Such a fine line between stupid and clever

I have a sheepish admission to make.

As a devotee of rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I have been called “a walking encyclopedia” of song lyrics, rock band trivia, chart success of albums and singles, and all manner of unusual anecdotes about rock culture of those years.

But I must confess:  I never got around to seeing the celebrated 1984 rock documentary parody film “This is Spinal Tap” until two days ago.

11976492_1300x1733In rock music circles, my failure to be hip to this movie would be regarded as unforgivable for a rock blog writer.  It has gained its place as an iconic, can’t-be-missed gem that brilliantly satirizes both the rock music business as well as the documentary genre in general.

So anyone who dismisses “This is Spinal Tap” as a silly cult film would be wrong.  True, it took in a rather meager $4.5 million at the box office upon its release.  But this unique and hilarious “rockumentary” has been widely praised by just about everybody who’s seen it (and thanks to video/DVD sales over the years, that number has grown significantly).

Consider this:  “This is Spinal Tap” is ranked #29 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Best Comedies of All Time.”  Entertainment Weekly included it on its “100 Greatest Movies” list, calling it “just too beloved to ignore.”  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% rating, with this critical consensus:  “Smartly directed, brilliantly acted, packed with endlessly quotable moments.  An all-time comedy classic.”   Even the friggin’ Library of Congress deemed it “of aesthetic cultural significance” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry!

Pretty damn solid credentials for a film that was shot in a month by a first-time director who had no script.

video-this-is-spinal-tap-trailer-2-videoSixteenByNine1050That director was the great Rob Reiner, who started his career as an actor playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic on the Seventies TV classic “All in the Family” and has gone on to direct such landmark films as “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,””Ghosts of Mississippi” and “The Bucket List.”

Reiner has comedy in his genes, thanks to his father, the legendary Carl Reiner, instrumental in early television sketch comedy on “Your Show of Shows” (1950-1954) and “Sid Caesar’s Hour” (1954-1957), as well as creator of the brilliant “Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966) and director of several Steve Martin comedy films like “The Jerk” (1979) and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982).

Not surprisingly, it was a challenge getting “This is Spinal Tap” made in the first place.  In those days, a TV actor who had the audacity to say he wanted to direct a film was laughed out of every Hollywood office he approached.  But Reiner kept at it, eventually getting enough seed money to shoot a 20-minute demo of what he had in mind, and then shopping that around until Norman Lear, creator of “All in the Family” and other award-winning TV shows, agreed to back the project.

spinal-tap-0617-GQ-MOST04-02

McKean, Shearer and Guest

Reiner had been friends with comic writer/actor Harry Shearer, and they teamed up in 1978 with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, comedians who had originally been musicians, on a sketch about a parody rock band for a comedy show called “The TV Show.”  The foursome decided to expand that simple sketch into a novel idea for a faux documentary about a British heavy metal band trying to make a comeback on what became a rather disastrous American tour.

 

“Chris and Michael had been improvising for years with these characters, playing up their British accents and their dimwitted naiveté,” said Reiner.  “We put together a general arc of a story line, but when we shot the movie, we made it up as went along, because they were just so good at it.  We often used the first take in the final cut, because it captured the natural reactions best.”

Cinematographer Peter Smokler, who had worked on rock & roll documentary films like “Gimme Shelter,” was brought in on the project.  Says Reiner, “The whole time we were shooting, Peter kept turning to me and saying, ‘What’s funny about this?  This is not funny.  This is what they (rock musicians) do.’  And it’s true.  Apparently, a lot of bands at that time were well-meaning but seemed so entitled, and genuinely clueless.”

spinal-tap-2-435x580“This is Spinal Tap” is mischievously witty without being mean-spirited as it tells the tale of an aging, pitiable, slowly disintegrating band, with an arrogant, ineffective manager, who try vainly to keep their hopes up even as they face the embarrassment of half-empty venues and cancelled gigs.

It has an “is it or isn’t it real” quality that at first fooled many viewers into thinking Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was a bonafide documentary.  Hand-held camera techniques and deft editing between concert footage and backstage interviews made it look not all that different from actual rock docs like “The Last Waltz” or “Don’t Look Back.”

Reiner had seen how Martin Scorsese had put himself in his film “The Last Waltz” as its director, and decided to do the same thing.  “I called myself Marty DiBergi, sort of combining Scorsese, Bergman and Fellini all rolled together.”  He is seen interviewing band members and hangers-on backstage and at press events, and also introduces the film as its director at the beginning.

