With The Band: How This Is Spinal Tap Reflects Rock Culture

When we think about the mockumentary genre, the first film that tends to spring to mind is ‘This Is Spinal Tap,’ the fantastic 1984 film directed by Rob Reiner that was one of the first examples of the genre and has been a touchstone ever since.

The influence of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ can be felt not only on the mockumentary genre itself but on the rock culture it actually drew from and reflected. Many bands have talked about having experienced similar situations that Spinal Tap found themselves in (Sting can’t watch the film without crying, apparently), and having ‘a Spinal Tap moment’ has seemingly entered the rock lexicon itself, closing the circle of influence between the source and the representation.

How did this reciprocation between rock music and band culture, and its playful depiction of the same in This Is Spinal Tap occur? Why did rock relate to itself so strongly when it saw the film? The success of This Is Spinal Tap as mockumentary centres on the close relationship between the world and lifestyle it depicts and the way it depicts this, both in form and in content, focusing on a band whose fame is on the slide in a way that feels authentic to people in tune to rock culture.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s turn things up to eleven!

Romance and Reality

The world of rock music, as any film and/or rock fan can attest to, has had very mixed results when it comes to being depicted on the big screen. Part of the reason is that a lot of these films eschew a sense of authenticity, choosing not to lean into any element of documentary realism.

Instead, they tend to either lean into a fictional depiction of what they think the time and the culture were like, or how they would have liked it to be, such as with Almost Famous, or otherwise they dress autobiography in fictional hues, presenting real-life moments in moments of creative license or vision. Take Oliver Stone’s Jim Morrison biopic The Doors, for example—the scene where Jim is at a party and meets Andy Warhol and Nico. The lighting choices, dialogue, clothing and even the dancing seem to come more from an idealised vision of the sixties than a desire to depict an authentic picture of how things were.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that these films are poor—The Doors is pretty enjoyable, as long as you don’t take it too seriously—but in terms of accurately representing rock culture, they more often than not fail to hit the mark and at best, they perhaps capture a feeling about rock than capture how the rock lifestyle is for a lot of people working in the industry. Perhaps that’s fair; a film that deals with the romance of rock as opposed to its mechanics is more likely to sell to a wider audience.

That’s fine, as far as it goes; the studio wants a return on its investment and the wider audience wants to be entertained. But if you’re a passionate disciple of rock, these films can often feel like a cheap parody of this precious thing that you love.

It’s curious, then, to call This Is Spinal Tap a success in this regard when ultimately it is a comedy, poking fun at recognisable elements of rock culture. But although the word ‘mock’ is in the word mockumentary, the film is anything but mocking of its subject. Instead, as we shall see, the comedy is borne out of genuine knowledge and affection for its subject, the humour arising out of the recognition of the absurd machinations and quality of lifestyle that lies behind the awesome power of rock and roll culture.

It’s not all limousines and endless guitar solos, you know…

The Slide

Nigel shows off his sustain to Marti DiBergi
Nigel shows off his sustain to Marti DiBergi

Behind the music and, should you make it big, the luxurious lifestyle rock music can provide to its practitioners, there is hard work and more than that, there is the grind. Unless you are a big enough monolith such as Radiohead, you can’t really stop and rest on your laurels for too long—not unless you get a second life as a heritage act, such as the likes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, who still make records and still get a lot of press when these new releases drop but are ultimately still feted and draw crowds based on the classic records they made in their so-called best years when they were caught in the eye of the storm of that era’s popular culture. After a certain point, the past sells better than an artist’s present.

But before you can reinvent yourself and slip comfortably into the elder statesman role, there has to come the slide. The slide is the uncomfortable period where artists are no longer as popular as they were—their latest records don’t sell as much as their previous ones did; they can’t sell as many tickets to concerts and are reduced to playing smaller and smaller venues—but they haven’t yet reached the usual conclusions: eking out a small but regular living focusing solely on the hardcore audience, however small, that has stuck with them; hitting hard times before being able to rebound on the back of a re-release of a classic album, touring themselves into a respectable elder statesman role that allows them to keep recording; or the worst result, which to fade into simple obscurity. This is where the romance of rock is displaced by the need to earn a living.

The problem with popular culture generally, although there is an argument this is changing with streaming providing the option to access the past more easily, is that the currents of popular taste and what is sold to that popular taste are always changing. What were once yesterday’s heroes are now today’s rejects in the rubbish dump. There is no guarantee you will remain in public favour. Even if you can keep up the level of quality across your records, there is no guarantee people will remain interested in you, depending on the fickleness of the fashions.

Sir Dennis Eton-Hogg poses with Spinal Tap for a publicity opportunity
Working the grind with Sir Dennis Eton-Hogg.

