Despite a doggedly long life span and a celebrated cult documentary of their 1982 tour, Spinal Tap don’t rate an entry in the encyclopedic All Music Guide to Rock, and even during their mid-’80s heyday, they were treated as a behind-the-curve novelty act, hardly worthy of a mythologizing film. And perhaps for good reason: The Gospel According to Spinal Tap literalized the psychedelic voodoo of Their Satanic Majesties Request some 15 years after the fact, while the prog-rock bombast of their early-’80s material retreaded Tales From Topographic Oceans-era Yes.
Yet this week’s rerelease of Marty DiBergi’s historiography This Is Spinal Tap begs the question: Did the lads from Squatney trail the zeitgeist at every turn, or were cobandleaders David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel simply in touch with their past and ahead of their time? Their biggest hit, “Hell Hole,” got a distaff spin on the title track to Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, “Big Bottom” fathered “Baby Got Back,” and Creed owes a few rosaries to the grind and crunch of “Rock and Roll Creation.” When Belle and Sebastian curiously name an electro-jangle instrumental “Judy Is a Dick Slap,” they invoke the tongue-in-cheek spirit of Tap’s D-minor piano weeper “Lick My Love Pump.” Most notably, Tap’s “Stonehenge”-era output sparked much of mid-’90s alt-rock. (At the time, however, this experimental period provoked vicious music-press thrashings, especially following an infamous onstage fiasco—captured in DiBergi’s film—involving a midget and an 18-inch scale model of a Stonehenge monolith.) The inimitable lyrical textures (“Where the dewdrops cry and the cats meow/I will take you there/I will show you how”) help account for cracked-romanticist poets like Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, while the operatic grandeur and D&D intrigue spurred Smashing Pumpkins from Mellon Collie onward.
DiBergi’s own work is similarly ripe for revision. The priapic focus of the concert footage does recall the Plant-stem fetish of much Led Zep mise-en-scène, the vérité voyeurism nods to Don’t Look Back, and the rudderless melancholy of the road was more elegantly recorded in The Last Waltz. But DiBergi’s melding of archival stock, candid Q&A, and road-diary montage in turn drew the blueprint for VH-1’s ubiquitous Behind the Music. His occasional, restrained self-insertions into the doc (mostly during interview segments) seem an honest—and novel—concession to the unavoidably subjective collusion of documentarian with subject.
But This Is Spinal Tap doesn’t pull punches either. St. Hubbins and Tufnel have irrational rows, abuse hotel clerks, and fall apart during performances, and choice editing provides telling juxtapositions. After bassist Derek Smalls sheepishly pulls a groin-enhancing cucumber out of his trousers at an airport security check, DiBergi switches to stage footage of “Heavy Duty”—a confessional song imbued with sexual anxiety, in which stoic rock devotion supplants the torments of romantic love: “I don’t need a woman, I won’t take me a wife/I got the rock and roll and that’ll be my life.” DiBergi recognized that Spinal Tap’s pathologies (more crudely expressed in tracks like “Sex Farm” or their later “Bitch School”) doubled as their emotional strength. They were never afraid to sound vulnerable, to channel the fear and pain of sexual inadequacy or rejection into the noise and rage of their misunderstood music. To paraphrase David St. Hubbins, heavy-duty brought out the doodie in their soul.