On 35th Anniversary, Spinal Tap Gets Real About Changing the Game With a Fake Band

Gary Gershoff/WireImage
Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner attend 'Anniversary Film: This is Spinal Tap-35 Years' at Beacon Theatre on April 27, 2019 in New York City.

Thirty-five years after its release, This Is Spinal Tap remains the greatest satire of rock n' roll ever made. In fact, the musical mockumentary was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2002. Fans adore the movie -- which depicts an aging British metal band struggling to stay relevant, sell tickets and sustain their sanity -- and the group so much that Spinal Tap is essentially no longer fiction.

When Spinal Tap was first released in March 1984, it did not immediately generate the strong acclaim it enjoys today. It's a cult hit that grew over time. Even so, the band embarked on a secret club tour of America in July 1984, then capped the year with the holiday single, "Christmas With The Devil."

The movie stayed lodged in people's minds, and many more reunions would follow. Spinal Tap returned for the Break Like The Wind album and tour in 1992, then did a 1996 IBM commercial featuring the song "Goat Boy." They toured again in 2001, Nigel Tufnel appeared in a 2006 Volkswagen commercial, and they premiered the song "Warmer Than Hell" at an Earth Day gig in 2007. They released the Back From The Dead album in 2009 and embarked on the Unwigged and Unplugged tour that also included songs from A Mighty Wind and Waiting For Guffman, two of co-star/co-creator Christopher Guest's other mockumentaries. Last year, the Derek Smalls solo album Smalls Change (meditations upon ageing) was released, and his band performed concerts in L.A. and in New Orleans, with a live video release in the works. (Hilariously, they have opened for themselves as The Folksmen from A Mighty Wind, only to be booed off the stage by at least one audience.)

The members of Spinal Tap reunited once again at the Tribeca Film Festival this past Saturday (April 27) night for a 35th anniversary screening of the film at the Beacon theater, followed by a Q&A and a live acoustic performance. Elvis Costello made a surprise appearance for "Gimme Some Money." Prior to the show, Billboard sat down with stars Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls) and Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), along with director/costar Rob Reiner (director Marty DiBergi), for an exclusive 45-minute discussion about the creation of the film, the evolution of the band and its ultimate impact.

But enough yakkin'. Let's boogie.

You're a spoof band, but people buy into the backstory. Chip Rowe wrote a book and a fan site devoted to all things Tap. Ultimate Classic Rock has done stories on the 50th anniversary of Spinal Tap and then a piece about how Brain Hammer changed the arc of the band's career.

Michael McKean: There's a Wiki trap there. Very early on, people started saying, "You know what also would be a good funny name for a Spinal Tap song...?" There are lists of ideas on Wikipedia that we never had. Some of them aren't bad.

Harry Shearer: There's also a Wikipedia entry of members of the band where somebody made up their own sets of funny names for members of the band that have nothing to do with our history.

Rob Reiner: Which only goes to prove that there is a fine line between stupid and clever. And it's moving.

I saw you guys at The Channel in Boston in July 1984 during your secret club tour of the States.

Michael: Oh, I remember that show. Where it rained on the stage [due to a leaky roof].

You were worried about being electrocuted that day.

Christopher Guest: It's not a terrible premise to think that it's raining and you're playing electric guitar and might die.

Michael: It happened to Nick Lowe. He was almost electrocuted in one of those moments.

Rob: That would be a Spinal Tap kind of thing.

Christopher: It's amazing that never has really happened in the history of the band.

Rob: It's never happened.

Christopher's guitar wasn't initially plugged in at the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert.

Christopher: It was plugged in, but there was a little of mischief there because someone had sabotaged [my rig].

Purposely?

Christopher: Yeah. It lasted a long time before they had to switch me to another amp.

Harry: It felt like two hours.

Michael, you were doing a good job of keeping the audience entertained. Do you ever find out who responsible for that?

Michael: Yeah. The theory I heard was that somebody on Guns N' Roses [side] as a gag...

Harry: I heard a specific name, and I'm not going repeat it.

Christopher: The bad news was once they plugged me into another thing, I had none of my effects. So it was kind of sad...

Before you made the movie, you guys gigged around L.A., right?

Michael: We did a few. We played Gazzarri's. We played the Central club, which became [the Viper Room].

Rob: I think you opened for Iron Butterfly.

