michael mckean

#832: This Is Spinal Tap

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!

REVIEW: Spinal Tap – This is Spinal Tap (soundtrack remastered)

SPINAL TAP – The Original Soundtrack Recording from the Motion Picture “This is Spinal Tap” (1984, 2010 Universal remaster)

In true Spinal Tap fashion, it turned out that I reviewed their albums in the wrong order.  I went backwards, and the soundtrack to the motion picture This is Spinal Tap is the last Tap album for me to scrutinize.  Though Spinal Tap is a parody band made of actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, it is easier to just refer to them as David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls.

If you happened to go through life without owning a single soundtrack album, then you must reverse that situation immediately.  All self-respecting rock fans must be able to laugh at the absurdities of their favourite genres, and Spinal Tap represent every mis-step that legendary rock bands ever took.  Spinal Tap forced real life rockers such as Judas Priest and Ronnie James Dio to laugh at themselves; a healthy undertaking.  Even though some artists didn’t see the humour in the movie This is Spinal Tap, others did and were quick to claim that certain scenes were actually based upon them!

The single/video “Hell Hole” opens the album, a rare Nigel lead vocal with David St. Hubbins on the chorus.  According to the helpful liner notes, this track was from Tap’s then-new reunion album, Smell the Glove.  Scorching guitar from St. Hubbins and Tufnel; slamming drums from Mick Shrimpton and spot-on organ by Viv Savage: it’s all here.  And let’s not forget the band’s secret weapon Derek Smalls on bass and backing vocals, thickening up the mix like a good brown gravy….

I always think of “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” as the song on which something is all but guaranteed to go wrong, live.  In the studio it’s a taut rocker with explicit lyrics:  “You’re sweet but you’re just four feet and you still got your baby teeth, you’re too young and I’m too well-hung but tonight I’m gonna rock ya!”  Lock up your daughters, but you don’t want to miss this scorching classic from 1974’s Intravenus de Milo.

“Heavy Duty” is a concert classic, originally from Bent for the Rent (1976), but to me it has long overstayed its welcome.  It is a mere skeleton of a song with not enough raw meat.  It does ask an important question in the lyrics, “Why waste good music on the brain?”  Interesting inquiry David; something to get the metal masses thinking.  For fans of Nigel Tufnel’s signature shredding, you will find much to love in his solo for “Heavy Duty”.  Moving forward to 1977, we are next treated to the title track from Rock and Roll Creation, Tap’s misguided collection of rock and roll psalms.  Thankfully the track “Rock and Roll Creation” itself boasts one of the band’s strongest choruses, though it is certainly hard to forget the scene in the movie when Derek fails to escape his pod.

The liner notes say that “America” is previously unreleased (I did not know that).  It was barely in the film.  This duet between Nigel and David boasts some heavy riffing, but not much in terms of melody.  Lyrically the song recounts the experience of Spinal’s visits to America, “pretty womens everywhere, Brady Bunch and Smokey Bear!”

Side one of the soundtrack closes with “Cups and Cakes”, a pre-Tap single from 1965 when they were still known as The Thamesmen.  This is a Tufnel creation about having tea.  Predating Sgt Peppers by two years, obviously the Beatles must have taken inspiration from “Cups and Cakes” for their own songs.  Strings and trumpets create the backing music while nary a rock instrument can be heard.

The legendary “Big Bottom” (from Brainhammer, 1973) was given some legitimacy when Soundgarden decided to cover it (as a medley with Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye”).  In this track all the axemen play bass — there are no guitars!  Opening side two with a song that is all bass and no guitar was probably a genius move.  I just can’t explain why.  I’m just assuming. Unfortunately when Soundgarden covered it, they did it with guitars, failing to capture the mighty bass necessary to sing a song about bums.

“My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo, I’d like to sink her with my pink torpedo”

From 1980’s poorly reviewed Shark Sandwich is the riffy “Sex Farm”.  Though Shark Sandwich might be considered one of Tap’s worst, “Sex Farm” is one of their most enduring anthems.  Readers of my regular feature here, Record Store Tales, may recall that my good friend Uncle Meat got written up at work for playing this song in store.  Supposedly somebody called in to complain about the lyrics.  This is Spinal Tap is his favourite movie of all time.  “I realize there is some innuendo,” says Meat.  “‘Plowin’ through your beanfield’…I just, you know, the thought of someone allegedly being so offended by Spinal Tap…” he trailed off.  (You can see the story in video form here, as this very CD was one of the Top Five Albums that Got Us in Shit at the Record Store.)

