The Untold Truth Of Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap occupies a unique place in musical history. A fictional band, they were originally made famous by the 1984 motion picture "This Is Spinal Tap." The mockumentary – if you will, rockumentary – was full of ad-libbed lines; exaggerated misogyny; and of course sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Tap's fictional biography included humble beginnings in England as a skiffle band, various name changes, and the constant and mysterious deaths of their drummers. They are defined by their exuberance, their raw power, and most importantly, their punctuality.

Just a few years away from their 40th anniversary, Spinal Tap still manages to draw publicity and attention, and they regularly find themselves in the news well into the 21st century. Tragically, Ric Parnell, who portrayed drummers Mick and Ric Shrimpton, passed away at the age of 70 in 2022. The remaining members, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls respectively), are all still rocking, and as recently as 2020 they reunited with director Rob Reiner to benefit the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. 

Turn your amps up to 11, this is the untold truth of Spinal Tap.

Spinal Tap was inspired by a real band

Most fans of the band do not realize, but Spinal Tap was actually based on a real-life English rock band. In 2017, at the AV Club Festival, Christopher Guest talked about the origins of the band during a question and answer segment with fans (pictured above). He humorously recalled a story in 1974 when he was checking into a hotel in Los Angeles, and in front of him was an English rock band arguing amongst themselves about lost equipment. The manager asked the bass player where his instrument was, and the oblivious bassist responded by saying he did not know but it was probably at the airport. A hilarious back-and-forth ensued, with the manager and musician arguing about where the bass was for a full 15 minutes.

The incident crystallized in Guest's mind and went on to inspire Spinal Tap a decade later. He called it the happiest moment of his life apart from the first time he met his wife. Also during the interview, Guest said that many people had come up to him over the years claiming to know who Spinal Tap was based on, but they were all wrong. The name of the actual English rock band is a mystery, as Guest never revealed who they were, if he ever even knew himself.

The band first appeared in a 1979 sketch comedy show

"This Is Spinal Tap" was released in theaters in 1984, but the band's origins actually began years earlier in a sketch comedy show created by Rob Reiner (pictured above). According to actor and creator Michael McKean in "This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion," Spinal Tap was created by McKean, Reiner, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer as a sketch for Reiner's show "The TV Show." Previously, McKean and Guest had worked together on a similar sketch involving heavy metal rockers, and that was how McKean became involved in Spinal Tap. They chose the name Spinal Tap because it was "suitably duff."

In the sketch, Spinal Tap parodied a popular radio show known as "Midnight Special" that was hosted by famous DJ Wolfman Jack. They wrote a fake song, "Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare," which they performed amid "accompanying visual foolishness." According to Mike T. Childs in the "Rocklopedia Fakebandica," the 1979 sketch also featured musician Loudon Wainwright III on keyboards, though he would not be in the subsequent film. A little over a year after the sketch aired, Reiner was trying to move from television into feature films, and he decided on Spinal Tap as his first major motion picture. 

They almost never break character when talking about the band

While it would be a stretch to call it method acting, the members of Spinal Tap are famous for remaining in character whenever they reunite as a band. According to Christopher Guest in "This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion," the band has gone to lengths to remain in character over the years. He said the band had participated in over 500 interviews and spent "hundreds and hundreds of hours in motel and hotel rooms" in full costume and in character. Guest even said that when fans come to the concerts they act as if they are taking part in the film. Groupies would even come backstage looking to meet the band members, not the actors.

Not only do the band members play along in interviews and skits, but other famous rock stars reference the band from time to time. Gene Simmons has been known to joke about having an affair with Tap guitar player Nigel Tufnel's wife, and Icelandic singer Björk referenced the movie during an interview talking about her hectic lifestyle. In 2011, fans of the movie created "Nigel Tufnel Day" to coincide with the date 11/11/11, a reference to the famous scene in the movie where Tufnel shows his amp's volume knobs going up to 11 rather than the standard 10 (per Entertainment Weekly).

Many of the scenes in the film were based on real life

The antics and actions of "This Is Spinal Tap" might seem too outrageous to be true, but Harry Shearer has claimed that many of the scenes were actually based directly on real-life events. In the book "Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company," Shearer elaborated on the real-life inspiration for several of the movie's most famous scenes. The famous "Kick my a**" scene, when beleaguered promotor Artie Fufkin is unable to conjure up any attendees for the band's autograph session, "was a literal transcription of something that happened to Michael and me [Shearer] on the road."

The scene at the Air Force base, featuring Fred Willard as an Air Force Lt., was based on an experience the keyboard player had a few years prior. The famous incident in the movie when bassist Derek Smalls became trapped in a pod on stage, was also taken from a real-life event involving Screamin' Jay Hawkins at the Apollo Theater in 1956. Even the advent of David St. Hubbin's wife splitting up the band was based on real-life examples, like Yoko Ono. The movie also spoofed The Band's documentary "The Last Waltz" several times, and continually poked fun at D.A. Pennebaker's film on Bob Dylan, "Don't Look Back," too.

