For a band with such a long tenure in music history, the public profile of Spinal Tap is a strange one. They straddle the major eras of rock music like a huge Viking warrior straddling a ….er……. Viking wench, I suppose….. and a huge Viking wench at that……… but they go mostly unacknowledged. When the discussion turns to the greatest bands of the last forty years, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are always mentioned whilst the Tap are overlooked. Cruel.
You’ll remember how they started out in the Sixties in the now almost forgotten London borough of Squatney as the Originals. A name dispute led to them being renamed The New Originals. As they tried to tap in to the Merseybeat boom and overcome coming from the wrong town, they became “The Thamesmen”. Eventually as flower power spread to the British shores, they changed their name to Spinal Tap, once again just a little behind the wave of history. After this they became one of the bands at the forefront of the Original Wave of British Heavy Metal, as it is almost never referred to.
Despite all this activity, it is almost impossible to find in the stores, on ebay or on various collectors websites any of their albums prior to 1984. 1984 is a year that will live in every Tap fan’s mind as a date of infamy. This is not because it is the date that George Orwell chose for his apocalyptic vision of Britain’s future – not many Tap fans are that well read. But rather because it is the date that Marty DiBergi chose to film his infamous Rockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, a film which since its release has haunted the band and which they have found hard to live down.
It is ironic then that because of the curious and continuing unavailability of any of their albums prior to their period with Polymer records, they are left not to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the collapse of the New Originals or some imaginative early highpoint in the musical synthesis of two of the band’s principals, Nigel Tufnel and David St Hubbins, but rather the twenty-fifth anniversary of the movie. An ill run of fate indeed.
Even their great album of that year “Smell the Glove” seems to have been renamed “This is Spinal Tap” and re-released on Polydor records as the film’s soundtrack. Oh, the irony.
Spinal Tap hate the film with a venom, of course. Try not to mention to them the name of their former manager, Ian Faith, who led them into the debacle and allowed cameras on tour. Avoid reference to Jeanine Pettibone (later Jeanine Pettibone-St. Hubbins according to some sources)- the New Age wanderings of that lady is something that David still finds hard to live down. The trappings of the film that led to their ridicule have been cast aside. There will be no “pods” on stage in future performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Creation”. Foam models of Stonehenge’s triptychs have been eschewed in favour of more reliable inflatable versions.
Unfortunately, Spinal Tap’s bad luck is not able to be isolated to the period of the film. Nor is it entirely in the past – their long history of past bad luck (if that is the word) is perhaps best located in the long list of drummers who have lost their lives in service of the band. Who can forget John "Stumpy" Pepys (bizarre gardening accident), Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs (choked on someone else’s vomit), Peter “James” Bond (spontaneously combusted), Mick Shrimpton (exploded on stage) or Joe “Mama” Besser (disappeared in mysterious circumstances)? Many have. No, the run of ill luck has followed them to this date. The enthusiasm for their “Unstoppable” World Tour was sapped when three U.S. actors, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer (sometimes Simpsons voiceover artist) who have apparently a long association with the band, headed out on a tour which featured many of Tap’s songs. As a result the Unstoppable tour was, um, stopped. The band instead played their world tour on one night in one city. Returning to their beloved London, they took over Wembley Arena (only a stones throw from Squatney if you have a good arm and a bad eye) to celebrate the release of the new album “Back From The Dead” even whilst promoters insisted on linking the gig to THAT film. What else could possibly go wrong?
Last time the band made a new album, 1992’s “Break Like The Wind”, Ric Shrimpton (ill-fated brother of ill-fated Mick Shrimpton) (see above on drummers) sat on the stool. Caucasian Jeffrey Vanston was on keyboards. Shrimpton (the younger) has had to pass his stool (not surprisingly) to Gregg Bissonette (for the album) and Skippy Scuffleton (for live performances). Vanston has survived (he is a keyboard player, after all) but prefers to go by simply CJ in these economically-reduced days. More importantly the band’s heart and mainstays, David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls are all present although curiously their names have been omitted from the booklet that accompanies their new album – although their signatures are present. Lack of creativity has been a big problem in the band’s current work – most of the tracks on the new album are outtakes from earlier recording sessions or reworkings of their classic hits. How would they fare in the live arena?
Well, things did not begin well. After a laidback if prematurely concluded set from The Folksmen (themselves victims of a music documentary – “A Mighty Wind” – which made light of bassist Shubb’s sexual reorientation, he prefers to be called Martha these days), – a band who despite their very different musical style seem to spend an awful lot of time with the Tap – if they’re not careful they’ll begin to resemble each other, Spinal Tap were late to the stage. To add to the difficulty a badly placed green room camera was clearly showing that the band were playing video games back stage rather than heading for the stage. Fortunately, the technical team were able to show a video of “Majesty of Rock” to fill the absence. It reminded us that the Majesty of Rock promo clip, was perhaps the cleverest and subtle video ever to be seen on the MTV channel.
When eventually our errant metallers make it to the stage, the entire audience rises to their feet as a man (or as a woman if you prefer, there will be no sexism tonight). The crowd-pleasing “Tonight, I’m gonna rock you tonight” is the opener followed by that hymn to Dog Handling , “Bitch School”. The band are tight and on great form. David St Hubbins in great voice, “Bitch School” brought an excellent solo from Nigel Tufnel. It may seem that Derek Smalls strikes his one fist in the air pose a little too often but to those schooled in Tap, the subtle nuances and meaning of each salute are obvious.
