In assessing Spinal Tap’s place in rock ’n’ roll history (apart, that is, from the full page they already occupy in the Rocklopedia Brittanicus), one has to take into account the extraordinary extent to which the well-chronicled events of their lives have entered into rock legend.
And what better memento to celebrate those exploits and their sheer dogged persistence than the resuscitation of the watershed “rockumentary,” This Is Spinal Tap. Yes, there were problems with the movie. And yes, the band has since disavowed it, feeling that director Marty DiBergi chose to show only the more embarrassing moments in their ill-fated 1982 Tap Into America Tour. “On most nights,” an enraged Derek Smalls recently told me, “I get out of the pod without incident.” You can, of course, judge for yourself about all this.
But why pick nits? As musical documents go, it doesn’t get any more raw and authentic than this. Although reaching back to the band’s beginnings with a few archival film clips, This Is Spinal Tap essentially documents a recent moment in the band’s checkered history—one that only coincidentally represents a brief decline in the sine wave of their careers. Still in the future were Nigel’s great inventions (the folding wineglass, the amplifier capo), and his ill-fated tour of duty with the Swiss Army; Derek’s stint with the Christian rock band Lambsblood (their big hit was the crunching, Led Zep-influenced “Whole Lotta Lord”), and a slew of successful advertising jingles like the one he wrote for the Belgian Milk Board (“Milk—if it was any richer, it’d be cream!”); and David’s blissed-out retirement to Southern California, where he now coaches high school soccer and produces local bands like Diaperload and Bumdummy while wife Jeanine (yes, they’ve married) runs a New Age shop (The Drippery) and Irish clothing boutique (Potato Republic). Through all this, Spinal Tap remains a band for all time—and for no time at all.
To those who would argue that Tap is not shown to its best advantage in this film, I would argue back that the nay-sayers are just not looking deeply enough. Behind the occasional bickering and the odd spot of rancor, behind the missed opportunities and the canceled gigs, lies a massive commitment to continuity, to the good, old-fashioned joy of just hanging on. This is one band that has made it through the decades without any of the cushy perks that come with fan adulation, critical raves, or explosive record sales.
So maybe the toughness they’ve acquired in weathering the storms of occasional rejection has helped Tap to develop the peculiar strengths that have led to their legendary, if surprising, longevity: their ability to hop a moving bandwagon at full speed, to perceive a passing trend just before it peters out, and then to milk it for all it’s worth. These are skills that may have come easy to some, but not to the brave men of Tap. As seen in this classic film, Spinal Tap emerge as truly heroic figures from a bygone age, from a time when the surest sign of a profoundly awesome band was its ability to trash a hotel room thoroughly and escape without paying for it. No, my friends, they don’t make ’em like this any more—if they ever did. Slogging their way through rock history and into our hearts, Spinal Tap continues to fill a much-needed void.
But hey, as Marty DiBergi himself might say, enuffa my yakkin’. Let’s boogie!
Peter Occhiogrosso's authorized book, Inside Spinal Tap, was republished by Little, Brown in London after being out of print for many years. It has just been remaindered.