(Directed by Rob Reiner, 1984) (Special Screening at the Mercury Theatre featuring a Q & A with Harry Shearer, Adelaide Guitar Festival, 22 July 2022).
Spinal Tap are the blond rock god David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean, who you already know well from Better Call Saul and other offerings), the bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), who longs for St. Hubbins with big wet spaniel eyes. When Nigel learns that David’s girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick aping Yoko Ono) is flying over from England to join the tour, his heart sinks. His crush on David is obvious to everyone except, of course, David. The two front men get most of the glory, while the drummer Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell) supplies percussion on borrowed time: Previous Spinal Tap drummers have had an alarming mortality rate. One spontaneously combusted, and another choked to death on vomit (“but not his own vomit”). As Smalls observes, “You can’t really dust for vomit.”
Support for the band on their U.S. tour is patchy, causing their manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra, a slightly less competent and more volatile version of Michael Kitchen’s character in Brian Pern: A Life in Rock) to release tension at crucial moments by smashing TV sets with his trusty cricket bat. Bobby Flekman (Fran Drescher) is a record company publicist trying to explain without really explaining why the band’s new album, “Smell the Glove,” is not in stores. Artie Fufkin, the advance man, fails to provide a single fan for an autographing. The upbeat Lt. Hookstratten (Fred Willard), is in charge of their last U.S. concert, an officers’ dance in the airplane hanger of a military base (the crowd is expecting 60/40; they get heavy metal cranked up to 11). We learn that Tap bandmembers are not stupider than most rock ‘n’ rollers, although most of the latter – unlike Nigel – know how to prepare a sandwich.
Rob Reiner is an inspired filmmaker, and here he plays a less than inspired filmmaker, Marty Di Bergi, who can’t cross his arms properly, speak coherently to camera or touch any of Nigel’s guitars. Reiner has brilliantly distilled the overblown muddle of ‘rocumentaries’: for example, the disintegration of the tour is explained offhandedly, in asides (after the Boston concert is canceled: “It isn’t a college town”). But he has also captured the joy of the life, and the improvisation by the cast adds to an authentic air of amateurish spontaneity. The three main band members are sensational, and a hefty cast of characters in support make this film richly entertaining, both funny and funny-sad (just like rock and / or roll).
The Road of Rock is a rocky road, and no one’s life exemplifies that more thoroughly than that of Derek Albion Smalls who celebrates his 75th birthday with a hoped-to-be triumphant return to at least one of the echelons of the rock firmament. Derek was born 1 April 1941, having to endure growing up as an “April Fool’s baby”. His father, Donald “Duff” Smalls, raised Derek after his mother, Dorothy, left home to join a traveling all-girls’ jazz band, The Hotten Totties. While Derek had a quiet school career in his hometown of Nilford, on the River Null in the West Midlands, Duff carried on his work as a telephone handset sanitiser, working for the pioneering firm in the trade, Sani-Phone, until it was absorbed by the former British Telecom, primarily, according to reports at the time, for its “robust bill-collecting operation”.
At age 17, Derek enrolled in the London School of Design, primarily, as he later explained it, “because of the initials”. Like many art-school students of the period, he was more interested in music, and soon found himself a member of the all-white Jamaican band Skaface. “I never even tried to play the guitar, because it had too many strings and they were too small. Bass felt just right,” he told Ska News.
Walking one day in 1967 through the then tatty Soho district of London, Derek spotted a “bass player wanted” notice on one of the neighbourhood’s lampposts. It turns out Ronnie Pudding had just left the band Spinal Tap for a solo career when their first single, “Gimme Some Money” failed to chart. Derek fitted right in and made a notable contribution to the band’s jump on the Flower Power bandwagon, mouthing a silent “We love you” at the end of its performance of (Listen to) The Flower People on the short lived TV music show, Bob’s Your Uncle.
Tap then went on to carve a reputation as one of England’s loudest bands. Its series of mishaps—breakups and reunions, drummers perishing in bizarre ways—was chronicled in a 1984 film. “A hatchet job”, Derek calls it dismissively. “There were plenty of nights when we found our way to the stage, but of course they didn’t show you that.” In the late 1980s, as Tap’s fortunes waned, Derek joined a Christian heavy-metal band, Lambsblood.
Their best-known song, Whole Lotta Lord, made a respectable showing on the Christian charts. To cement his relationship with the band members, all of whom were Americans, Smalls got a Christian fish tattoo.
As luck would have it, Tap soon reunited for the 1992 Break Like the Wind album and toured across America. Concerned that he would have to cover up the tattoo, Derek hired an artist to fix it, and the piece now featured a devil eating the fish. Following that tour, Tap broke up and reunited twice more, once in 2000 for an American tour that included a historic New York venue that Derek described, onstage, as “Carnegie Fuckin Hall” and in
2009 for appearances at the Glastonbury Festival and Wembley Arena. In between, Derek cultivated a near-thriving career on camera, building upon his cameo role in the 1979 Spaghetti Eastern – Roma ’79. He appeared in TV commercials for the Belgian snack food Floop and served for a time as a judge (alongside the lead singer for the Europunk band Hot Garage) on the Dutch reality-competition show RokStarz, before the show was rebooted as Tomorrow’s Hiphop Heroez.
Derek stepped forward as a composer during this time; his jingle for Floop, I’m in the Floop Group, was a regular earworm on European television until the publisher of The In Crowd threatened a plagiarism
lawsuit. Derek’s fortunes have fluctuated with his romantic entanglements. His long-time girlfriend Cindy Stang went through a good share of his back royalties to launch her ill- fated tech start-up, macrame.com. Of
that project, Smalls now says ruefully, “It was ahead of its time. Or behind the curve. Or both”. He’s also had his share of personal struggles, having twice sought treatment for internet addiction. Smalls’ return to music, and composing, came courtesy of a grant from the British Fund for Ageing Rockers. As he prepares to re-enter the spotlight for the first time, Derek tips his hat to the government grantors: “At least austerity was good for something,” he says.
Mr. Harry Shearer is a versatile and kindly man. He waved away the chance of a 16 hour flight from California to Adelaide to appear at the Festival (this and other events) as his wife had contracted Covid, and he wanted to stay at home and care for her. He also undertook to rise at about 4 in the morning to appear on Skype and field questions from an appreciative audience. The Varnished Culture suppressed its inner smart-alec and decided not to ask Mr. Shearer about Teddy Bears’ Picnic (2002) and instead asked who was his favourite bass player. Actually we asked who was his favourite left-handed megalomaniac bass player but we think that was lost in transmission. We leave it to you to decide: the answer was Paul McCartney. Shearer has done it all, and is surely now as deservedly well-known by face as well as voice.[*Thanks to the Adelaide Guitar Festival for some of the copy above.]