When the film "This Is Spinal Tap" was released in March 1984, the public was initially unsure what to make of it. Like Orson Welles's radio drama "War of the Worlds," the movie was acted, produced, and presented so well that the project seemed like it could have been an actual documentary and not the spoof of a clueless hard rock band that stumbles from one hilarious mishap to the next.
Starring director Rob Reiner as an enterprising documentarian, Michael McKean as vocalist David St. Hubbins, Christopher Guest as guitarist Nigel Tufnel, and Harry Shearer as bassist Derek Smalls (all of whom shared writing credits), "This Is Spinal Tap" seemed too absurd to be real, yet so in stride with the lunacy of a traveling rock band that it couldn't possibly be made up. Many of the lines in the film were ad-libbed, which added to the realistic feel, and the actors went along with whatever came along like an expert theater improv troupe, the results being part Monty Python, part "Don't Look Back."
Reiner filmed over 20 hours of footage then masterfully edited together the best 82 minutes. While the public response to the theatrical release was disappointing, when it was released on video "This is Spinal Tap" quickly blossomed into one of the most popular and enduring cult films. And countless musicians, including Rob Halford, Glenn Danzig, and Rob Zombie, have praised the accuracy of some of the movie's funniest scenes.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of a legendary rock 'n' roll mockumentary, Yahoo Music dug up an interview with dim but lovable David St. Hubbins:
YAHOO: So, how are things going?
ST. HUBBINS: I'm all right. I just twisted my ankle a bit. I was out working at the farm. We call it the farm. It's not really a farm, it's like half an acre out in Pomona here, and I was out there with the dog and sheep and I twisted my ankle, but I'm fine now.
Speaking of twisting an ankle, that reminds me of the show business phrase "break a leg," which I've never understood.
Someone explained it to me once. If you break a leg, you're not going to have to go out there and risk making a fool of yourself, which is of course much worse than breaking any limb, although as one who's done it for a living… you know, playing in a rock 'n' roll band. We are the fools of the universe.
You've left quite a legacy over the years.
We were talking about that the other day. Ours has really consisted of splitting up and getting back together again. And it's been great for us, because there's so much attendant curiosity and sort of a soap opera interest that we don't really have to write too much new material.
Do the current crop of metal bands owe anything to Spinal Tap?
No. I'm sure if they did, our accountants would have mentioned it… Oh, you're talking about figuratively owing us. Well, it depends. We all worship energy, and we've always tried to have energy even at our most sluggish. And in fact that's our sound. Someone described it as very sluggish, but brutal music. So if those adjectives pop into you head when you're thinking metal music, than yes, they owe us, and they owe us big time.
Why do you think so many of your drummers have died?
There are certain characteristics common to all drummers. They all have car troubles, and they can all do funny voices. But other than that, I don't think there's any of that "born under a bad sign" thing. In our case it's perhaps astrological or numerical.
Can you believe people regularly still refer to scenes like the band getting lost backstage in Cleveland, the miniature Stonehenge monument descending from the rafters, and your bassist Derek Smalls getting stuck in the giant pod stage prop?
Yes, maybe Marty DiBergi, the filmmaker, had it in for us in some way, because he showed us only at our worst. In reality, we had a lot of fun and a lot of great success as a band.
Did Marty edit the piece to make you look bad?
Exactly. It seems Marty got a bit jealous of us getting all the girls and all the attention. And I think when he got into that cutting room, and he was eating a sandwich over the garbage pail, working into the night in his lonely little life, that maybe he got a bit bitter and cut out all the good stuff.
The story of Tap is one that almost any touring band can relate to, so much so that bands often refer to certain memories as "Spinal Tap moments."
Yeah, I know, where everything goes wrong. Well, I must say, I don't think we were any more cursed than the average hard rock band. I just think we were a bit less fortunate. Also, we had a filmmaker with an agenda right there on the bus with us. And that's why it became known as a "Spinal Tap moment." If they had done a film about the Scorpions or Uriah Heap, they might have got a similar film, or something less amusing.
Have you been able to survive off the rewards of rock stardom?
No, no. We made some mistakes early in life. A lot of the songs we wrote, we gave away or sold the publishing to years ago when we were on lean times between tours. And we made a couple of bob at the time, then later on really ached when we had to write a check to some French cosmetics company in order to play one of our own tunes. It was embarrassing.
A French cosmetic company owns the Tap catalog?
Just some of the tunes. We've sold them off at various times. I think James Caan owns two of our tunes for some reason. I think it had something to do with a card game that Nigel lost in Hollywood. I don't really keep track anymore. But every now and then I get a very nice royalty check for six pounds [about $10] because someone used one of our songs in a commercial, and I can go out and buy a pizza. You get two-for-one on Thursday nights.
Are you doing any music outside of Spinal Tap?
I've been doing some arranging for music for educational videos. There's a really adorable young Japanese trio that goes under the name Poka Pola. It's sort of a play on Coca-Cola. And they have a series of videos out about learning math. Making mathematics more interesting. I work with them and I've learned a lot about math that I never knew.