35 Years Ago: ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ Turns Comedy Up to 11
March 2, 1984, marks the release of one of history’s most acclaimed documentaries -- actually, “rockumentaries” -- This Is Spinal Tap, which told the story of one of England’s most powerful, exuberant and punctual fake rock bands: Spinal Tap.
But what began as an earnest attempt to chronicle the legendary band’s triumphant comeback tour of America on the part of acclaimed director Marty DiBergi (you’ve probably seen one of his award-winning commercials), unexpectedly turned into quite a revealing and, at times, sobering glimpse — behind the music — of the creative, business and personal dynamics affecting a high-flying rock band.
Presciently, DiBergi and his crew began rolling tape on the eve of Spinal Tap’s first visit to U.S. shores in half a decade; their first attempt to, shall we say, “Tap into America” following a string of poorly received LPs culminating in 1980’s Shark Sandwich, which was infamously (and quite unfairly, we might add) reviewed in Rolling Rock magazine as simply “Shit sandwich.”
The feature-length documentary that followed felt like a front row seat for the band’s electrifying, high-decibel, multi-city concert tour, complete with staples such as "Rock and Roll Creation," "Big Bottom" and "Stonehenge," backed by ambitious stage props (inanimate and breathing), plus insightful glimpses of the behind-the-scenes record company meetings preceding the imminent release of Tap’s eagerly awaited new album, Smell the Glove’ featuring promising first single "Hell Hole."
Spinal Tap stars David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls granted DiBergi’s cameras unparalleled access into their tight-knit universe: backstage, in hotel suites and in upscale diners. All while candidly reminiscing on their remarkable evolution from ‘60s beat combo the Thamesmen, through the psychedelic era (virtually defined, as everyone knows, by Tap’s worldwide smash "Listen to the Flower People"), and even touching on the traumatizing, occasionally mysterious, deaths of talented drummers like Peter "James" Bond and Eric “Stumpy Joe" Childs.
And yet, none of this unprecedented access could have prepared fans for the shocking sequence of events that not only threatened to derail their tour and Smell the Glove’s release, but the long-term health of Spinal Tap’s very career, in general. To paraphrase director DiBergi, he may have set out with the humble goal of capturing the sights, sounds and smells of a hard working rock band on the road, but he got more … a lot more. And so did Spinal Tap’s legions of devoted fans.
Luckily for them, a bona fide rock 'n' roll tragedy was narrowly avoided and Spinal Tap survived to “tap another day.” However, further incidents and simple bad luck continued to dog the production and eventual premiere of DiBergi’s film, which, as seen by its official poster, above, inexplicably seemed to suggest that Spinal Tap were some kind of imaginary band instead of surefire future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.