Much like “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” and other comedies of its era, “This is Spinal Tap” is riddled with quotable lines.  One memorable scene has Guest’s guitarist character showing all the band’s equipment to Reiner’s interviewer character.  He points Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_Elevenout that they have earned the reputation as “England’s loudest band” because they have amplifiers that can be turned up to 11.  “All these other bands, they can only turn the volume up to 10, but when we need that extra oomph, we can go up one more notch,” the guitarist explains confidently as Reiner stares at him, puzzled.

Reiner said he was dumbfounded when people asked him why he did a documentary of a band no one had ever heard of, a band that was so bad.  “And I would have to say to them, ‘Um…Haven’t you ever heard of satire?  You know, making fun of it all?’  And they would say, ‘Oh, okay…’  It took a while for people to catch up to it and realize it was all a spoof.”

Notorious party-boy rocker Ozzy Osbourne said he was among the audience members who assumed Spinal Tap was a real band.  “When I learned the truth, I realized I should’ve known better.  They seemed quite tame compared to what we were up to.”

In 2005, when U2 was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guitarist The Edge had this to say:  “It’s been so hard to keep things fresh, and not to become a parody of yourself.  If you’ve ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you will know how easy it is to parody what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh.  I wept.  I wept because I recognized so much of ourselves in so many of those scenes.”

film__3046-this-is-spinal-tap--hi_res-5993de24Said Shearer in 2002, “The cast and crew love to hear that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can’t watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life.’  That’s the highest compliment of all.  It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.”  Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Vedder, and Dee Snider are just a few of the musicians who have referenced similarities between their own lives and the movie.

When he was casting “The Princess Bride” in 1987, Reiner said Sting, who had come in to audition for the part of Count Humperdinck, told him, “I’ll bet I’ve seen that movie 50 gal-spinal-tap-hutson-inset-jpgtimes.  We wore out our video copy on the tour bus.  Every time I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Speaking of casting, “This is Spinal Tap” includes some “don’t blink, you’ll miss it” cameos by well-known actors in bit roles.  Billy Crystal, Angelica Huston, Fred Willard, gal-spinaltap-crystal-jpgFran Drescher, Ed Begley Jr., Howard Hesseman, Dana Carvey and Paul Shaffer all show up to add their two cents in the merriment.

Much of the credit for the film’s effectiveness as a parody must go to the trio of Guest, McKean and Shearer for their spot-on performances as fading British rockers who are continually humiliated by the scheduling snafus and corporate disrespect they face.  Guest, you may be aware, has had success in recent years imitating the mockumentary style of “This is Spinal Tap” in such critical favorites as “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003), which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in.  McKean, who got his start playing neighbor Lenny in the TV chris_michael_harry_pressshow “Laverne and Shirley,” has appeared in nearly 70 films and 100 TV shows over the years, and currently plays older brother Chuck McGill on the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.”  Shearer, of course, has been one of the most important voices of characters on TV’s “The Simpsons” for two decades and running.

These guys wrote and performed Spinal Tap’s musical numbers themselves, with help from a few session players, and truth be told, some of the songs aren’t much worse than the tracks you might hear on your average heavy metal album of 1984 (which isn’t saying much).

tapbackfrondead_400x400In the years since the film’s original release, Guest, McKean and Shearer have periodically reunited as their film’s characters and improbably turned Spinal Tap into an honest-to-goodness band that went on the road and into the studio.  (A Spotify playlist below provides a decent sampling of their repertoire.)  Their 1992 album “Break Like the Wind” reached #61 on the US charts, and 2009’s “Back From the Dead” peaked at a respectable #52.  Said Guest, “We played the Pyramid Stage, we’ve played at Wembly, Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall.  It’s weird, but great.  The fictional became real.”

 

Art imitates life:  The ’70s hard rock band Uriah Heep once found themselves having to perform at a lame Air Force base social event, an incident that Shearer chose to include in Spinal Tap’s itinerary.

Life imitates art:  Heavy-metal titans Metallica said their 1991 LP “Metallica” (commonly known as “The Black Album”) is a tribute to the film’s scene where Spinal Tap’s record label replaced offensive artwork for its “Smell the Glove” LP with a plain black cover.

In one telling scene, Spinal Tap’s band members are angry about their album cover — a 64625_mx_uKqoNLdISDnxr_34157photo of a naked woman on her knees restrained by a dog collar and leash — being refused, when another group is given permission for their cover, which instead features the band members in the same degrading position.  When the difference is pointed out to them, they look at each other and say, “Hmmm.  It’s such a fine line between stupid…and clever.”

