This article originally ran in the July issue of BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH. Pick up a copy at your local Alamo Drafthouse theater or check out the pdf version.
The story goes that the first time Eddie Van Halen watched This Is Spinal Tap he didn’t laugh. He didn’t understand why everybody else in the theater was laughing, either. What he saw on screen was a pretty fair representation of life on tour for a hard rock band. Sometimes it’s tough to get the joke when you are the joke.
Eddie isn’t the only rocker to look at This Is Spinal Tap and think they’re looking into a mirror. Members of the band Foghat said that screenwriting team - Tap members Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and director Rob Reiner - must have been listening in to their private conversations, since all the stuff about David St. Hubbins’ girlfriend trying to guide the band’s tour by astrology was lifted directly from their lives.
Here then are nine This Is Spinal Tap jokes that are heavily influenced by the real-world ridiculousness of rock n’ roll… and two that weirdly came true.
Yes, this list goes to 11.
“Hello Cleveland” - Perhaps the most iconic moment in This Is Spinal Tap sees the band trying to get from the green room to the stage and becoming hopelessly lost in the bowels of the stadium. This gag comes from not one but two real life incidents. In the seminal rock doc Don't Look Back. Bob Dylan is trying to get out of the backstage area after a concert in Manchester and just can’t find the exit. “Where’s the door?” young Bob asks, exasperated.
But more directly the joke comes from a tape of a Tom Petty concert in Germany. Petty and his band, profoundly stoned, leave the stage and try to get back to the dressing rooms; when they open a door onto an indoor tennis court they all stand there stunned for a moment.
Marty DiBergi - The entire character of Marty DiBergi, the director of the documentary that is This Is Spinal Tap, is a joke on Martin Scorsese in the film The Last Waltz, a document of the last performance by The Band. Scorsese, like DiBergi, is a big fan of the band, and he inserts himself into plenty of the on-camera interviews. He also gets lots of rambling, strange answers that would fit right in the mouths of the members of Spinal Tap. At one point Robbie Robertson tells Scorsese that The Band’s journey "took us everywhere. It took us to some strange places... physically, spiritually and psychotically."
Miniature Bread - Nigel Tufnel has a breakdown backstage when the catering isn’t up to his requirements (the bread in particular is too small for him). He’s actually pretty reasonable compared to some of the true rock stories of backstage mayhem caused by riders not being met. A rider is the list of demands that a band includes in their contract, and Van Halen famously demanded bowls of M&Ms… with the brown candies picked out. When they got to the dressing room before a Pueblo Colorado show and found a brown M&M in that bowl they proceeded to trash the place, causing thousands of dollars in damage. Or so the story goes; the band would later say it was all blown out of proportion.
Derek Smalls In The Pod - When performing Rock n’ Roll Creation Spinal Tap emerges onto stage from hydraulically controlled pods… except for bassist Derek Smalls, who becomes trapped inside of his. As the band plays on the roadies desperately try to extricate him from his plastic prison. This actually happened to Yes drummer Alan White in 1974 while the band was on the Tales of Topographic Oceans tour. White would play inside a giant seashell that would open to reveal him… except the one time it didn’t. Because the shell had limited air supply roadies pumped in oxygen while attacking the hinges with fire axes. White kept playing.
This ridiculous moment would come true AGAIN in 1997, when U2 would get trapped inside a giant lemon on their Popmart tour in Oslo. They climbed out an emergency hatch in the back - it seems some lessons were learned over the years.
Death By Vomit - Spinal Tap has gone through many drummers (32 up to the release of the film, who knows how many since), and one of them, Eric ‘Stumpy Joe’ Chiles, choked to death on vomit. Whose vomit we don’t know since, as Nigel Tufnel notes, you can’t dust for vomit.
That terrible death places Stumpy Joe in a pantheon of rock greats who have asphyxiated on their own vomitus. Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Bon Scott, original singer for AC/DC all went in this most disgusting way. And it isn’t just rockers who regurgitated themselves to death - big band leader Tommy Dorsey led the way back in 1956.
