Tonight We Tribute Tonight - "This is Spinal Tap" Part 2

M. DREW: Let's run with your posit for a moment that metal culture no longer exists in a cohesive sense (which I still dispute, but I can't debate without arguing in circles, which will get us nowhere.) We can at least agree that metal culture is fractured and in some state of disrepair. There's almost certainly a qualifier in front of the word 'disrepair,' but which one and how serious it is, is likely in the beholder's eye. The larger question would be 'when did this happen?' The only theory I can offer is that metal became totally insular and started taking itself too seriously somewhere right around grunge. I love grunge, don't get me wrong, I'm sort of an unofficial historian on the subject. But I've talked to a number of musicians who credit that, and the pursuant era of post-grunge (up to and including rap metal) as the period of time when they were least inspired to create new music. The resulting mainstreaming of trends that had begun as underground movements forced American metal, forever the litmus test of metal culture, to recede for a number of years. Could it be that the influx of death and black metal coming from overseas, with the accompanying seriousness of image and theme, corrupted the scene's sense of hyperbole and sarcasm?

The only thing I would add to a potential sequel for "This is Spinal Tap" is that it would have to feature a band that cuts out the middleman and simply has Dikembe Mutombo as their singer. Tell me you wouldn't watch/listen to that? Maybe we could even put the big man in panda paint.

Your questions in order: 1) I don't know if I have a single favorite part, but I do have several parts I like a lot. First, I love that Smalls asks if they're still playing Stonehenge after the huge blowout argument, mostly because that's something I'd do. That entire Stonehenge sequence is incredible, from the first sketch on the napkin that you can see won't end well to the dancers who almost trip over it to the argument itself. Secondly, I love the gag making fun of that tour where Peter Gabriel was born out of a womb every night, and Smalls gets trapped right until the end. It's an easy sight gag, but that doesn't make it less effective. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I love the scene where they get lost in the catacombs of the arena. I personally have worked in some buildings that are labyrinthine in nature and had those moments. I can't tell you how many times I've thought to yell 'rock and roll!' when trying to navigate a studio, arena or hotel.

Weirdly enough though, I think the part that always surprises me when I watch it is just how much I really love the simple intro riff for "Tonight I'm Going to Rock You Tonight." It's like Weird Al - sometimes it works even though it's not supposed to.

Speaking of, your other question - No, I don't think Spinal Tap cheapened the impact of the film by heading out there, because the parody was always the reason to go out in the first place, and remained in the forefront. Shoot, that was even the subtext when they were on 'The Simpsons,' though they never came out and said it. Not to keep banging on the GWAR point, but it's in the same vein - the ridiculousness of it all didn't get old because GWAR didn't let it get less ridiculous, which I promise makes sense in my head. If Spinal Tap had somehow parlayed their success into becoming an actual, serious band, then I would be worried about their legacy.

The only part of Spinal Tap that's really well done but I've never been sure where it fits is the whole side story about David and Nigel's successful career in pop rock...what do you make of it? What's its analog?

CHRIS: When did metal culture die? After giving it a bit of thought, I suspect your timing of the event is right. Metal culture would have kicked the bucket during the height of grunge, but I don't think it had as much to do with the lack of creative fire coming from metal bands. What I think killed off metal culture was the fact that metal became uncool again, and the little pockets of metal fans were separated from themselves once again. It's like after a rain storm, when the water stars evaporating, and all that's left are puddles in the low points. Those were the metal fans during the grunge years, and because there was no larger pool of fans to tie it all together, evolution was able to take hold and progress rapidly. Anything that becomes too insular is subject to going off the rails, and that happened a bit to metal in those years. The influx of black and death metal didn't help, but I would put more of the blame on metal fans losing touch with the larger world.

Hmm... a band with Dikembe Mutombo as the singer... replace the devil horns with the finger wag... I like it.

