When American comedian-actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer first donned long-haired wigs and flamboyant costumes to portray the mythical British heavy metal band Spinal Tap, they were putting over what they thought was a pretty amusing parody of rock and roll excess. But when they collaborated with director Rob Reiner on the film This is Spinal Tap —an improvisatory comedy with a documentary style—they unwittingly made an enormous contribution to the folklore of popular music. Stereo Review’s Steve Simels spoke for many when he called This is Spinal Tap “possibly the funniest movie ever made about rock-and-roll.”
The film’s humor derived chiefly from its creators’ clear understanding of and affection for the world of rock; the songs and situations depicted in the film became standard points of reference for musicians and fans. A soundtrack album featured the three heavy metal posers playing and singing the songs from the film. In fact, the popularity of the non-existent band was such that McKean, Guest, and Shearer—as vocalist and rhythm
Members include Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer: born December 23, 1943, in Los Angeles, CA; divorced; B.A. in political science, University of California, Los Angeles, 1964, graduate study at Harvard University, 1964-65), bass; David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean: born October 17, c. 1948, in New York, NY; married, has a son named Colin Russell; attended New York University, studied theater at the Carnegie Institute of Technology), guitar and vocals; and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest: born February 5, 1948, in New York, NY; son of Peter Haden-Guest [member of British Parliament]; married Jamie Lee Curtis [an actress], has a daughter; attended Bard College and New York University), lead guitar.
Other members have included Pete “James” Bond (died of spontaneous combustion, 1976), drums; John “Stumpy” Pepys (died in a gardening accident), drums; Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs (died of a melanin overdose), drums; Mick Shrimpton (died of spontaneous combustion, 1984), drums; Joe “Mama” Besser (joined band, 1984; presumed dead), drums; Viv Savage (died of purported swamp gas poisoning), keyboards; and Richard Shrimpton (joined group, early 1990s), drums.
Group started by St. Hubbins and Tufnel, early 1960s; released debut single “(Listen to the) Flower People,” 1967; appeared on television broadcast The TV Show, ABC-TV, 1978; appeared in film This Is Spinal Tap, Embassy, 1984; released This is Spinal Tap soundtrack, Polydor, 1984, and reunion album Break Like the Wind, MCA, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —MCA Records, 70 Universal City Plaza, 3rd floor, Universal City, CA 91608.
guitarist David St. Hubbins, lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, and bassist Derek Smalls, respectively—toured, did interviews and, in 1992, released a second Spinal Tap album, Break Like the Wind. By then the whole music world was in on the joke: A bevy of real-life rock stars appeared on the 1992 release, and journalists delighted in retracing the imaginary history of “Tap.”
Guest and McKean had dabbled in rock in the 1960s. The two met in a poetry class at New York University and were soon sharing an apartment and writing songs together. In 1970 McKean moved to Los Angeles, where he worked with Shearer in the comedy group The Credibility Gap. Six years later McKean landed the role of Lenny Kosnowski on the hit television series Laveme and Shirley. He would later fill Lenny’s shoes on a 1950s-style rock album by an assemblage called Lenny and the Squigtones that debuted on the show.
By the time McKean had gotten a foothold in America’s consciousness as half of the duo Lenny and Squiqqy, Guest had become a successful comedy writer, having won an Emmy Award for his work on The Lily Tomlin Special. While working for the noted humor magazine National Lampoon, Guest had utilized his guitar skills in composing rock parodies. In 1974, according to Rolling Stone, Guest came up with the character of Nigel Tufnel after overhearing a conversation between a spaced-out musician and his manager. Shearer named his creation, bass player Derek Smalls, after an imaginary actor cited in the liner notes of a 1973 record by British art-metal rockers Jethro Tull, a band that Spinal Tap would later parody in its medieval epic “Stonehenge.”
