80s Movie Challenge Week 19: This Is Spin̈al Tap (1984)
Let’s Rock, 80s Officianodoes!
This week Paul Childs turns it up to eleven and really puts things into perspective – too much perspective – and in a piece that runs a fine line between stupid and clever, takes a look at one of the most quotable comedies of the 80s – nay all time. It’s 1984’s rocku-mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.
As always, there are some spoilers.
First off, I’ll get this out of the way. Before last night I’d never seen This Is Spinal Tap. Yes, I know. Where I have been all this time? I don’t know, OK!? I don’t know why I’d not watched it before. I’ve always wanted to. I’ve had the DVD on my shelf still in the plastic for many years – at least 13 because I noted it had a Music Zone price sticker on it as I unwrapped it last night and that chain (one of my favourites) went out of business in 2007.
That said, as I watched, I was familiar with large swathes of it, and that’s a testament to the film’s suitability, not to mention the longevity and timelessness of many of the jokes. But, going all serious for a bit, let me take you back to 25th November 1991 and the circumstances that led to me first hearing about Spinal Tap…
I was only a few months into Sixth Form and was studying for my A-Levels, one of which was English Literature. I was writing an essay on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair at the kitchen table. A day earlier the surprise news that Freddie Mercury had died from AIDS-related complications had shocked the world, so I wasn’t really in the mood for report writing. That morning one of our neighbours, Jim, a good friend of my parents and a massive Queen fan, had semi-joked that if he could never see Queen in concert again he might as well be struck down dead himself. As I sat doing my homework there was a hammering at the door. It was his wife – who was several months pregnant with their second child – in obvious distress. Jim had collapsed and she didn’t know what to do. An ambulance was called and paramedics attempted to revive him, but he had already died.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, at the 1992 Brit Awards, the remaining members of Queen announced there would be a concert to celebrate Freddie’s life and to raise money for AIDS charities and it would take place on Easter Monday – 20th April. Jim’s birthday. So watching that show was very much a bittersweet experience for me, for an even greater reason than most people watching. However, that day was a very formative one in my musical education. That was the day I discovered a number of bands I’d heard of before, but never really listened to their music. Metallica and Def Leppard were two of them – and Spinal Tap was another. At this point I just thought they were a metal band – I didn’t realise they were a comedy trio – but as soon as they took to the stage, dressed as Freddie had during the 1986 Magic tour, in a cape and crown, I knew their tongue was firmly in their cheeks. Then they cast their cloaks off to reveal Christopher Guest’s stage persona, Nigel Tufnel in a bright green Spider-Man costume and, after a long delay while they sorted some technical issues (which I’ll come back to later in the article) they launched into a magnificently pompous performance of their new song The Majesty of Rock.
And, watching the film again last night, that’s one of the things that really struck me, as on that day. These comedians, including one of the regular voice artists from The Simpsons and the guy who played the conman-with-a-heart in Short Circuit 2, are also remarkably talented musicians and songwriters. The songs in the film, such as Stonehenge, Tonight I’m Gonna Love You Tonight and Big Bottom, are simultaneously terribly self-important and dreadfully derivative of other bands of the time (Judas Priest, UFO, Kiss, Uriah Heap) while also being brilliantly written and performed. It takes a rare talent to write a bad song well!
But the songs are only a small part of the film, and probably one of the less well-remembered aspects. As I said before, it’s eminently quotable – so much so that many of the gags have entered into our subconscious. Everyone, even those like me who’ve never seen the film, know that an amplifier that turns up to eleven is bigger, better and louder than a standard one because, well, eleven is bigger, better and louder than ten. Right?
And there are so many other great gags which are now just part of the pop-culture landscape; the continual conveyor belt of drummers who befall a series of mysterious, humorous and grotesque accidents (one of which, the unfortunate gardening accident, was mirrored by Queen’s own Brian May just a week ago – thankfully with far less fatal but no less humorous results when he tore his buttock muscle which weeding); the special effects failing spectacularly during live performances, typified by the band’s emergence from alien pods, one of which fails to open, leaving bassist Derek Smalls trapped for the entire song.
And then there’s the miscalculation with measurements for a prop. It’s such a simple, elegant gag, delivered with brilliant deadpan by the performers. The “tiny Stonehenge” sequence has remained a timelessly brilliant and funny joke that it went on to inspire a pair of hilarious episodes of the BBC sitcom The Goes Wrong Show (one where the dimensions are confused and one where the entire set is on a 90° angle).
