For Nigel Tufnel Day, A Serious Consideration Of The Music Of Spinal Tap
As you may know, November 11, 2011 — 11/11/11 — is "Nigel Tufnel Day," in honor of the amplifiers that "go to 11," introduced by Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) in the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap. In honor of Nigel's very special day, contributors Elizabeth Nelson and Timothy Bracy examine a piece of pop-culture iconography.
Some are reluctant to say it, or perhaps too blinkered and myopic to even acknowledge it, but the inextricable reality is that the history of rock and roll is a bell curve. It begins in the late '50s with Chuck Berry and the Sun Sessions, rises gradually throughout the British Invasion, Psychedelic, the birth of metal and punk, the flowering and waning of the New Romantic movements and then, around 1984, begins a slow trending down, until we get to where we are now, that sad and fallow place in which it is as if rock and roll had never existed, or perhaps should never have been allowed to.
There are great artists and great moments on both sides of this graph, working diligently to this day, attempting to pump some breath back into the lifeless cadaver. That effort is worthy of admiration, but almost certainly doomed (this could be understood as meta-narrative for the Lou Reed-Metallica incident). Anyway, given this trajectory, it is especially interesting to note the absolute apex of rock and roll, the top of the graph as it were, the greatest rock and roll record ever made: 1984's soundtrack for the movie This Is Spinal Tap.
Now some will take this statement as ridiculous simply because Spinal Tap is not a "real band." Well, perhaps that is true, but only in the sense that pro wrestling, featuring a host of the finest athletes performing the most extraordinary feats of strength and courage, is not a real "sport." Yes, Spinal Tap is a group of actors playing characters. If that were a disqualifying factor, how then to explain Robert Zimmerman playing "Bob Dylan," John Graham Mellor playing "Joe Strummer," or the guy from Animal Collective playing "Panda Bear"? Rock and roll has always been a costume drama, a comedy, and more then occasionally a minstrel show. The "realness" of a given band could not be a more ludicrous criterion for taking their measure.
That is not to say that the music of Spinal Tap is not ludicrous. Let's not kid ourselves: this is a very silly set of songs. It is not more silly than any given Queen album, or, say, Tommy, but still it is definitely asinine. It is also a brilliant synthesis of rock music tropes, one that manages the astounding trick of lampooning, elucidating and embroidering upon its keystone inspirations, while including comedic payoff after payoff. But enough of my yakking! Let's take a look at This Is Spinal Tap, track for track.
Track 1: "Hell Hole." Setting the table is the "Mo Money Mo Problems"-esque anthem "Hell Hole," the story of a would-be aspirant who, having happened upon a garish life, finds the existence of steak and lobster tails more complicated than his hardscrabble roots. The song's narrator could be an Occupy Wall Street natural! Settling for a fair deal over rock and roll's most grotesque excesses just might be the inroads to the good life.
Track 2: "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight." Is this the greatest rock song ever written? This is a song that lives up to the promises it makes. Sometimes the trappings of fame and fortune and arbitrary laws against young love can't keep two people from realizing their connection. And for one moment, this union can be achieved with a killer riff and a guitar solo that jumps right up the neck and over the prison walls, never to be heard from again. This song also contains the great Oscar Wilde via Lemmy epigram: "Not a dry seat in the house." Rock and roll is ephemeral, from the fickle dictates of industry bean counters to the one-night-only bookings at Sun City. You really can't think about these things too deeply: all we have is tonight.
Track 3: "Heavy Duty." I actually had forgotten that this WASN'T a KISS song. No more needs be said.
Track 4: "Rock And Roll Creation." This brilliant track rationally posits the creation of the Universe and the invention of rock and roll as a single discrete phenomenon. The lyrics constitute a veritably Kantian rationale for the existence of a just and benign god. Obviously, upon hearing this, it seems absolutely inarguable that rock and roll was the "ultimate big bang." And, yes, it is also probably true that prior to the "Rock And Roll Creation," Yin WAS searching for his Yang.
Track 5: "America." What astounds me about this song is two things: 1. In this post-9/11 world, how such an inspirational track hasn't replaced the Star-Spangled Banner; and 2) How, in a pre-9/11 world, this song didn't replace the Star-Spangled Banner. It is both prophetic and timeless.
Track 6: "Cups And Cakes." The only song you ever really wished HAD been on the Kinks' Village Green Society. Instead of some of the other ones. "Cups and Cakes" is two minutes of British parlor life, which ends with a stomachache. The perfect lead-in to...
Track 7: "Big Bottom." Three men. Three bass guitars. One concern. This passionate testimony to the providence of a large behind in one's love life is vouchsafed within the first revolting and delightful couplet: "The bigger the cushion/ the sweeter the pushing." In case you didn't hear that right, lead singer David St. Hubbins immediately verifies, "That's what I said." And the deep, rumbling, possibly felony-worthy lowdown register carries on without shame.
Track 8: "Sex Farm." A slow blues reimagining of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" as it might have played out on the set of a particularly transgressive 70's porno. No, it's not a 'protest' song per se — the sex farm day laborers seem relatively content with 'plowing down the bean fields' — but the sense of unimagined fatigue is palpable. Working on a sex farm is no easy business. If such a thing had existed at this time, or ever, this would no doubt have drawn comment from the "Daily Worker." And it would have been the hottest issue ever.
Track 9: "Stonehenge." Arguably the most ambitious of all Spinal Tap songs, "Stonehenge" is a mesmerizing travelogue that takes the listener on an historic, mystical journey. By the band's lights, Stonehenge — it transpires — is a place where virgins party, demons dwell and banshees live. And they do live well. Few reputable geoscientists have gone on record verifying that this ancient monument was actually the scene of a prurient thousand-year bacchanal. But we ACCEPT Spinal Tap's version of the truth, because it is persuasively iterated and far more exciting then the alternative: "And oh how they danced, the little people of Stonehenge..."
Track 10: "Gimme Some Money." This splendid early Who-style number asks no quarter and... Well, actually it asks some quarter. For that matter, it vigorously solicits any form of lucre no matter how questionable its provenance. What this song lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in prescience. Its chorus asserts an evergreen truism that has never been truer than today. Whether we're talking about the degeneration of the euro or our own market economy, we're all looking for "pound notes, loose change, bad checks, anything."
Track 11: "(Listen To The) Flower People." Did any previous work anticipate the East versus West rap wars of the '90s as clearly as the peace and love chestnut "(Listen To The) Flower People?" Sitars juxtaposed with lengthy strains of Mozart. No one wins, and yet everyone does.