The best tune on 1975’s The Sun Never Sweats was undoubtedly “Stonehenge”, and I would argue that it remains the greatest Spinal Tap song of all time.  It is hard to encapsulate this opus in mere English.  Tap take us on a trip back in time with both Tufnel and St. Hubbins sharing lead vocals.  The mandolin break at the end is one of Tap’s most famous musical moments, as it is there that things often seem to go wrong in concert, regarding the giant Stonehenge prop that is supposed to appear on stage.

In my last year of high school, my mom bought me this soundtrack on cassette.  That helped enable a group of my friends to do a Spinal Tap “air band” at our school’s annual air band competition!  Lacking a mandolin player, they instead snagged one of our math teachers who played banjo, and had him come out on stage dancing in lederhosen.  Absolutely brilliant.  I’m glad to have participated in it in my own small way of lending the tape.  Bringing Spinal Tap to the highschool masses?  There must be an award for that.

The album comes to an end with two oldies-but-goodies.  Back to the Thamesmen days, it’s 1965’s “Gimme Some Money”, the flip side to “Cups and Cakes”.  The drummer was John “Stumpy” Pepys (Ed Begley Jr.), a “tall blonde geek with glasses” according to David.  Pepys died in a bizarre gardening accident.  This artifact from their skiffle period is best remembered for Nigel’s cool guitar solo.  “Go Nigel, Go!”  Then finally it’s “(Listen to the) Flower People” from the cumbersome titled Spinal Tap Sings “Listen to the Flower People” and Other Favourites (1967).  The drummer on this track was Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs, who sadly choked to death on vomit (not his own) in 1974.  What is especially interesting about this track is Nigel’s use of the sitar, a full two years after George Harrison did on Rubber Soul.  Spinal Tap were exploiting the hippy movement and this track was one of their greatest successes.

The remastered CD comes with two bonus tracks!  The non-album single (1984) for “Christmas With the Devil” is presented in two mixes, one from the A-side and one from the B-side.  Prior to this, the only version of “Christmas With the Devil” available on CD was the re-recorded one on 1992’s Break Like the Wind.  The original single version(s) remained obscure until 2000, when Universal released them here.  Now finally having them all, I must say I prefer the 1992 version best.  The original does have a little more pep in its step, and there is a Christmas message from the band at the end.  The “scratch mix” of the single is not much different.

All joking aside, it’s crucial to remember that these guys (the actors) were not musical slouches.  Michael McKean was nominated for an Oscar award, for his music in 2003’s A Mighty Wind.  The musicianship is there and it’s intentional humorous.  You can hear musical jokes in the solos of Christopher Guest.  As a result, the soundtrack is not only funny but also timeless.  A good song is a good song is a good song, and some of the tracks here are actually really good when you break them down.  “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”, “Sex Farm” and especially “Stonehenge” are all really good songs when it comes down to it!

In the real world, all the songs were written by the trio of Guest, McKean and Shearer with director Rob Reiner.  The drums were handled by R.J. Parnell of Atomic Rooster, who played Mick Shrimpton in the movie.  On keyboards is David Kaff (Rare Bird) otherwise known as Viv Savage from the film.  (Rare Bird are probably best remembered as the band who originally did “Sympathy”, later covered by Marillion.)  The album was self-produced.  There is no questioning the chops of the musicians involved.  It’s hard to create a musical joke of album length that is still fun to listen to 30 years later.

4/5 stars

TV REVIEW: American Dad – “Lost in Space” / Wax Fang – “Majestic”

AMERICAN DAD – “Lost in Space” (Episode 18, season 9)
WAX FANG – “Majestic” (from the album La La Land)

I’ve been sick the last couple days.  Stuck home, hurting and with no energy, at least I had my American Dad re-runs.   It seems to be a show I turn to when I’m sick at home, and it does the trick.  I love the adsurbity of the alien character, Roger — how all he needs is a wig to “disguise” himself and nobody* can tell he’s an alien.   The other day one of my favourite episodes was on:  “Lost in Space”; or “the one that shows what happens to Jeff Fischer once he’s taken to space by Roger’s species.”

