You can’t un-remember the shape of lines in famous songs. Try to say “I did it my way” without drifting into Frank Sinatra mode. When you find yourself pausing for a moment after “it“, you’re answering to Frank, not English punctuation. There is no comma. Your memory of the ‘right’ way, Frank’s way, shapes your mouth and your breath.
William Shatner tries, valiantly, to reshape the words of Rocket Man; to give them a conversational feel. But the memory of Elton John’s original tugs William towards it, especially once the music starts up around him. Memory shapes mind. Mind shapes the mouth:
Reverence (or antipathy) for the original, “correct” intonation makes it harder to breathe personality into your own cover version. You find yourself mimicking the original, without intending to, or you try so hard to sound ‘different’ that you lose all emotional honesty.
A cover version should build on the original, respect the original, but be, well, original.
Like this, perhaps:
Maybe it’s not fair to use William Shatner as an example of a performer shackled to the original pattern of a line. After all, as he says: he didn’t rehearse, and never expected the world to see his Rocket Man or to remember it for so long:
Chris Elliott, one step removed from Elton John, is free to play with the words of Rocket Man, stepping in and out of William Shatner’s version easily. Comedy lives in contrast:
What do you think of Kate Bush‘s cover of the song, with its uilleann pipes and reggae beat?
This is what Kate said about her musical choices:
“I was really knocked out to be asked to be involved with this project, because I was such a big fan of Elton’s when I was little. I really loved his stuff. It’s like he’s my biggest hero, really. And when I was just starting to write songs, he was the only songwriter I knew of that played the piano and sang and wrote songs. So he was very much my idol, and one of my favourite songs of his was ‘Rocket Man’.
Now, if I had known then that I would have been asked to be involved in this project, I would have just died… They basically said, ‘Would we like to be involved?’ I could choose which track I wanted… ‘Rocket Man’ was my favourite. And I hoped it hadn’t gone, actually – I hoped no one else was going to do it… I actually haven’t heard the original for a very long time. ‘A long, long time’ (laughs).
It was just that I wanted to do it differently. I do think that if you cover records, you should try and make them different. It’s like remaking movies: you’ve got to try and give it something that makes it worth re-releasing. And the reggae treatment just seemed to happen, really. I just tried to put the chords together on the piano, and it just seemed to want to take off in the choruses. So we gave it the reggae treatment. It’s even more extraordinary (that the song was a hit) because we actually recorded the track over two years ago. Probably just after my last telly appearance. We were quite astounded when they wanted to release it as a single just recently.
BBC Radio 1 interview, 14 December 1991
By the way: when you sing a cover: do you want to sing a photocopy of the original? Or do you want to breathe in the original and breathe out your own, personal interpretation of the original? Each type of cover has its place. Homage and development have equal value. It’s your choice
© Sing Better English, 2016
3 thoughts on “Rocket Man – William Shatner”
You are so correct that one can’t un-remember the shape of lines in famous songs … just as one can’t un-hear William Shatner giving it a go anyway. I actually prefer Chris Elliott’s parody! I also almost prefer William Hung’s version — mangled though it may be — to that of Kate Bush. I found the uilleann pipes interesting, but never quite embraced the reggae beat. I guess that, when it comes to Rocket Man at least, only the original will do for me. Thank you anyway for this fascinating sonic smörgåsbord!
(PS: In the unlikely event that you somehow missed William Hung’s rendition, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKCs7iTo6iI)
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Hi Heather, yes, and I do feel for William Shatner, having his casual, improvised, ‘fun’ turn, for a small audience, plastered all over the internet, for ever and ever and ever. It did fascinate me though, watching his struggle to pull the words even a little way away from their Elton John shape and intonation.
I imagine it’s a bit like the “To be or not to be” conundrum facing actors: how to wash their minds clean of every other famous version of those lines, so that they can speak them afresh, without that wish to ‘do something new’ making nonsense of the lines themselves:
Kate Bush could probably brush her teeth onstage to music and have a hit. She’s such a confident musician and we’re so fond of her over here that we’re ready to smile on anything she does. Bemused but appreciative. Though I’ve seen reviews of her Rocket Man video decrying the “incongruous cod-reggae lilt” and calling her ukelele playing “either impossibly cute or cloying”. Kate says that she played the ukelele as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe and Running Wild in Some Like It Hot https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5At3UCMQSiw
Mr Hung never reached our shores. Reading about him, I have a feeling that his ‘popularity’ may have had something of the Florence Foster Jenkins about it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVcatZDdaIY)
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“Kate Bush could probably brush her teeth onstage to music and have a hit.” Ha ha! As hilarious an image as your observation elicited, I think you’re right — and the performance-art lover in me would really enjoy that show, I think! Now … how do we get that suggestion into Kate Bush’s ear, I wonder?
And thank you for the introduction to Florence Foster Jenkins, whom I’d never heard of before. I haven’t yet watched the whole video (because … the office awaits) but the synopsis of her story reminds me of our own dear Mrs. Miller. Even if she can’t quite pull off her covers, you have to admire her enthusiasm and pluckiness:
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