SANTA CRUZ, June 23, 2014— If you ask just anyone whether they have seen “This is Spinal Tap,”the answer will be unequivocally in the positive. Director Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary about a fictional British metal band facing the uncertain twilight of their career has become a beloved comedy classic, and its moments of hilarity are balanced with cringe-worthy instances of utter stupidity. While the film is regarded as a comedic classic, it can hit close to home for anyone who has struggled in a band of their own.
Most groups experience a clearly defined career arc. They assemble, set a few modest goals, and get to work. After months or years of tirelessly promoting themselves and playing as many shows as they can, they may get a break, the exact definition of which can be varied. Sometimes, it is an opening spot on a large tour, or a recording contract with a legitimate label. Perhaps the group’s song is used for a television commercial, or their music video suddenly hits. All of these things can propel a struggling group towards its’ultimate dream of being able to quit whatever menial jobs its’members possess and focus on the band full time. Eventually, their fans grow older or lose interest, musical mores shift, and the band finds itself struggling for relevancy. At this point, they can either call it a day and move on with their lives, or desperately try to hang on, scraping and clawing to recapture their former standing. Spinal Tap would fall into this category.
They are an aging English metal group, who had been somewhat famous a decade earlier. Oblivious to music’s evolving landscape, the group continues to ply their adolescent schtick, replete with many of metal’s more laughable trappings, on an ill advised American tour. Guided by their exhausted manager, and joined mid-tour by the girlfriend of one of the guitar players, the band encounters one hilarious setback after another, and while it is a work of fiction, anyone who has spent any time laboring in a band will undoubtedly relate.
At the tour’s kickoff party, the band is vigorously glad-handed by label representatives. To some degree, every band who has been on a label has dealt with this in conjunction with a new release. The superficiality of record label people is a universal truth, and a necessary pitfall of doing business in the music world.
Later, the band has their name butchered by emcees, radio announcers, and others. This is another everyday occurrence for working bands, especially if their name is at all awkward to pronounce. Nothing starts a show off poorly like being announced incorrectly. The band soldiers on to one of the music industry’s most torturous inventions, the dreaded in-store. The band are seated at a table at a record store, surrounded by copies of their new release, armed with Sharpies, ready to sign copies of the record for the throngs of fans who are meant to line up and wait. Spinal Tap shows up, waits and nobody comes. It is both funny and sad.
For bands like Spinal Tap, whose relevance has waned, everyday amounts to some degree of score keeping, tracking the small victories (an unusually good show, a rare positive album review) as well as the numerous defeats (shows cancelled due to poor ticket sales, scathing reviews, missing gear, opening bands who do not even know who they are, and in-stores which nobody shows up to). The debits will begin to outweigh the credits for any band who has overstayed their welcome in the musical sphere.
The invariable tension between the two major songwriters and creative protagonists of the group, the obvious upsetting of the band dynamic when one member’s girlfriend joins the tour unannounced, and the constant external references to the band’s halcyon days all serve to bog down the tour, one which the members were so excited about at its outset.
The lesson of Spinal Tap, for anyone in a working band, would appear to be that careers are brief, and one ought to remember to be grateful for every opportunity to live out their rock and roll dreams, however briefly. Respect your band mates, honor your differences, and have a backup plan. It may not seem like it, but the band will not last forever, and nobody wants to be forced to play at an air force base, or opening for a puppet show. In the final analysis, the enduring takeaway from the film is to not take yourself, or your band, too seriously.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.