“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” So observes David St. Hubbins, the hapless singer/guitarist of Spinal Tap. That line — one of dozens that have become quote fodder during the past 30 years — explains why “This Is Spinal Tap,” the mockumentary co-written and directed by Rob Reiner released on March 2, 1984, still makes rock fans, bands and music industry folks alike howl with laughter.
Actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer (who play St. Hubbins, guitarist Nigel Tufnel and bassist Derek Smalls, respectively) navigate the hazy boundary between sublime comedy and painful flop with laid-back genius. As ‘legendary’ heavy metal band Spinal Tap, they endure a slowly disintegrating U.S. tour while facing inner-band tensions that are exacerbated by St. Hubbins’ girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick) and bumbling manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). Along the way they make hysterical fun of every rock’n’roll archetype they can get their hands on, resulting in immortal verbal touchstones like “These go to 11” and “No, we’re not gonna f—ing do Stonehenge!”
You don’t have to love rock music, or even music, to love the movie (“This Is Spinall Tap” received two thumbs-up from critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert upon its 1984 debut). But It remained somewhat of an inside joke until it became available on video and started gaining first cult status, then mainstream familiarity. It also didn’t hurt that the faux band could actually perform (the three principal players are accomplished musicians) and record, resulting in albums like 1992’s “Break Like the Wind.” (Spin?al Tap is also rumored to be mulling a reunion in 2014.)
The jokes have never gotten tired, either. So, without further ado, here’s a look back at the top 11 rock clichés ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ lampooned so perfectly the movie is still a part of pop culture 30 years later.
Being considered important enough to warrant a documentary, especially by a major filmmaker, is an incredible accolade for a band if it can survive the rigors of filming and the aftermath of the movie’s release. Sometimes, a director’s vision perfectly coalesces with the soul of the band and the elements of what makes an act sublime are magically captured for posterity. Other times, the act’s dysfunction becomes glaring when the audience gets a peek at the machinations behind the curtain (see Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster.”) In Spinal Tap’s case, the audience is laughing at them, not with them. Throughout the film, Marty DiBergi unwittingly captures Spinal Tap in the worst light possible. Whether they are hopelessly waiting for fans to arrive at a meet-and-greet or getting lost backstage at show time, he exposes his heroes as dimwits who are stuck in perpetual adolescence.
10. Big in Japan
Ah, Japan. Japan was always there — and always will be there — for hard rock bands. The country worked as an incredibly effective springboard for acts like Queen and Bon Jovi when they were growing their audiences back in the day. Its fans’ rabid loyalty that has long since made the country the go-to humble brag for flailing bands finding themselves in need of justifying their sagging relevance stateside. But that’s what also turned being popular there into such a huge cliché — prime material for “This Is Spinal Tap.” At the end of the movie, Spinal Tap finally gets to prove to America how big they really are — by rocking a crowded concert hall in Japan.
9. Dubious Reasons for Declining Sales
“Nobody buys albums anymore.” “The promo budget wasn’t big enough.” “Bad weather.” When your act’s commercial glories are fading due to an obvious lack of fan interest (or simply bad music), toss out any excuse except for the menacing 900-pound gorilla that’s squatting in the middle of the room. The amount of desperation, defensiveness or casualness that’s coupled with the delivery of these excuses is key to whether a reporter buys what you’re selling. No one is fooled when Ian Faith, Spinal Tap’s inept manager, offers documentary director Marty DiBergi this explanation of why the band is playing venues that are much smaller than its last tour: Faith lightly stammers that he believes “their appeal is becoming more selective.”
8. Managing Bromances
Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. There are plenty of famous dude duos in rock bands. No matter how much tension mounts, there’s sometimes no splitting up bros who are bonded by music. You’ll rarely get them to admit though that it’s love — not just for music, but for each other — that keeps them intertwined, usually in a complicated, fractious tango. “Spinal Tap” has a field day with this trope. After quitting the band, Nigel returns to tell Spinal Tap they’ve been offered a Japanese tour. David hangs back in a show of nonchalance, but once he spies Nigel in the wings as the band plays onstage, with a jerk of his head he invites him to join in. Cheers erupt as Nigel plugs in and the band rocks on.
7. Handling Primadonnas
Some bands never want you to forget that music is art with a capital “A.” Why, fans are lucky that musicians deign to let them hear the album they recorded. The creative process should never be questioned and the artist’s explanations describing the inspiration are gospel. Lest you lose track of this “truth,” “Spinal Tap” puts it front and center. While Nigel is showing Marty the equipment he uses to perform, he admonishes the director to not point at one instrument — in fact, he should not even look at it. “It can’t be played,” Nigel declares. Then he shows off his amp cabinet that’s so loud, it goes to 11.
