Get three or more musicians together, and I'll bet inside of 10 minutes somebody will drop a This is Spinal Tap quote. As Caddyshack is to golfing, The Big Lebowski is to bowling, and GoodFellas is to chopping up a body and burying it in the woods with your crime crew, This Is Spinal Tap is rock's movie quote motherlode. It provides a bounty of iconic lines and catch phrases, some of which have surpassed the rock idiom to take a place in our everyday lexicon.
I wanted to find out what would happen if I gathered a living room full of local rockers to watch this 30-year old mockumentary—or, if you will, "rockumentary." I wanted to capture the sights, the smells and, yes, the opinions of a bunch of hard-working rockers as we took in the movie together.
And just to make sure this event went to 11, I asked the drummer of Spinal Tap, Missoula's own Ric Parnell, to join us.
The results were somewhat surprising.
The participants were as follows:
Chris La Tray: local author, bass player for American Falcon.
Randy Pepprock: song writer and guitarist for Letters To Luci, ex-bandmate of Duff McKagan.
Andrea Harsell: mainstay singer/guitarist on Missoula's rock scene, owner of leather pants.
Andy Smetanka: filmmaker, Humpy guitarist, multiple threat.
Ann Szalda-Petree: singer/songwriter, co-host of "The Ann and Teresa and Ann Show" on KBGA, demolitions expert.
And of course, Parnell: drummer extraordinaire who played Mick Shrimpton in the movie.
We gathered at my house a few weeks ago and I loaded the Special Edition DVD into the player. Being that we were mostly—ahem—veteran rockers, and watching the movie in a family household, the most illicit substance being passed around was a giant bowl of hot buttered popcorn. An ice chest of PBR squatted nearby.
Harsell was the group's lone Spinal Tap virgin, having never seen the movie. "I felt like I have. It's my dad's favorite," she says. "I didn't realize I haven't actually seen it. It all looks so familiar."
"So you haven't seen it out of youthful rebellion?" asks Smetanka.
"I saw it the day it came out," says Pepprock, who also played in the Missoula band Shangri-La Speedway in the '90s. He was at the Spinal Tap concert they filmed after the movie came out. "See that big head?" He points to the giant demon skull prop being carried to the stage in the opening scene. "After that show in Seattle (the stage crew) said, 'You can have this skull but you have to take it today.' We had a Volkswagen bus, and there's no way we could fit it in. It's probably in some Hall of Fame somewhere now."
La Tray, a dyed-in-the-wool hard rock purist and volume enthusiast, first saw the movie when it became available on VHS. He hated it.
"We didn't know who these actors were, outside of Rob Reiner (Tap's director, named Marti DiBergi in the movie). To us, this was a bunch of Hollywood assholes making fun of the music that at that time was the most important thing in the world to us."
Having just moved with a few friends to Seattle to "make it big" as rock stars, La Tray and his buddies were pretty insulted by the movie's over-the-top caricatures of the metal genre.
"So much of what they were lampooning hit pretty close to the heart of a group of guys who wanted to make it in the more epic varieties of metal," he says.
And the whole "this one goes to 11," which has become far and away the most popular phrase from the movie, particularly irks La Tray.
"This is something that rolls out of the mouths of people who can't stand the thunder of a 50-watt tube amp turned beyond two, let alone the ass-puckering a 100-watter will deliver," he says.
This was the first time La Tray had seen the movie in decades, and he still is not a fan. "I've never liked joke rock or humor in my music."
This Is Spinal Tap is one long joke, of course, and according to Parnell, it was all ad-libbed.
"The entire fucking movie," he claims. "Rob Reiner shot over 90 hours of usable footage. The whole movie was improv except for one scene."
That scene happens to be Ann Szalda-Petree's favorite.
As we watch, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) plays an intricate composition he's been "fooling around with" on the piano while a bemused Reiner looks on. Szalda-Petree collapses in a heap of giggles on the couch before the dialogue even starts. Tufnel plays a delicate figure in D minor, "the saddest of all keys." Reiner asks him if he has a title for the piece, and Tufnel says it's called "Lick My Love Pump."
Szalda-Petree convulses with laughter and gasps for air. "I can't stand it!" She's a quick-witted comedian with excellent timing, and this kind of subtle-but-slapstick humor is her stock in trade. Her own songs are so cockeyed and funny, it's no surprise to me that she would be enamored of a movie so packed with spontaneous gags.
Parnell mentions that, besides the Seattle concert, the entire thing was filmed in LA, and he provides a constant stream of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and unknown details from the film. For example, when an early version of Spinal Tap called the Thamesmen is shown playing "Give Me Some Money," he casually points out that Danny Kortchmar is playing bass.
Say what now? Danny Kortchmar? Don Henley's wingman? Guitarist for the famed West Coast studio posse The Section? That Danny Kortchmar? Get the hell out of here.
"Nice bloke," says Parnell.
The lanky drummer is not the only trivia wellspring in our group. Smetanka pipes up early and often, with observations and knowledge that belie his claim that he hasn't seen the movie that much. He wonders aloud if the DVD includes "Heavy Metal Memories," a fake commercial he remembers from the Special Features of the VHS version.
"Expository dialog!" he calls out, as record company flak Bobbi Flekman (Fran Drescher) describes the artwork on the rejected cover of the band's would-be comeback album Smell The Glove.
Smetanka is shocked to learn that the scene where the band members pay homage at Elvis Presley's grave was shot in LA, not Memphis.
"Wait a second," he says to Parnell. "That's a mock Elvis Presley grave?"
Parnell pauses the DVD and points to the spelling of Presley's middle name on the black stone. "It's supposed to be A-R-O-N" he says. "There's no two A's in it."
Hell, I've been to Graceland. Spent a half hour staring at that grave marker. And I've seen the movie countless times. Never caught that.
Nigel and Derek St. Hubbins mention a jazz/blues festival Tap played at "the Isle of Lucy."
We all laugh. "If you didn't know this was a fake documentary," says Smetanka, "that's one of the few lines that would give it away. It's not as subtle as the other jokes."
Parnell chips in with another tidbit: "There is no Saint Hubbins," referring to the character's namesake, whom he claims is the patron saint of quality footwear. "He supposedly found out later that his name was really Derek Stubbins. He just never fixed it."
Another cultural nugget, the phrase "none more black," (as in, how much more black could it be? None. None more black) comes off the screen. It's my favorite bit in the movie. "I bet there's a hundred bands called None More Black," I say.
"How many hits on Google?" says Smetanka.
"Over a million using that phrase," I venture.
"Two hundred forty thousand," Smetanka counters.
La Tray whips out his iPhone. It takes him less than 10 seconds to find an answer: "368,000."
Smetanka gives me a self-satisfied grin. The man knows his cultural touchstones.
Popcorn flies. PBR flows. Parnell weaves tale after tale from his experience while shooting the movie, including the story of how he got his pal Dave Kaff cast in the role of keyboard madman Viv Savage in order to settle a debt between them.
That, unfortunately, is a story I am not at liberty to repeat here.
Like the best art, This Is Spinal Tap doesn't appeal to everyone. It doesn't even appeal to everyone in this room. But even the most jaded cynic could surely find a satisfying glimmer somewhere in this silly-but-spot-on rock 'n' roll gem.
It's like David St. Hubbins says: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."