Usually if I show up at an evening like this it is because there is some greater, more profound meaning. Unfortunately, tonight is totally devoid of any meaning whatsoever. So will you please welcome home at last, live from Hell, Spinal Tap.
- Bob Geldof, The Return of Spinal Tap.
This is a story about some of nature's great survivors, although many would contend that there is little 'natural' about them. These are survivors who have succeeded, despite them having less brainpower than a stegosaurus. These are men who survived an upbringing in the made-up inner London borough of Squatney to make their mark on the world. These are Rock Musicians.
They have survived mysterious deaths of band members and more name changes than Prince and P Do Wah Diddy Daddy combined. They have watched the scene they once belonged to vanish into the pages of musical1 history, yet they have carried on regardless. They have released albums that were both ignored by the record-buying public and hated by the critics, yet they are perhaps one of the most influential bands of all time.
They are Spinal Tap.
This is Spinal Tap
In 1984 an improvised film, written by and starring four American comedians, was released to the unprepared masses. Variously described as a 'rockumentary' or a 'mockumentary', it followed the 1982 US tour of British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. It captured the spirit, the energy, the tensions and the complete absurdity of rock and roll, and more than that, it was side-splittingly funny.
The set-up was that this was film-maker2 Marty DiBergi's (Rob Reiner) look inside the workings of a band that had been performing for 20 years. The band are on their promotional tour for their new album, Smell The Glove, and are faced with an unresponsive public - in manager-speak, their audience was getting more selective - and inept management as well as other problems along the way.
Introducing the Band
The line-up of Spinal Tap for the film was:
David St Hubbins (Mike McKean) - Lead Vocals and Guitar. With his flowing blond locks, huge ego and incredible vanity, St Hubbins is the archetypal rock singer. He was born in Squatney in 1943 and met Nigel Tufnel in 1951. He sees himself as the heart and soul of the band3 and co-writes most of the songs (mainly the tuneful bits) with Nigel. He suffers, like many rock singers, from thinking that he is very deep and in touch with his spiritual side. His girlfriend is Jeanine Pettibone, who acts as a kind of Yoko Ono figure. She wants to dress up the band as their star signs and tries to take over the management of the band.
Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest)- Lead Guitar and Vocals. Tufnel was born in 1944 in Squatney. He is the more musically creative of this songwriting partnership. His composing style is described as 'pompous, overwritten and pseudo-important'. Nigel's guitar solos are known to last long enough for other members of the band to leave the venue, taxi to a restaurant, eat a meal and taxi back before he has finished. He is possibly even less in-touch with reality than David. Being the guitarist with a rock band has led him to have a reputation as a ladies' man. He is very possessive about his guitar collection. He released an album entitled Nigel Tufnel's Clam Caravan. Apparently, it was originally Calm Caravan but the printers got it wrong and Nigel decided to leave it as printed to add an air of mystery. It was the low point of his career. Nigel's bizarre hairstyle is based on that of British blues guitarist Jeff Beck's. Nigel walked out on the band mid-tour but came back at the last show.
Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) - Lead Bass. Derek hails from the West Midlands town of Nilford-on-Null and was born in 1941. He was in a number of bands before joining a pre-Spinal Tap Spinal Tap. He sees his role in the band as being in between the two creative forces of the band. He has described himself as the lukewarm water to Nigel and David's fire and ice. When the band briefly split up in the 1970s he released a solo album, It's a Smalls World, completely devoid of melody. Derek has a large handlebar moustache and tends to wear leather strapping on stage.
Viv Savage (David Kaff) - Keyboards. Viv is the only member of the group blessed with actual talent. He lives to a simple philosophy 'have a good time, all the time'.
Mick Shrimpton (RJ Parnell) - Drums. The job of a Spinal Tap drummer is one that is shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows what kind of bizarre gardening accident killed the first drummer, John 'Stumpy' Pepys. While it was known that the second drummer, Eric 'Stumpy Joe' Childs choked on vomit, it was never known whose vomit it actually was. It is a mystery why Peter 'James' Bond spontaneously combusted on stage. Another mystery was how long Mick Shrimpton, formerly of the Eurovision House Band, would survive. He exploded at the end of the film.
Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) - Manager Ian is a volatile manager who wielded a cricket bat in order to trash rooms if his charges didn't. He was generally incompetent and disliked by the band. He walked out when David and Jeanine said he needed help running the band.
Jim (as Himself) - Skull Jim is the large skull that is part of the band's stage set. No self-respecting heavy metal band should be without a giant skull.
