And that is how Michael McKean (Lenny of Lenny and Squiggy fame) introduces “England’s Loudest Band” in Rob Reiner’s classic mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. Tap is McKean as lead singer and guitarist David St. Hubbins, Christopher Guest as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, and Harry Shearer as sleepy-eyed bassist Derek Smalls. The band still exists and is usually rounded out by session players at keyboards and drums.
Spinal Tap has a lot in common with Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest in that it respects and even gets a bit fanboyish over the very thing it sends up. Unlike Quest, Tap is completely unscripted, and McKean, Guest, and Shearer continue to stay in character whenever they appear as Spinal Tap.
One of the ironies of the film is that the British heavy metal band is played by three Americans (original drummer RJ Parnell, who plays final Tap fatality Mick Schrimpton and, in a reunion special, Mick’s twin brother Ric, is British). Guest was born in Britain and is technically English nobility, yet McKean has a better English accent.
The actors improvise their reactions to various scenarios and in interviews that would later look stellar compared to U2’s shoddy performance in Rattle and Hum (though U2’s musical performance in that film is classic. The interviews are an embarrassment to watch.) As two of the band members in the movie were professional musicians in real life, and the actors had a lot of interaction with rock notables, they were able to bring some of the absurdity of life on the road for a working rock band to life while going for laughs. Several members of Black Sabbath have mentioned identifying with the pod malfunction scene during “Rock and Roll Creation.” Alice Cooper has mentioned an “Oh, no!” moment upon seeing the infamous “Stonehenge” scene where the band’s “giant” model of Stonehenge was in danger of being crushed by the hired dwarves dancing during the mandolin solo. What surprised me most was the scene where Nigel quits the band. Eddie Van Halen once said his first wireless unit really did start picking up police channels on stage back when the technology was bleeding edge.
The band also spins some of the excesses of musical experimentation. In one scene, Nigel is playing a Blackmore-like solo where basically he (like Blackmore) is basically just scraping the strings. Unlike Blackmore, he’s using a violin to do it and gets booed until he retunes the violin. In another scene, the song “Big Bottom” is played with Nigel, Dave, and Derek all playing bass. David is playing a double-necked bass, riffing on Jimmy Page’s double-necked guitar used to provide six and twelve strings for “Stairway to Heaven.”
The interviews are what make the movie, such as when Dave explains that St. Hubbins was “the patron saint of fine footwear,” and Nigel shows off his guitar, freaking out when director Marty DeBerge (Reiner) touches one guitar with a price tag still on it. “No, no, no! It can never be played. It can’t even be looked at!” But the best one?
The Litany of Dead Drummers past: Ed “Stumpy” Pepys (freak gardening accident, best left unsolved), Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs (choked on vomit, but police don’t know whose. “Rather hard to dust for vomit.”), and Peter James Bond (spontaneous human combustion during the Isle of Lucy festival.) It became a running joke with Mick Schrimpton exploding on stage during the penultimate scene (after telling DeBerge in his best Keith Moon imitation, “The law of averages say I’ll survive.”) Later drummers would fake the explosion, though the current drummer is eighties hair metal stalwart Greg Bissonette, who is most decidedly not dead as of this writing.
This Is Spinal Tap was the first in a long line of improvised comedies, mostly produced and directed by Guest and starring the boys from Tap and much of the original movie’s cast. Most notable is the classic dog show parody Best in Show, featuring Fred Willard as the most brain-damaged color commentator in television history.
But it’s Tap’s authenticity, despite the obvious absurdity, that sells the movie. As mentioned before, Parnell plays Mick like Keith Moon, and Nigel is a dead-on ringer for Jeff Beck right down to the sleeveless T-shirts and moody personality. David St. Hubbins, while looking much like Robert Plant, seems to have many of Pete Townshend’s neuroses. But it’s the little things – getting lost on the way to the stage, the Yoko Ono-like presence of David St. Hubbins’ girlfriend, and manager Ian Faith’s rants about having to go find mandolin strings in some shit-kicker town in Texas where there are none to be had. All these are very real hazards of the road. Weaving them in actually led a few people to ask Reiner, “Why did you make a movie about such stupid musicians?” They believed it was real.
Guest, McKean, and Shearer work hard to make it look that way, even now when Tap is more of a regular band.
All photos Embassy Pictures and MGM.