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Behind the Wigs: The Return of Spinal Tap

Twenty-five years after "This Is Spinal Tap" the half-kidding rockers are back for a new album and tour

March 3, 2009 9:23 AM ET

After announcing plans for an "Unwigged & Unplugged Tour" where the members of Spinal Tap — Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer — will take the stage as themselves, the unruly trio of rockers sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss the link between music and comedy, A Hard Day's Night and wigs:

If Spinal Tap were washed up in '84, what are they now?
Michael McKean: Dry cleaned.

Did you all wear wigs in the movie?
Christopher Guest: They were real wigs, and they were cheap-ass wigs.
McKean: I'm wearing my real hair for "Gimme Some Money," when we're playing as the Thamesmen.
Guest: And I'm wearing Michael's hair.
McKean: I sold it to buy him the watch-bob.
Harry Shearer: I was wearing Michael's ass-hair in the movie. I grew my facial hair for the movie, and I grew it for the tour [in 1992] and I got hair extensions for the tour. Worrying about a wig shifting during a two and a half-hour concert is not what I want to be doing.
Guest: It is what I wanted.

You have come together as a trio in various ways over the years. Could you have foreseen this long of a collaboration?
Shearer: Well, the Andrews Sisters weren't available.
McKean: Chris and I have been playing together forever. I was in a group called the Credibility Gap with Harry, and we did some music stuff together. Yeah, there's a nice balance to this trio.
Guest: It's one of many things we do together. To combine the idea of trying to be funny and to play some music is always the best for all of us.

It seems like Spinal Tap started a tradition that's been carried on by Flight of the Conchords and Tenacious D.
Shearer: I think we unleashed the inner-rocker and folky in a lot of people who would otherwise might have kept it to themselves.
Guest: The people who work in comedy that I know, there is often a connection with music. It's weird we haven't seen it even more. But you do need to be able to play and sing and write, so even if you're a comedian and fan of music, it doesn't follow you would be able to do stuff.

Was there something appealing about the material in the music world?
McKean: We had all had experiences in the music business. There were moments of exasperation. Who's running this show, Zippy the Pinhead? There's something about the business of music, all these non-creative people bossing around these semi-creative people. It's an amusing world. The more serious a musical entity takes itself, the bigger a target it makes.
Shearer: At the beginning, we all shared frustration that movies had never — since A Hard Day's Night — gotten rock & roll remotely right. It was insulting people.

McKean: The famous Troggs tape is of course a really seminal moment in rock & roll. That's when we heard the business of putting together a really simple song with a bunch of really simple guys, and this almost violent conflict that would occur.
Guest: I was at the Chateau Marmont in 1974, and a hard rock band was checking in, and there was an episode of stupidity that was very illuminating. What a great idea for a story! And we get to make music to support that. It was a chicken and the egg situation.
Shearer: There was no downside —
McKean: And there was no egg.

The movie has been quoted ever since, with bands described as having a Spinal Tap moment or turning the volume up to 11. It's part of the rock culture.
Shearer: It's not just rockers. I've had country musicians and even classical players say they relate to that. It's just about life on the road.
McKean: A tour is a tour —
Shearer: And a tourette is a tourette.
Guest: It's all going to happen — something bad is going to happen at some point.
Shearer: We say that on the eve of going out on tour.

Are you traveling on separate tour buses?
McKean: No, jeez ... It's a very small-scale operation.
Guest: The three of us are on bus, and there's some support people that follow in a U-Haul.
McKean: We sedate them.

This many years later, This Is Spinal Tap still attracts new fans. Is there something eternal about the slapstick that can exist in a rock band?
Shearer: There is something eternal about the striving of the mediocre. You root for them despite your better judgment. There's something timeless about that story.

Have you done as much as you hoped with Spinal Tap?
Guest: If we had wanted to, we could have done more. But the beauty of this is that we have other lives, and we can drop into this world, get to play music. If we were on the road as Spinal Tap a hundred nights out of the year or more, then you're getting perilously close to something else.

You could have beaten it into the ground.
Shearer: And we still might.
McKean: Give us time. It's only been 25 years.

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