When This Is Spinal Tap was released in 1984, rock music was in a transitional phase. Read any “best album of all time” list and you’ll see: the most “critically acclaimed” bands and releases in rock’s history belong to the formative-era of the 1960’s and 70’s. By the 1980’s, the musical dexterity and real “meat” of rock music had faded with the break-up, sudden death, or basic growing mediocrity of the era’s greatest acts. When rock ‘n’ roll lost its meat, the 80’s was left with the fat: blisteringly loud amps, obnoxious, mundane arena anthems, and self-indulgent stage performances. This is where Spinal Tap comes in.
The film is a mockumentary directed by Marti Dibergi (portrayed by actual director Rob Reiner) and follows the fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer) on their United States tour to promote their latest release, Smell the Glove, another step in the band’s gradual decline. Just about everything seems to go wrong for the band as their declining status, low attendance and overall stupidity seem to always catch up with them.
The satire of Spinal Tap draws from the fact that it takes jabs at the extravagant stories and lifestyles of rock music’s illustrious past. In one scene, the band plays the epic “Stonehenge”, a send-up of early-Genesis and Yes‘ elaborate performances but their careless manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), filled in the wrong dimensions, making an 18-inch Stonehenge appear on stage, rather than an 18-foot tower.
In another, guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest) plays Dibergi a “Mach”-inspired (Bach and Mozart) piece. When Dibergi asks what it is called, Tufnel says that he calls it “Lick my Love Pump”, perhaps as a send-up to classically-influenced players such as Ritchie Blackmore.
As any great satire does, Reiner and the cast (who mostly improvised their lines) did their homework; and as a result, came up with a powerful, but cheeky farce of hard rock and heavy metal. The actors wrote all of the songs and played their own instruments and took much of their fictional biography from the lives of actual rock legends (particularly the tendency for the high mortality rate of rock ‘n’ roll drummers).
So deep is the film’s material that many audience members, rock star or otherwise, had no idea that this was a fictional band. Perhaps it plays on the public’s perception of the rock ‘n’ roll life or on appeals to a completely different level of understanding. Regardless, many audience members at the band believed the band to be real and simply got lost in the farce. Similarly, many rock legends of the day couldn’t help but shed a tear at their own expense upon watching Spinal Tap.
Spinal Tap quotes have become so sublime because they are very wittily-written, yet have an odd tinge of innocence to them. The band embodies everything that was and always will be eccentric, self-indulgent, and juvenile in rock ‘n’ roll. But these are things that true rock legends embrace without shying away from. Amps turned up to eleven, getting lost on the way to the gig, and ridiculous concert riders are all mocked in the film. The irony rests in the truth that though we look upon these things with humour, the boys of Spinal Tap revel in them. Spinal Tap mocks what it loves, and the film couldn’t possibly work otherwise.
P.S. I implore you all to watch the film with Guest, McKean, and Shearer’s audio commentary on DVD. It is a whole other experience altogether.