Tonight We Tribute Tonight - "This is Spinal Tap" Part 1

CHRIS: Metal's history in the movies is not particularly long or illustrious. All of the odd glances and snickering asides that metal gets from music fans of other stripes are magnified when the medium changes, as filmmakers seldom know what to do with a form of music that is the aural equivalent of a Michael Bay movie (take that for what you will). Most of the time, we end up with metal either being portrayed as music for idiots, or are subject to movies that try to deal with the subject matter with respect, but are terrible attempts at film. I'm looking at you, "Rock Of Ages".

The one time the movies got it right when it comes to metal is "This is Spinal Tap", a statement that is as ridiculous as the movie, since it is the ultimate spoof of all that we hold dear. Somehow, a movie that mercilessly mocks the music we love has become a fan favorite, and has endured for thirty years as a stone-cold classic.

I wish I could say I remember the first time I saw the movie, but I can't. It's been in my consciousness for as long as I can remember, but pinpointing the exact moment I realized its genius is impossible. Throughout the years, my own appreciation for the film has changed, as I have gained a greater understanding of both music and storytelling. In between all the jokes about exploding drummers and amps that go to eleven, there is a serious story being told about the love and dedication metal musicians have for their music. It's that grain of truth that elevates "This Is Spinal Tap" above any other movie that has tried to depict the reality of metal and its fans.

So I will begin this discussion with two questions for you: How much has Spinal Tap meant to you as a metal fan, and how do you think it is that a movie that lambastes our music has become universally revered? I've often wondered whether we, as metal fans, love the movie because it allows us to use comedy as a means of diffusing our own issues with the music. Your thoughts?

M. DREW: I think, to answer your second question first, there has always been a certain degree of humor laced into the very concept of heavy metal, at least as we think of it in the modern era. Before somebody else points it out, no, I don't think Black Sabbath was a comedy band. But in the years that followed, there was a certain amount of levity built into the proceedings whether intentional (Iron Maiden) or unintentional (Venom/Celtic Frost.) This stems from a number of factors, not the least of which is who was making the music. To look at some of the proto-metal bands that came of age in the mid- to late seventies, you see a popular trend of nerds and outcasts singing songs about completely ridiculous subject matter. I mean, for God's sake, Cirith Ungol is named after a fortress in Lord of the Rings. So there's always been an element of the absurd in metal, it's completely unavoidable.

Take as a prime example Venom's seminal effort "Welcome to Hell." At the time, sure, this was the scariest record ever made. Scarier than KISS or AC/DC or anyone else. But anyone who took the time to really dissect "Welcome to Hell" probably came to the conclusion that Cronos and company were really just three sexually frustrated British dudes who were upset because women wouldn't touch them (seriously, look at the picture of them below.) Certainly, greater works of art have been created for that same reason (looking at you, Van Gogh.) Through the proper lens, Venom was so serious about what they were playing that the music and the resultant passionate fandom became something unto itself, which drew snickers from metal moderates. (Side note: the only metal band whose ardent followers are no laughing matter is Pantera - those people will fuck you up.)

Even as thrash developed and took the United States by storm, it was hard to take it one hundred percent literally. Yes, there was a consistent thread of fear about the Cold War and nuclear annihilation woven into each of thrash's founders, but that doesn't mean they were locked into that subject matter all the time. Hell, Dave Mustaine, outcast/nerd/virtuoso extraordinaire, wrote songs about the Punisher and how he hated job at a car wash in-between tales of death and destruction. Even Slayer, those titans of dark imagery and parent scaring, posed with something bordering ridiculous smiles for the band photo of "Reign in Blood." Metal, in all forms and across all ages, has always had a certain 'wink wink nudge nudge' to it.

Where "This is Spinal Tap" fits into that is that it's a fine chronicle of the exact phenomenon that I'm talking about with Venom - a band that is so dedicated to their image and their lifestyle and what they want to project that they seem ridiculous from the outside looking in. Even the musicians I've talked to about Spinal Tap love Spinal Tap because they all know someone like that or have had something like that happen to them - it's self-effacing in an entirely accurate way, which somehow makes the parody more redeeming and welcomed.

I'm going to let you ponder that while I ruminate on an answer to your first question. Why'd you start with a hard one? Jerk.

CHRIS: Hearing that, I'm left wondering how much of that is lost on the younger generations of metal fans. While you and I can remember the more ludicrous moments in metal history as just that, those who can only experience the horrendous glory of the 80's through the Wayback Machine might not see it the same way. Much like how Rush is no longer a metal band, despite being called on in the middle of the 70s, I have a feeling much of the music that gave metal its levity back in the day is hardly considered metal anymore.

We easily remember watching Ronnie James Dio singing about rainbows, on a rooftop, while the world's cheesiest keyboard line played. It's a part of our shared experience, one that reminds us of the playful fun that was once a part of being in a metal band. But when I look around at the scene right now, and consider what passes as metal these days, I'm not sure if we aren't the last generation who can appreciate "Spinal Tap" as more than just a movie. Every facet of metal these days has been turned into a grim assault on every sense, and the only bits of humor come from bands like Steel Panther, who are so stupid that I would hardly consider them funny.

"Spinal Tap" found its humor in the culture of metal, and made us all come to terms with the absurdity of sometimes middle age men wearing studded leather, long hair, and grasping long phallic symbols. The members of "Spinal Tap" weren't just parodies of the metal musicians, they were us as well. We were in the same position as them, fighting our whole lives for the music we love. It's that inclusionary element that I believe has made "Spinal Tap" endure as long as it has.

