Duchovny, Shatner and the Odd World of the Spoken Word Album

April 7, 2015

From Forbes. com 4/3/15:

We live in a time of massive and disruptive change in the media business – technological innovation, shifting consumer behavior, uncertain revenue models, and groundbreaking transactions – and I’m compelled to try to make sense of these complex machinations weekly here at Forbes. But you know what? It’s a holiday weekend (Passover and Easter for those who observe), so it’s time to let our collective hair (hairs?) down and revel in a bit of frivolity on the media and entertainment front. In that spirit, I bring you the announcement that David Duchovny is releasing an album.

When I first saw the news, I assumed (hoped?) it was some type of homage to Duchovny’s most famous role as Agent Mulder on X-Files, or perhaps to those unforgettable albums (for all the wrong reasons) from his space sci-fi soul mates from Star Trek, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I was imagining a creepy, dream-like, spoken word recording with cameos from Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully) and Robert Patrick (John Doggett on X-Files, although to me he’ll always be T-1000 in Terminator 2). Sadly, it looks like an actual “music” album. According to the President of Duchovny’s record label, ThinkSay Records, the album will feature “David’s blend of poetic lyrics and infectious melodies.” Uh-oh.

“Spoken word” recordings have a fairly weird history and reputation, but in fact, a whole lot of wonderful stuff that would comfortably fit into that category when you think about it. Of course, there is a long line of iconic comedy albums, from Richard Pryor (especially “That N*r’s Crazy”), George Carlin (especially “Class Clown”), Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner (“The 2000-Year-Old Man”), young Woody Allen, and the now mostly (and sadly) forgotten teaming of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. The classical genre contains gems such as David Bowie narrating Peter and the Wolf (minus Ziggy Stardust) and James Earl Jones’s stentorian voice on Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (the term “sound” might have been invented by someone who heard Jones say the word “disenthrall” on this recording). I also grew up addicted to one of the spoken word’s many nerd genres, sports. At least for a Bostonian, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve listened to “Havlicek Stole the Ball” for the 417th time.

“Spoken word” is still a category at The Grammys, with Joan Rivers’ posthumous victory this year, although most recent winners have been audio books.  Far more prevalent today are the almost countless podcasts available on every audio platform, but their ubiquity and easy disposability makes it unlikely that much of that work is going to endure in future memories. There isn’t a whole lot of an “album” business anymore period, so it isn’t too shocking that you don’t see a ton of albums in this area.

So (you may be asking), why has “spoken word” gotten such a bizarre reputation? There are a number of historically, unintentionally hilarious spoken word albums that should remain in our memories due to the twisted revivalism you find online. Here’s a few of my (least but most) favorite awful spoken word performances:

  • William Shatner – “The Transformed Man”. You’ve probably heard a few of the cuts from this album with Shatner’s….mmm…unique phrasing, such as “HEY Mr. Tambourine Man” and “the GIRL with….kaleidoscope EYES” from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. The very top of the great/awful list.
  • Leonard Nimoy – “Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space”. I loved Leonard Nimoy as an actor and as a quite fascinating and learned person. But this album? There’s a cut called “Highly Illogical” and another called “A Visit to a Sad Planet” – do I need to say more? Just Google this for some reviews – they are a worthy entertainment themselves.
  • Lorne Greene – “Ringo”. The longtime patriarch from television’s Bonanza (little did we know before the age of Googling that the native Canadian had been born Chaim Grinovsky!) actually had a number of hits in the country genre in the 1960s trading on his TV fame. This “song” has only one word of singing – the name “Ringo.” You can take the man out of the ranch….well, you know.
  • Fabio – “Fabio After Dark”. No, I did not make this up.
  • Pierce Brosnan – “Mamma Mia”. What, you say, this wasn’t spoken word, this work was sung! Sorry, it didn’t seem that way if you actually listened to it.

So, as you head to your respective Seders and Easter feasts, perhaps take a moment or two with Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, or even Apple’s iTunes (stick to the aforementioned comedy here) and take in a bit of the fractured history of the spoken word recording. And get ready – Duchovny’s “poetic lyrics” arrive May 12th.

 

About the Author

Howard Homonoff is a media executive, management consultant, lawyer, and academic.

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