So true.  I suppose some people might find “This is Spinal Tap” monumentally stupid, but for those who appreciate finely tuned parody, I think it’s clever as hell.  As someone who just viewed it for the first time in 2018, I think I could make the argument that this movie probably works better today than it did when it was first released.  One of the movie’s goals was to satirize the concept of aging rockers engaging in “comeback” tours and albums, and, while there was plenty of that taking place in the early ’80s, it has surely become even more prevalent today.  Heavy metal headbangers might look absurd on the stage in their 30s; how about when they’re old enough for Medicare?

 

 

 

 

 

Delving selectively into the 1990s

Ever since I launched this blog about three years ago, I have chosen to focus my attentions on the rock music of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  I write “Ruminations of Musical Milestones, 1955-1990” because those are the years I feel most qualified to write about, for I was in my childhood, my teens, my 20s and my 30s for roughly that period.  I have been not only an ardent music lover and consumer but also a researcher and devourer of factoids, anecdotes, lyrics and fond memories about the bands, concerts and recordings from those 35 years.

logowlt90sBy the 1990s, I was married, approaching 40, with children arriving, and both my time and my financial resources were being diverted (necessarily and/or enthusiastically) to other priorities.  I wasn’t attending as many shows, buying as many albums (CDs at that point), nor reading as many books and magazines about the world of pop music, and I became less knowledgeable about new trends, new artists, even new technologies and music delivery systems.  That detachment became even more pronounced in the 2000s, and still more here in the 2010s.

I firmly believe I’m not alone in this phenomenon.  Most of us, I think, relate most closely to the music we were exposed to in our youth — from, say, age 10 to about 30.  These are the years when we are the most impressionable, and the most infatuated with specific musicians, albums and songs, and, not incidentally, we have the most spare time to nurture and satisfy our interest in leisure pursuits.

Many of my peers, once they reached their 30s, pretty much threw in the towel when it came to keeping up with new music.  (Some of them never paid much attention even in their teens and 20s.).  But I like to think I was an exception to the rule.  I still bought the new CDs released by my favorite artists; I still took in a live show every now and then; and I maintained my Rolling Stone subscription.  But I found it increasingly difficult to relate to some of the newer genres, bands and cultural developments that marked the music of the 1990s and beyond.

Fortunately, I have had some help.  I have two daughters, now 27 and 24, who seem as closely in touch with their generation’s music as I was to mine.  They know my likes and dislikes, and they have been good about steering me toward newer stuff they think might appeal to me.  I also have a handful of friends my age who have continued to keep their ears peeled for intriguing new artists whose music shows the influence of past masters and is both compelling and worthy of recommendation.

1990sWith all this in mind, I gingerly stick my literary toe in the water to write a piece this week that delves into the rock music of the 1990s.  I realize my credentials to pontificate about this period are significantly shakier.  My understanding, appreciation and experience with ’90s music is considerably more limited…but I believe my love of music in general, and my entitlement to an unvarnished opinion about any of it, allows me some leeway to offer my thoughts and preferences in this area.

When you review the lists of all new popular music releases between 1990-1999 — the top sellers as well as the ignored — you’ll quickly conclude that the Nineties was perhaps the most diverse decade ever.  Every decade had a wide range, but the sheer volume of options available to ’90s music listeners seemed to explode.

There was Grunge Rock, exemplified by Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.   There MI0003221759were the big-voiced, melodramatic divas like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton and Celine Dion.  There was still Hard Rock/Heavy Metal (Metallica, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Limp Bizkit) and an offshoot, Alternate Metal (Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine).

There were the newest versions of Bubblegum for the kids and Tweens (Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Ace of Base).  And there were R&B vocal virtuosos like Boyz II Men and Seal.

