Celebrating the milestone birthday of Michael McKean and his Spinal Tap avatar
The rock press has, generally, charged that the songs of this man’s band, though sometimes generically catchy, are redundant, derivative and often bombastic and sexist.
That the group has always shamelessly coasted on popular trends. That they’re opportunists and hacks, prone to re-write their own history if you give ‘em enough rope.
Yes, the rock press can be vicious and cynical, but in this case it – we – are not wrong. Fer Chrissakes, the band had a song called “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.” Did they not know they used “tonight” twice in the title and chorus? Come on!
The name of the band is Spinal Tap and they’re quite capable of fending off detractors.
For instance, when I raised some of these issues with singer-guitarist Nigel Tufnel, specifically mentioning the generic nature of their product back in 1992 as they were promoting a tour.
“I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of,” he responded. “We are, in record shops in England, listed under `generia.’ They’ve got hard rock, speed metal, industrial, slash and thrash and bash — stupid names like that to make it sell — and then generia. It’s much more shameful to say we are thinking of a new description of music. Do you think speed metal or grunge is going to be around in two years?”
Tufnel is one of Spinal Tap’s two guitarist-singers, the other being David St. Hubbins. They are played, respectively, on screen and in person, by Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. Their partner in rock parody is bassist-singer Derek Smalls, played by Harry Shearer.
VIDEO: Spinal Tap “Bitch School”
McKean celebrates his 75th birthday on Oct. 17th. We’re assuming St. Hubbins and McKean share the same birthday as does Jerry Palter, the strummer-singer McKean played in A Mighty Wind, the dead-on folk music parody film. So many identities!
But it was This Is Spinal Tap that set the standard for musical parody, a standard yet to be surpassed. Its appeal is cross-generational. The film poked fun at nearly every hard rock cliché — small ideas masquerading as big ones; pedantic riffs pretending to be innovative; dumb macho posturing; idiotic egotism. Trousers were stuffed with cucumbers, amps cranked to eleven; painful herpes sores appeared on lips.
St. Hubbins and Small gave us one of rock’s classic thoughtful exchanges. “There is a fine line between stupid and …” said St. Hubbins, who paused, searching for the right word. “… clever,” finished Smalls, confidently.
I’ve talked to members of legit bands who’ve been insulted by Spinal Tap – how dare they? – but more who’ve said, “Yeah, we recognize that” – maybe not admitting it in their own band but seeing it out in the world of rock.
This Is Spinal Tap screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, celebrating its 35th anniversary. In the audience was Sting, who said he’d seen the movie more than 50 times. “I’ve loved it for 35 years,” he told Vanity Fair, “and I’m here to support its longevity. … There’s so many truths in it. It’s profound truths about all bands. We all recognize ourselves in the parody. It’s good for us!”
And, folks, the world is not done with Spinal Tap yet. The director of This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner, is helming This Is Spinal Tap 2, aiming for a 40th (ish) anniversary release of March 19, 2024. “We had a four-page outline [for the first film], that’s what we worked off of,” Reiner told the NME, adding there would again be substantial ad-libbing.
“We never thought we would do a sequel,” he continued. “It was only because we started to talk to each other and we came up with an idea we think might work – we don’t know it will. We’re going to try. The bar is incredibly high. We debated whether or not we should do it… I said, ‘Look at us, we’re all in our 70s. How much time are we going to have [left] to have some fun?’”
The plot, Reiner said, is spun off a real-life scenario, the March 2021 death of National Lampoon editor Tony Hendra, who, in the first film played Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith. It seems the old blokes in the band are forced to reunite for one last gig because Faith’s widow threatens to sue them unless they fulfill a contractual obligation. And, yes, this reunion scenario echoes the reality of aging bands, its members no longer able to depend on record royalties. They may not have a lawsuit hanging over them but they do have living expenses, thus re-forming and being forced out on the road, playing to its equally aging fan base. This could be Roxy Music; this could be Motley Crue or any number of bands doing it on a smaller-scale club level.
When I interviewed Tufnel, Spinal Tap was nearing the end of a tour and Guest had done numerous interviews in character. We did one of those and then, a week later, another one, out of character.
Guest on the Tap: “The band,” reasoned Guest, “they’re not bad players but they’re not very smart. The songs that they come up with are pretentious and the musical ideas are stupid. The saving grace of all of this is that the playing part of this has just been so happy for all of us; the band is just really sounding great.”
So, it’s a satire, but, stressed Guest, it was genuinely a case of letting the good times roll up there on stage. “It’s fun to play loud,” Guest said, “partially because I am playing music, and not be pretentious about this, but I am playing this music as another person, in the sense of the taste I’m using as a guitar player is not what I would play. But I can get away with murder as this guy. . .. We are musicians. It’s not fun playing badly in terms of having bad chops. It is fun playing stupid music because it takes some skills and that’s what we have.”
Guest has been living with Tufnel, off and on since 1975, when he created him for a series of National Lampoon records.
VIDEO: Spinal Tap “The Majesty Of Rock”
How did Tufnel and, in fact, Spinal Tap take shape?
“I saw a band check into a hotel I was staying in in Los Angeles,” said Guest, “and these guys walked in, I don’t remember what band it was, and they were English and one of the musicians said to the manager, `I don’t know where my bass is.’ The manager said, `What do you mean?’ And he says, `I think I left it at the airport.’ And the manager says, `You left your bass at the airport?’ `Yeah, I don’t know where it is,’ says the musician.
“Well, this went on for about 20 minutes and I thought, `This is insane, here are these guys, they’re incredibly dim and they’re traveling around in a cloud of stupidity. Boy, this is funny. Someday, God, I’ve got to get this on film.’”
Semi-apology to readers: Sorry, not to have McKean’s voice in here. Guest was doing the press at the time. I met McKean years later, in 2013, when he played the role of J. Edgar Hoover in the LBJ play All the Way at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre. We talked briefly and amicably, but it was theater talk. McKean was playing a serious role and it seemed too much of a stretch to yank him back to Tap yak at that time.
VIDEO: This Is Spinal Tap trailer
- The Eternal Rascal: Felix Cavaliere at 80 - November 29, 2022
- In The Mouth Of Madness: A Chat With Richard Strange - November 16, 2022
- You’re So Vicious: Lou Reed’s Transformer Turns 50 - November 8, 2022