One of the ways to keep people’s interest in you constant is to engage in ‘the grind.’ It’s the part of the job, outside of touring, that most bands hate. The grind is the constant media circus, but that’s not to say it’s only the flashing light bulbs you have to contend with. It is the constant act of ‘working the room,’ putting on a smile and a character so as to keep important outlets and media interested in you, which in turn will hopefully lead to constant publicity and a big return in sales of records, tickets and merchandise. You grease their palms, they’ll grease a few palms in return to keep your face in the public gaze.

You can see the grind being engaged in, the game being played in This Is Spinal Tap. From the band looking out of place and being patronised at the record company party to welcome them to America to the meet and greet at a record store that not a single fan attends (and arranged by the legendarily named Artie Fufkin), you can see how the process saps the band of any joy and energy. And yet, they understand, as many bands do, as do many fans, even when we consume every last interview with our heroes, that they must play the game to keep any relevance and to keep their faces out there. This is why they smile and nod and laugh emptily at the spiel of Lieutenant Hookstratten at the army base. He clearly knows nothing about them or rock music in general, to the point where he’s embarrassing to listen to. But the Tap still smile. They know the game. They know the grind…

And it still doesn’t stop the slide…

Not Saturating New York

This Is Spinal Tap portrays the slide unflinchingly beneath the comedy. It is clear that the band are no longer the powerhouse they were. As Martin DeBergi puts it to the band’s manager Ian:

The last time Tap toured America, they were booked into 10,000-seat arenas and 15,000-seat venues. And it seems that now, on the current tour, they’re being booked into 1,200-seat arenas, 1,500-seat arenas.

That’s one hell of a drop in numbers.

It gets even worse, as the band find several of their concerts cancelled, nobody attends their meet and greet at the record store and they are referred to on the radio as residing in the ‘where are they now?’ file when one of their old records is played. The message is clear: Spinal Tap are sliding desperately. It’s just that band doesn’t seem to know it.

While this is a theme I’m sure a lot of rock musicians recognise and can relate to, the mockumentary format really hammers the point home by grounding this slide, and the band’s reactions to it, in the kind of selective representation of ‘reality’ that documentary provides and mockumentary mimics, rather than presenting the matter as decidedly fictional.

As such, the slide as presented here is acutely felt beneath the humour. Part of this is due to how the mockumentary format successfully puts over how the record industry and those in service of bands such as managers will often wrap their charges up in cotton wool, either to keep them safe from the knowledge of how everything’s going wrong or otherwise to prevent them from becoming demoralised and the motivation leave them—there’s nothing worse to a manager or record label, I’m sure, than an underperforming artist who then sinks further because of the realisation of their situation. Better to pretend that everything is ok; it’s just a bump in the road—hopefully…

Spinal Tap's manager Ian lets loose in the hotel room with a cricket bat!
Ian knows how to look after his boys!

This is very clear in the way Ian tells the band regarding cancellations of venues. He’s very casual about it, a little too casual, trying to offset the implications of the news with the breeziness of his revelation and in the way he makes it sound like a casual aside that he forgot to mention and is of no real importance. He even feigns this reflective breeziness with Marty DiBergi, responding to Marty’s question about the band’s declining popularity by advising, with a brilliant line, that he feels Tap’s appeal is just “becoming more selective.” So selective, in fact, that they ultimately have to play at an army base and a theme park (“If I told them once, I told them a hundred times: put Spinal Tap first and puppet show last!”) just to get work.

The truth of this selectivity becomes more apparent as the band discuss the regional American markets that the album is going to be pushed in. You would assume that if a band is big enough, they would be pushed all over the country. Not so with Spinal Tap, and that should have given the band pause for concern there and then. That it doesn’t is perhaps a reflection that, while a lot of artists are interested in the business side of things, there’s a lot who aren’t, or at least leave it to the people who should know what they’re doing—the managers and the label.

Ian, perhaps, does know what he’s doing, trying to channel his boys’ declining appeal into the strongest areas without giving the game away that the slide has begun. “We’re not gonna saturate the New York market,” Ian declares. “Now, Philly, now that’s a real rock ‘n’ roll town.” While that makes sense as a business decision, to saturate where there is most chance of sales, it would be amiss not to point out that New York, as well as being home then as now to a vibrant arts scene, also had venues such as the Fillmore East, which played host to many of the biggest names of the day in rock, as well as CBGB’s, famous for giving such legendary bands and artists as Patti Smith, The Ramones and Talking Heads a stage early in their careers. This is before you even get to artists as diverse as Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Beastie Boys, Blondie, Public Enemy and Kiss. New York is 100% a rock market and if Tap couldn’t tap into it…

The implications would be clear to a rock audience, who would understand that Tap’s appeal was certainly getting more selective—New York is seen as being more cosmopolitan, whereas Philadelphia is seen as being more physical and visceral; perfect for a hard rock band looking to sustain a hardcore following, but not a promising sign for a band trying to reach as wide an audience as possible. The film rewards the viewer’s knowledge of rock by dropping subtle points such as these into the dialogue without over-explaining or patronising that audience. Even when the limousine driver, rudely disregarded by the band, refers to Tap as a ‘fad,’ it doesn’t ladle on explanation after explanation as to why; it allows the reason to be implicit in the dialogue and trusts its audience’s knowledge of rock and popular culture that they will understand exactly and make the connections. It is this trust, I feel, that helped the film earn so many fans in both the rock stardom and fandom alike.

