobbits -- he made five albums, sang on variety shows, appeared in teen magazines, got literal truckloads of fan mail, and claims he signed as many as 8,000 autographs in one sitting. According to Nimoy's autobiography, one album-signing session got so intense that Nimoy had to escape into the roof and be rescued by the fire department (we're assuming he was curled up in a corner muttering "Beam me up, Scotty … Beam me up, Scotty …" over and over when they got there).
As documented in the book The Musical Touch of Leonard Nimoy, all that insanity started because the daughter of a music producer happened to be a Spock-maniac. It was a Vulcan-philiac girl, not a record executive or something, who insisted that if they were doing a Star Trek-themed album, Spock had to be in it. The label approached Nimoy and asked if he'd be interested in either speaking or singing on the record, to which he replied "yes." The result was Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space (1967), an album performed entirely in character as an alien from planet Vulcan who happens to love show tunes and the theme from Mission: Impossible.
The album sold so well that the label not only signed Nimoy for more, but even allowed him to sing as himself. His second record, Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy (1968), was called that because the first half was performed as a space alien who is baffled by our romantic customs and continued adherence to capitalism ...
... and the second was the real Nimoy tackling various genres, from ballads to country music to ridiculous JRR Tolkien-themed novelty songs. By his third album, The Way I Feel (also 1968), Nimoy had ditched the sci-fi stuff altogether and just did a folk album; it's hard to imagine Mr. Spock singing "I'd Love Making Love To You" (unless you replace "Love" with "Logic").
And yet the albums must have still been selling pretty well because in that same year, Nimoy's crewmate William Shatner was also given the chance to release his own record ... and it was goofier than if he'd made an album made out of nothing but groovy Hobbit tunes. The Transformed Man is remembered for Shatner's bonkers spoken (and occasionally screamed) covers of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" ...
... but people forget that half of it is made out of Shatner very seriously/pretentiously reciting classic literature monologues, mostly from Shakespeare. Shatner would spend the next decades acting like the whole sing-talking idea was basically just a prank, bro, but his first album's liner notes are dead serious. He writes about falling in love with "all the combinations of music and the human voice" when he was a "wide-eyed kid living in dreams," like his entire life has been leading up to him yelling “Mr. Tamborine Maaaaaaan!” On the other hand, he told his friend and future musical collaborator Ben Folds that he recorded the album in like a day in between shooting Star Trek, so maybe it wasn't that big of a deal to him.
This would be Shatner's only album of the ‘60s, but Nimoy kept chugging along with what mega-fans consider his most artistically accomplished record, The Touch of Leonard Nimoy (1969). Even though the album’s romantic (and at times even horny) folk songs aren't very Spock-esque, one of the tracks still managed to make it into an episode of Star Trek's final season via the mind control powers of toga-wearing aliens.
Sadly, Nimoy's next and final album wasn't that well regarded, which might explain the "final" part. The New World of Leonard Nimoy (1970) ventured into country music territory -- never since Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar had folk fans felt so betrayed. Here's Nimoy struggling to stay awake while reading the lyrics to Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line":
Other than popping up in a couple of music videos (most famously a Bruno Mars one where we learn about his porn magazine-buying habits) and occasionally performing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins" for ecstatic fans at conventions, that was it for Nimoy's musical career. In the '80s and '90s, some tracks from his albums (especially the last one) began showing up along with Shatner's in "Famous People Butchering Classic Songs" compilations. One track, his cover of the protest song "If I Had a Hammer," was played by sadomasochistic performance artist Bob Flanagan as he nailed his scrotum to a wall. This was probably more of a pun on the word "hammer" than a commentary on the quality of Nimoy's singing, but still, ouch.
Meanwhile, Shatner was only getting started. After another rather self-important album reciting poetry and schmoozing with a live audience (William Shatner Live, 1977), Shatner was asked to host the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards and stumbled upon what would be the defining moment of his musical career: his legendarily bizarre spoken-word interpretation of Elton John's "Rocket Man," spawner of a thousand parodies that will never be as funny as the original. The moment when Shatner triples himself has to be one of the greatest uses of green screen technology in the history of entertainment.
Naturally, Shatner says it was always meant to be a gag: his three versions are supposed to be Frank Sinatra, Captain Kirk, and "Rock-it, Man," or Shatner's idea of a "rocker" (which looks strikingly similar to your drunken uncle attempting to dance at a family wedding). Shatner insists that he didn't know the ceremony was televised, and he assumed his "joke" would only be seen by about a hundred people, so he's deeply embarrassed that it became a meme. And yet, he pretty much based his entire post-'90s career on this moment.
At the 1992 MTV Movie Awards, Shatner (now fully in on the joke) performed dramatic readings of the Best Song nominees, including "I Wanna Sex You Up," "(Everything I Do) I Do For You," and "Tears in Heaven," although the last one was left out of the broadcast after someone realized that having Captain Kirk read words written for a dead child over marimba sounds wasn't in the best taste.
It was while covering random rock songs for his Priceline.com ads in the '90s that Shatner hooked up with Ben Folds, who went on to produce, arrange, and co-write his most acclaimed album so far, Has Been (2004). This included an inexplicable cover of Pulp's "Common People" that led to an even less-explicable ballet of the same name, immortalized in the film William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet (2009). If you ever wanted to watch professional dancers performing pirouettes to the sounds of Shatner's voice, this is the movie for you (it could briefly be found in Netflix's "Surreal Ballets Based on a William Shatner Album" category during April Fool's 2013).
Shatner has released six more albums since 2011: a collection of space-themed rock covers (including "Rocket Man" again), a prog-rock album with a member of Yes, a country album, a Christmas album, a blues album, and, most recently, an auto-biographical avant-garde jazz/big band/classical/country/country rock/hip hop album (as classified by Discogs.com).
It's ironic that only after embracing the comical side of his musical performances did Shatner achieve the artistic success he was apparently looking for when he started reciting Shakespeare on top of pompous music and shouting Bob Dylan lyrics. It's also a shame that he never got to collaborate musically with Nimoy, who beamed up into the big transporter in the sky in 2015. The closest thing we have to that is the end of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, when Kirk, Spock, and Bones join in on "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" around a campfire. As far as consolation prizes go, that's not too bad.
Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com.
Top image: Universal Music Group