I agree with you that the most surprising aspect of "Spinal Tap" is how much of the music actually works. There aren't any moments in the movie where they play, and you can hear that it's all a big joke. Being able to toe that line without crossing it is much harder than it seems. Often, the mistake in comedy is to make stupidity too stupid, at which point it stops being funny. Spinal Tap always manages to keep up the appearance of possibly being a real band, which is its greatest strength.

I will disagree with you about their legacy, however. The movie and the soundtrack are nearly perfect, but the subsequent thirty years of continual reuniting has done something I find damaging; it turned Spinal Tap into a real band. It would be one thing if they came together every so often for a gimmicked appearance, but they have put out two more albums, and even done short tours. None of that plays into the parody, because they really are a band now. Much like "Duck Soup" would have stopped being funny if Groucho Marx had ever actually become the leader of a country, knowing that Spinal Tap has become a real band has slightly dimmed my view of the movie. Everything they were skewering at the time would become a part of their act. It was a tongue-in-cheek embrace of the rock star life, but it's too close for my comfort. The music doesn't work as well without the movie, and each album has gotten progressively worse (although "Bitch School" is still a fantastic song). In the movie, the band hung around too long. In reality, they may have done the exact same thing.

It's not exactly the same, but I think the most obvious analog is our beloved Ronnie James Dio. While he didn't have the success implied in the movie, he started his career in a similar manner, only to become the godfather of all metal singers. I'm sure it's unintentional, but I like to think that David and Nigel's prior career, especially if you like to consider The Folksmen from "A Mighty Wind" to be an older Spinal Tap, as a reminder that there's more to music than whatever one thing we love at the moment. Metal bands, even the mighty Spinal Tap, aren't born as metal fans. Getting there is a journey, and it's foolish to forget the stops along the way, or to not wonder where else you can go.

M.DREW: In talking about the music of Spinal Tap and how it's infectiously catchy (even the laughable lyrics of "Gimme Some Money,") what it's easy to lose sight of is that it seems Christopher Guest must also be a metal fan. Or at least, a rock fan, with some KISS leanings in there. For all that his creation is parody, part of the reason it works so well is because it's so close to something we actually enjoy, but without an uncanny valley to separate it. Too much of Guest's commentary on the genre, and the actual music itself, is so close to home that it can't possibly be generated from either thin air or mere observational study. I suspect that's also true of the Folksmen, but I'm not enough of a folk aficionado to judge that band's verisimilitude. Nonetheless, it seems that some of the reason "This is Spinal Tap" comes across so intact is because it may in fact be a labor of love.

So long as we're on the subject of realism, I think that's a big part of the reason why so many artists love "This is Spinal Tap": that crap, in one form or another, has happened to them. To them, it becomes almost a cathartic confessional - yes, I survived that, and now I'm laughing at it because it's happening in a vacuum where no one else is getting hurt. It's like my reaction to watching "Broadcast News"; after a career of television production, when other people laugh at that movie, I find myself going 'don't laugh, that actually happened to me.' It's been the tenet of the standup comic for as there's been standup comics - the best comedy is always well-rooted in the truth. The same can be said for "This is Spinal Tap."

Hey, you don't know what might have happened if Groucho had run a country - he might have done something ridiculously unthinkable, like make every man in the country get his haircut....oh, wait....

The question that keeps banging around in my head is this one: Did Spinal Tap, either as band or movie, have any hand in paving the road for similar acts down the line? Does Anthrax or SoD or GWAR have the same time of it if not for Spinal Tap? Corollary to that, I think Spinal Tap reminds us, even as parody, that for all their image, musicians are just flawed people, too. Did they make it 'okay' to be just a regular guy in a metal band?

CHRIS: I would hang my hat on Christopher Guest being a fan, otherwise I can't see why he and the rest of the crew would have put in the requisite time to make the movie. I know that from my experiences as a writer, it's awfully difficult to get yourself excited to put in the amount of work necessary for a large-scale entity if you aren't entirely behind it. I can't imagine the three band members not being fans of the music, or else they're better actors than I give them credit for.