The limo driver holds up a sign at the airport reading 'Spinal Pap'
The driver knows that ‘Spinal Pap’ are only a fad…

Smell The Glove of Taste

Thinking on how Tap had lost that cosmopolitan New York element of their audience, it leads nicely on to questions of taste, an area both rock fans and artists will be keenly aware of and one which is still relevant today as we are all open to much more public scrutiny with social media.

Ideas of taste have been tied into rock music from the very beginning, with angry parents concerned about the changes it might generate in their children leading in some cases into genuine moments of moral panic. From Elvis and those hips, resulting in him being only filmed for a time from the waist up, to John Lennon causing outrage for claiming the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, from Judas Priest supposed backwards message of “do it” being culpable for murder to Eminem, as much a rock star in presence as a rapper, upsetting parents with the content and the language used in his raps, rock has been under much scrutiny over the years, however unreasonably.

A large part of the issue has been the widespread appeal of rock and popular music over the years. This wasn’t selective, elitist music—it could be enjoyed by everyone of all classes and usually was. As media technologies and networks got more and more sophisticated, to the point where we have global streaming now, it allowed rock and pop music to be globally widespread. As such, its range of influence was massive, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of people it can reach. Because of this, rock has often had to bear the weight of the issue of taste, one which it perhaps wasn’t always able or willing to do.

Spinal Tap show off their big bottoms
Misogynistic big bottoms?

This Is Spinal Tap addresses this well, using a range of different ways to look at the issue of taste. Part of the problem for Spinal Tap was that they belonged to the heavy metal genre, a genre that has often, sometimes rightly and sometimes very unfairly, been dismissed as the unsophisticated, loud, aggressive and immature brother of the rock family. ‘Caveman music’ is a term I’ve heard used for the genre before, which gives a clear indication of how its detractors see it: simplistic, nasty, non-intellectual, distasteful. Certainly, looking at the genre’s reference points as used in the early 80s, the use of demonic imagery (not the same as actual devil worship, of course), the occult, skulls and highly masculine hetero-sexualised activity (lyrics to devoted to women’s “big bottoms” and the thrusting of guitar necks as if substitute phalluses) were seen as reductive, undoing the hard work people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon were doing in making rock as tasteful and intellectual as the more refined arts.

The film does not let Spinal Tap off the hook for their immaturity, gently poking fun at the band’s inability to achieve any kind of sophistication. The mockumentary format allows these to occur quite naturally. Take, for instance, the moment Marty DiBergi catches Nigel backstage playing a very pretty minor key piece on the piano. Nigel refers to Mozart as one of his inspirations, but when asked the title of his piece, he replies (without any sense of irony or humour) “this one’s called ‘Lick My Love Pump.'” It’s a hilarious moment, busting the bubble of pompousness rock musicians can find themselves in when they aspire to moments of “serious art”, forgetting that rock is a natural art in itself. But the scene does highlight the masculine misogynist behaviour and immaturity that the metal genre was accused of.

Interestingly, considering that misogyny in the wider culture is still a major issue, one which is still rightly being fought, This Is Spinal Tap curiously does not let the metal genre off the hook for its supposed misogyny. The film makes it clear, via conversations between the band and the record label, that their sexism (“what’s wrong with being sexy?”), apart from being wrong, is tasteless, morally and culturally. As Bobbi Flekman tells Ian, referring to the proposed cover for their new album, Smell the Glove, “you put a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash and a man’s arm, extended out, up to here, holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it.” Progressive, it is not.

Bobbi Flekman lays down the law to Spinal Tap
Bobbi Flekman lays down the law to Spinal Tap

The film makes it clear that any jokes on the subject are against the band and not the record company and its concerns. When Ian tries to dismiss Bobbi’s concerns by telling her that it’s 1982 (as if that makes a difference), Bobbi responds by saying “That’s right, it’s 1982. Get out of the ’60s. We don’t have this mentality anymore.” It’s interesting that, in a time where rock was much more culturally dominant, that the film criticises something that was, a lot of the time, just taken for a given. It also uses the mockumentary format to address the seriousness of the consequences for the band, letting Bobbi tell the band about some of the major retailers who refuse to stock the album and therefore hurting the band in terms of money and accessibility. The referencing of real-life business consequences in such to the point terms reinforces the authenticity of the story we are being told.

