First, an intro to the introduction.
Rather than bang out another version of Tap’s origin story, I thought I’d just use the introduction I wrote for Karl French’s book about the band and its place in the universe.
Some pictures I know you haven’t seen. I have more lurking somewhere in this house. When I find them, you’ll be the first to know.
(From Spinal Tap: The Official Companion)
When I am called upon to write about the mostly fictional entity called Spinal Tap, I usually do so in the mostly fictional character of David St Hubbins, long-time guitarist/clothes-horse for said group. David can knock the piece off at one sitting, email it to his manager, and be back in bed by 10am.
But the one thing David St. Hubbins can’t do for us is talk about a movie called This is Spinal Tap. None of the band can give you a rundown on the odd genesis of this film, because it doesn’t exist in their world. Nigel Tufnel can’t tell you about casting Howard Hesseman in a role that didn’t exist sixteen hours before we got him into makeup. Derek Smalls never even heard of June Chadwick.
So I’m filling in.
In 1978, Rob Reiner, fresh from a long distinguished stretch in series television, put together a special called “The TV Show”. It spooved (yes, that is the correct word) network and local television, satirizing a full viewing day’s worth of crap in one hour. It was very funny.
I knew Rob, mostly in non-working situations, and several of the writers were old friends of mine. One of the proposed pieces was a parody of a show called Midnight Special, a rock’n’roll concert/variety show, hosted by the late Wolfman Jack. Christopher Guest, who would go on to play Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, suggested that a pea-brained English rock band be featured in the sketch. Chris and I had played a couple of road-weary Britrockers in a short piece he had directed so I became involved in the project. Chris, Rob, writer-producer Harry Shearer (who would play Tap bassist Derek Smalls) and I wrote the song “Rock’n’Roll Nightmare” and its accompanying visual foolishness. After some groping about for a suitably duff name, we settled on Spinal Tap.
About a year and a half later, Rob was looking to direct feature films, and the notion of doing a fake documentary about this awful band started to snowball. Rob pitched the idea and got a hearty “maybe” from Sir Lew Grade’s US wing, Marble Arch. In early 1980, the four of us began meeting daily to furnish Spinal Tap with a believable past from which we might extrapolate a sufficiently amusing present. We watched a lot of rock’n’roll concert and documentary film, and noted the recurrence of an interesting theme: the survivor – the yeoman road warrior who never says die, no matter how clearly the market suggests he do so.
We had no intention of writing a screenplay. The idea was to construct the history of the band and the characters, set the general story elements and improvise the dialogue, having hired actors we knew could play the game. In lieu of said screenplay, we proposed making a short film which would give the boys at the studio an idea of what the hell we wanted to do.
We shot a demo in four days and Rob assembled the piece over the next few months. In the interim, Marble Arch had released Legend of the Lone Ranger and Raise the Titanic (right boat, wrong direction!) in rapid succession and slipped quietly out of the Big Tent. Not to worry: United Artists showed great interest in…no, they were absorbed by MGM, and the new boss gave Tap the old Pasadena.
We assumed it was not going to happen. We all went back to our day gigs and night sweats until Lindsay Doran, a fan of Rob’s and a bright light at Embassy Pictures, suggested they just make the damn thing already. Jerry Parenchio and Norman Lear (dean of Reiner’s alma mater, All in the Family) were running Embassy at the time, and things fell gradually into place. We began writing, casting and crewing in the spring of 1982.
Peter Smokler’s camera rolled late in that year. We had cast old buds like Paul Benedict, Billy Crystal, Ed Begley and Paul Shaffer, along with new friends Fran Drescher, Dana Carvey, Patrick Macnee, Anjelica Huston, et al. Ric Parnell and David Kaff came aboard as drummer Mick Shrimpton and keyboardist Viv Savage. June Chadwick was cast as Jeanine, St. Hubbins’s ladylove. Tony Hendra became our manager, the faithless Ian Faith. We asked everyone to come and improvise with us. We’d made very few miscalculations: the actors got the joke and flew with it, and every day’s shooting was at least as much fun as the day before.
Rob edited the film over the next year-and-change; hearts broke at necessary deletions, theories clashed on the mixing stage, everyone cringed at some of the proposed marketing ideas. And the film was released in March of 1984.
The critics liked us very much. The public that found us, either by fluke or in response to the “trickledown” theory of promotion, found us funny. But we were a modestly budgeted satirical film with a very specific voice; we gave the bigger spring releases no serious nightmares. It did play in one theatre in Boston for something like a year, and the fans we encountered were smart and funny and flattering. This Is Spinal Tap made a lot of Best of the Year lists; it just didn’t crack 1984’s top 10 box office. But it was the movie we had wanted to make, and we were very happy with it.
Video release widened our circle of friends; bits of Tapspeak found their way into the language. We had achieved an important goal: shelf-life, the ability to stay fresh and crisp while other comedy gets stale and moldy. When someone reports watching the movie regularly and finding new stuff to laugh at each time, it makes us very glad. Shelf-life, see?
Lots of other stuff has happened since. Rob, Harry, Chris and I have been thankfully busy most of the time – but for each of us the making of this strange movie was a high point.
We did a mini-tour following the film’s release. Good crowds in San Francisco, Boston, New York (CBGB), etc. But Detroit, where the film died after a week, was a lowlight. Oddly, we have more snapshots of that stop than any other…