Why do non-musical celebrities make records?

A new book prompts Elisa Bray to ask whether celebrities should ever commit themselves to vinyl

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:58

Last week, supermodel Agyness Deyn appeared on the live music stage, performing with new-wave indie-pop band the Five O'Clock Heroes. She provided vocals for their single, "Who", and her pretty face for its video. Deyn is the latest in a line of supermodels turned singers, following in the footsteps of Kate Moss, who joined ex-boyfriend Pete Doherty's band Babyshambles onstage and co-wrote the odd album track. She would no doubt repeat the exercise at this year's Glastonbury if she could only persuade boyfriend Jamie Hince's band The Kills – and if she has forgotten the embarrassment of being booed off Babyshambles' stage in Florence. And then there's Naomi Campbell, who first featured on Vanilla Ice's Cool as Ice album and then blew it with a solo album in 1995, Baby Woman, which was not only a critical flop but a commercial disaster too, not even breaking into the Top 75.

Actresses, too, have been lured to explore their musical sides; this year has seen a trend in actresses releasing their own albums: Scarlett Johansson with her album covering Tom Waits tracks Anywhere I Lay My Head, and Minnie Driver's second album Seastories, made with the helping hand of alt country star Ryan Adams and his band the Cardinals. Juliette Lewis is the best success story with her punky rock band the Licks. But the successful crossover of the latter is the anomaly here. Most celebrity vanity projects over the years have been very awful indeed.

Tom Hamling has devoted the last decade to collecting 120 examples of them for a new book Celebrity Vinyl, which satirically critiques the celebrities, music and graphic design of every album in his collection. While Hamling was working for a large New York advertising agency in the autumn of 1999, he received an email that would spark the beginnings of his discovery of the disastrous celebrity album – and of the number of celebrities who have tried their hand at recording their own album. Bruce Willis, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, Chevy Chase and Muhammad Ali are just some of the egoists to be convinced of their own musical talents and to have indulged them.

The email informed all staff members that, to herald the new millennium, the company would be updating its entire in-house music library, replacing all vinyl records and cassette tapes with compact discs. Staff members were invited to take home whichever old albums they would like. Hamling went home that night with Bruce Willis's The Return of Bruno, Ethel Merman's The Ethel Merman Disco Album and Shaquille O'Neal's I'm Outstanding. It was the foundation of what would become what he says is the world's biggest celebrity-vinyl collection.

Since then, he has been steadily rooting through the ubiquitous 99c bins at record stores surrounding his West Village, New York apartment and then scouring flea markets across the globe from Brooklyn and Queens to Los Angeles, Nashville, and finally London and Hong Kong. "Sometimes I feel like Dr Richard Kimble in search of the one-armed man. Except my one-armed man is the inaudible shriek of Jennifer Love Hewitt," he says of his ongoing quest.

But what convinces these celebrities, at a particular point in their lives, that they can begin a successful career in music? "There's no question that the music on these albums is comical," says Hamling. "The cover art is ridiculous. But the true humour in this collection lies in the unseen. I mean, what kind of backroom discussion did it take to convince Emmanuel Lewis and the cast of the sitcom Webster to make an album warning kids about the dangers of molestation? Can you imagine the sound engineer in Burt Reynolds's recording session? Did that guy have to sit behind a soundboard and pretend to enjoy the noises and gurgles coming from the booth? Can you imagine trying to tap your feet or give a "thumbs up" sign to that? And what about the first time Ed McMahon went to the mailbox to get his first royalty cheque? What did that look like from a distance?

"It's not a study in pop culture. Or kitsch. Or really even music, for that matter," says Hamling. It's a study in the consecration of fame. An examination of the veneration of the C-list. While the majority of my collection falls in the 1970s and 1980s, a closer chronological look will reveal that this collection spans 33 years, meaning celebrities and their egos do not change, even though the size of their belt buckles may. A celebrity ego is always a celebrity ego. Jerry Lewis begets Leonard Nimoy; Nimoy begets David Hasselhoff; Hasselhoff begets Alyssa Milano. And so it goes."

Rooting around further you can find songs by Paris Hilton, Kevin Bacon and Lindsay Lohan. It seems celebrities will always be in love with their own voices.

'Celebrity Vinyl' by Tom Hamling is published 30 June (Mark Batty, £14.95)

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