Heavy Duty: Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel Turns 75

Celebrating the guitar king of hard rock “Generia”

Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel (Image: Idmb)

Sure, I listened to some of it in my youth – youth! bah! – but spent most of my post-teen-age years trying to avoid this crap: pandering, patronizing, mono-dimensional, unimaginative hard rock made by blowhard British bonehead bands. 

Yet, there I was in 1992, midway through my 30s, back in the dull-green pea soup of generic rock, listlessly waving my fist in the air and poking up the split-fingered devil’s sign at outdoor arena called Great Woods in Mansfield, Mass. with 4,400 other like-minded folks, all worshipping at the altar of the over-loud and often annoying has-beens on a “comeback” tour. 

This was Spinal Tap, fronted by singer-guitarists David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, the latter of whom’s 75th birthday is February 5th. 

This long-running English band of trend-jumpers that was the subject of the Rob Reiner’s film This Is Spinal Tap was back. They were the band that gave us one of rock’s classic exchanges. “There is a fine line between stupid and …” said St. Hubbins, who paused, searching for the right word. “… clever,” finished bassist Derek Smalls, confidently.



The Tap returned to the rock wars with a ’92 tour and Break Like the Wind, an album of bombastic, overheated major-chord rock 

Sometimes, as a rock writer and interviewer, you want to phrase your questions delicately, lest you piss off the Rock Star and they vamoose. Four years before talking to Tufnel, I’d been interviewing Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton on the phone. We’d done a fair amount of chat but there was one thing I just had to ask. Everything about the band’s lyrics, album cover art work plus singer Rob Halford’s appearance screamed GAY – a sailor’s cap with chains on it, leather pants, leather jacket/bare chest, studded wristband and toting a whip on stage. Keep in mind, I didn’t care. But rumors had floated for years and the band denied it for years. So, I asked. Tipton figuratively hit the roof, yelled at me for the temerity of asking, denied it and stopped the interview. (Halford came out as gay ten years later, and heavy metal fans continued to love the band. How about that?)

Anyway, with Spinal Tap I had to take a risk with Tufnel and state this: Their music was generic rock at its most generic. 

“I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of,” says Tufnel, on the phone from somewhere on the road. “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?” 

This Is Spinal Tap movie poster (Image: eBay)

Spinal Tap has been around for years — or so it would seem. It’s weird that I, fairly well versed in ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s rock had never really heard of them, but there you go. Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap certainly gave the group a big commercial boost. On the other hand, it painted the band as a bunch of arrogant, egotistical, simple-minded rockers — collectively dumber than toast. 

Did Tufnel feel betrayed by Reiner?

 “It was a black and white thing, a minstrel show,” says Tufnel, somewhat cryptically, of the film. “It’s truth. It’s good and bad. It brought us attention and made us look stupid in one fell swoop. People are not interested in things that go well. They don’t want to see headlines that say `Baby Chipmunk Found on Highway; Unharmed, Warm and Fluffy.’ People are not going to be running down to the Boston newspapers, saying `God I’ve got to buy this. But if you say `Overweight Man Gets Head Stuck in Toilet, Sweating, Smelling Bad,’ well, they’ll run down and buy that one.’ ” 

Spinal Tap is part of a long line of rock bands that has never gained much critical respect but has carved out a niche in the marketplace. Tufnel says Spinal Tap fans “know the old songs and some that we haven’t even written yet. It’s either that they’re extremely clever or we’re extremely slow, or both. I’m not saying we’re pioneers all the time, but we’re pioneers some of the time. It’s like Einstein, when he said: `Wear one shoe and it won’t fit. Wear two instead.’ Well, it was either Einstein or Hegel. I’ve been reading a lot about other subjects because I think if you branch out a bit you can learn about music even through other subjects. For instance, for `Clam Caravan’ I did a lot of exploration into Egyptian and Far Eastern themes.” 

Come on! You mean `Clam Caravan’ isn’t just another sex song? 

 “A sex song?” exclaims Tufnel. “You can have sex while you’re listening to it, but it’s not about sex. Some people think everything is about sex, and then there are some people that hear songs and say it’s not about sex when it is. For instance, there’s that trouble we had over `Bitch School.’ ” 

Exactly. More than a few of us PC-minded critics have complained that Spinal Tap is nothing but a bunch of sexist dogs for writing songs like “Bitch School,” a place the band seems to want to send their girlfriends for training and discipline, or “Big Bottom,” a song not unlike Queen’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls,” come to think of it. 

 “I’ve said it a million times,” Tufnel says, defensively, about “Bitch School.”  “It’s a song about dogs and our love for dogs and the disciplining of those little creatures — `You’re fetching when you’re down on all fours.’ Well, dogs walk on four legs and they fetch, obviously. End of discussion. It’s not my fault society has changed and we’re the victims.” 

The rock press has, generally, charged that the band’s songs are redundant and derivative; that the group shamelessly coasts on trends; that they’re opportunists and hacks, prone to re-write their own history, so it seems like they were the innovators and others followed their lead. 


VIDEO: Nigel’s Guitar Room

Tufnel, for instance, claims they’d anticipated psychedelia before the Beatles, but their tapes were lost. “So,” says Tufnel, “we can’t be responsible to the fact that they came out later than the Beatles did. And then, finally, our record came out making it look like we were jumping on — to use another cliché — the bandwagon.” 

Scorn them for the mediocrity of their music, but give the Tap some credit: They wear condoms – “With all this sex stuff you’ve got to be careful,” says Tufnel – and they’re clean and sober. Tufnel says his substance abuse never got so bad that he had to detox at Betty Ford, but he went through some hairy times. 

“The longest binge I went on was six weeks,” he reflects. “There were some days where I didn’t drink anything more than gin. But it’s not like it was `Lost Weekend.’ There were days when I woke up and I ate solid food. I wasn’t in control. I was functioning on some physical level. But compared to some rock ‘n’ roll guys where it goes on for close to a year.”

Spinal Tap have been oddly absent from the recording studio for, well, decades – I guess they broke up – but as you may have heard they’re making yet another film with Reiner. That’s right, the man who painted them as such opportunistic dolts.

“The band was upset with the first film,” Reiner told Deadline last year. “They thought I did a hatchet job and this is chance to redeem myself. I am such a big fan and I felt bad they didn’t like what they saw in the first film. When I heard they might get back together, I was a visiting adjunct teacher’s helper at the Ed Wood School of Cinematic Arts. I dropped everything to document this final concert.” 

This Is Spinal Tap 2 – clever title, huh? – is slated to hit theaters March 24, 2024, 40 years to the day after This Is Spinal Tap debuted.


VIDEO: This Is Spinal Tap trailer 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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