I finished this post last Wednesday and got it all put together and scheduled yesterday, May 1. Just as I was about to head off to bed I checked my socials one last time and got unfortunate news very much related to my post today.
On May 1st, 2022, long-time drummer Ric Parnell passed away at the age of 70. Parnell was involved in a large variety of projects over his 50-plus year career, including Atomic Rooster and also being the drummer on the hit song Mickey by Toni Basil. But Parnell’s most well-known work would come as one of many to occupy the drum throne of British heavy metal legends Spinal Tap. Parnell played on the soundtrack I’m discussing today and also portrayed drummer Mick Shrimpton in the motion picture. Parnell would outlive his fictional counterpart nearly 40 years.
Condolences to the family and friends of Ric Parnell. Today I’ll do as I originally intended to, which is look at his most celebrated work.
I’m back after a bit of time off. I took some time to acclimate to a new work schedule. That’s pretty well sorted now and I’m ready to get back to business.
This week is the first time I’ll be offering up a movie soundtrack as the AOTW. Of course, this is a bit more than just a soundtrack. It’s not a compilation of songs with a few highlights and a lot of filler like most soundtracks. It’s a full-on offering of songs written for a movie and also performed by the cast. The band is fake but also became very, very real and are one of the rock and metal’s defining legacies despite being conceived to make fun of the scene.
Spinal Tap – This Is Spinal Tap
Released March 2, 1984 via Polydor Records
My Favorite Tracks – Hell Hole, Stonehenge, Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight
It’s not totally unusual for a band to be contracted to record songs for a music-centric movie soundtrack. It is very unusual for the same actors in the movie to be the ones to also record the music. It worked in the case of Spinal Tap, who featured Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, who had already played together for several years and had conceived the Spinal Tap idea for a TV show pilot in the late 70’s. Harry Shearer, who had worked with McKean through the 70’s in another comedy group, joined in along with director Rob Reiner to give life to the Spinal Tap concept. The band was rounded out by some musicians – drummer Ric Parnell (again, RIP) and keyboardist David Kaff. Both Parnell and Kaff would assume roles in the movie as Mick Shrimpton and Viv Savage.
For simplicity and lore’s sake, I will be referring to the band members by their stage names in this discussion.
The original release of the This Is Spinal Tap soundtrack comprises 11 tracks (mostly) from the motion picture. A 2000 reissue offers a bonus track and is available on Spotify (I will not be covering the song today). A 2009 release called Back From The Dead does feature many of the songs in re-recorded form but should not be confused with the movie soundtrack.
Opening the track is a song that was actually released as a single, complete with music video. Hell Hole is a great mid-tempo rock track that outlines the ups and downs of “making it,” then wishing for the simpler pleasures of being a pauper. The grass is always greener on the other side. The song features Nigel Tufnel handling the verse vocals while David St. Hubbins tackles the chorus.
Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight
The song that opens and closes the movie finds its spot as the second track of the record. It’s a splendid rocker that doesn’t seem like it has any business being as good as it is. The guitars, lyrics, keys and rhythm section are firing on all cylinders through this high-octane tune that gets both concert and film crowds going.
A proper heavy metal tune from Spinal Tap, this song goes hard and heavy and is all about the rock. It is totally one of those cliched “rock” songs which is so silly yet so good, something that serves the band and movie doubly well. They just want to make some eardrums bleed, and have accomplished the goal. It does seem to be pure coincidence that this Heavy Duty and Judas Priests’ song of the same name were both released in 1984. One probably couldn’t have taken from the other given the concurrent timelines and the obscurity of Spinal Tap pre-film. It’s certainly fitting but by no means is there any greater link.
Rock N’ Roll Creation
A track that feels NWOBHM-inspired or perhaps a “precursor to power metal” cut. It plays a role in the film when bassist Derek Smalls cannot release from his pod in time and has to hang out inside for most of the performance, only getting out when the others get back in at the end. The song is the genesis of rock and roll so of course it is cannon to me.
