Spinal Tap: Is the Joke Finally Over?

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From left: Derek Smalls, David St. Hubbins, NIgel Tufnel
WRITTEN BY
Steve Kandell

SPIN has made no secret of its reverence for a certain iconic film currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. Yet for all the accolades, Purple Rain may not even have been the most impactful rock movie released in 1984.

Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer's metal "mockumentary" This Is Spinal Tap has become the ultimate signifier for rock n' roll excess and idiocy. More to the point, it is the impossibly rare cultural product that's universally beloved. (Historically, the movie's only real detractors have been the real-life rock stars who found the goings-on all too real, and that was more out of embarrassment than outrage.)

But while Prince is marking his movie's milestone the same way he's marked every other career achievement -- by keeping his mouth shut and leaving everything about the project shrouded in mystery -- Guest, McKean, and Shearer have never shown such restraint.

MORE ON SPIN.COM:>> For Those About to "Rock" >> Spinal Tap Reunion >> Metal Veterans Anvil Rock NYC There were a couple of in-character tours, the 1992 studio album Break Like the Wind, which turned arcana from the fake band's very realistic backstory into actual songs, and numerous high-profile live appearances (the Freddie Mercury tribute in 1992, Live Earth). That's fine -- if a few music fans who have somehow never seen the movie get driven to do so, that's for everyone's betterment.

This year's attempts at brand management, however, fall on the wrong side of the fine line between stupid and clever.

The recent Unwigged and Unplugged acoustic tour, during which the trio played (out of character) not just Spinal Tap numbers but songs from its folk mockumentary counterpart A Mighty Wind, was harmless enough; it was aimed squarely at the boomers who were in on the joke the first time around, and designed as little more than a quiet, nostalgic night out that could have been MC'd by Garrison Kellior.

Less innocuous or sensible, though, was Back From the Dead, posited as a "new" album, but consisting solely of glossy re-workings of older songs. (This in and of itself not unheard of -- Camper Van Beethoven recently put out a greatest-hits collection featuring new recordings because they couldn't get the rights to their own songs and Kiss are doing something similar for a Wal-Mart exclusive.)

In Spinal Tap's case, however, this is not merely pointless, it actually strips the numbers of the subtle jokes that made them classic to begin with: The original "Gimme Some Money" was a pitch-perfect mono take on 1964-vintage Merseybeat proto-rock; redone without the jokey low-fi, it barely merits a shrug.

"Big Bottom" punctuated its ode to ample backsides with three absurd, appropriately bottom-heavy basslines; the new version is largely keyboard-driven. If this was indeed necessitated by label shenanigans, the temptation to leave the old versions out of print -- and not for sale -- must have been too easy to resist.

Then there's this: On The Daily Show a couple weeks ago, the reconstituted Spinal Tap performed the former cock-rock homage "Sex Farm," (now rechristened, lamentably, "(Funky) Sex Farm") with a horn section. (See video below.)

Certainly, these guys need to be doing something to make the joke feel fresh after 25 years, but if the only recourse is to destroy the very joke that got them here, wouldn't it make more sense to just, you know, write new jokes? (If it is indeed supposed to be some wonky commentary about the time that, I don't know, Deep Purple recorded a seldom-heard scat version of "Smoke on the Water" in 1988, then I stand humbly corrected. But somehow I don't think that's the case this time.)

Never has satire been delivered with such pinpoint accuracy as This Is Spinal Tap -- only people who understood and loved music as deeply as those guys did could have lampooned its history and its tropes so effectively. But strip away that obsessive attention to genre- and era-specific sonic details, and...well, what's the point?

If this latest move is meant to bring new eyeballs to the movie -- just released on Blu-Ray, not coincidentally -- why would abandoning the very elements that made the comedy so indelible and inimitable be deemed an effective method?

The only answer can be boredom. They would hardly be the first longstanding group to fall prey to that. But Spinal Tap aren't really a band, they're three uniquely talented comic minds with product to promote. The irony, of course, is that no product promotes itself as well as their movie -- its reputation is sterling and unimpeachable and will endure for generations without the three of them ever having to say a word about it as long as they live. All they have to do is not fuck with it. (See: Lucas, George.)

So, a personal imploration to Messrs. Guest, McKean, and Shearer: Indulge that urge to go off and finish your rock opera about Jack the Ripper,Saucy Jack, perform a symphony of your works with the London Philharmonic. Envy yourselves.

Finally, rest well at night, hopefully on a bed of well-deserved money, knowing that you've outshone the bands you were honoring/lambasting. And consider taking a cue from your fellow pop legend from the summer of 1984, who himself might be heeding a line from your fake single "(Listen to the) Flower People" (the original 1967-aping version, notthe new "reggae stylee" remake):

"Shhhh."

WATCH: Spinal Tap on The Daily Show

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