Harry: Actually, the bass player had a dentist appointment in the morning, so they asked if they could play first.

Rob: Oh, so they opened for you?

Michael: I think he'd already had the work done and he was coming off the...

Harry: The anesthetic.

Rob: Oh, so it was Spinal Tap and puppet show.

Did anybody have any idea that you were not real?

Everyone: No.

The older I get and the more I watch the film, the truer it becomes. I love when Nigel complains about the bread backstage.

Rob: That was taken from "The Endless Party." In Rolling Stone, there was an article about Van Halen. They didn't want brown M&Ms backstage and that became the genesis of that.

Michael: Any time you go on the road with any kind of act, it will yield...road rage.

Rob: Two things are my favorite. One, we had a keyboard player when originally did a 20-minute [teaser film, The Final Tour, in 1982]...

John Sinclair!

Rob: Right. And he joined Uriah Heep for Abominog. He figured, it's a real band and I'm going to be on tour. At that time, we didn't know if the film was going to go ahead. So he came back at one point and told us about this military base that they'd got booked into and that became the genesis for that.

Christopher: And he played with us at the Albert Hall in London [in 1992] as a guest player.

He is an amazing player.

Rob: And my second favorite thing was we had the Stonehenge theme, and Black Sabbath was touring with a Stonehenge theme. Basically our film came out, I think, a week or so after they had gotten off the tour, and they got so mad at us because they thought we stole it from them. That was my favorite thing – that we would shoot a film, edit it, and get it into the theater in one week!

Christopher: When we did the first tour in '84 we were basically playing small clubs, and one of the dressing rooms was a room half this size.

Harry: In fairness, we were half this size.

Christopher: We were smaller then. There was a pitcher of water and half a sandwich, and it wasn't a joke. We started laughing. They hadn't seen the film.

Michael: It was Detroit, where the film did not work at all.

It's funny, at the time there were some rockers that were mad about the movie.

Rob: When I was auditioning people for Princess Bride, Sting came in at one point to meet, and he had seen the movie tons of times. He says, "Every time I watch it, I don't know whether to laugh or cry."

The character of Duke Fame was played by Paul Shortino from Rough Cutt, who later sang for Quiet Riot. Now he does this popular Vegas classic rock revue called Raiding the Rock Vault.

Michael: What happened was he came in for a fitting, and one or more of us were in there palling around with him. This was two days before we shot, and we realized this guy couldn't improvise a fart in a Mexican restaurant. So we invented a character.

Harry: And that's said in admiration.

Michael: Absolutely. But Howard Hesseman came in, [and] the character didn't exist 24 hours before we shot it.

Rob: John Densmore from The Doors came in to meet us.

Michael: Nicky Hopkins.

Rob: And Paul Stanley from KISS.

Harry: My favorite beyond that was when we did the Break Like The Wind tour, and we did drummer auditions as a promotional stunt. We held one in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, capacity 93,000.

Michael: There were maybe 30 people in the building.

Harry: One of the people who showed up for the audition was Mick Fleetwood in an asbestos suit.

Rob: No!

Michael: Yeah.

Rob: That's hysterical.

Michael: And we ultimately played with him on a television show. He played drums for us.

Harry: That was on some VH1 thing.

Michael: Dallas Taylor too. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young drummer. He auditioned too. And Promethia Pendragon [bass and vocals] aka Abby Travis.

Christopher: And Stephen Hawking.

Michael: Rin Tin Tin!

The Heavy Metal Memories commercial featured Blackie Lawless from W.A.S.P.

Michael: Sure, Blackie. And Cherie Curie.

Rob: The original drummer was Russ Kunkel.

Christopher: It was 1978 on The T.V. Show.

For the song "Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare."

Christopher: And Loudon Wainwright was the original keyboard player in the band.

As you've gone on, more and more famous people have wanted to play with you. For the Royal Albert Hall show, you featured a video image of Cher with her lips moving.

Christopher: She sang on that [second] record.

And Harry, on Derek's solo album last year, you had a lot of guests like Joe Satriani, Jane Lynch, and Donald Fagen.

Harry: Yeah, and that's all because people have a love for this thing.

Rob: Danny Kortchmar. Didn't he play bass on "Gimme Some Money"?

Harry: Visually, he did.

Rob: And Ed Begley was the drummer [for that track].