It wasn’t until 1978, though, that Spinal Tap came together as a band. Guest, McKean, Shearer, and director Rob Reiner were working on The TV Show, an ABC-TV comedy special; for one sketch Spinal Tap performed a song called “Rock and Roll Nightmare.” The three musician-comics and their director liked the rock parody so much that they cast about for funding to make a feature-length Spinal Tap movie. After a number of missteps, they managed to get the film made. Soon the fictional history of Spinal Tap, as chronicled in the film and in later interviews, would become rock and roll legend.
The heavy metal bombast of the group’s mature sound, the members of Spinal Tap revealed in the film This Is Spinal Tap, was preceded by a number of early styles. St. Hubbins and Tufnel, friends from an early age-according to Tap mythology—played together in rootsy early-1960s “skiffle” groups in the fabricated London district of Squatney. The trio worked with a succession of drummers throughout Spinal Tap’s career, all of whom died mysteriously. Their early singles, like “Gimme Some Money,” share the gritty, rhythm-and-blues-inflected sound of British Invasion groups like the Animals and the early Rolling Stones. 1967’s “(Listen to the) Flower People,” featured on the alleged album Spinal Tap Sings “(Listen to the) Flower People” and Other Favorites, is a hippie anthem highlighted by a vintage late-1960s Tufnel solo in the style of the Indian sitar. The group’s follow-up record, We Are All Flower People, described by Peter Occhiogrosso of Entertainment Weekly as “pure red ink,” indicated that a change of style was inevitable.
In the early 1970s Tap apparently metamorphosed into the metal titans the world would come to love—or at least tolerate. The titles of the band’s releases during the first years of the decade suggest their content: Nerve Damage, Blood to Let, Intravenus de Milo. The latter avowedly went platinum when record retailers actually returned a million copies. With 1973’s Brainhammer, Occhiogrosso opined, “The band [hit] its lumbering stride,” resembling nothing so much as “a brontosaurus in fight trim.” 1975 saw The Sun Never Sweats —the title cut of which includes the metaphysical lyric “We may be gods/Or just big marionettes”—and the triple-live Jap Habit, which reportedly remained in the Number 112 position on the Billboard album chart for 82 of its 84 weeks on the chart. Tap next dabbled in glitter-rock with Bent For the Rent, a disastrous experiment featuring the non-hit single “When a Man Looks Like a Woman.”
It was during this period that Tap gained its well-deserved reputation as “The Loudest Band in England,” thanks in large part to the blistering lead guitar of Nigel Tufnel. Wolf Marshall of Guitar World noted that Tufnel’s playing “has earned him an eternal place in the pantheon of rock guitar legends” and that his solos “have delighted millions and caused thousands of guitarists to set themselves ablaze.” As the often confused but virtuosic axeman confided to Marty DiBergi— onscreen director of This is Spinal Tap, played by actual film director Reiner—he in fact acquired special amplifiers with volume knobs that went to a setting of eleven, rather than the customary ten. This, he explained, gave him the chance to go beyond the limit. When asked why he didn’t just make the ten setting louder, Tufnel was stumped. “But this goes to eleven,” he insisted.
In 1976 drummer Peter “James” Bond spontaneously combusted onstage, giving rise to a fatal tradition: each subsequent Tap skins-pounder has been inadvertently offered up in sacrifice to the gods of metal—each death more gruesome than the last. The founding members of Spinal Tap recounted some of this grim history for Nesbitt Birely of Pulse! Their sorry tale revealed that John “Stumpy” Pepys died in “a bizarre gardening accident,” Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs overdosed on melanin—defined by Webster’s as “a dark brown or black animal or plant pigment”—and Mick Shrimpton, like Bond, burst into flame at his drumkit. Joe “Mama” Besser, Shrimpton’s replacement for Tap’s 1984 Japan tour, met a more uncertain fate. “We assume he’s dead,” St. Hubbins told Teisco Del Rey of Guitar World. “He was not a well man,” explained Smalls. “He had a jazz background.”