Certainly, "Spinal Tap" is far more realistic than most people watching will ever know. For the casual fan who happens across the movie on a random Saturday afternoon, it all seems ridiculous. But for those of us who spend far too much time obsessing on music, and the stories that surround it, we can see that the only thing fictional about the entire movie are the names of the band members. Ultimately, I think that's what makes the movie work as well as it does. It is so honest about the warts and blemishes of metal (I can't say that without thinking of Lemmy) that even the most absurd moments have an air of authenticity behind them. They call it a mockumentary, which is fitting, because while it isn't real, it's not acting either.

At least if Groucho were in charge we'd all have a laugh as we circled the drain. We'd have to listen to a superfluous harp solo as well, so maybe it's not the greatest idea.

In a way, I do think Spinal Tap paved the way for everything we know about comedy metal. There really hadn't been anyone before them who blended comedy with the music the way they did. There always needs to be an originator, and it was far easier for a fictional band to do the job. I'm sure it would have happened eventually, but I question how long the stigma of metal would have prevented levity from being injected if the mighty Tap hadn't set the stage. It's funny to think of a movie shaping the foundation it was based on, instead of it being the other way around, but that is the case for much about the movie. "Spinal Tap" didn't need metal to exist; the movie could have easily been made about any of the classic rock bands of the 70s, but the metal did need the movie. By seeing likeable people struggling to play the music they loved through myriad setbacks was exactly the sort of thing that needed to happen to show people like the PMRC that metal was not literally the work of the devil. It was people with bad haircuts playing loud music because they thought it was funny to annoy their parents. Spinal Tap put a better face on the movement than WASP ever could, and might just be due for some of the credit for metal moving into the mainstream in the years immediately after its release. Not to desecrate the memory of JFK, but "Spinal Tap" may have been an analog to his message about the moon; 'By the end of the decade, we will put metal in the suburbs!'

With all of that being said, is there any angle we've missed?

M. DREW: The angle we've missed is one of the more subtle aspects of the legacy of "This is Spinal Tap." To this point, we've really only spoken about Spinal Tap and their impact on the metal community, but in reality, the movie was originally intended to make a mockey of the world of rock and roll. Heck, the movie's original tagline was: "does for rock and roll what 'The Sound of Music' did for hills." I'm not sure what the total subtext of that is, but it certainly speaks to the commutative nature of rock and roll, that it can be so much one thing and yet concurrently represent another. We've always known that the line between rock and metal remains blurred, but that obfuscation begins long ago with KISS, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and so forth. It's entirely possible that "This is Spinal Tap" was marketed as rock to attract a larger audience, but the simpler explanation is that those boundaries weren't clear or important in 1984, and that some of that same gray area still exists. The fact that metal culture has so readily adopted "This is Spinal Tap" as canon speaks only to our secret admission, or at least tacit, subconscious understanding, that metal's roots lie in rock and the blues.

CHRIS: The boundaries between rock and metal may not have existed at all in 1984. The fact of the matter is that it is a recent invention for the two to be considered completely separate entities, a development that has been for the worst. If we replaced the word 'metal' with 'rock' throughout this entire conversation, the only thing that would change is the verbiage. Whether it was intended as one and marketed as the other is irrelevant. The only thing that matters, or I should say the only thing that should matter, is the message.

We've talked many times about the problems metal has with its incessant need to categorize everything into tiny little boxes that keep everyone separate, which is why "Spinal Tap" is as refreshing to go back to as it is. The movie is a reminder of a time when there weren't these divisive labels tearing us apart, when we could all sit down as one collective and embrace the things that we shared. It's such a rare treat these days that when it does happen, it's almost shocking. More than anything, I think "spinal Tap" right now is a memento of a time we may never get back. People say that you can see whatever you're looking for in art, and for me, I see the remnants of a better time. I can only hope people will take away the same thing.

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