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.