Viv Savage, Tap’s keyboardist, met his maker while visiting Shrimpton’s grave. “It was like swamp gas,” Smalls informed Del Rey. It turned out that Savage—unbeknownst to his bandmates—had played drums before taking up the keyboards. Tufnel, St. Hubbins, and Smalls agree that these deaths are part of a curse. They told Pulse!’s Birely of an encounter with heavy metal band Megadeth’s drummer. “The drummer said, ‘Let me give you a pair of my sticks,’” St. Hubbins recalled, as Tufnel and Smalls recoiled in horror. “I don’t want to be in this group called Spinal Tap and touch a drumstick,” he responded.
During the late 1970s Tap was less prolific than they had been—due to a strict injunction by their label, the obscure Polymer Records, to “stay the hell out of the studio.” In 1980 the band released Shark Sandwich, dubbed “Heavy Metal heaven” by Entertainment Weekly contributor Occhiogrosso, despite its misfired publicity campaign: The promotional “sandwiches” were largely crushed or lost in the mail. In This is Spinal Tap, director DiBergi reads the members a terse review of Shark Sandwich: “shit sandwich.” 1982 saw the release of Smell the Glove; sales of the album suffered due in part to its nondescript cover. The group’s original cover concept—a decidedly sexist image involving a woman on all fours—was suppressed at the last minute and replaced with a plain, albeit somewhat shiny, black sleeve. The group was baffled and annoyed by the label’s decision to pull the cover, particularly Tufnel, who had trouble differentiating between the words “sexy” and “sexist.”
In the group’s opinion, This is Spinal Tap, essentially a tour film that chronicled the group’s descent into obscurity in the early 1980s, was a betrayal. DiBergi’s “warts and all” approach—St. Hubbins called it “all warts”—created the impression, as the singer-guitarist complained to Pulse! contributor Birely, that the group was “sort of second-rate. A great big joke.” This perception no doubt derived from the portrayal of such tour glitches as the malfunctioning “pod” stage prop that traps Smalls during the sci-fi production number “Rock and Roll Creation” and the too-small monolith for the Druid setpiece “Stonehenge.” Nonetheless, the 1984 soundtrack album remains one of two available Spinal Tap records, and though Occhiogrosso noted that it was “more of a greatest hits package than a bold step forward,” it includes a generous sampling of important Tap songs: “Gimme Some Money,” “(Listen to the) Flower People,” “Rock and Roll Creation,” “Stonehenge,” “Sex Farm,” “Hell Hole,” “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” and that bass-heavy celebration of the derriere, “Big Bottom.”
The film ended with footage of Spinal Tap’s Japan tour, which culminated in the explosion of drummer Mick Shrimpton. Subsequently the band fell apart; they worked on various solo projects and settled into what seemed to be post-Tap existence. St. Hubbins saw the London premiere of his rock musical Saucy Jack, based on the life of 19th-century serial killer Jack the Ripper; it was a colossal flop.
Tufnel was inexplicably drafted into the Swiss army, though he has not been forthcoming about the details; he also worked on various solo projects. In the proud tradition of musician endorsements, Tufnel appeared in an ad for a limited series of Marshall amplifiers, the volume knobs of which exceeded even his legendary eleven. The ad copy read “It goes to twenty—that’s nine louder, innit?” Most intriguingly, the guitar ace spent some time recording “world” music in Micronesia, he told Spin— on the dubious-sounding Pei-Pei islands.
Smalls toured northern England with some Spinal Tap tribute bands and also joined the Christian speedmetal outfit Lambsblood. St. Hubbins eventually settled in Pomona, California, with his wife, Janine Pettibone, whose disastrous attempts to manage Spinal Tap with the help of astrological charts had prompted Tufnel to quit the group at one point. Basking in domestic bliss in Pomona, St. Hubbins coached a local soccer team and produced local bands. Spinal Tap, it appeared, was a distant and strange-smelling memory.
