'This Is Spinal Tap': The Comics Behind the Funniest Rock Movie Ever - Rolling Stone
Home Movies Movie News

‘This Is Spinal Tap’: The Comics Behind the Funniest Rock Movie Ever

Celebrating 17 years of heavy metal’s most painful career


SPINAL TAP in circa 1984.

Pete Cronin/Redferns/Getty

For the creators of This Is Spinal Tap, the satiric mock documentary detailing the exploits of a fictitious heavy-metal band, the line between life and art has been getting blurry of late. The other night, for example, this band that doesn’t really exist was playing at a Los Angeles club called the Music Machine. The place was packed, jammed with the black-leather-and-spikes crowd. “I walked in the club and people started yelling, ‘Nigel.’ They had these weird, crazed looks on their faces. ‘Nigel! Nigel’s here!”‘

The preppie-looking, short-haired speaker is not, in fact, named Nigel. He’s not really in a rock band, either. He is thirty-six-year-old Christopher Guest, and like his costars in This Is Spinal Tap — thirty-six-year-old Michael McKean, forty-year-old Harry Shearer and thirty-seven-year-old Rob Reiner — he’s an actor, scriptwriter and comedian. All the same, when he picks up his guitar and dons his stringy shag wig and tight silver spandex pants to become the flaky Jeff Beck lookalike known as Nigel Tufnel, the heavy-metal kids flip out.

Like the time they were shooting some concert footage for the movie: “While we were playing, several girls latched onto Harry’s leg in the dog-in-heat manner,” said Guest, who’s been parodying rock & roll since his days with the National Lampoon comedy troupe in the early Seventies. “And on two occasions, girls ripped open their shirts — bare breasts — and were looking up going, ‘I love you, I love you.’ It was very bizarre.”

“It’s life imitating art,” said Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner, who played Meathead in TV’s All in the Family.

“The closer we dared to get to the real thing, the closer the real thing dared to get to us,” added Shearer, a former Saturday Night Live cast member who plays Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. “It’s like reality is calling our bluff at every stop along the way.”

There’s no reason why Spinal Tap couldn’t be a real heavy-metal band. Shearer, Guest and McKean have perfected the look, sound and attitude of heavy metal. And as they sat in the Beverly Hills home of their publicist, they showed they’ve even mastered the heavy-metal way of talking.

“We had this Iron Maiden interview from NME [the British music paper],” said McKean, whose best-known role was as Lenny in Laverne & Shirley and whose Spinal Tap character is the blond, curly-haired guitarist and lead vocalist, David St. Hubbins. “It was incredible. The guy is saying things like” — McKean slipped into his English-rock-star voice — “‘Well, we like to view ourselves like we’re troubadours, you know. From the ancient days of song. Wandering around the countryside. . . .'”

“It was an interview,” added Shearer, “that asked all the questions that you’d want to ask one of those people. ‘Isn’t this the most stupid music known to man?'”

“‘Well, it’s not as easy as that, is it?'” said Guest, in character. “‘It’s not a yes-and-no question, is it?'”

This Is Spinal Tap takes the rock & roll world in all its pompous glory and manages to poke fun at almost every aspect of it. Record-company presidents, publicists, promo men, managers and even critics are all affectionately skewered. The movie — a collaboration between Reiner, Guest, Shearer and McKean — was made for less than $3 million. Shot with hand-held cameras in 16 millimeter (and later blown up to 35 millimeter), This Is Spinal Tap was improvised as the film rolled. As a result, the movie has the look, feel and spontaneity of a real rock documentary. “The documentary form lent itself to the exposure of the self-important,” said McKean.

Like the serious rock films that inspired it, This Is Spinal Tap mixes concert footage, “candid” interviews and behind-the-scenes action. Guest, McKean and Shearer wrote and performed all of the music, including the machismo rocker “Big Bottom” (“I saw her on Monday, ’twas my lucky bun day/You know what I mean”), the mid-Sixties period piece “Gimme Some Money” and the psychedelic classic “(Listen to the) Flower People.”

The film starts as Spinal Tap begins an American tour to promote their new album, Smell the Glove. It’s the seventeen-year-old group’s seventh LP — following such other records as Intravenus de Milo and their concept album, The Sun Never Sweats — but there’s a problem. Polymer Records president Sir Denis Eton-Hogg doesn’t like the cover and won’t release it. According to Polymer publicist Bobbi Flekman, the cover — which depicts “a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash and a man’s arm extended out holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it” — is “offensive.”

“You should have seen the cover they wanted to do,” argues Tap manager Ian Faith (played by former National Lampoon editor Tony Hendra).

By the end of the tour, it seems Spinal Tap has had it. David St. Hubbins’ girlfriend has become the band’s manager; her career strategies, worked out with the help of astrological charts, have led to a poorly attended booking at an air-force dance and a concert at an amusement park where the band is billed below a puppet show. Nigel quits in disgust, and soon the other members decide to pack it in so they can pursue those solo projects they’ve never had time for.

“I’ve always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic, as you know,” notes St. Hubbins to bassist Derek Smalls.

