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Off the Beaten Tracks: Spinal Tap go to eleven

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THE scene is heavy-metal guitarist Nigel Tufnel’s music room. He is showing film maker Marty DiBergi a Marshall amplifier on which the dials all go up to eleven, rather than the usual ten. This, he explains, makes his band Spinal Tap ‘one louder’ than other ensembles. ‘When we need that extra push over the cliff, we put it up to eleven.’ DiBergi doubts the logic of this, saying: ‘Why don’t you just make ten louder?’. Tufnel chews gum for a couple of seconds then says softly, as if to a simpleton, ‘These go to eleven.’

If you are unfamiliar with this clip, which enshrined the phrase ‘up to eleven’ in popular culture, you are missing out on one of the most hilarious movies of all time – This Is Spinal Tap – which seems to get funnier with every viewing.

What we have here is a 1984 spoof documentary chronicling the career of a British rock band long past its best-before date.

Tufnel, played by Christopher Guest, was born in Squatney, East London. At the age of six he was given his first guitar, a sunburst Rhythm King made by Volga-Haafen, a Finnish company trying to jump on the skiffle bandwagon. His main influence is the finger-picking of Big ‘Little Daddy’ Coleman, a deaf guitarist from the hills of North Carolina who later moved to South Carolina for tax purposes.

Also on guitar and vocals is Nigel’s childhood next-door neighbour David St Hubbins, played by Michael McKean. He is married to his long-time lady love, Jeanine Pettibone-St Hubbins (June Chadwick), a designer-astrologist.

Bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer, also the voice of Mr Burns and others in The Simpsons) was born in the small West Midlands town of Nilford, which is riven by the river Null. Mother Doris was the musical talent of the family – ‘she was always humming when she sewed; she said it helped her keep from pricking herself’. He says: ‘We’re very lucky in the band in that we have two visionaries, David and Nigel, they’re like poets, like Shelley and Byron. They’re two distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.’

The first drummer was John ‘Stumpy’ Pepys, who died in a bizarre gardening accident. His successor, Eric ‘Stumpy Joe’ Childs, choked on someone else’s vomit. Peter ‘James’ Bond spontaneously combusted. He was replaced by Mick Shrimpton, played by R J Parnell, from the real rock group Atomic Rooster.

This Is Spinal Tap skewers the fawning rockumentary genre, highlighting the inanity of the musicians and their ridiculous demands (who remembers Greg Lake of Emerson Lake & Palmer and his Persian rug, which had its own roadie?). Here, manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) has to deal with a miniature bread crisis.

The film was almost entirely improvised by the cast and was distilled from more than 100 hours of footage. Apart from the amazing dialogue which they provide, kudos to the American actors for their spot-on English accents. Here they describe the history of the band.

We join the Tap on a 1982 US tour to promote their latest album, Smell The Glove. Tensions soon develop between the musicians and manager Faith owing to low ticket sales and the refusal of many record stores to stock the LP because of its sexist cover art. Matters are not improved by the arrival of David’s wife Jeanine, with her own ideas about the band’s presentation. She is roundly mocked when she refers to the Dolby noise reduction process as ‘Dubly’. Here we see Nigel’s disgusted reaction when she suggests they should wear animal costumes of her design to make their stage act more interesting.

Nigel’s own idea is for a spectacular show based on Stone’enge – ‘in ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history’. He designs a monolith on a table napkin and tells Ian to get it made. Unfortunately he gets his measurements wrong, and when it is lowered on stage it turns out to be only 18 inches tall. Ian gets the blame, and quits in response.

At one concert the band become lost in the labyrinth of corridors beneath the stage.

At airport security, Smalls keeps setting off the metal detector until he is forced to reveal his secret.

On a visit to Elvis Presley’s grave, St Hubbins starts to sing Heartbreak Hotel in tribute only to be interrupted by Tufnel who suggests they add some harmony parts.

Perhaps the most celebrated scene of all shows Nigel playing piano watched by DiBergi, played by the film’s director Rob Reiner.

DiBergi: It’s pretty.

Tufnel: Yeah, I like it. I’ve been fooling around with it for a few months now. Very delicate.

DiBergi: It’s a bit of a departure from what you normally play.

Tufnel: Yeah, well, it’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy that I’m doing in D . . . minor, which I always find is really the saddest of all keys, really, I don’t know why. It makes people weep instantly to play [plays and sings].

Tufnel: It’s a horn part.

DiBergi: It’s very pretty.

Tufnel: You know, just simple lines intertwining, you know, very much like — I’m really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it’s sort of in between those, really. It’s like a Mach piece, really. It’s sort of . . .

DiBergi: What do you call this?

Tufnel: Well, this piece is called Lick My Love Pump.

Nigel also gives DiBergi a tour of his guitar collection – ‘listen to the sustain’.

And here is one of his bravura onstage solos, where he has to be helped to his feet by a roadie after landing on his back.

Condensing all this brilliant material into a mere 80 minutes must have been a nightmare. Here is one of the scenes that didn’t make it, where a fan approaches the band at an album-signing session and asks them to autograph a record of railway sounds.

And here is a collection of more than an hour of outtakes.

Tufnel eventually quits the group mid-performance after a succession of ever-decreasing venues, but triumphantly rejoins on the final show of the tour. Manager Ian returns to mastermind a trip to Japan despite the loss of drummer Mick, who explodes on stage.

That’s not the end of the story. Spinal Tap reformed in 1992 for the album Break Like The Wind. Here is an interview with David Letterman to publicise it (begins 35 seconds into the clip).

Accused of sexism over the track Bitch School, they explain that it is in fact about canine training – ‘discipline in the dog world’. They say they got together again after attending the funeral of Ian Faith – ‘the coroner’s report gave the cause of death as embezzlement’. It was a happy occasion – ‘we were running by the coffin flicking his nose’.

And here they are, still going to eleven, performing Stone’enge live at Glastonbury in 2009. Thankfully, the drummer survives.

To read the collected TCW columns by Margaret and Alan Ashworth, plus new features including Tracks of the Day, please bookmark https://am-records.com

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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