GETTING MORE TALE #832: This Is Spinal Tap
I can admit it. I was only 13 years old, and I thought Spinal Tap were a real band.
How was I to know? A lot of media surrounding Spinal Tap took them seriously. When MuchMusic’s J.D. Roberts interviewed Ronnie James Dio about the Hear N’ Aid project in 1986, he played it straight. David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap appear on the track “Stars”, which Ronnie produced.
Roberts: “I think that one of the great coups of Hear N’ Aid, and I think you’ll have to agree with me, was having David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap enter the project.”
Dio: “Yeah that was a real special moment. I must tell you that there was a little consternation on the part of some of the people who did not turn up, who were asked to take part in ‘Stars’, that the inclusion of those two people, or anyone from Spinal Tap, made this project a laughing stock. I’d like to be able to reply to anyone who thinks that’s a valid point. Again, we are human beings. And part of human nature is to laugh. Probably the nicest part of human nature is to laugh. And these are two wonderful people who made us laugh, not only in this project, but in Spinal Tap.”
Even though Dio actually broke the wall for a moment and entered the “real” world with his answer, Roberts shot right back into the fictional world with his followup question. Dio played along this time.
Roberts: “It’s a good thing, as Derek says, that you didn’t let them do the lead vocal, because they would have blown everybody away.”
Dio: “Well they did a lot of singing when the tape wasn’t rolling, and they were better than all of us. And they happen to both be the best guitar players I’ve ever heard too.”
Never mind that Derek plays bass!
Shortly after the interview rolled, Much played the video for “Hell Hole” and I had a chance to hear Spinal Tap for myself. Yeah, that blonde guy could sing. It was a decent song. I expected something heavier — more thrash like. Maybe the reason I hadn’t heard of them was they were a thrash band? If they were so highly praised by Ronnie James Dio, I couldn’t understand why I never heard of them. I didn’t have much to go on either.
According to the Dio interview, there were some unnamed rock stars who felt that Spinal Tap would turn Hear N’ Aid into a “laughing stock”. Why? I turned various scenarios over in my head. Were they satanic? Well, they had a song called “Hell Hole” and there was a big demon skull head in the backdrop, but that didn’t make them satanists. Just what was the story exactly with this Spinal Tap?
They did seem arrogant in the Hear N’ Aid “making of” video.
David St. Hubbins: “They asked us to do the leads, but like I said before, I didn’t wanna blow these other blokes away, you know. I’ve been doing this a lot longer than they have. I’ve got pipes I haven’t used yet. Haven’t located them yet.”
Derek Smalls: “He could break the board in there. It’s really an act of mercy to the engineers that he doesn’t sing lead.”
Arrogant yes, but…St. Hubbins has been doing this this a lot longer than they have? Just why haven’t I heard of Spinal Tap before? Analysing the video for “Hell Hole” revealed little. Yes, there was a comedic slant to it, but the song actually rocked. Other bands put comedy in their music videos too, like Twisted Sister. There was no reason whatsoever to suspect the truth.
The only real clue that I had was when Dio briefly mentioned a film. There, the trail went cold. Never heard of it, never seen it, didn’t know anybody who did. It was a couple more years before I eventually put the story together. While continuing my education in KISStory, I learned that their film, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, was shown in a double bill with This Is Spinal Tap for a limited run. This happened in England, a “Headbanging double feature”, around October 1984.* I began to read names like “Michael McKean” and “Harry Shearer”. Eventually a highschool friend named Andy recommended that I see the movie ASAP so I rented a copy from Steve’s TV.
The truth is, I did not like This In Spinal Tap the first time I saw it. I didn’t laugh. It certainly wasn’t a gleeful rock and roll comedy, as I watched the hard times roll out one after another. But then the next day back at school, talking about it with Andy, I started to get the jokes.
“…and then when they’re stuck in those pods for ‘Rock and Roll Creation’ and the bassist can’t get out…they have to bring out a blowtorch…” said Andy.
“Oh yeah, that was pretty funny actually. You know what part I did like, was when they were lost in the basement trying to find the stage. Did you notice Billy Crystal was the mime? Mime is money!”
I finally got it. I rented it again, and this time I dubbed a copy for myself. I understood Rob Reiner’s role in the concept and recognized the actors from other roles. Christopher Guest, the other singer, was Count Rugen in The Princess Bride, only one of the greatest movies ever made. Also directed by Rob Reiner! I watched Spinal Tap again, and again. I think I had a new favourite movie!
There’s no shame in admitting being fooled by Spinal Tap. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? Otherwise the band wouldn’t have continued doing interviews in character. The idea was to always keep it believable enough that you can fool a small minority.
My dad used to say, “If that band is just a bunch of actors, then I guess it doesn’t take much talent to play rock and roll.” But my dad missed something then, that he now understands. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest are actually excellent musicians on multiple instruments. And that is why Spinal Tap was so believable. When Nignel Tufnel rips a solo in the video for “Hell Hole”, it looks right because Christopher Guest performed that solo. You know, maybe Spinal Tap should be considered a real band after all!
* Thank you Dale Sherman for that detail!