Christopher Guest first had the inspiration for his Nigel Tufnel character back in 1974, when he ran into a member of a British heavy-metal band and the group’s road manager at the Chateau Marmont, a Los Angeles hotel. Guest put on his English accent as he recalled the conversation that took place when the two Brits approached the desk to check in.

Road Manager (very efficient): “All right, well, we’ll take our instruments up to the room.”

Rock Star (spaced): “Don’t know where my bass is.”

Manager (curt): “I beg your pardon.”

Star: “I don’t know where the bass is.”

Manager: “Where is it?”

Star: “I think it’s at the airport.”

Manager (patronizing): “You have to get back there, don’t you.”

Star: “I don’t know, do I?”

Manager (stern): “I think you better.”

Star: “Where’s my bass?”

Manager (frustrated): “It’s at the airport.”

“This went on for a good twenty minutes,” said Guest, “and I was standing there thinking, ‘This is good. This is important.’ I mean it literally was that duncelike.”

Guest had had his own fling with the music business back in the Sixties, after he and McKean had met in a poetry class at New York University. “The first conversation we had was about Michael Bloomfield,” recalled McKean. “We were both marveling at this great sound he had.”

Soon they were sharing an apartment, writing, as Guest puts it, “a series of incredibly indulgent songs”: “Traveling Clowns,” “Molly’s Day at Home,” “Castle by the Sea” and “These Are My Children.” They were also being hustled by shady characters. “Michael and I were brought to an office on Eighth Avenue by some gentlemen of foreign descent who wanted to sign us to a record contract,” said Guest. “The guy, who was called Vito the Snake or something, had a stack of peel-off contracts, the kind you can buy at a stationery store, 300 to a pad. He said, ‘I want you guys to sign this thing, all right. And we’ll do a record, we’ll. . . .’ We thought we would be killed if we didn’t sign.”

Later, Guest played in a band called Voltaire’s Nose, and McKean was briefly in the Left Banke (‘Walk Away Renee”). “It was after their only major success,” he said. “We rehearsed for three months, and then it dissolved. We never actually played anywhere.”

While McKean and Guest were trying their hand at rock & roll, Rob Reiner was performing with the Committee, a West Coast improvisational comedy group. “It seemed like there was a tremendous cross-pollination between the rock & roll world and the improvisational-satire world,” said Reiner. “These rock & roll people were all fascinated by what we did — we improvised onstage — and they were always hanging around: Mama Cass, guys from Blood, Sweat and Tears, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Steve Miller, Janis Joplin.”

By 1970, McKean had also moved to Los Angeles, where he joined Shearer in the Credibility Gap, a popular group of satirists who used the day’s news as the starting point for their comedy. Around the same time, Guest had joined the National Lampoon and was working on such projects as Radio Dinner, Lemmings and That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick! Reiner, of course, became Meathead.

After leaving the Credibility Gap in 1976, McKean got his Laverne & Shirley role. Shearer became involved in feature films, cowriting Real Life and appearing in One-Trick Pony, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and The Right Stuff (he played one of the government men assigned to recruit the original astronauts). He was also a member of the Saturday Night Live cast during the 1979–1980 season. Guest, who left the Lampoon in 1975, cowrote and starred in The Lily Tomlin Special, for which he won an Emmy, and worked on The Chevy Chase Special.

Though Guest had come up with the Nigel Tufnel character back in 1974, it wasn’t until 1978 that the four men actually began talking about a cinematic rock satire. At the time, Reiner, Guest, Shearer and McKean were working together on a rock & roll parody for an ABC special called The TV Show. Reiner, mimicking Wolfman Jack, introduced Spinal Tap, the band, to the world for the first time; they met the challenge by performing “Rock and Roll Nightmare.”

Realizing they had more than a one-shot joke on their hands, the four persuaded a production company called Marble Arch to finance a “long trailer.” By the time they had completed a twenty-minute demo, however, the firm had folded. It took two years to find anyone else who would take a chance.

“It looked like the project was dead a number of times,” said Reiner, who, together with producer Karen Murphy, shopped the film. “We were literally walking from one lot to the next, with a can of film under our arms. Columbia, MGM, Twentieth, Orion. We went everywhere. They just didn’t feel it had any appeal. And I told Karen, ‘If we ever get this film made, we’re going to be able to say in interviews that we went with a can of film under our arms. We’re doing that! We’re doing the thing that they always say in these stories. We’re doing it!'”

Now that This Is Spinal Tap is at least something of a minor hit — by mid-April, the film had opened in about twenty-five cities — Guest, McKean and Shearer are talking about another film, one that would spoof the attempted comeback of a once-popular folk trio. “Guys like us in their late thirties, who were hot in the early Sixties,” said McKean. “A folk group getting back together again and not having seen each other for ten or twelve years.”

One could see the wheels turning. “Stand-up bass, banjo and guitar,” added Guest. “And those kinds of songs. . . .” Suddenly, he began to sing in a deep, resonant, Glenn Yarbrough-like voice. “I had a dream last night . . . and I saw her standing there.”

“And this is a trio that made a lot of money, let’s say,” said McKean.

“My favorite idea is shaving our heads to look like Peter Yarrow,” continued Guest. “Having a mustache and wearing the turtlenecks and a little potbelly. . . .”


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.