October 21, 2012 at 8:05 AM by Dr. Drang
I keep Monty Python and the Holy Grail and This is Spın̈al Tap1 on my iPhone at all times. They’re among my favorite movies and bear up under repeated (and repeated and repeated) viewings, not just because they’re funny, but because there’s a depth to them. The Pythons knew a lot about Arthur and medieval England, and the Tap crew knew a lot about rock and roll.
So it was with some trepidation that I started listening to The Incomparable podcast’s recent episode on Spın̈al Tap, called, with a certain inevitability, “These Go to Eleven.” Jason Snell hosted the show and the guests were Andy Ihnatko and Ben Boychuk. I’ve enjoyed listening to all of them on The Incomparable,2 and I’ve always liked Jason and Andy’s writing,3 but I don’t think of any of them as being particularly steeped in rock and roll culture. Andy’s always recommending musicals on AMC, not usually the sign of a rocker. And then there’s the matter of age—Spın̈al Tap came out in 1983 and is parodying people and events that took place in the 60s and, especially, the 70s. A lot of the humor comes from understanding what was going on back them, and I didn’t think any of the three were old enough to have that understanding.
Despite my doubts, the show was a lot of fun. Jason, Andy, and Ben obviously have a deep affection for the movie, and they had good insights into what makes it work. Jason in particular, I thought, was spot on in his discussion of the “these go to eleven” scene, which works so well, both because of the absurdity of the markings on the amps (a brilliant idea) and because Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest play it absolutely straight. It’s Marty’s sincerity and Nigel’s obtuseness that turn a good joke into one that’s lasted 30 years.
Still, some topics were missed that I think are essential to any discussion of Spın̈al Tap.
First on my list is All You Need is Cash, Eric Idle’s wonderfully askew retelling of the Beatles’ story through a retrospective documentary about the fictional Rutles, the band whose legend will last a lunchtime. I saw Cash only once, when it first ran on NBC in the late 70s, but there are bits of it that I simply cannot forget. And the music! Tap’s music was, as the Incomparable guys said, both catchy and funny, but Neil Innes’s songs for the Rutles were absolutely uncanny in how they evoked Lennon and McCartney with only a little outright theft.
The big difference between the two films is that while Cash focuses exclusively on the Beatles, Tap wanders all over the rock scene for stories to satirize. There are certainly Beatles references—like their outfits in the “Gimme Some Money” clip and the song “All The Way Home,” a pretty obvious nod to “The One After 909”—but they mine a much bigger and richer vein:
- That Spın̈al Tap was “England’s loudest band” was taken directly from Deep Purple, who were designated the world’s loudest band by the Guinness Book of World Records.
- The story of their second drummer’s death—“you can’t dust for vomit”—was just a slight adjustment to the cause of death for both Jimi Hendrix and John Bonham. (I was under the impression Bon Scott had also choked on his own vomit, but apparently he died of alcohol poisoning. And let me warn you, you can get lost for hours on this Wikipedia page on rock and roll deaths.)
The scene in which Nigel and David yell at each other during a recording session recalls the legendary fuck-filled argument among the Troggs when one of the guys couldn’t play his part.4
Many bands played at festivals on the Isle of Wight. There’s a great Who concert film of its appearance there in 1970. Spın̈al Tap played a jazz-blues fest (or was it a blues-jazz fest?) on the Isle of Lucy.
Nigel Tufnel is, of course, the spitting image of Jeff Beck, but his performances are more reminiscent of Beck’s Yardbirds bandmate, Jimmy Page. There’s a great scene in The Song Remains the Same in which Page plays his guitar with a violin bow.
Not to be outdone, Nigel plays his guitar with a violin.
I’ve never been able to make a rational connection, but there’s something about the interviews with the pipe-smoking Derek Smalls that reminds me of this scene in The Kids Are Alright in which the country gentleman John Entwistle goes out for a little shooting practice in his wellies.
I could draw more parallels (Duke Fame = Marc Bolan), but you get the idea. There’s a lot more to Spın̈al Tap than foil-wrapped cucumbers.
The character n̈, called the n-diaeresis or n-umlaut, doesn’t have it’s own Unicode code point (although it does have its own Wikipedia page, in which Spın̈al Tap features prominently). The way to get it is through the combining character for the umlaut itself, U+0308. Since 308 in hex translates to 776 in decimal, we can generate the combining umlaut with
n̈= n̈. This works in both HTML and Markdown. (I’m using a dotless i, ı, just before the n̈ because it keeps the middle of the word from being overcrowded with dots and because that’s what the band’s logo uses.) ↩
I haven’t read Ben’s work, which seems to be largely political. Given that he’s affiliated with the Heartland Institute, I suspect his writings would infuriate me, but that shouldn’t affect his views on pop culture. ↩
How wonderful is the internet? When I was young, I’d read about this Troggs tape but never got a chance to hear it. Now I can type “Troggs fuck yelling” into my browser and Google’s first hit led me to this clip. Quite exciting, this computer magic! ↩