The world does not need another album by “Spinal Tap.”
I know how that sounds, like I’m a humorless jerk with a yardstick in his posterior, so let me explain a bit. I like “This Is Spinal Tap” the movie, but I think the periodic resurrection of “Spinal Tap” the band is, ultimately, a slap at metal and metal fans.
There’s a big difference between “Spinal Tap” the movie and the band.
“This Is Spinal Tap” is a very funny 25 year-old “mockumentary” about a fictional metal band’s disastrous tour across America. Just like everyone else, I nearly I broke ribs laughing the first time I saw that movie – and I still laugh myself silly every time I watch the “Stonehenge” sequence.
Part of the humor of the movie was that band members David St. Hubbins (actor Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christoper Guest) and Derrick Smalls (Harry Shearer) were astoundingly dumb. Well, stupid characters often make for entertaining movies … but as “This Is Spinal Tap” gained popular success, something strange happened – People bought into the fiction that metal bands (and fans) were brainless dunderheads, unable to think beyond the next beer, chick or party. That stereotype has been haunting us ever since.
Granted, it’s a stereotype that has some basis in fact. The “hair metal” bands of the ’80s engaged in legendary stupidity, by creating incredibly trite music and by behaving like buffoons offstage and before the press. People who have had no other contact with metal than “Spinal Tap” and, say, Motley Crüe or Poison, can’t really be blamed for thinking metal is “unsophisticated music for unsophisticated people.”
But in the last decade or so, after the eternal night that was “nü-metal” – a horrible subgenre every bit as contrived and vapid as hair metal was at its height – metal has made an unexpected but welcome comeback. Newer bands like Mastodon, Opeth, Trivium, Machine Head and Enslaved had made critical and commercial breakthroughs, while veterans such as Iron Maiden, Exodus, Metallica and even Black Sabbath (under the moniker “Heaven & Hell”) have been reborn with powerful new albums and hugely popular tours. With both the newer bands and the genre icons, the emphasis is on musicianship, songwriting and performance.
Even metal meant to be funny is being created by highly competent professionals. Devin Townsend’s “Ziltoid The Omniscient” is lyrically ridiculous, but no one can doubt Townsend’s musical prowess and love for metal. Zimmer’s Hole is hysterical but damn serious when it comes to music. Even Brendon Small, the creator of the loony celebrity/metal spoof “Metalocalypse,” is a classically trained guitarist and a perfectionist when it comes to getting the music right – even when working on songs like “Briefcase Full of Guts” or “Murmaider.”
But now, in the face of all that serious musicianship, we have a resurgence of “Spinal Tap,” indeed “back from the dead” (which is the title of the new “Tap” album) to portray us all as idiots … again. Naturally, they’re also issuing press releases as Spinal Tap, complete with thoroughly idiotic statements. Because, after all, we all know metal bands and fans can’t think coherently.
This isn’t the first time McKean, Guest and Shearer have resurrected “Spinal Tap”: The “band” released “Break Like The Wind” in 1992 and did a tour as Tap then.
I realize I’m being too serious … but I do have a beef when people outside metal want to have a joke and make a buck at our expense.
You might think I also have a gripe against “Metalocalypse,” which also skewers metal. But no: While Small’s characters are portrayed as being selfish and more than a little dim, it’s evident from both the music and the metal inside jokes (Dimmu Burger, anyone?) that Small has an encyclopedic knowledge, and a heartfelt love, for metal. Small – along with Devin Townsend and Zimmer’s Hole and S.O.D. – have fun with metal, but their jesting is rooted in their respect for the genre and the people who support it.
“Metalocalypse” is a joke – but it’s a joke told by metal fans, for metal fans. It laughs at us, but that’s OK, but it is us. “Spinal Tap,” however, just laughs at us, and that’s crap … and it’s not based in fact.
There are countless metal musicians that are classically trained or creatively brilliant. Metal fans aren’t unsophisticated either. We don’t conform to any one stereotype. No one would assume all classical music lovers are effete snobs, or that all county music fans are shoeless hicks.
But with every note of music or word spewed, Spinal Tap paints all metal fans with the “stupid” brush. You don’t have to look far to see how the Spinal Tap stereotype is still stinging metal today. I’ll show you: Spend a few minutes reading reviews of the documentary “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” and see how many times professional reviewers fall back on comparing the movie to “Spinal Tap.” I’m sure the members of Anvil, who have spent their lives pursuing their dream and making music, enjoy having their careers reduced to a lazy punch line.
People who buy into the Spinal-stereotype fail to understand that metal is not just entertainment for fans, it’s practically life changing. In the documentary “Iron Maiden: Flight 666,” there’s a moment after a South American concert where the camera focuses on a shirtless man crying in the audience. When the camera adjusts slightly, another crying person comes into view – than another. For fans like that, metal is something akin to religion.
I don’t expect, and I’m not asking, that the actors behind Spinal Tap respect metal … but I’d like very much if they’d stop trying to cash in by portraying it as a gag.
At the risk of showing myself to be unsophisticated, I wish “Tap” would just shut up.