At your 2009 Unwigged and Unplugged show here at the Beacon, I was seated next to Elvis Costello, who went up to do "Gimme Some Money."

Michael: Why not? That'll never happen again. [He fibbed. It happened again on Saturday night.]

Derek's solo album is more modern metal and heavier like "MRI," which I also like.

Michael: It's a great track.

If somebody was just listening to it on the radio, they might think it was serious until they paid attention to the lyrics.

Harry: It is very harsh. But Dweezil plays his ass off on it.

Michael: Oh, no kidding.

Harry: We did it live in L.A. and it was just like, "Are you fucking kidding me?"

Michael: Did you ever notice that Dweezil's fingers are all the same length?

Rob and Harry: No.

Michael: They're all like this long.

Rob: How did that happen?

Michael: I don't know. But his pinky is really no shorter than the rest. They're unbelievable.

Harry: You know who else is like that? Ron Carter, the great bass player.

Christopher, in your movies you lampoon various subcultures, usually made up of performers, and everybody loves that. There's a line that you walk, whether it's sending up dog shows, folk music, musical theater...

Christopher: I was saying this to someone the other day... I wasn't actually, but for the purposes of this interview... [laughter] The other thing is when we've done these interviews for many years, which we have, we're basically doing it for each other at just that moment.

Michael: No disrespect to you.

Christopher: I was actually saying to someone the other day that it's weird that Spinal Tap, the three of us, wrote the music – Rob helped write some lyrics – but we wrote the music for Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind and Waiting For Guffman. The three of us wrote those songs, and it has continued as a thing to find a different kind of music that we could all have fun doing.

Rob: Who were you saying that to?

Michael: George S. Kaufman.

Christopher: Your friend. The guy with the hat.

Rob: I don't remember anybody even trying to play real and do satire except maybe Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band [in the '70s].

Christopher: In [National Lampoon's] Lemmings in '73, the show was written where the actors were playing the instruments. There was a parody of Crosby, Stills & Nash. We had written original songs, but the songs were good.

Rob: But you were parodying Dylan and people like that.

Christopher: Exactly.

Harry: Now there's a band in Australia called You Am I which has been a very successful rock band for many years, [and is] in its second year of touring doing an all Spinal Tap show. They don't play us.

Michael: They just play a band...

Harry: Who knows all our material. And they're getting great reviews.

Have you heard any of it?

Harry: No, but I did a radio interview on an Australian music show and one of the guys from that band was there. He was just creaming all over himself doing Spinal Tap stuff.

People in the metal world love the movie.

Harry: We were doing the last of the rock charity album things of the '80s which was the single by Hear 'N Aid. Michael and I were at the session and Rob Halford of Judas Priest comes up to us and says, "Such a great movie. Just the other day we were in San Diego, and I couldn't find my way to the fucking stage."

Rob: We went to see Judas Priest.

Michael: At Long Beach Arena. That was a loud show.

Rob: My chest was literally in pain.

Harry: That was the first time we walked away going, "Ah, it has to do this." [thumps chest]

Judas Priest was my first show and Spinal Tap was my second.

Everyone: Wow. Ahh.

By the way, do you remember that around the same time you guys came out there was a like-minded British spoof band called Bad News?

Michael: Oh sure.

Harry: I don't remember them...

Michael: I remember during that year and a half of editing – Rob was off by himself cursing – is when I heard about Bad News. But I've never seen it still.

Harry: No, no.

They didn't start releasing albums until the late '80s. On an early British TV show appearance they were clearly miming the song to make fun of the fact that bands did that on live TV.

Harry: When we rehearsing for the 2000 tour, it struck one of us that this was a period of time when all the real bands had started playing with tracks and only the joke band was playing live.

Christopher: We did a charity show in Miami. Here was the bill: Chaka Khan opens, then us, then Michael Bolton.

Michael: Introduced by Joe DiMaggio, you should point out.

Rob: Seriously?

Christopher: C.J. Vanston, our keyboard player, and I walked out to just see the Chaka Khan portion of this thing. In the middle of this song that we saw, the track stops, she's still singing, and the band are pretending to play. So now you've hired musicians to go out, and they're not playing. Now you're playing to a DAT. At that time they were using these DATs, and it froze a minimum of five or six times during this one song. She was furious. The audience had no moment of, "Hey, what's going on?" Nothing.