284e8ed69eda1a40ff857ad6c78158a79a457157There were the trailblazers, pretenders and new superstars of Hip Hop (Dr. Dre, M.C. Hammer, Snoop Doggy Dog, The Notorious B.I.G., Vanilla Ice, The Beastie Boys, Eminem, Puff Daddy).  There were the newly “rocked up” country artists like Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tim McGraw and The Dixie Chicks.  There was, as always, dance music, from the likes of C+C Music Factory, Paula Abdul and ’80s phenoms Janet Jackson and Madonna.

davematthewsbandThere were dozens of hungry “alt rock” (independent label alternative rock) bands with refreshingly quirky styles and approaches that tended to defy categorization:  Dave Matthews BandOasis, Hootie and The Blowfish, Stone Temple Pilots, Indigo Girls, Gin Blossoms, Radiohead, Alanis Morissette, Goo Goo Dolls, The Cranberries, Counting Crows, The Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Unknown-14Of course, a few of the ’80s rock bands of substance were churning out great stuff a decade or more after their debuts:  U2, R.E.M., Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.  And there were a handful of vintage rockers from the ’60s/’70s who could still top the charts in the ’90s (Pink Floyd‘s “The Division Bell” in 1994, Santana‘s “Supernatural” in 1999, Eric Clapton‘s “Unplugged” in 1992, Fleetwood Mac‘s “The Dance” in 1997, and The Beatles‘ “Anthology 1, 2 and 3” in 1995-96).

In this column, I’d like to single out a dozen musical acts from the 1990s whose music I find lasting and compelling.  Perhaps not surprisingly, my list reflects my partiality toward artists that favor melody and harmony, imaginative arrangements, memorable riffs and chord changes, and thought-provoking lyrics.  These names have largely escaped the public’s attention but are, in my opinion, nonetheless fully deserving of it.  They are, therefore, “1990s Rock Artists You May Not Know But Should.”

The Spotify playlist below provides a few examples of each artist’s best work.

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R-685430-1148096885.jpegThe Judybats

My old buddy Fiji gets the credit for turning me onto this wonderfully creative alternative rock band from Knoxville, Tennessee, led by singer/songwriter Jeff Heiskell, whose penchant for writing punchy, engagingly melodic songs resulted in four strong albums between 1991 and 1994.  None managed to crack the Billboard 200, but the debut “Native Son,” including the irresistible “Daylight” and playful “In Like With You,” got airplay on college radio and adult alt rock stations, while their 1993 LP “Pain Makes You Beautiful” had the minor hits “Being Simple” and “Ugly on the Outside.”  Excellent stuff!

somewhere-more-familiar-59a76aab01dd4-1Sister Hazel

This quintet from Gainesville, Florida has avoided the edginess sometimes associated with alt rock and instead specializes in a good-vibe hybrid of Southern rock, pop and folk, with dominant harmonies and lyrics full of optimism.  Debuting in 1994, Sister Hazel established a beachhead in 1997 with the #11 hit “All For You” from “…Somewhere More Familiar” but, inexplicably, never approached that commercial height again.  Artistically, though, the band went on to release seven consistently solid albums in the new millennium, most notable the enjoyable “Fortress” (2000) with the effervescent minor hits “Change Your Mind” and “Beautiful Thing.”  Saw them a couple times in clubs and outdoor venues in Atlanta.  Always a great time.

51vnBO+xdeLDel Amitri

Thanks to MTV, I came across a video one day in 1990 of this great Scottish alt rock group performing the catchy “Kiss This Thing Goodbye,” from their breakthrough LP “Waking Hours.”  Led by singer/songwriter Justin Currie and guitarist Ian Harvie, Del Amitri debuted in 1985 warming up for The Smiths, and by late ’89 they had a #11 single, “Nothing Ever Happens,” in the UK.  They went on to score four consecutive Top Ten LPs in England in the ’90s, but knowledge of the group among American audiences remained confined to a minor hit in 1992 (“Always the Last to Know,” #30) and the Top Ten bauble from 1995, “Roll to Me.”  Enchanting songwriting and proficient musicianship keep bringing me back to Del Amitri’s music, and it’s good to know the group has reconvened in recent months and is planning new recordings and club dates.

James_-_LaidJames

It’s mostly the arresting vocals from frontman Tim Booth that have captivated me about this British alt rock group.  My pal Bob stumbled on their 1993 album “Laid” in his local library and shared it with me, and I couldn’t stop listening to it.  In England, James was a very hot item (six 1200x630bb-7Top Ten LPs in the ’90s) and apparently still is — their latest album, “Girl at the End of the World,” almost beat out Adele’s “25” as the #1 LP in England in March 2016.  Such great material to discover throughout the James catalog, and also on “Booth and the Bad Angel,” a 1996 collaborative project between Booth and “Twin Peaks” composer Angelo Badalamenti.