Smell The Glove - Spinal Tap’s original cover for their album Smell The Glove gets nixed after record company rep Bobbi Fleckman describes it as depicting "a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash, and a man's arm extended out...holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it." When she says the image is sexist Nigel Tufnel responds, “What’s wrong with being sexy?”
The funniest thing about Smell The Glove’s cover is that it’s not even as offensive as the real album cover on which it’s based. Lovehunter, released in 1979, was the second album from Whitesnake and the cover depicts a fully naked woman straddling a giant snake, head raised in ecstasy. Supposedly the uproar over the cover made the painter, fantasy artist Chris Achilleos, quit doing album covers for decades.
One Handed Bass Playing - Derek Smalls’ signature move is playing his bass with one hand so that he can pump the other while displaying the devil’s horns. It’s a totally ridiculous way to play… and it’s based on reality. Harry Shearer toured a bit with the heavy metal band Saxon while prepping for the movie, and he based that particular move on original Saxon bassist Steve Dawson. His mutton chops, though, seem to be all Lemmy Kilmister.
Rainbow Trout Studio Fight - When the band gets into Rainbow Trout Studio to record a new song tensions run high and the whole thing devolves into a swear-filled argument. Sure, this has probably happened to a lot of acts, but only one had their f-bombed breakdown recorded and passed out in the underground.
The Troggs may have had a hit with Love Is All Around, but there wasn’t much love in the session captured on the infamous “Troggs Tapes.” In 1970 the band, which had become massive with Wild Thing, was on the wane, and they took to fighting in the studio. An engineer leaked a tape of one of the fights and it spread like wildfire - back in the days when such things had to be handed from person to person. The tapes include highlights such as
But it fucking well won't be unless we spend a little bit of fucking thought and imagination to fucking make it a fucking number one. You gotta put a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard, you know…..
So, this is what is been going fucking wrong. You've gotta have a fucking bloke that says, "I've got a fucking sound in here that's fucking great! Come in here and have a fucking listen to it. And you come in here and it's probably a different fucking tune, nearly. But if it's fuckinggood? Yeah, that's it. But when we go through that door, we think, oh fuck, no. You know?
I fucking can and I'm the cunt that's playing it so when I'm fucking hearing it in my fucking head, yeah, that's what I gotta fucking do. Then I'll do it! You big pranny.
Ahh, how the British use the Queen’s English so beautifully.
Airbase Gig - As Spinal Tap continues their tour the gigs get dodgier and dodgier, and at one point they end up playing at an Air Force Base, where their equipment picks up the air traffic control tower chatter. One of the bands that heavily influenced Tap, Uriah Heep, actually did play at an Air Force Base, although it’s not clear if they had that same interference.
How close is the Tap/Uriah Heep connection? Christopher Guest heard about playing the airbase when Uriah Heep keyboard player John Sinclair came aboard to provide keys on the This Is Spinal Tap album.
Those are the jokes that were based on real life rock antics. This Is Spinal Tap has since become almost a handbook for rockers, with “That’s so Tap” being a common utterance on tour. Some famous This Is Spinal Tap jokes actually came true after the movie was released - one tragically, one hilariously.
A Bizarre Gardening Accident - John ‘Stumpy’ Pepys is one of Spinal Tap’s many dead drummers; his cause of death was a ‘bizarre gardening accident.’ “The authorities said best leave it unsolved,” Nigel Tufnel explains.
In 1992 that odd rock star death actually came true as Toto’s drummer (!) Jeff Porcaro died in… a gardening accident. The drummer, whose heart had problems from years of cocaine abuse, died after inhaling insecticide in his Los Angeles garden.
Stonehenge - When the band decides they want to have Stonehenge onstage while they play their prog rock epic of the same name, they hand off a quickly sketched design that marks the stones in inches, not feet. The result, as David St. Hubbins notes, is “a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”
On their Born Again tour Black Sabbath also had a problem with a Stonehenge prop - except that their prop, built life size, ended up being too big to actually fit inside any of the venues where they were playing. Many people have assumed that the joke in This Is Spinal Tap was a riff on Sabbath’s poor prop planning, but the truth is that the Stonehenge bit was in a 1982 proof-of-concept short the team made - which means that Black Sabbath brought the Spinal Tap joke to life.