Tufnel changes guitar for the thoughtful “Back From the Dead” which is the title track of the new disc:
“We’re back from the dead
Climbing from the coffin,
We don’t come here often
Or so it is said”
(Guest, Shearer, McKean, Vanston, 2009)
Tap have a way of breathing stale old life into even the most timeworn clichés. It is on this track that Vanston really begins to make his presence felt.
Spinal Tap are a band with a great musical heritage and it would be a waste of an evening to dwell only on the new album (which is after all mainly reworked old songs – there is continuity here). So next they turn to a song from their late sixties debut (which is coincidentally also on the new record in a reggae version) – “(Listen to the) Flower People”. Marvellous harmonies and the spirit of an era captured perfectly.
On the album “Break Like the Wind” the vocal work of Timothy B. Schmit (of the Eagles) and Tommy Funderburk (of Zoe) were featured on the track "Cash on Delivery". No such luminaries are available tonight for the performance of that song but Skippy Scuffleton’s drum intro and a fiery guitar solo from Tufnel raise this above the average.
The age old question of balancing friends and wealth is addressed in the social commentary that is “Hell Hole”. The technical glitch of the early evening doesn’t make the band any more reluctant to revisit “Majesty of Rock” which we have already seen on the video screen, It is only now that we really begin to understand the profundity of this band:
“When we die, do we haunt the sky?
Do we lurk in the murk of the seas?
What then? Are we born again?
Just to sit asking questions like these?
I know, for I told me so,
And I’m sure each of you quite agrees:
The more it stays the same, the less it changes!"
(Smalls, St Hubbins, Tufnel © 1992)
The barber takes a pole, indeed! In half an hour, we have visited the late Sixties, the Eighties, the Nineties, and the new album. But what were Tap before they were Tap? They were The Thamesmen. And it is time for “Gimme Some Money” that band’s first single. Is it not clear where the Beatles found their early sound?
During downtime in Tap’s recording history they have often thought of composing a musical about the life of Jack the Ripper. Finally after 28 years the first song of this important concept is complete. This song will be the title track of the whole musical, if it is ever finished! “Saucy Jack” transports us back to a golden age of variety, music hall and late night murder.
New track, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare" is so vivid an experience that you begin to feel that you’re caught up in a whole evening of such trauma. Surely, they cannot continue at this pace…….?
“Cups And Cakes” is a welcome relaxed moment amongst the lyrical and musical activity, as we take a leisurely walk through an English country teatime, led by Vanston’s keyboards. But the aural assault is only momentary. “Sex Farm” has been transformed, on their new album, into a funk number with a little rap thrown in for good measure. If I hadn’t already mentioned the subtle lyrical imagery in this review now would be a good time to do so.
“Clam Caravan” began life as a Tufnel solo track but again the original recording is difficult (if not impossible) to find. The casual listener can hear the band’s version on “Break like the Wind”. The song was going to be called “Calm Caravan” until a spelling mistake saved it from this trite fate. Tufnel’s didgeridoo solo is a high point which would make Rolf Harris blush.
“All the Way Home” is the first song that Tufnel and St Hubbins ever wrote together and this skiffle-blues deserves to be performed again for that reason only. A young talent which has not yet fully developed can be heard.
The Live Earth concerts a few years ago are well remembered for saving the world and transforming our culture completely. Where would we be without Al Gore? Perhaps more significantly they are to be remembered for the live debut of “Hotter Than Hell” which brought the nightmare of rising temperatures home for the first time to so many. Tonight, in sweat-soaked, summertime, London, it all seems so pertinent.
“Diva Fever” is another tribute to the female on a night which is short on that kind of thing. But the band are not only interested in carnal matters but like to dwell on the spiritual too. Cue Stonehenge, suitably accompanied by an inflatable model of part of the historic site and the obligatory small people that are so associated with the Drudic culture. Unfortunately, the inflatable deflates on top of the tiny people – but no concert can be expected to go ahead without the occasional technical hitch.
Festival culture is commemorated in “Stinkin’ Up the Great Outdoors” before we are reminded what the world was like before we screwed it up with “Rock And Roll Creation” and indeed, it was good.
To the delight of the guy at the front of the stage in the ELP t-shirt, Keith Emerson joined the band for “Short and Sweet”. Never try to upstage these guys again, Mr Emerson, it doesn’t work.
More guests for “Big Bottom” but they knew their place. Justin Hawkins, Andy Scott (from Sweet), Freddie Washington (from the current Steely Dan touring band). Oh and about 30 girls hired to wave their posteriors at the audience. They wind up the set with “Heavy Duty” which aptly summarises the content of tonight’s show.
But there is no stopping a good thing and back they come for an encore of “Break Like the Wind”, rich in atmosphere.
So, Spinal Tap. What can you say? Will anybody ever top them? Will anybody’s legacy so accurately sum up the behemoth that is rock music? Only time will tell, but I doubt it!
Nigel Tufnel – Lead Guitar
David St. Hubbins – lead vocals
Derek Smalls – bass
Andy Scott of the Sweet with Spinal Tap