6. Damage Control
The rock pantheon is littered with the strange ways that musicians have shuffled off this mortal coil. T. Rex’s Steve Peregrin Took’s drug binge didn’t kill him; choking on a cocktail cherry did. And !!!’s Jerry Fuchs accidentally tumbled to his death in a Brooklyn elevator shaft after climbing out of an elevator car that was stuck between floors. In the theater of the absurd, Spin?al Tap turns to the idea of the weird rock death to give all a chuckle over its problem of keeping a permanent drummer. A few of Spin?al Tap’s ill-fated drummers spontaneously combust while performing onstage. One dies “after a bizarre gardening accident” so mysterious that Scotland Yard said it was best left unsolved, and another possibly choked on someone else’s vomit.
5. Significant Other as Band Manager
When it comes to having a band member’s spouse/partner supervise the act, you should rigidly adhere to the ’80s anti-drug mantra of “Just say no.” Unless the musician is a solo artist (see Ozzy Osbourne, whose wife/manager Sharon saved both his life and career), this almost never works, even when it actually does. The rewards are never great enough to justify the drama that’s guaranteed to ensue once sexual tension and/or power dynamics erode the band right into the ground. Viz. Spinal Tap: Nigel is already annoyed that Jeanine has joined the band on the road. When Ian quits after David proposes she co-manage the band, the writing is on the wall. It’s only a matter of time before Nigel goes or she goes.
4. Offensive Promotional Tactics, Artwork, and/or Lyrics
The Internet has made it much harder to sustain a high level of shock factor these days, and pop stars and rappers now make headlines with their musical antics, artwork or lyrics more often than rockers. But once upon a time metal was considered so potentially “corruptive” an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center united to warn parents about what kids were listening to. Offensive lyrics are easy to come by, but album covers that assault all sense of decency? They just don’t make ’em like Spinal Tap’s “Smell the Glove” anymore. In the film, Polymer Records, Spinal Tap’s record company, wouldn’t release the album because it has a woman on the cover wearing a dog collar with a black glove being shoved in her face. “You should have seen the cover they wanted to do,” Ian says. “It wasn’t a glove, believe me.”
3. Mortifying Onstage Production Gaffes
Admit it: Seeing things go wrong in concert is hard to look away from. Countless rockers have fallen onstage. Countless others (Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, U2’s Bono) have fallen off the stage. Wardrobe malfunctions, missed cues, equipment failures, random assaults, they’ve all happened. Does it get any more absurd than a fan rushing Lou Reed in mid-concert and biting him in the ass? Spinal Tap manages to shrug off embarrassment when bassist Derek Smalls’ pod enclosure refuses to open during a gig. But the much more eternal fail is the humiliation that is Stonehenge. When Spinal Tap commissions a sculptor to create a mighty replica of Stonehenge for its stage show, Nigel accidentally writes the measurement of 18 inches (instead of 18 feet) while sketching the prop on a napkin. The result? Instead of playing before a towering monument, the band finds itself performing next to a footstool (watch beginning at :40 in the trailer below).
2. The PR Nightmare of Onstage Tantrums
Trashing your equipment in the name of rock? Awesome. But what about trashing your equipment in the name of a diva fit? In rock’n’roll, to throw the mic stand, or kick the drums, or wield you guitar like an axe against a stack of amps, is the rock star’s battle time-honored means of venting his rage, even if it means extracting unfair vengeance on the very equipment that sustains them. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong reminded all how it’s done during the iHeart Radio Festival in 2012, when he ranted his fury at allegedly not being given enough playing time and attacked the stage floor with his guitar before stomping off the stage. Back in 1984, “Spinal Tap” already had this cliché well-covered: Nigel’s wireless receiver starts picking up radio chatter during a disastrous gig and broadcasts it over the P.A. He throws down his guitar in disgust and tramps away, only pausing to give Jeanine a menacing look for booking the show in the first place.
1. Ridiculous Tour Rider Demands
Van Halen’s brown M&M’s, anyone? Rockers often make the most out of making it big, no matter how unusual the tour rider request. What about Spinal Tap? How about perpetually clueless Nigel whinging for a slice of bread that properly fits the backstage cold cuts. He’s also vexed about why some olives are stuffed with pimento and others are not. It’s a tough challenge to overcome right before show time. “I’ll rise above it,” he claims. “I’m a professional.”
Bonus Cliché: Rock Umlauts
Those gratuitous double dots above a vowel (usually “u” or “o”) in a band’s name were a shortcut to badass Viking overtones long before Spinal Tap (see Mötley Crüe, Motörhead, Queensrÿche). But Spinal Tap elevated metal’s grammatical crutch to hilarity by insisting on an umlaut over the “n” in Spinal Tap, a consonant.
Correction: Mention of Mama Cass’ death-by-sandwich has been removed — it is a myth.