By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
On the long-out-of-print 1998 Criterion Collection release of This Is Spinal Tap—the only DVD version of the 1984 film on which Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer provide commentary as themselves, not their shaggy alter-egos—the trio offered generous insight into the band's origins, which date back exactly 30 years now.
To be precise, they first Tapped Into America on a show produced by Rob Reiner called The TV Show, a sketch special featuring a Midnight Special parody on which Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls and other, now-forgotten members (among them, one played by Loudon Wainwright III) performed the heretofore erased-from-memory "Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare."
That, they believed, was that. The joke had been tapped.
Then Reiner, Shearer, Guest and McKean would spend the next four years scratching for cash to shoot a 29-minute demo that would give them cred enough to make a feature-length film about the final tour of England's reigning metal men as they were about to be melted into scrap. They did their homework, watching such films as Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz and The Song Remains the Same—all of which elicit, accidentally, the same flavor of giggle This Is Spinal Tap served up intentionally.
And though they would decline in later years to claim any one band or performer served as an influence—"[It's] other people's egos that make them say, 'You're doing us,'" Guest says on the Criterion disc, and "I've had people say, 'You're doing Jeff Beck'"—Shearer did spend time on the road with Saxon, if only to watch the bassist as Shearer prepared to slap on Derek Smalls. They also had in mind one or two bands who always seemed to be breaking up and reassembling with different spare parts, among them Status Quo and Uriah Heep.
As for the music—the genesis behind such immortal titles as "Big Bottom," "Sex Farm," "Hell Hole" and, of course, "Stonehenge"—it was all rather simple. Says Guest on the DVD, "Musically, we said, 'Let's go for the core here. Let's go for the true mediocre.'"
When reminded of all of this days before the Spinal Tap threesome began a rather self-explanatory tour titled "Unwigged and Unplugged" on April 17, Shearer laughs. And then he laughs some more. Because all those years after making mediocre metal (and Oscar-nominated folk as the Folksmen from the Guest-directed A Mighty Wind in 2003), Shearer, McKean and Guest will now be performing those songs on acoustic guitars with the straightest of faces—not in character, not behind whatever odd clumps of facial hair Shearer grows whenever he plays a musician on film, but as themselves.
The mediocre survives, only now turned down from 11 to...oh...six or so.
"Nobody says mediocre doesn't last," Shearer says. "A study of America's pop culture would prove that. I always hearken back to Richard Nixon's nomination of G. Harrold Carswell [for] Supreme Court, and when a senator objected that he was mediocre, Nixon said, 'Well, mediocre people have a right to [be] represented on the Supreme Court too." (Actually, U.S. Senator Roman Hruska said as much, but the point's well taken.)
From all accounts, the early dates of the tour have been modestly attended; The Orange County Register noted two weeks ago that the trio was greeted in Anaheim by "a smallish but very appreciative crowd." Such, perhaps, is to be expected: Though "Big Bottom" may indeed have merited myriad Soundgarden covers during that band's monsters-of-rock heyday, its impact is most likely muted just a touch without a foil-wrapped cucumber stuffed down its leather trousers. It's just hard to imagine anyone singing about "velvety cheekdays" whilst clad in chinos.
Which is precisely the issue with which the three men wrestled as they prepped the tour, which finds them performing the Tap's oeuvre—as well as Folksmen offerings, no great stretch there—acoustically for the first time since the songs were written nearly 30 years ago.
"It's been an interesting experience in terms of: Musically, all the choices we ever made in playing in the Folksmen or Spinal Tap have been based on what would these guys do," Shearer says, referring to the characters they play in This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. "Our choices were basically our best channeling of the choices of characters, and now we...Well, my joke is we should have a bumper sticker that asks us to consider the question, 'What would we do?' now. Really for the first time, we are stepping up from behind these other people and are saying, 'This how we interpret these songs.'
"In a sense, we are covering ourselves. Some of the songs sound fairly familiar, and some of them sound pretty different. It's been more exploratory than if we were going off to a Spinal Tap tour where we kind of know the drill. This was really, like, new territory for us, which, in a way, is the main attraction for it for us, because we try not to repeat ourselves—at least not too many times."