I took a day off from work last week to take care of some personal business. Fortunately I was free by lunch time, so I headed up to Fremont to spend an hour or so over at Daybreak Records. What Daybreak lacks in size it more than makes up for with a deep selection of high quality items, with the added benefit that their prices are great. So when I saw a super clean 1984 gatefold copy of This Is Spinal Tap on the wall for $15, I was immediately transported back in time. Who can forget the first time they heard “Hell Hole” or “Sex Farm Woman”? Not this guy. I even had the privilege of seeing them live in Seattle during the 1992 Break Like The Wind tour, a show at which their massive Stonehenge prop almost crushed the entire band on stage.
Spinal Tap were rock veterans by the time director Marty Di Bergi turned the camera on them in 1982 documentary This Is Spinal Tap, which eventually came out in 1984. They’d already released 15 albums and were in the process of putting out and supporting the controversial Smell The Glove, a record that faced bans (both Kmart and Sears) before it even hit the market due to the perception that its cover was sexist. The lack of support by their label Polydor ensured that the album never made the commercial impact that it warranted. “Hell Hole” should have been a hit single, but instead the battles with the label gave the critics, who were never fans of the band in the first place (see below), plenty of fuel to dump onto the fire.
This pretentious, ponderous collection of religious rock songs is enough to prompt the question, “What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too”?
— Review of The Gospel According to Spinal Tap (aka Rock And Roll Creation)
— Review of Shark Sandwich
The influence of Spinal Tap on the world of rock music is impossible to overstate, and perhaps nowhere as on a little band you may have heard of called Metallica, so much so that the guys from Spinal Tap called out those heavy metal copycats for them stealing the idea of an all-black album cover. Add to that the similarities between the two bands’ documentaries (♠) and it’s quite obvious that Metallica learned at the feat of the masters of metal.
This Is Spinal Tap is both the movie soundtrack and also the band’s first greatest hits compilation, a collection of 11 tracks that cover their entire catalog starting with a pair of 1965 singles, “Cups And Cakes” and “Gimme Some Money,” right up to Smell The Glove‘s “Hell Hole”. It charts the band’s evolution from sugar pop to flower power to the heaviest of metal. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s give it a listen, shall we? But not in the order the tracks appear on the album. Instead we’ll do it chronologically.
“Gimme Some Money” and “Cups And Cakes” (1965) – These tunes were released under the band’s pre-Tap name the Thamesman. They’re pure pop on the surface, perfect teeny-pop targeted at the young female audience. But underneath there’s a bit of darkness that foreshadows what was to come: I’m looking for pound notes / Loose change / Bad checks, anything… Gimme some money…, words about using women and being willing to live outside the law by cashing bad checks, because everybody wants the bad boy.
“(Listen To The) Flower People” (1967) and “America” (Undated 1960s) – This is Tap making their big cash grab, building on the popularity of their first two singles and looking to rocket right to the top of the charts by appealing to flower children and the American market, flattering each in turn. And the fans responded, earning Spinal Tap Sings “(Listen To The) Flower People” And Other Favorites gold status in the UK, arguably the band’s most commercially successful album, at least in the US and UK.
“Big Bottom” (1973) and “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” (1974) – In the early 1970s Spinal Tap broke free of their teen female fan base and exploded into a sexual juggernaut. They also began to embrace the literary devices of both the simile (My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo) and metaphor (ex. bum cakes and mud flaps to refer to the female posterior) on “Big Bottom,” showing their artistic and intellectual development. Meanwhile “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” reveals the band’s incredible confidence in their own desirability (Little girl / It’s a great big world / But there’s only one of me). This is a smarter band, and one that knows exactly what it is and what it wants.
“Stonehenge” (1975), “Heavy Duty” (1976), and “Rock And Roll Creation” (1977) – In the mid-1970s Spinal Tap entered their spiritual phase, one undoubtedly driven in large part by bassist Derek Smalls, a true seeker if there ever was one. “Stonehenge” is one of rock music’s truly epic medieval jams, all banshees, druids, and the pipes of Pan. “Heavy Duty” seems to forsake these hard-won existential chops (That mediation stuff can make you go blind), but at the end of the track they clearly reveal that the power of heavy metal is indeed a spiritual one (Heavy duty / Brings out the duty / In my soul). But it’s “Rock And Roll Creation” that is arguably Spinal Tap’s philosophical tour de force, combining as it does the creation mythos from a wide range of cultures (Twas the rock and roll creation / Twas a terrible big bang / Twas the ultimate mutation / Yin was searching for his yang / And he looked and he saw that it was good). This is Spinal Tap at their most mature.
“Sex Farm” (1980) and “Hell Hole” (1982) – At first blush “Sex Farm” might seem like Spinal Tap reverting back to their early 1970s rock star cliche form, but that sells the band short. Derek Smalls aptly described the track during the documentary: “You know, we’ve grown musically. I mean you listen to some of the rubbish we did early on… it’s stupid. You know, now we’re, a song like “Sex Farm,” we’re taking a sophisticated view of the idea of sex, you know…?” I mean, just let that sink in for a minute. It’s no accident that song simmered under the surface for a while before shooting up to #5 on the Japanese charts in 1982, helping reunite the fractured band. “Hell Hole,” meanwhile, is a song by artists who have been to the top and seen themselves fall from that pedestal thanks to the fickleness of musical tastes (Ain’t got no future / Ain’t got no past / And I don’t think I ever can). This is Spinal Tap at their most humble.
The depth Spinal Tap displays on the perfectly curated collection of songs that is This Is Spinal Tap is there to be seen and heard. All you have to do is open up your ears and mind and let it all soak in. Someday the “experts” will recognize this and we’ll see them inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Until then, though, I’ll just keep educating music fans on the glory of the Tap.
(♠) The most obvious similarity is the titles of the films, both of which have four words – This Is Spinal Tap and Some Kind Of Monster. But there are even more subtle similarities that are too obvious to simply be coincidences, such as Tap finding their name misspelled in various places as “Spinal Pap” and “Spinal Tarp,” which Metallica copied by pointing to their name spelled “Metlica” on a piece of their equipment. Plus Bob Rock looks an awful lot like Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith. C’mon guys. Try to be original. You’re a decent band…