But it’s not just the trio, along with director Rob Reiner’s writing skills which are impressive. The entire film is improvised. They’d have an outline of how the scene was to start, major lot points to cover in it, and how it would end, and then the performers were given carte blanche to take it wherever they felt necessary. Even more impressive is that, to retain the natural reactions of the actors, the first take was used each time. Reiner lobbied for the entire cast to be credited as writers as even the bit-part players, such as Bruno Kirby, Billy Crystal and Patrick McNee all created their own dialogue. Unfortunately, the Writer’s Guild took issue with that and the final credits went to Reiner, Shearer, Guest and McKean alone.
So going back to the technical failure at the Freddie Tribute, Shearer and McKean had to use their improvisational skills to keep the 72000 concert goers amused while Guest tried to fix his guitar. Billboard tried to get to the bottom of the incident in a 2019 interview with the band. They asked why Guest’s guitar wasn’t plugged in, to which he said, “It was plugged in, but there was a little of mischief there because someone had sabotaged it [his amp rig]”. McKean goes on to say that the rumour going around was that Guns ‘n’ Roses did it purposefully as a kind of Spinal Tap in-joke. Shearer claims to know which band member was responsible but refused to be drawn on a name.
“The bad news was,” Guest went on. “Once they plugged me into another thing, I had none of my effects. So it was kind of sad.”
Many of the brilliant, funny moments in the film were inspired by true events. The moment when the band get lost backstage and find themselves going round in circles trying to find the stage door really happened to Tom Petty who, instead of walking onto the stage, went through a door which took him out of the theatre and into a tennis court. The concert at an air force base, being briefed on how their gig should play out was based on a real-life event which happened to Uriah Heep. R.E.M and Deep Purple also claim to have had similar experiences, and the sequence was also homaged in the third season of Amazon’s brilliant The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.
Other gags taking their cue from real-life include the infamous body count of drummers, which was inspired by The Who’s Keith Moon, and the hoo-hah surrounding a potentially offensive/sexist album covers. The LP art, which should have featured a semi-naked woman in bondage gear having a leather glove thrust in her face echoes outrageous, sexualised album covers of the seventies and eighties such as Whitesnake’s Lovehunter, the original cover for The Rolling Stones’ Black & Blue and The Scorpions’ ultra-controversial Virgin Killer, the latter of which I’d urge you NOT to look up online. Echoing Spinal Tap’s disappointment at unboxing Smell The Glove to find its new cover completely black (not unlike Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album), The Scorpions had no input into the artwork of Virgin Killer and were shocked when it was revealed to them, long after it had come back from the printers.
So, despite knowing many of the jokes and having a good idea about the plot and music, what did I think of my first viewing?
This Is Spinal Tap is so much more than all that. Yes, thanks to massive pop culture exposure I knew what was coming at various points (such as the failing stage props, amp gags, ridiculous, overly sexualised lyrics etc) but what took me by surprise was the film’s heart. Here is a story that satirises the rock and roll lifestyle, but without ever portraying it in a negative light. The band themselves come across as really kind, gentle souls who cast all that aside when performing – Alice Cooper springs to mind. While they are clearly parodies, the humour is very subtle and never unkind. This film has been written and performed by people who love their subject matter, so the lampoonery is incredibly affectionate and that really does come across.
What also impressed me was the depth of relationships in the film. The band are portrayed (well, exploding drummers aside) as three normal guys who care for each other very much, and who are as deeply hurt by their failures and grievances as they are buoyed by their successes. The friendship of Tufnel and St. Hubbins has real heart to it – it’s almost like a marriage which gets threatened when St. Hubbins’ girlfriend (an obvious Yoko Ono analogue) Jeanine turns up (an addition at the request of the studio to give the film more of a plot). Real emotions are at play in scenes such as the band’s break up, or when Tufnel moons over the newly rebooted group playing without him (before being invited back to rejoin them mid-gig) and by the end I felt that I knew these characters and only wanted the best for them (apart from Jeanine).
So you could do far worse than get yourself a copy on DVD, pop it in the player, turn up to eleven and feel the rock!
Come back next week for more 80s shenanigans as Paul gets all misty-eyed about not being able to go outside by watching a classic British film featuring a group of tightly packed chaps running along a beach. That’s right, it’s 1981’s sporting period drama Chariots of Fire.