Spinal Tap - Biography

By Bill Kopp


             Rock music is often funny; rarely is it intentionally so. The 1984 film This is Spinal Tap was a faux documentary (“rockumentary” or “mockumentary”) that followed the exploits of fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap (“one of Britain’s loudest bands”). Like The Monkees before them, Spinal Tap went from being a fictional group to a real one; unlike The Monkees, Spinal Tap never had ambitions to be taken seriously. Turning every rock cliché on its head for laughs, Spinal Tap (the band and the movie) may be the most fully-realized parody in all of popular culture.


            The three bewigged primary musical players – Michael McKean ( guitarist “David St. Hubbins”), Christopher Guest (lead guitarist “Nigel Tufnel”) and Harry Shearer (bassist “Derek Smalls”) brought substantial experience in music, comedy and musical theater. McKean and Shearer were half of the underground comedy troupe The Credibility Gap; Guest was a veteran of several National Lampoon productions. The trio of Americans possessed a full understanding of the means to bridge comedy and music, and (with film director and prime mover Rob Reiner) succeeded in setting a high standard for the hybrid genre.


            While the film’s dialog was largely improvised, the central concept is intricately executed. Even the guitar solos and drum fills are funny; Spinal Tap manages to pack a history book full of pop culture references into their music. Nothing and no one is spared. Spinal Tap hit many of the cultural touchstones of metal, often in a single song. They offered up highly accurate satirical versions of heavy metal tropes, and managed to do so within the context of clever, entertaining songs that worked both as comedy and as music.


            Over their two albums (the 1984 soundtrack album and 1992’s Break Like the Wind) Spinal Tap mined territory familiar to heavy metal fans, and did so to maximum comedic effect. On “Stonehenge” they showcased the tendency for successful metal acts to overreach and head incautiously into prog-rock territory; they displayed ham-fisted classical allusions (inserting Boccherini’s “Minuet String Quintet in E, Op. 13, No. 5” as a coda to “Heavy Duty”) and reveled in rock sexism on tracks like “Sex Farm” and “Bitch School.” Spinal Tap wheeled out the expected gothic and Satanic references on songs like “Christmas With the Devil,” took themselves far too seriously on “The Majesty of Rock” and indulged in the obligatory power-ballad duet (with Cher!) on “Just Begin Again.” The group made fun of early 90s hidden-track mania with the officially untitled “Now Departing on Track 13.” They served up a nod to the bonus-track craze with the skiffle “All the Way Home,” itself a rewrite of The Beatles’ “The One After 909.” And they skewered plain old lunkheaded rock on the perfectly named “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.”


            A project like Spinal Tap could never have succeeded if not for the obvious love the participants have for the subject of their ridicule. While every lyric, every note, every arrangement detail is a send-up of heavy metal (as well as rock and pop music in general), McKean, Guest and Shearer truly understand what is actually good and worthwhile about the music. As with the film and the packaging of both albums, Spinal Tap’s music is filled to the brim with in-jokes, some of which will resonate only with the most inveterate of liner-notes readers (to wit: Break Like the Wind’s techie message from Steely Dan’s Walter Becker). But most of the jokes are of a mainstream nature, allowing enjoyment by general audiences. Too, the music is successful enough on its own that one could (theoretically) ignore the comedy and enjoy the rock.


            It’s some measure of the success of Spinal Tap that “real” British heavy metal groups have rushed to claim credit as the influence and/or inspiration for a number of Tap’s musical malapropisms; Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler claims his band’s misadventures inspired the film’s riotous “Stonehenge” scene. The visual and musical approach of Spinal Tap was compiled from a wide variety of sources, but a few are glaringly obvious: the umlauted “n” in the group’s logo is a piss-take on metallers like Motörhead and Queensrÿche; the Nigel Tufnel character is closely modeled on Jeff Beck; the group’s bandwagon-jumping musical approach (from skiffle to pop to psych to riffing boogie-metal) follows the career of Status Quo; there are countless others.


            A detailed and extensive back story was created for the film, and Spinal Tap created spot-on faux-back-catalog songs that skewered pop forms ranging from the British Invasion/beat-era pastiche “Gimme Some Money” to the pop-sike of “Cups and Cakes” to the winning Summer of Love parody “(Listen to the) Flower People.”


            Originally intended as a film project only, the “group” released a soundtrack LP (complete with its “none-more-black” album cover) and went on to make a number of television appearances. Eventually the group (“Tufnel” and “St. Hubbins” on guitars; “Smalls” on bass plus a drummer and keyboard player) played live dates in 1984, followed by “reunion” tours and other live dates in 1992, 2001 and 2007. (Fun fact: on some of the ’84 and ’01 dates, a trad-folk trio known as The Folksmen opened for Spinal Tap; in fact The Folksmen were none other than Shearer, Guest and McKean in skin-head wigs. They would reprise these characters in the 2003 film A Mighty Wind, directed by Christopher Guest.)


            After a several-year hiatus, Spinal Tap followed up the original film’s success with a made-for-TV special (intercutting footage from a live 1992 concert) and a second album, 1992’s Break Like the Wind. That album included guest spots by a number of rock giants (including Jeff Beck) and featured the duet with Cher.


            A minor cult has grown up around the band; a four-and-a-half hour work print of the This is Spinal Tap film circulates among hardcore fans, and several discs’ worth of bootleg material (TV appearances, live concerts, outtakes) exist as well. Spinal Tap has become a fixture of pop culture: they (briefly) guested on The Simpsons and have been referenced (often slyly, almost always reverently) in scores of other entertainment media. In 2000, the American Film Institute named This is Spinal Tap #29 on its “100 Years…100 Laughs” list of top comedy films. The immortal “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” was included (in a cover version) on the hit video game Guitar Hero II, released in 2006. Meanwhile, McKean, Shearer and Guest have not tired of Spinal Tap, and continue to reunite as the mood strikes them.


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