This episode was a real risk taker.  It is almost entirely about a secondary character, that of stoner Jeff (husband to Hayley Smith). Aside from an opening recap, only one main character appears in a surprise cameo.  When we last saw Jeff Fischer, Roger tricked him into being sucked up by an alien spaceship.  While I expected him to be written off, he has returned, with his new sidekick Sinbad.

SINBADLet me say that again.  With new sidekick Sinbad.

In “Lost in Space”, Jeff is used as slave labor at the local Shawarma Hut in the alien spaceship’s massive food court.  Emperor Zing (Michael McKean) has created a shopping mall spaceship, which he rules with an iron fist.  The only way off is if a slave can prove he or she was in true love, and must be set free.  Jeff decides to take a chance and prove his love for Hayley was real, at the risk of losing his genitals as the price of failure.

This sets up a musical number involving a rock band called Wax Fang.  I won’t be all cool and pretend I knew who Wax Fang were before seeing this episode.  I dig the vintage operatic bombast of “Majestic”, which appears in the episode all but whole.  The song itself inspired large parts of the episode, and the character of the Majestic as well.  As to the song, it has Queen-like qualities and a simply irresistible lead vocal.   On top of that is a lovely guitar solo, classic rock in quality.  I will definitely be checking out more by Wax Fang.

For both the episode, and the song:

5/5 stars

*Toshi can.

ADLIS

REVIEW: A Mighty Wind – The Album (2003 soundtrack)

A MIGHTY WIND – The Album (2003 Sony Music Soundtrax)

It’s way too easy to dismiss this album as a novelty. After all, movie stars singing songs in a comedy movie rarely amounts to anything substantial. However, the Oscar nomination for “A Kiss At The End of The Rainbow” lends this album credibility. Not to mention, most of these people have been singing for years. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara frequently had musical numbers on SCTV. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest perform here as The Folksmen, but they are probably best knows as their alter egos, Spinal Tap.

I can’t say that every song is a winner. I’m not a huge fan of the stylings of The New Main Street Singers (Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, et. al. in a “neuftet”). It”s just not to my taste.  As Harry Shearer says in the movie itself, “Would you rather hear a toothpaste commercial, or some music?”  The New Main Street Singers are the toothpaste commercial.  It works in the context of the movie. On the album, well, I could live without!

The estranged couple Mitch & Mickey (Levy and O’Hara) sing a beautiful song called “When You’re Next To Me” on track 3. It’s pretty stock until the second verse, when O’Hara comes in with her harmonies, and at that point I can believe that this is a real, serious folk duo. After all, they’ve been working together in various incarnations almost as long as their movie counterparts. Great song, and a great performance.

Finally, The Folksmen pull out their greatest hit(!), “Old Joe’s Place”, a fun novelty track that’s instantly catchy and memorable. You won’t be able to stop singing, if you can keep up with the rapid fire lyrics. Even better is “Never Did No Wanderin'”, on which the three singers meld perfectly. Not to mention these guys can really play their instruments, don’t underestimate them.

Lyrically, the jokes (when present) are sometimes a little subtle. For example, “Blood On The Coals”. Since there were so many folk songs about train accidents, and just as many folk songs about coal mine disasters, why not combine the two? So it’s a song about a train that crashes into a coal mine.  Elsewhere, the jokes are more obvious. The Folksmen end their cover of “Start Me Up” faithfully to the Stones’ original, which sounds absurd.  I like the absurd.

Although I cannot pick a favourite song, I think “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow” is as beautiful and perfect as music gets.

Lastly, the CD is enhanced with a bonus video: “When You’re Next to Me” by Mitch & Mickey live, which was deleted from the movie.  This feature is only advertised inside the CD booklet.    In the days of Youtube, this really isn’t much of a feature anymore, but I remember being quite excited to discover it back in 2003.

