Recent Dorkiness

Spinal Tap and Me

So I hope everyone spent yesterday living life one louder in honor of Nigel Tufnel Day. That's 11-11-11 for the uninitiated, the most extreme date reference you could make to Nigel and his infamous amps that “go to eleven,” from the 1984 comedy classic This is Spinal Tap. A “mockumentary” that skewered the arena rock scene, the film also spawned a soundtrack album that, in spite of (or perhaps because of) being a parody, might also be one of the best hard rock albums ever. I hadn't planned to write anything about Tap this weekend. But I was listening to the soundtrack yesterday for the first time in ages, and was reminded not only of how really great an album it is, but also of what a huge impact Spinal Tap had on my musical tastes, and further, on my taste in just about everything. I saw the movie at a pivotal moment in my personal development, that phase where you become cynical about all the stuff that came before you, and it convinced me of something I'd already begun to suspect: that the big-time arena rock bands I'd been listening to in high school really were ridiculous, stupid, and bad. My first exposure to punk rock came not long after seeing Spinal Tap for the first time, and the collision of those two events in my head was like an atom bomb going off. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I should talk a little bit about Spinal Tap itself.

I watched the movie again yesterday, too (yes, I really did celebrate the day), and was reminded that it, like the soundtrack, is absolutely brilliant. It's an understated comedy about a subject that's anything but, filmed documentary-style and mostly ad-libbed by the principal cast (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and director Rob Reiner). It's the ad-libbing that impressed me most on this viewing. I'm not sure I knew that the last time I watched it, and while it explains some of the rambling nonsense that comes out of the band's mouths at times, it makes the more explosively funny moments that much more impressive. The entire story about the band's first drummer choking on someone else's vomit, for instance, is a brilliant bit of collaborative comedy between McKean, Guest, and Shearer. Each of them add bits to it until it culminates in their explanation as to why Scotland Yard couldn't precisely determine cause of death: “You can't dust for vomit.” Certainly, it feels unscripted, but the fact that it actually IS unscripted kind of blows my mind.

Beyond the comedy moments big and small, though, This is Spinal Tap shows a surprising understanding of its characters. Though David St. Hubbins (McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest) and Derek Smalls (Shearer) are undoubtedly idiots of the first degree, they’re not without depth. Take the abiding friendship between Tufnel and St. Hubbins, for example. They’ve known each other since grade school, and Nigel says that they’re closer than brothers. That statement comes right before a huge argument that ultimately leads to Nigel quitting the band, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The band’s in trouble commercially from the outset, but it’s only the wedge driven between Our Rock & Roll Heroes by St. Hubbins’ girlfriend Jeanine that splits them up. And it’s the obvious fun the two of them have playing together that brings the band back together for their triumphant return to glory in Japan.

Of course, as Tom Waits taught us, being Big in Japan doesn’t make you any less ridiculous. And that’s something the band’s third member, Derek Smalls, seems to understand in spite of himself. When he says that the band is like a “preserved moose,” something you’d see on display at a natural history museum, he’s kind of dead-on. And when it looks like the band might very well break up for good at the end of the tour, Smalls seems… relieved, as much as anything. He argues to St Hubbins that they don’t want to be forty-five-year-old men prancing about in front of an audience of screaming kids, and he seems genuine when he says it.

The meerschaum pipe he smokes throughout the film (like the moneyed middle-aged Englishman he is) kind of speaks to that dawning realization, too, and brings us to the film’s keenest criticism of the Big Rock lifestyle: it leaves the Big Rock musicians in a state of arrested development. Their bread and butter is an eternal adolescence that’s impossible to maintain long-term, and Spinal Tap’s refusal to see that is what makes the film funny rather than mean-spirited. I mean, if they were a group of guys just trying to make some money into their middle years… Well, they’d be Anvil. And though Anvil IS pretty funny, they’re also kind of heart-warming. But the guys in Spinal Tap are pretentious assholes, so… laugh away.

That pretension comes through most clearly and (appropriately) most loudly in the music produced for the film. Actually written and performed by Guest, Shearer and McKean (no ghost-musicians here), the resulting soundtrack album is a cutting send-up of arena rock excesses and simultaneously (as I said above) one of the better hard rock albums ever. It’s a dizzying array of bad poetry, ridiculous sexual innuendo, and stunningly awful metaphor backed up by equally big and stupid hard rock compositions. But since “big and stupid” is what hard rock’s all about… the total package delivers as a pretty kick-ass rock set. I won’t do a song-by-song breakdown (NPR already beat me to that, the bastards), but a few highlights are definitely called for.

Big Bottom” is maybe the best track, a plodding three-bass onslaught dedicated to a subject near and dear to men everywhere: the glories of a nice ass. Filled out big and fat (huh-huh) with every butt innuendo possible, the puns become increasingly painful as the song goes along: “I met her on Monday / ‘Twas my lucky bun day / I love her each weekday / Each velvety cheek day / You know what I mean?” It’s that last bit, that arch, “aren’t I clever?” poke in the ribs, that really puts it over the top for me, I think. Because yes, Mr. St. Hubbins. Yes, I most definitely know what you mean. You could not have made it more clear if you were Sir Mix-a-Lot (or Jonathan Coulton, for that matter).

Good as “Big Bottom” is, though, “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” might give it a run for its money. This fast-paced rocker somehow combines the aesthetics of KISS and Asia, slotting synth pieces into an otherwise-bog-standard (though rockin’!) glam tune. Astounding. It also features maybe the most questionable bit of sexual innuendo on the album: “You’re too young / And I’m too well-hung / But tonight I’m gonna rock you–” Wait, did I call that innuendo? I think that’s perhaps too subtle a word…

But the song that put my own rock and roll lifestyle into perspective (because this is all about me, remember?) was “Stonehenge.” A send-up of every bad piece of fantasy-metal ever done, this one’s got it all. Laughable lyrics (“Stonehenge! Tis a magic place / Where the moon doth rise with a dragon’s face”), a mysterious spoken word segment (done in a Cockney accent), a sensitive ballady middle part (no parentheses needed), and, yes, a Celtic reel worked in as a bridge! It’s pretty much perfect in every way, and crystallized for me everything that was bad and pretentious in the music I’d been listening to.

It sent me tumbling away from Led Zeppelin straight into the waiting arms of the Sex Pistols, and nothing was ever quite the same again. See, for me, punk wasn’t just about anger. Certainly, it’s about that, too; when you’re angry, but you don’t know why or at what, punk’s a great outlet. But there’s more going on there than blind fury. Raised by a staunch individualist, I found punk’s DIY philosophy immediately appealing.

(An aside: I guess punk was never about rebellion for me, either; my father might be in his seventies and love country music, but he is nonetheless… Punk. As. Fuck.)

But punk appealed to my perverse nature, too. Primed for it by a childhood filled with b-movies, I embraced punk’s “Bad is Good!” aesthetic with open arms, and that’s really stuck with me. I greet anything that seems too polished or manufactured with immediate suspicion, while happily embracing stuff that feels handmade or heartfelt. As I got older, and studied literature and writing, my tastes became more refined, but I’ll forgive a lot if I sense that somebody’s done something clever on a shoestring budget.

Anyway. All I’m saying here is that I owe a lot to my youthful fascination with punk rock. And I owe my fascination with punk to, of all things, Spinal Tap. Maybe it’s time to live life one louder every day. Lord knows I can’t wait another 100 years to do it, anyway. These guys are getting old…

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About Mark Brett (432 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

2 Comments on Spinal Tap and Me

  1. Mark, I do love your writing. …Always a joy.

    Like

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