They went on SNL in 1984 to promote the movie

In 1984, as part of the promotion for "This Is Spinal Tap," Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest all appeared on the sketch comedy show "Saturday Night Live" in a skit about the band. The bit was centered around an interview with the band by the weekly host Barry Bostwick. The band claimed it was the first television performance they had been invited to since 1968, and they humorously argued amongst themselves about various trivial matters. The band compared themselves with Mozart, who they referred to as a keyboard player, because of their insistence on playing as loud as possible. They claimed their main fan base consisted of professionals, like neurosurgeons, businessmen, and the Illuminati. The band also served as the musical guest for the night, performing a song from the movie.

Both Guest and Shearer were able to parlay their success with Spinal Tap into season-long stints as "not ready for primetime players" on SNL (per "Best in Show"). While on the show, they worked with other "This Is Spinal Tap" alumni like McKean and Billy Crystal on several sketches. One of their most famous sketches involved another fake documentary, this time about male synchronized swimming.

Spinal Tap released three real albums

Most fans of the movie are familiar with their fictional album "Smell the Glove," featuring an all-black cover, but the band has also released three "real" albums full of actual material. The fictional discography of Spinal Tap originally spanned from 1967 to 1983, and featured 15 albums, starting with "Spinal Tap Sings '(Listen to the) Flower People' and Other Favorites" and ending with "Smell the Glove" (per "This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion"). None of these albums were ever actually released, but they were all mentioned in the movie.

Since the release of the movie, the band has recorded and released three more albums full of real songs. In 1984, they released the soundtrack to the movie, which featured 11 songs featured in the film (per "This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion"). In 1992, they reunited to release "Break Like the Wind," a reference to flatulence, which featured all-new material. In 2009, the band released "Back From the Dead," which featured a mix of new and re-recorded material. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly about the release of "Back From the Dead," Christopher Guest, in character as Nigel Tufnel, talked about the challenges of recording the material again, joking that the previous records had not stood the test of time.

They have reunited several times

While the band released new albums in 1992 and 2009 as Spinal Tap, they have actually reunited at least six separate times since the movie was released in 1984. Their first reunion took place in 1992, when they released "Break Like the Wind," and they subsequently went on a short tour afterwards (per the New York Times). In 2001, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer reunited for another short tour, which featured a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City (via Billboard). The band reunited in 2007 with director Rob Reiner for another series of concerts and made a short video (via The Age).

According to the BBC, in 2009, as part of their 25th anniversary, they released the album "Back From the Dead" and went on a "world tour." However, in true Spinal Tap fashion, the "world tour" turned out to be a one-night stand at Wembley Stadium in London. They again reunited in 2019, on their 35th anniversary, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. They attended a screening of the film and had a short question and answer session, and they even performed a small acoustic set of Spinal Tap songs (per Billboard). Their most recent reunion took place in 2020 and was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The band took part in a benefit for the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania (via Variety).

Spinal Tap were in an episode of 'The Simpsons'

As part of the promotion for their new album "Break Like the Wind," Spinal Tap appeared in the 1992 episode of "The Simpsons" entitled "The Otto Show" (per the AV Club). In the episode, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer all do the voiceovers for animated versions of their Spinal Tap characters. The plot of the episode revolves around a Spinal Tap concert occurring in Springfield that several of the characters attend. The band performed the song "Break Like the Wind" from their recently released album and parodied the movie with several onstage mishaps. The concert inspires Bart to take up guitar but pushes bus driver Otto into a personal crisis.

Guest, McKean, and Shearer were not the only members of Spinal Tap to reprise their roles on television in the 1990s. In 1999, Fran Drescher did so in an episode of "The Nanny," a show which she had starred on since 1993 (via MTV). In the episode, Drescher played publicist Bobbi Fleckman, the fictional publicist for Spinal Tap in the 1984 movie.

They parodied Napster

Spinal Tap's ability to relentlessly parody popular culture knows no bounds. In 1999, the file sharing service Napster first went online and started distributing music over the internet (per The Guardian). They were quickly sued by record labels and bands over copyright infringement, and a public relations scandal immediately engulfed them. Spinal Tap saw an opportunity, and immediately created the website "Tapster," a clever spoof on the original file sharing service's name. According to PC World, when users went to Tap's website, they were greeted by a video clip of the band talking about the recent lawsuit controversy. The website only had one song available for legal download, "Back From the Dead," which had just been released.

The creation of the website was timed to coincide with the theatrical re-release of the film that September. According to the press release for "Tapster," the band envisioned the new service to be "far more controversial than Napster," because they were "not unnecessarily concerned about intellectual property" (via The Mac Observer). Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, in character as their Spinal Tap personas, joked that they were creating "Tapster" to befriend machines, who they claimed would "eventually take over the world" (according to PC World).