One Man’s Sexism Is Another Man’s Progress

The prior reference to the sixties gives the suggestion that this fixation on misogynistic imagery is a further factor why the record buying public were turning away from the band. Just as there would be (and often is) public outrage today if an artist were to demonstrate any kind of misogyny, artistic or otherwise, This Is Spinal Tap makes the case that the band’s dwindling fan base was down to the same—that the audience would no longer accept these tired old sexist clichés…

Or would they? Perhaps it was more a case that the audience wasn’t anti-sexism per se, but that such sexism simply wasn’t fashionable to the audience Tap is portraying. Case in point: when the band bump into the latest hot star, Duke Fame (played by the wonderfully-named Acting Shortino), not only does he not seem to either recognise or be interested in them, his presence provokes the band into a jealous discussion of his album cover, which they feel is similar to theirs but passed without problem: “It’s a rather lurid cover. I mean, it’s like naked women, and he’s tied down to this table, and they’ve got these whips, and they’re all semi-nude…”

Ian’s explanation that it was acceptable because Duke is the victim, not the women, is amusing but does stumble on its logic. Because surely Duke isn’t the victim when he’s being attended to by a group of beautiful naked women who are essentially acting as his sex slaves, for lack of a better term? It does raise the question: is what is culturally acceptable only such because of how it is spun, rather than what it actually represents?

As the Tap say, “it’s such a fine line between stupid and…clever.”

The Joy of Rock and Roll

After all this, though, it is not to say that the film doesn’t catch something of the joy of being a rock performer and fan. It very much does, and it’s this balance with the more difficult aspects of being in a band, that really gives Spinal Tap it’s charm as a reflection of rock culture.

The musical numbers themselves are very well written (“Big Bottom” and “Stonehenge” in particular are favourites of mine) and they are very accurate parodies of heavy rock music of the period. They have elongated and prog-like intros and outros (see “Stonehenge”), they crackle with sizzling solos and they crunch with heavy riffs and rhythm guitar, perfectly capturing the exhilaration of rock music when its done right. Not only that, but the examples of the band’s early hits is absolutely spot-on in terms of the development of hard rock bands in the 70s who learned their craft in the 60s: the rhythm and blues beat music of “Gimmie Some Money”, the ornate, almost chamber music styling of “Cups and Cakes,” and the love and peace sitar-guitar gentleness of “Listen to the Flower People.” If you want the general development of music in the 60s, those three songs cover it pretty well. They definitely reward knowledgeable fans.

Derek finds himself stuck in his pod onstage as the band play on
…and the band played on.

There is also the elaborate stage sets that made rock shows such a gratifying spectacle in the 70s—Pink Floyd instantly spring to mind, what with their light shows, the video screen they used for Dark Side of the Moon, and on-stage construction of The Wall. Such visual spectacles made bands like the Floyd a major live attraction in the 70s and to this day fans very fondly remember their gigs. Spinal Tap subverts this nicely by having the equipment malfunction. The strange bio-pods the bands emerge from during their performance of “Rock and Roll Creation” hilariously trap bassist Derek inside, an engineer trying to blowtorch him out while a perplexed band play on. Or what about “Stonehenge?” The tiny set was a result of Nigel marking the measurements in inches not feet, and the maker took him at his word. The look on David’s and Nigel’s faces as the elves, who are taller than the Stonehenge stage prop, dance around the ancient stones is priceless. (Incidentally, Black Sabbath debuted their own Stonehenge stage set around the time of Spinal Tap’s release and accused the film of ripping the idea off of them. The timing has proved it was just a funny coincidence).

It’s moments like these where you get that real rush that rock music and rock culture provide; the exhilaration and joy that if you can’t feel, then it simply cannot be explained to you. It’s almost elemental, and by presenting these moments via performances, videos of old songs, and loving nods to the spectacle of rock, the film really catches the joy of rock in a way that a standard fiction-narrative film would struggle to do.

But perhaps we should give the final word to a fan who, in true documentary style, is interviewed in the street, giving that sense of authenticity again, as she queues to get into the show:

It’s like you become one with the guys in the band. I mean, there’s no division, you just…the music just unites people with the players.”

Amen to that.

And I haven’t even got onto the dead drummers yet!

Written by Chris Flackett

Chris Flackett is a writer for 25YL, Film Obsessive and TV Obsessive who loves Twin Peaks, David Lynch, Art House Cinema, great absurdist literature and listens to music like he's breathing oxygen. He lives in Manchester, England with his beautiful wife, three kids and the ghosts of Manchester music history all around him.

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  1. “Spinal Tap” stands the test of time and hits all of its targets, pretty much required viewing for anyone who’s ever been in a band. For a heartbreakingly “real” take, check out 2008’s “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.”

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