The reality of metal has changed in the intervening years, to the point where there are scores of people who don't realize "This Is Spinal Tap" isn't a documentary. Part of that is due to the brilliance of the movie, but some of it has to do with the fact that metal in the mainstream has lost all sense of art. Everything is presented in the most blunt of terms, spelled out so the lowest common denominator can understand. Metal as a culture has died out, so metal in the culture has followed suit.

"Spinal Tap" managed to be prescient about many things that would happen in metal, right down to the endless nostalgia appearances the 'band' continues to make, but it's as much a time capsule of a fading light. In an ironic twist, it does serve as a sort of documentary for what metal once was. How 'bout that?

M. DREW: Okay, I'm going backwards and finally answering your first question - As a metal fan, "This is Spinal Tap" has always meant a curiously informed parody of heavy metal. Which is only bizarre because I think Spinal Tap tries to mock not only the tenets of metal, but the eccentricities of the megalithic rock bands who came before. Every time I see the scene with the tiny bread that won't fold, I think of the Rolling Stones and their reputation for totally outlandish rider requests. This begs the chicken and egg of life imitating art or vice-versa - were artists always doing this? Do more artists ask for total nonsense because of send-ups like Spinal Tap? We may never know, but the only consistent hint seems to be that these kinds of things are culturally static - there will always be people who are jerks, I suppose. (Elephants are like people, Mrs. Simpson...)

I'm not sure that we're the last generation that can appreciate Spinal Tap, because, to use your own argument, the band and idea persists in the wave of culturally cannibalistic nostalgia that so permeates the modern milieu. I mean, we know that the kids know all about the Motley Crue, and suddenly Anthrax is bigger than they've been in decades, so there must be some trickle down of the major touchstones of metal. Certainly, Black Sabbath hasn't decreased in popularity. So any studious fan (which all metal fans are, just ask them!) knows about Black Sabbath's disastrous set pieces that were so large they couldn't be used and therefore gets the "Stonehenge" gag. Side note: "This is Spinal Tap" was released just before the hair metal craze took off - wow, think of all the material Guest and Reiner would've had if only they'd waited a couple more years! But, we know what they say about hindsight...

Even if the presentation of metal has changed, the foundation remains much the same. While subtlety is likely a lost art, at least for the time being, a band like GHOST certainly seems to have their tongue planted firmly in cheek. We've recently been given cause to mourn a significant loss for GWAR, but in so doing they've been highlighted as the sort of face of metal comedy. S.o.D carried that torch for a while, and it's hard to argue against bands like the Cancer Bats having a handle on the ridiculousness of their home base, even if they don't openly write humorous songs.

Has metal culture died? You and I have spoken frequently (often in negative terms) of the concept of metal fans who judge too easily, pigeonhole their favorite artists into bite-sized holes and take singular glee in denying others even the barest enjoyment of metal fandom. While distasteful, couldn't it be argued that they represent the face of "metal" culture? Extending that out, what would a mockumentary of them look like? ("This is Spinal Tap 2", anyone?)

I agree that the movie primarily deals with a metal scene that isn't the current one (resurrected acts and old-school revivalists like Graveyard notwithstanding,) but I don't know that that necessarily cheapens or alters the ongoing value of Spinal Tap as part of metal's fabric.

CHRIS: When I say that we are of the last generation of metal fans to truly get "Spinal Tap", I suppose I wasn't quite clear enough. Yes, the bands from our youths are still around, and often are bigger than ever. But while the whippersnappers these days know of all those bands, they do so more as a curiosity of history. They can read the stories about Ozzy and the dove, or Led Zeppelin and the mud shark, but the era where those sorts of things were possible is long gone. Metal hedonism, in the form you and I can remember hearing about, can't happen in the age of social media. These days, if a band tried to do anything like that, or even good ol' fashioned hotel room trashing, it would be all over the news in a matter of minutes, and they would be vilified for being disrespectful jerk-wads. Look at Axl Rose right now. He routinely shows up hours late for his shows, and he's treated as an insult because of it. In that instance, I fully support the castigation, but the point holds. "Spinal Tap" is very much the chronicle of a time gone by.

I do believe that 'metal culture' has died, because the term has no meaning anymore. When everyone from Graveyard to Cannibal Corpse can be called metal, there is no shared experience for a culture to grow from. It's a bit like comparing flora from different continents. Just because they have leaves doesn't mean they're closely related. Likewise, metal today is such a catch-all, and the fans so unable to see the larger picture, that we are as different as the different sects of Christianity.

I have a feeling that a modern sequel to the movie would wind up with the realization that the 'truest' metal fan of all is someone who hates metal, but loves stirring up trouble online. The troll is probably as close to the old metal attitude as we're going to get. It's a shame that the hair metal era couldn't have been included in the movie, because I can only imagine the fun they could have had with guitar pyrotechnics (figurative and literal - how did they not parody Ace Frehley burning his crotch with smoke bombs in his guitar?) and hairspray. That being said, the movie is close to perfect as it is. In fact, there's only one complain I can register against the movie, which brings me to two questions: 1) What is your favorite moment in the movie? and 2) Was "Spinal Tap" diminished by the band continuing on after the movie, essentially becoming the very thing they were parodying?

I'll answer the first of those, and then let you have the stage again. My favorite moment in the movie is one that says a bit about me. It is the moment when Nigel names his piano piece "Lick My Love Pump", but not because I think it's all that hilarious a joke. It's my favorite moment in the movie because the writer in me loves the truth it strikes about the power of language to dictate our thoughts. We think one thing about the piece until he names it, at which point we're thrown for a loop. It's a (probably unintended) commentary on what labels mean to us. Does anyone think The Beatles' "Yesterday" would have been so beloved if the lyrics were really about scrambled eggs, as they started out?

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