The largely improvised heavy metal send-up This Is Spinal Tap (1984) hit the public consciousness at just the right time. The most internationally successful acts birthed during the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (which had its heyday from about 1979–1981) were well on their way to becoming gold- and platinum-record selling acts, such as Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. Home-grown hard rock acts such as Kiss, Aerosmith, and Van Halen were trading in their heavier earlier sounds for glitzier, more commercial approaches. British dyed-in-the-wool rockers such as Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath were undergoing personnel changes and musical personality crises. It is this third group of rock musicians on which This Is Spinal Tap set its satiric sights.
It was a time of change for rock and roll, with punk and new wave displacing the arena hard rock and heavy metal acts. The Clash, Sex Pistols, and The Jam were speaking to the kids more urgently than Jethro Tull and the like — although the case can be made that Judas Priest was finding a whole new, larger audience at the same time. The term “dinosaurs” was being thrown around, and director/writer Rob Reiner (who appears as director Marty DiBergi) and writers/stars Christopher Guest (as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel), Michael McKean (as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins), and Harry Shearer (as bassist Derek Smalls) found in that group of past-their-prime rockers perfect comedy characters.
An amazing thing about This Is Spinal Tap is that it fooled some very early audience members into thinking that Spinal Tap was a real group, and that the film was an actual documentary. I read about this during the film’s initial release, and I witnessed it first hand the first time I saw the movie. It was the bottom half of a double-bill at a multiplex in Sacramento, California, supporting the 1980 concert film AC/DC: Let There Be Rock. A trio of guys in front of us who had come for the AC/DC movie were missing the humor of This Is Spinal Tap, seemingly wondering why my friends and I were laughing so hard at the misfortunes of the British group. They asked my friends and me in the sparsely attended theater during intermission if we had heard of the band before, and did we not like them because we were laughing so much? We explained that the band was fictitious, and they were surprised. “But the songs were so good!”, I remember one of them saying.
That statement was, and is, so true, and the quality of songwriting and performance is one of the major reasons why This Is Spinal Tap grew from cult film to practically a household name. Each of Spinal Tap’s tunes were a few comical, lyrical tweaks away from being legitimate heavy belters. The music, with a few humorous exceptions, was arranged and played fairly straight, and that authenticity is what made the songs all the more amazing.
The songs were probably most absurd to viewers who never listened to much, if any, 1970s–early 1980s hard rock, while denim-and-leather clad fans of bands like AC/DC, Kiss, and Scorpions were either in on the joke right away, or had it sail over their heads. Songs such as “Big Bottom” (“The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin’/That’s what I said/The looser the waistband, the deeper the quicksand/Or so I have read/My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo/I’d love to sink her with my pink torpedo”) and “Sex Farm” (“Working up a hot sweat/I’m scratching in your pea patch/Plowing through your bean field/Planting my seed”) are simply cock rock songs turned up one-half notch of absurdity. It’s not difficult to imagine that Spinal Tap’s sexual conquest songs kicked the door wide open for metal parody bands like Steel Panther. It’s a shame, though, that we only heard the music for Nigel’s “Lick My Love Pump,” and not the lyrics, in the film.
Cock rock was not the only hard rock/heavy metal lyrical send-up with which Spinal Tap played. “Rock and Roll Creation” (“‘Twas the rock and roll creation/’Twas a terrible big bang/’Twas the ultimate mutation/Ying was searching for his yang”) satirizes the fantasy lyrical elements of, for example, musicians such as the legendary Ronnie James Dio, vocalist and lyricist of both Rainbow and Black Sabbath before he went solo. “Heavy Duty” (“I don’t need a woman, I won’t take me no wife/I got the rock and roll and that’ll be my life/No page in history, baby/That I don’t need/I just want to make some eardrums bleed”) is not a far cry from the fist-pumping “metal forever” anthems of Judas Priest and the bordering-on-self parody “metal or die” lyrics for which Manowar has always been well known.
The songs alone make This Is Spinal Tap worth repeated viewings, but there are so many genius small comedy catches to make while doing so, as well. For example, in “Big Bottom,” David, Nigel, and Derek all play bass guitars — quite fitting considering the song title — and both necks on Derek’s double-neck bass are exactly the same!
“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” was a popular lifestyle in the era just before and during the time that This Is Spinal Tap was made. Judging from outtakes that have appeared on home video releases of the movie, Reiner, Guest, McKean, and Shearer chose to focus on rock and roll, leaving most of the sex and drug jokes on the cutting room floor. This was a wise decision, because too much drug humor could have dated the film, and some of the sexual humor outtakes hint that this element might have weighed down the film to a sophomoric level. What the filmmakers gave us with their theatrical cut was a lovable bunch of self-important characters, underdogs with whom viewers could relate but who were brash enough to live out their rock and roll dreams — even if they did receive second billing to a puppet show.
The term mockumentary was not yet in the popular vernacular before This Is Spinal Tap’s release, and it can be argued that the term was coined, or at least popularized, because of the movie. The genre certainly became Guest’s bread and butter after this release, with such comedy classics as Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003) to his writing, directorial, and acting credits.
The popularity of This Is Spinal Tap and of the band itself has only grown over the years. After past “comebacks” including the release of Spinal Tap’s third album Back from the Dead and live appearances at Glastonbury and London’s Wembley Arena in 2009, 2018 saw the release of Derek Smalls’ solo album Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Aging), and plans are in place for McKean, Guest, and Shearer to reunite in character as St. Hubbins, Tufnel, and Smalls at a 35th anniversary screening of This Is Spinal Tap at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, including a musical performance. Indeed, these trios — both the actors and their characters — were trailblazers with This Is Spinal Tap, and their legacy is one about which many “real” hard rock and heavy metal bands only dream. Thank the metal gods that St. Hubbins’ on-camera proclamation that he and Tufnel “shan’t work together again” was wrong.