No Milli Vanilli revelation?

Christopher: There was no moment of "this doesn't make sense." And we looked at each other and thought, the irony of this is, we're going on next and we're playing live, which we always do...

Michael: We are the playback.

Harry: I watched some live feeds from Coachella last weekend. They all look, with a couple of exceptions, like they were singing to track.

Rob: How could Beyoncé not play track? Because she's dancing and running.

Harry: Janelle Monáe, who is really good, was singing live, but about two thirds of the acts were basically doing music videos live, so there's no way they could be playing live.

Rob: That was the thing about these guys [Spinal Tap]. They all insisted that we record on film live. There didn't want things where you're playing something that's not being played, and that was hard to record.

Christopher: In A Mighty Wind, that stuff is live.

A lot of the songs in This Is Spinal Tap sound the same as on the soundtrack.

Michael: A lot of it was playback.

Rob: What are you talking about? You guys played live.

Michael: We did play live, but for a lot of stuff we had playback.

Rob: Which stuff?

Michael: For example, in "Rock 'n' Roll Creation," when he gets stuck in the pod. I'm sure that was playback.

Christopher: I sat in with the editor, and there was a cut where he picked the wrong moment in the music. I said, "That's not what I'm playing."

Harry: In truth, one of the things that we were concerned about when we started to make the movie was movies had gotten rock 'n roll wrong so much...

Michael: And still do.

Harry: Yeah, we didn't fix that. But one of the things we wanted to do was get it right, and part of that was this had to be right. Forty million people that had taken guitar lessons by that point in time, and you knew they were going [to see mistakes]...

Christopher: You still see it in movies. You still see cuts where they cut to the wrong moment. And it's as if that doesn't matter.

It drives me crazy when a band in a movie isn't synched up visually and musically. So what's the weirdest idea somebody had for a Spinal Tap tie-in?

Michael: They were damn few ideas. Remember Rock 'n Rolls? The Australian snack.

That stuffed pizza thing was real?

Michael: Yeah.

Harry: I think the weirdest idea was ours, which was for Break Like The Wind. As a promotional stunt, we were going to send out Spinal Tap calendars, but they got it wrong and sent out colanders instead.

Rob: Marshall did the amps up to 11, didn't they?

Christopher: Yes. And they made me one where the dials all go to infinity.

Rob: The best was years ago when Elon Musk first came out with the Teslas and before they went to market. I was at some gathering, and he drove in with this Tesla and said, "Look, this is a new car. We're designing it." And I said, "Yeah, that's really cool." He says, "Here, sit down." He turned on the radio and it went to 11.

Harry: The volume control on the BBC iPlayer, which is a device for streaming all of their shows on demand, has always gone to 11.

I think some people use catchphrases from the movie who haven't even seen it. I wonder how many young hipsters at Glastonbury knew who you were when you played there in 2009?

Christopher: I don't know. We never knew. It was a very existential thing where you stand on stage all over the world, and that was the biggest venue we probably ever played. There were 130,000 people. There were probably 50 people with those things [foam Stonehenge props]. You just think, "What's going on here?"

Harry: When we were doing the Break Like The Wind tour, there were people who came who clearly knew and had signs or were dressed a certain way. Then there were people who probably came because we were the loud band in town that night.

Christopher: It was always hard to know. We always used to have the discussion, and we'd leave just scratching our heads and thinking, "We had fun, at least."

Rob: I wonder if 35 years from now, if people will watch the film and will they know what we did?

Harry: What it was about?

What's the biggest compliment that each of you has ever received about the movie and the band?

Harry: I think when it goes into the Smithsonian.

Rob: Yeah. [It was selected for] The Film Registry.

Christopher: And "goes to 11" is in the Oxford Dictionary.

Michael: Also, people who actually made artistic choices because of the film. Ricky Gervais is the obvious one. He made The Office as a scripted thing, but he wanted it to have the feel of an improvised, fly on the wall thing. He created that transition into series.

Rob: To me, the best compliment was when we first screened it in Dallas, and people would come up and say, "Why would you make a movie about a band that nobody's ever heard of and one that's so bad?" I thought that was the greatest compliment I could have gotten.

Christopher: I think in Dallas there was a test screening. We were getting popcorn and two girls came out and they said, "These guys are so stupid." And we just looked at each other...

Rob: High five.