Don’t let the “comedy” tag scare you off. These are just great songs. It should hardly be a surprise — The Folksmen used to open for their alter egos Spinal Tap decades ago! These guys are all pros.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Spinal Tap – Back From The Dead (2009 CD/DVD)

SPINAL TAP – Back From The Dead (2009 CD/DVD)

It seems like ages since Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls have graced the metal masses with new music. 17 years ago came Break Like The Wind, an album which sounded just as great as it smelled. Now, finally, after the odd show and a couple internet singles, The Tap has returned with the aptly titled Back From The Dead. However, I do want you to understand that nobody has actually died (this time).

The not-dead Causasian Jeffery Vanston has returned on keyboards, still filling in for the very dead Viv Savage. Gregg Bisonette (David Lee Roth), also gratefully still alive, is the drummer on these recordings. Other living souls guesting on the album include Phil Collen, Keith Emerson, Steve Vai, and John Mayer.

All songs are studio recordings, as opposed to the “live” versions as heard on the soundtrack to This Is Spinal Tap. As such they all sound a little more sterile. Nothing here is really superior to the versions we all know and love from that piece of character assassination on celeloid. They all sound a little more stuffy, a little flat in comparison. However, these being classic songs, they are still an enjoyable listen, and performed remarkably well.

There are some new songs and some new arrangements, as well as some oldies finally seeing the light of day! These include:

“Back From The Dead” — an older internet single finally released on CD. Tufnel’s backing vocals are a bit shrill and weak, but otherwise the song rocks proudly and strongly.

“(Funky) Sex Farm” — sadly, not the funky version from the Return Of Spinal Tap TV special, this is a slower less funky version. Still funky though.

“Jazz Oddyssey” (parts I, II, and III) — Wisely breaking up this tedious, yet historic recording into three parts!

“Rock N’ Roll Nightmare” — St. Hubbins growls his way through this stomper, something that truly lives up to and maybe even exceeds the heady Tap legacy. The premier release of an oldie but goodie, this is the best “new” song.

“(Listen to The) Flower People (Reggae Stylee)” — As the title suggests, Tap have finally conquered Reggae. But fear not, a more authentic version is also available (more on that later).

“Celtic Blues” — A very brief song (1:25) that actually sounds quite like their opening act, The Folksmen. Strange coincidence, I can’t figure out why they sound so similar.

“Warmer Than Hell” — Another internet single finally released on CD. Tap want to stop Global Warming, and this is their attempt. Yes, Tap have heard of Global Warming!

“Short And Sweet” — Actually quite long (6:35), this is another rocker sung by St. Hubbins.

The rest of the album is rounded out by the classic songs that we know and love from the movie. But wait! There’s more! Three more to be exact! But you have to get these elsewhere on your own.

Bonus tracks:

“Saucy Jack” — Finally, St. Hubbins’ long unreleased song from his Jack The Ripper musical has seen the light of day. It is a delightful, jaunty track and available for free on their website.

“Sex Farm (2009)” — A more authentic version of the classic song about a farm of fornication, as opposed to the funky version. This is available for download on the iTunes version.

“(Listen to the) Flower People (2009)” — A more authentic version than the reggae one on the CD proper. This one, perhaps, almost exceeds the original 1967 version!  Unfortunately you can only get this from Amazon digital downloads, and there’s no such thing in Canada.  I still managed to get this song from my longtime friend Dan Slessor who writes for Kerrang!

DVD

Finally, Tap have given the loyal, faithful (but not Ian Faith-ful) fans a DVD. This DVD offers the band’s commentary on the tracks. Absolutely essential if you want to understand just what the band was thinking (or not thinking) at the time.

Packaging

And, also finally, the packaging: Tap have outdone themselves. How can you top a black album cover when you can simply get none-more-black? Tap are not content with 2 dimensions, so they have entered a 3rd. The cover unfolds into a stage, complete with Stonehenge monument, and miniature St. Hubbins, Tufnel, and Smalls figures. A little small Smalls! How quaint! The drawback is that it is very difficult to wedge the discs in and out of the case when it is all folded up in case form — but perhaps this was the idea all along.

spinal tap - back from the dead

photo from metalsucks.net

[According to metalsucks.net, the case takes 20 minutes to assemble, and I’ve never tried, preferring to keep mine original.]

4/5 stars. Not a perfect return from the dead, but This Is Spinal Tap.