St. Hubbins, Tufnel, and Smalls ran into one another at the funeral of former Tap manager Ian Faith, the hard-drinking, cricket bat-wielding father figure whose iron hand had shepherded the group through much of This is Spinal Tap. Faith had—according to the band—sold off the rights to the group’s back catalog without telling them. “He took everything personally,” bass player Smalls declared in Guitar World, “including our royalties.” (With a shocking July, 1992, interview, Spy magazine revealed that Faith was, in fact, alive and had faked his death in order to spare Tap a messy investigation of their finances). In any event, at the funeral the three decided to get together and jam for old times’ sake; in St. Hubbins’s words, “it was great.” They published an ad for a new drummer—“Drummer died. Need new one. Must have no immediate family.”—and several rock notables applied, including Fleetwood Mac founder Mick Fleetwood, who showed up at the audition in a flame-retardant suit. Ultimately, though, Tap settled on Richard Shrimpton, former drummer Mick’s younger and more talented brother.
The group decided to record a reunion album, and MCA Records established a new label, Dead Faith Records—named to celebrate the departure of the aforementioned embezzling ex-manager—just for Tap. As St. Hubbins confided to Rolling Stone while the group was in the studio, “The concept for the new album is sales.” Tufnel added, “What we’re saying with this album is, ‘We’re back. Come back with us. Join us, won’t you, in a consumer sense.’”
By this time Spinal Tap had become so cool, so synonymous with the glamour, grime, and brain damage of rock, that big-name performers rushed to associate themselves with the new album. A variety of hot producers—among them Danny Kortchmar, Steve Lukather, and T-Bone Burnett—worked behind the scenes, while guest artists like rock diva Cher and guitar heroes Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, and Slash of Guns ‘N’ Roses lent their talents to various tracks. The result was 1992’s Break Like the Wind, an assemblage of new songs and re-mixed old ones. Thus, like the This Is Spinal Tap soundtrack album, Wind is a mini-lesson in Spinal Tap history; it includes a 1961 demo recording of “All the Way Home,” the first St. Hubbins-Tufnel collaboration, psychedelic-era gems like “Rainy Day Sun” and “Clam Caravan,” and the brand new anthems “The Majesty of Rock” and “Bitch School.” Of the latter song—the suggestive video of which appeared on MTV—the band insisted it was about dog training and therefore not offensive to women. Entertainment Weekly’s Occhiogrosso was “ambivalent” about the highly commercial feel of the new album but gave it an “A” anyhow. Rolling Stone meanwhile, declared the record “clever criticism disguised as bathroom humor,” admiring the band’s status as “a joke that everyone is in on—unlike most metal, which some people think isn’t funny.”
Spinal Tap was back in the public eye and would soon begin another concert tour. Whether or not the road ahead promised more jammed pods, out-of-proportion sets, and exploding musicians only time would tell. But the members of the loudest band in the world were philosophical. “We’re not about heavy rock or metal or hard rock or leather trousers,” Smalls remarked to Guitar World’s Del Rey. “We’re doing what we stand for. And one of the reasons we got back together was to make a stand for generic rock and roll. Good old generic rock and roll.”
On Polymer Records (not available)
Spinal Tap Sings “(Listen to the) Flower People” and Other Favorites, 1967.
We Are All Flower People, 1968.
Nerve Damage, 1970.
Blood to Let, 1971.
Intravenus De Milo, 1972.
The Sun Never Sweats, 1975.
Jap Habit, 1975.
Bent for the Rent, 1977.
Shark Sandwich, 1980.
Smell the Glove, 1982.
Silent But Deadly.
This is Spinal Tap (soundtrack), Polydor, 1984.
Break Like the Wind, Dead Faith/MCA, 1992.
Detroit Free Press, June 19, 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, April 17, 1992.
Guitar Player, October 1990.
Guitar World, April 1992.
Metro Times (Detroit), June 10, 1992.
People, July 30, 1984.
Pulse!, March 1992.
Rolling Stone, May 24, 1984; January 23, 1992; April 2, 1992.
Spin, May 1992.
Spy, July/August 1992
Stereo Review, June 1984.
This is Spinal Tap (film), Embassy, 1984.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a February, 1992, MCA Records press release.
spinal tap: see spinal puncture.