A Brief History of Spinal Tap
Tufnel and St Hubbins wrote their first song together in 1961. They formed a band called The Originals. However, because there was another band called The Originals, they then became The New Originals. A few name changes later they became the Thamesmen4 with John 'Stumpy' Pepys and bassist Ronnie Pudding and had a hit with the beat record 'Gimme Some Money'. The band went through a huge number of name changes before settling on Spynal Tap. However, they wanted to cash in on the trend of misspelling band names, so they changed it to Spinal Tap. It was only much later they found out they were actually using the correct spelling!
Derek joined to replace Ronnie Pudding. As Spinal Tap they released the single '(Listen to the) Flower People' and the album We Are All Flower People. They then adopted their trademark rock style. Between 1970 and 1976 they released eight albums including Intravenus de Milo5, Jap Habit and Tap Dancing. They sued their record label for back royalties and were counter-sued for lack of talent. The band suffered a number of name changes, disintegrated and then reformed again for Rock 'n' Roll Creation, Shark Sandwich and Smell the Glove.
The Final Tour?
The film follows the band on tour with backstage happenings interspersed with concert footage and interviews. It starts out with a sell-out gig and an album launch party in New York. Things go downhill as they head down the Eastern Seaboard. Polymer, the record company, decide not to release the album straight away in New York as the market in the city isn't right. Another problem with the album is that some stores refused to stock it, objecting to the cover, which depicted a tied-up, half-naked woman being forced to smell a glove. The new album cover is plain black with no writing on it anywhere.
Gigs are cancelled in Boston, Memphis and across the Mid-West. The band play a gig in Cleveland, Ohio and get lost in the back of the theatre. Their luck does not improve as the tour goes on, as almost nobody turns up for the album's signing sessions. Shortly after Jeanine arrives in Milwaukee, Ian leaves. The straw that breaks the camel's back is when he is left to get a life-sized replica of a Stonehenge triptych for the band's Druidic epic 'Stonehenge'. Nigel draws a design on a napkin; however, he confuses inches and feet. The desired majestic effect of the resulting piece of scenery is rather ruined as it is in danger of being crushed by the dancing dwarves on stage. In Seattle, the gig gets cancelled and Jeanine gets them a gig at an airforce base, which is a disaster, and that leads to Nigel walking out.
The next gig is at a festival in San Francisco where the band are second on the bill to a puppet show. On the up side, however, they are given the bigger dressing room. The tour reaches Los Angeles where Derek and David agree to call it a day after the gig. While getting themselves ready for the gig send-off, Nigel arrives with news that they have made it big in Japan and a tour has been offered to them over there. The final gig is a massive success in front of screaming fans. The band really does go out with a bang as Mick Shrimpton explodes.
The Return of Spinal Tap
In 1992 the group returned to the screen with a film made from the footage of their live concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It is interspersed with interviews with characters from the original film and celebrity thoughts on the band.
In the time between the two films a lot has happened for the members of the group.
Ian Faith 'died', an event that led to much celebration from the band. However, it was later suggested that Faith had actually faked his death.
Joe 'Mama' Besser, Mick Shrimpton's replacement, vanished and was pronounced missing, assumed dead. Mick's twin, Richard 'Ric' Shrimpton, is drafted in as the band's 13th drummer.
David and Jeanine got married. David now teaches girls football and helps out in the couple's two shops. One sells itchy Irish clothing, the other is a new age shop. He also mentors bands.
Nigel spent most of his time inventing. He invented a collapsible wine glass that can't hold liquids and a capo6 for an amp. He also started a travel for pets scheme.
Derek joined his dad's phone sanitising company. He had invested in property in the Docklands of which construction was never finished. He bought another flat in which to live until the other one was built, but that one wasn't finished either. He joined the Christian rock band Lambsblood and played the Monsters of Jesus festival.
Marty DiBergi, blamed by the band for what they saw as a stitch-up job in This is Spinal Tap, now works from a shelf in a corridor next to a payphone. His only feature film after working with the band was Kramer Vs. Kramer Vs. Godzilla which apparently bombed.
The film opens with the support act, The Folksmen, being told they would not be needed. The three candy-striped musicians, played by Guest, McKean and Shearer, would later reappear in the film The Mighty Wind.
The film was aired on American television in 1992. The Spinal Tap comeback was in full swing with appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and The Simpsons7. The Return of Spinal Tap was released on video in 1993.
Spinal Tap has become such a well-known part of rock culture it's become difficult to work out what has influenced Spinal Tap and what Spinal Tap has influenced. Many musicians, including Slash and Sting, have come out as saying how true to life the events of Spinal Tap are to being in a real band.