One song that did not make it into the movie, America is simply about the awe of a British band discovering the size and scope of America for the first time. The tune begins very slowly, perhaps betraying the actors’ future participation in another mockumentary as a folk outfit. As the song builds it suddenly shifts into a riff that 100% sounds borrowed from the first two Iron Maiden albums. Nothing says America like …, uh, anyway, on to the next song.
Cups And Cakes
This tune got a brief airing in the film on the radio that also put the band in the awkward spot of being in the “where are they now?” file. The song is utterly goofy and doesn’t really move the needle on the soundtrack but was a pivotal piece of the movie.
One of the movie and by proxy album’s signature cuts, the song features both guitarists wielding bass guitars along with usual bassist Derek. It is probably the only time in recorded music history that guitar players actually sought to be bass players.
Big Bottom is a favorite of many from the movie and is a laugh riot through the praise of ample rear ends. It’s probably a pointed shot at the heaps of sleazy love songs populating the 1980’s but it’s a damn good time no matter what it is. The all-out bass assault with Viv’s keyboard embellishments just throw the whole track into overdrive. Big Bottom was the b-side to the Hell Hole single and, looking back, probably should have been the lead feature.
I almost called Cups And Cakes the dumbest song on the album but I quickly held up because that isn’t true. Sex Farm is crude, rude and – well, pretty damn good. Not every good rock song needs to be a thesis statement or a pithy philosophical musing – some great rock songs are about the dumbest shit. The song that saw Spinal Tap rebound from a near-fatal end in the movie also lifts the soundtrack with its dumber than dogshit quips about sex and farms.
While not “long” by any practical measurement, Stonehenge serves as Spinal Tap’s “epic” song. It tells a story and builds from a haunted intro into a full-out rock attack outlining the lives of those Britons who lived at ancient Stonehenge. It’s also one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, a topic I’ll save for a near-future post.
The song has elements of NWOBHM and what would come to be known as power metal. It builds from a quiet, haunting intro and launches into a melodic, rollicking tune that puts historical and fantasy elements on display. The song stands fine on its own but really can’t be separated from one of the movie’s signature events.
Gimme Some Money
This song is an offering from the band’s past before Spinal Tap was christened. The band performed as The Thamesmen in the apparent height of the British Invasion, as this song is absolutely cut from the same cloth as The Beatles, Rolling Stones and the whole 60’s British scene. It’s quite well-done, another one of their works that doesn’t feel like it has a right to be as good as it is. And of course it’s absolutely hilarious.
Also – The Thamesmen is a great name, someone should get that together if it hasn’t been done already.
(Listen To The) Flower People
The final song on the album is also the first offering from the properly-dubbed Spinal Tap, who jumped into the late-60’s psychedelia phase before charting a course for rock n roll. One one hand it’s not my favorite tune of the collection but on the other it’s a pretty well-done effort that does recall the music of the time (though not my most well-versed period of music, admittedly). This one does feel a little too on-the-nose humor-wise where the jokes in the movie and other parts of the soundtrack are allowed to land on their own. But again, still a nice song to round it all out.
This Is Spinal Tap stands on its own in the realm of movie soundtracks. Of course there are iconic soundtracks out there, they were huge especially in the 80’s. But to have the actual actors in the film record their own music and make it work and also fit in to the film is just an unbelievable feat.
The songs work in the movie, of course, but they also stand on their own. Though Spinal Tap’s legacy will always be the now legendary film, the songs have been talked about worldwide and covered by a who’s who of rock greats over the past 38 years. Spinal Tap themselves have toured and recorded again and again since and have become their own part of the institution of rock.
I’ll have a different post on Wednesday but on Friday I’ll do the obvious and discuss the movie This Is Spinal Tap in more detail. For all of the talk about rock and often the 80’s scene that I and others do, so much of it was informed by this off the wall and at the time obscure mockumentary that wound up taking on a life of its own and being its own influence on the life and times of 1980’s rock and metal. But in the wake of that discussion, the music of the film can’t and certainly shouldn’t be ignored.