Keb’ Mo’

600x600bb-1My wife Judy was knocked out by her first exposure to this engaging blues artist at a House of Blues performance in New Orleans in 1996.  (His name is Kevin Moore, but he goes by the street-talk abbreviation Keb’ Mo’ “just for fun.”)  I ran out and bought his strong 1994 self-titled debut, an album that turned heads among Delta blues guitarists and songwriters.  His 1996 LP “Just Like You,” which featured contributions from Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, won a Grammy, as did its successor, “Slow Down” (1999).  Now in his 60s, Keb’ Mo’ is a mainstay at the annual Crossroads Blues Festival and stays active in charity events, film projects and human rights initiatives.

bethbw158croppedBeth Chapman

Of the dozens of strong female singer-songwriters who have emerged in the 1990s and beyond (Shawn Colvin, Sarah McLachlan, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Jonatha Brooke), I have always been partial to Beth Nielsen Chapman, whose gorgeous voice and heartfelt music captured me from the first moment I heard her in 1991.  Her three album releases in the ’90s never made dents in the mainstream, but other artists sure noticed, asking her to write songs for them (Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, Waylon Jennings), or lining up to make guest appearances on her records (Michael McDonald, Vince Gill, Bonnie Raitt).  You might have heard “I Keep Coming Back to You” or “Walk My Way” sneak through your radio on occasion, or her 1994 duet with Paul Carrack, “In the Time It Takes.”

maybe-youve-been-brainwashed-too-4ee78cfee3253New Radicals

The most head-scratching entry on my list is New Radicals, the brainchild of Michigan-born prodigy Gregg Alexander, a multi-instrumentalist/songwriter.  A couple of failed solo releases in the early ’90s led to the formation of New Radicals and a contract with MCA Records.  Their one and only album, the pop-rock 1998 beauty “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too,” showed remarkably diverse influences, from Todd Rundgren and Hall & Oates to Prince and Mick Jagger.  It stalled at #41 in the US, but its subsequent single, “You Get What You Give,” was an international smash (#1 in Canada, #5 in England, yet only #36 here).  As his sometimes caustic lyrics indicated, he had little patience for the trappings of fame or touring, so he dissolved the “band” (it was pretty much just him anyway), and withdrew to write songs for other artists instead, including 2003’s “The Game of Love” by Santana with Michelle Branch.

Toad the Wet Sprocketf1b65f0cf629e44d0ee0b04178eddbef

Possibly the most unlikely band name ever was dreamed up by Monty Python co-founder Eric Idle, who used it in a sketch about rock musicians.  “I tried to think of a name so silly that no one would ever use it,” he recalled years later.  “Imagine my surprise the day I heard a radio DJ announce, ‘Here’s a song by Toad the Wet Sprocket.’ I almost drove off the road.”  Singer/guitarist Glen Phillips was a 16-year-old student in Santa Barbara, California when he formed the band, and adopted the name “because I thought it would be hilarious, but I think it was a joke that went on too long.”  Still, it’s plenty memorable, and it didn’t prevent the group from having three moderately popular albums in the 1990s, and two hit singles (“All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean”).  Their music leans toward acoustic guitar-based styles with harmonious vocals.

1998NMEAwardsVerve021111The Verve

Described as a purveyor of “dream pop and psychedelic alt rock,” The Verve was a British band whose three albums of the 1990s offered increasingly interesting musical textures and avant-garde sensibilities.   By 1997, their third LP, “Urban Hymns,” was #1 in England, thanks to the monumental success of the hit single, “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” which also eventually reached #12 in the US.  (The track takes its basic chord structure from an orchestral rendition of The Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “The Last Time,” and although it uses new lyrics and a slower tempo, the record became the subject of a plagiarism claim at the time.)   Ashcroft went on to release three fine solo records in the 2000s, and “Forth,” a reunion LP by The Verve, but most US listeners know nothing but “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”  It’s never too late to change that.

Marc Cohn220px-MarcCohn

Cohn is widely known for his marvelous song “Walking in Memphis,” a Song of the Year Grammy nominee in 1991 that earned him the Best New Artist Grammy that same year.  But it’s a crime that so much more of his music hasn’t enjoyed that kind of attention.  His debut LP and 1993 follow-up, “The Rainy Season,” are overflowing with one great song after another, featuring mature-beyond-his-years lyrics and immaculate arrangements and performances.  An unfortunate head injury has curtailed his musical career, but he gamely ventures out on the road periodically, and he enjoyed a modest success (#23 on US charts) in 2010 with a batch of covers of hit songs from 1970.  If you’re unfamiliar or have forgotten his work, by all means, check it out.