Black Sabbath claimed that the Stonehenge fiasco was based on their American tour where they planned to have a life-sized Stonehenge set and dwarf acrobats dancing on top of it. When they arrived in America they couldn't fit the set into any of the venues. Since the tour happened in 1984 and that was the same year that Spinal Tap was released, it is doubtful that there is any truth in the claim. However, in The Return of Spinal Tap a clip is shown of roadies trying to squeeze an oversized Stonehenge through the doors of the Royal Albert Hall!
Some of the other ideas from the film to have come into common usage are:
Turning it up to 11 - While showing his guitar collection to Marty, Nigel points out a special feature of Spinal Tap's amplifiers. All the volume controls go up to 11 instead of 10, which is one louder! Marshall, the company that supplied the amplifiers started making amps that went up to 11 in response to artists like Eddie Van Halen demanding them. Of course other companies went further and made ones where the controls went up to infinity. In general musician parlance 'turning it up to 11' means, 'lets go very loud!'.
Bizarre gardening accident - This is a now a legitimate excuse for a drummer leaving a band. Some drummers stick with the oldies like 'I'm just going out to make a phone call'. Exploding on stage is just showing off!
Let's do it in dobly - When talking about Smell the Glove Jeanine shows her limited knowledge of music production by announcing that heavy metal should not be recorded in dobly. Obviously, she meant 'Dolby'. This induced mocking by Nigel. Recording engineers and producers refer to this when artists who have no concept of production start trying to tell the engineers how to do their job.
Of course if you look into the history of any band you will find moments that would not look out of place in the Tap films, be it fans falling through the roof of a Kinks gig in Seattle to the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithful and chocolate confectionery.
The film had the band play at the Shank Hall in Milwaukee. The gig in the movie was filmed in Los Angeles. However there is now a real Shank Hall and its logo is a miniature Stonehenge.
Proof, if proof were needed, that Spinal Tap are a force for good in the world came in the 1998 film, Small Solders. McKean, Shearer and Guest voiced the alien Gorgonites in their battle with the evil Commando Elite, voiced by original cast members of The Dirty Dozen.
Celebrities on Tap
There is a long line of celebrities who made cameo appearances in the Spinal Tap films. These are just a few of them:
Patrick MacNee - The star of The Avengers played Polymer Record's boss Sir Denis Eton-Hogg. MacNee was not comfortable with the improvisational nature of the film, so all his scenes had to be scripted.
Paul Shaffer - David Letterman's long-serving band-leader played inept promoter Artie Fufkin. Many of his parts, including the scene when he smashed an egg on his head to convince the band to appear on radio, were cut from the final film after the scene at the radio station didn't work. Shaffer was also involved with another great fictional band. He arranged a lot of the Blues Brothers' music and appeared in Blues Brothers 2000.
Cher - Cher provided backing vocals for 'Just Begin Again' for The Return of Spinal Tap. She did not appear in the film; instead a portrait of her was projected into the hall and a pair of moving lips was super-imposed on it. According to St Hubbins, they begged and pleaded before she finally agreed not to join the tour.
Albert Lee - The legendary British guitarist appeared in The Return of Spinal Tap where he played the solo in 'Break Like The Wind'. This was the second seminal reunion concert that he had played at the Albert Hall; he played with the Everly Brothers nine years earlier.
Martin Short - Martin Short appeared in The Return of Spinal Tap to explain the role of Spinal Tap in getting Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky together.
And a worthy mention:
Mick Fleetwood - Mick Fleetwood was one of a large number of celebrity drummers, including Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees and Debbie Peterson of The Bangles, who attended open auditions to be Spinal Tap's tour drummer. Fleetwood, well aware of the nature of the job, arrived in an asbestos suit! Given the soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac, Spinal Tap must seem like a welcome break.
Some of the band's songs include:
'Tonight I'm Going to Rock You' - A combination of fist-pumping rock riffery and underage groupies that could have almost come straight from the mind of Jimmy Page:
You're sweet but you're just four feet
And you've still got your baby teeth,
You're too young and I'm too well hung but
Tonight I'm gonna rock you
'Big Bottom' - If you look back into the roots of rock music, back into the blues, an ample female rear-end was a work of art to be celebrated. Spinal Tap's celebration of the female form used three bass guitars, a catchy riff and innuendo-filled lyrics. In The Return of Spinal Tap Jim the skull is joined by Jill the giant bottom:
My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo
I like to sink her with my pink torpedo
'Diva Fever' - This is best known for Nigel's solo in The Return of Spinal Tap. While he indulges in biting guitars, throwing horseshoes at guitars, firing guns at guitars and playing while juggling, the rest of the band leave the stage. Derek goes to a restaurant and David gets a facial, leg-wax and pedicure.