Happy thirtieth birthday to This Is Spinal Tap, which licked the world’s love pump this week in 1984. It remains the funniest, truest, most emotionally honest movie ever made about rock & roll and the people who live for it. Can you trace the influence of this film through pop culture through the years? That would be like trying to dust vomit. The enduring power of Spinal Tap is how it gets the details so lovingly right, musically and emotionally — right from that opening scene where the roadies lift the giant skull, a reverent moment, as if the movie respects that this is a genuinely sacred ritual, ridiculous as it is. Most sacred things are ridiculous — that’s the whole point of the movie.
One nice thing about going to high school in the Eighties: You could still see Spinal Tap before you’d heard any of the jokes. The TV ad showed the scene where the drummer falls off his stool, and that was enough to convince me and my friend Wuffie to see it the weekend it opened, on a Saturday afternoon in Boston. (Same theater on Commonwealth Ave where we saw Stranger Than Paradise and Stop Making Sense — 1984 was quite a year.) There were about eight other people in the theater, all kids our age. I started laughing when I saw that giant skull, and was still going strong by the time we got to Saucy Jack and quality footwear. I’ve never laughed so hard in any movie, except maybe Pulp Fiction a decade later.
Monday at lunch, we ruined Spinal Tap for our friends — we ran through it scene by scene, line by line. It was so bizarre to believe this movie existed — like some adults had bothered to create it just for us. When I saw it a couple years later at a midnight screening, it was already a text the audience knew by heart — roars of laughter at the opening shot of every scene (Nigel’s hands at the piano!), then total silence when the actual punch line (“Lick My Love Pump”!) arrived. That was a rarity in those pre-VCR days.
I saw Spinal Tap live that summer, when they did a brief club tour. They played a Saturday-afternoon all-ages matinee at the Channel, by the wharf in South Boston, a total dump where I usually went for weekend-afternoon hardcore shows. (Thanks to my humiliatingly detailed high school journal, I can tell you it was July 7th, 1984.) I figured the crowd was going to be mostly punk/new wave kids like me, i.e. metal dilettantes, but it was all real metal kids. As we waited outside in the rain for the doors to open, the crowd sang “Big Bottom” together. Since I was stupidly wearing khakis, an alligator shirt and a “Jane Wyman Was Right” button, I knew I was going to get my ass kicked in the pit all afternoon. (I did. It was fine.) Local metal bands opened up, my first live metal experience — I’d never seen the “drummer throws sticks away and bashes the cymbals with his fists” routine before, except in a Quiet Riot video.
Spinal Tap began with a snippet of the Fifties oldie “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” slamming right into “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.” They did all the hits: “Sex Farm,” “Stonehenge,” the very underrated “Rock & Roll Creation,” plus a reggae “Listen To The Flower People.” At the end, they did another Fifties oldie (“Rockin’ Robin”) before turning it up to eleven with “All The Way Home.” They seemed bemused to see the underage headbangers moshing. “We’ve been a band for 20 years,” David St. Hubbins announced. “Which is longer than most of you have been alive on this particular planet.” Derek Smalls added, “Yeah, some of you were probably born while your parents were listening to us!”
When I think about it now, it’s hard to imagine how dreary this gig must have been for the actual band, playing to a bunch of kids — on some level, this might have felt like Spinal Tap’s puppet show gig. Because the Channel was a pit, the roof was leaking and rain kept dripping onto the stage. They kept futzing with their equipment (“The tuning isn’t on the album, so you’re actually getting a bargain”). As Nigel Tufnel explained, snapping his gum, “They told us Boston wasn’t a big college town. But your warm hearts make up for the low amplification.”
You always remember the thrill of discovering Spinal Tap, but the movie’s power grows when you’ve been watching for a couple of decades. All these gags about failure, exhaustion, repetition, despair — how the hell did we all get these jokes when we were teenagers? It’s like a crash course for rock & roll kids about adult heartache. One thing that always strikes me now is how young the Tap are — they’ve been slogging on the road forever, but they’re still just in their late thirties. These poor guys have no idea how many more “We hope you enjoy our new direction” moments are yet to come. That’s why the movie keeps resonating over the years — it’s a totally different movie when you’re old enough to relate. It gives you perspective. Too much fucking perspective.
The Tap’s legacy remains — in Best in Show (which does for marriage what Spinal Tap does for music), the prize outtakes on the 2001 DVD (like the scene where the plaster-caster groupie molds their asses) or the episode of The Nanny where Fran Drescher reprises her classic role as Bobbi Flekman. (With Lisa Loeb as her assistant and Brian Setzer as the talent — yeah, the Nineties were weird). But there will never be anything quite like This Is Spinal Tap again.