Spinal Tap has done multiple charity events

Spinal Tap has used their influence and fame for good causes several times. In 1985, the band participated in Hear 'n Aid, the heavy metal version of the charity singles "We Are the World" by USA for Africa and "Do They Know It's Christmas" by Band Aid. Both Michael McKean and Harry Shearer took part, playing their characters of David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls, respectively. The band released one song, "Stars," and the single raised money to help combat famine in Africa (via Yahoo). In an interview about Hear 'n Aid, the organizer of the charity, Ronnie James Dio, talked about how much fun it was to work with McKean and Shearer on the song, and how funny they were joking around with the other musicians.

In 2007, the band reunited to take part in an event to protect the world from global warming and climate change (via The Age). The band's participation was spearheaded by "This Is Spinal Tap" director, Rob Reiner, who appeared in character as fictional filmmaker Marti DeBergi from the original movie. The band also played at one of the Live Earth concerts that were being held that summer in London.

The film inspired characters in the Harry Potter series

It might sound like a stretch at first, but "This Is Spinal Tap" actually helped inspire one of the most crucial plot points of the Harry Potter series. One of the most enduring and hilarious gags from the Spinal Tap movie is the constant death of their drummers. Their first drummer, John "Stumpy" Pepys, "died in a bizarre gardening accident," Eric "Stumpy Joe" Childs died after asphyxiating on vomit, and Peter "James" Bond passed after spontaneously combusting during a Jazz-Blues (or Blues-Jazz depending on who you talk to) festival.

According to J.K. Rowling (pictured above), the author of the Harry Potter series, this gag inspired her to replace the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher each year at Hogwarts. In 2018, Rowling responded to a tweet and confirmed the connection between Spinal Tap and Harry Potter. In Spinal Tap, all the drummers end up dying from outlandish circumstances, yet in Harry Potter, most of them survive – they just no longer teach at the school. The symbolism is not perfect, but it is still pretty similar and interesting.

They made multiple short films

Though most fans are only familiar with the original 1984 movie "This Is Spinal Tap," the band has released three pseudo-sequels since then. In 1992, the band released a concert DVD of their performance at the Royal Albert Hall titled "The Return of Spinal Tap" (via The DVD featured a full-length concert from the Hall and also had a few skits and some backstage footage. Several celebrities made cameos, including actors who had played roles in the original film, like Fred Willard. In 2007, as part of their reunion to combat global warming, Rob Reiner created a short film featuring the band (via The Age), commissioned by the Live Earth campaign that the band was participating in.

In 2009, the band created another short film titled "Stonehenge: 'Tis a Magical Place," which was released exclusively on iTunes (per The short film spoofed the band's long-running gag surrounding Stonehenge and the band's adaptation of it into a song. In the short film, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer, in character as David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls, travel to Stonehenge for the first time as part of a pilgrimage.

Spinal Tap frequently parody themselves

As part of their bumbling and oblivious fictional personas, the band finds ways to parody themselves over and over again. During their concerts, they often have mishaps involving their Stonehenge set, in homage to the movie. In one of the most memorable storylines from the film, the band tries to incorporate a Stonehenge-themed set into their live performances, but it ends in disaster when the pieces are comically undersized. Parodying this in their 1992 movie "The Return of Spinal Tap," instead of the equipment being too small as in the film, the set pieces were now too big to fit through the doors of the amphitheater, leaving the band onstage looking bewildered and signaling for nonexistent equipment to be lowered down.

In 2009, at the Glastonbury Festival, their performance featured an inflatable Stonehenge monument that was constantly blown around by the wind. That same year, the band released a recording of "Saucy Jack," a reference to a scene from the original movie about a proposed rock musical based on the life of Jack the Ripper (via Westword).

Over the years Spinal Tap has continued to surprise audiences with their impromptu reunions and releases. They still occupy a warm place in the heart of American music history, and are regularly quoted by rock stars and musicians in their interviews. No one knows what the future will hold for Spinal Tap, but fans can only hope England's loudest band will be back again.

The 40th Anniversary Sequel

On May 12, 2022, Spinal Tap announced they were finally reuniting again, this time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the feature film (per Deadline). The film is tentatively titled "Spinal Tap 2" and is scheduled for release in March of 2024. The entire main cast will be reprising their roles, with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer returning as Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls, respectively. Even Rob Reiner (above right) is set to reprise his role as the "director" of the mockumentary, Marti DiBergi. 

The premise of the movie is reported to revolve around the death of the band's former manager, Ian Faith, originally played by Tony Hendra, who has since passed away. There is no word on if any of the actors who made cameos in the first film, like Paul Schaffer or Billy Crystal, will return, but it is a good bet that the new film will have at least a few surprise characters. 

According to an interview with Reiner, the entire film will be ad-libbed, just like the original (per Variety). He also stated that the movie will be based on The Band's documentary "The Last Waltz," originally directed by Martin Scorsese. Guest, McKean, Shearer, and Reiner at first planned on writing a book about Spinal Tap, but they instead decided on making a movie after a few meetings.