ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 23, 2009
By Steve Newton
I was never a huge Spinal Tap fan. Sure, I chuckled along with everyone else when Nigel Tufnel’s guitar amp went to 11, and when mutton-chopped bassist Derek Smalls got trapped on stage in that giant pod prop. The idea of an exploding drummer was also amusing. But to be honest, I felt a tad insulted by the whole “metal morons” conceit, because when the film was released, in 1984, I was taking heavy metal quite seriously. The repercussions of the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) were still being felt, the mighty Iron Maiden was flying high with Powerslave, and fierce Maiden tunes like “Aces High” and “Two Minutes to Midnight” were tops with me.
Spinal Tap’s deadpan humour was aimed directly at the era’s spandex-clad longhairs, and justifiably so, but I didn’t appreciate how all metal acts were being lumped together as talentless and lame. I suppose I could have taken a chill pill.
Spinal Tap’s intentionally awful songs like “Hell Hole”, “Big Bottom” and “(Listen to the) Flower People” really grated on me—and they still do, thanks to the re-recorded versions on Back From the Dead. Sadly, the handful of new songs aren’t any better. The horror-themed title track, with its Vincent Price–like narrator, purports that the trio has risen from the grave just in time to celebrate its 25th anniversary. “Nothing’s more fun than flipping off the Reaper,” croons lead vocalist David St. Hubbins, “we’re back on our beeper heading straight for the top.” Now, I’m not exactly sure what a beeper is, but I will admit that it does rhyme with Reaper.
On a whole, the musicianship on Back From the Dead isn’t terrible, but it certainly helps that Tufnel, Smalls, and St. Hubbins—aka comedians Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean—are accompanied throughout by talented, non-exploding skinbasher Gregg Bissonette, whose challenging chops have graced albums by Joe Satriani. An amazing drummer can make even the most mediocre rock band sound decent, of course.
Wikipedia maintains that Steve Vai, John Mayer, Phil Collen of Def Leppard, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Keith Emerson also make guest appearances on Back From the Dead, but there’s no mention of them in its liner notes. Perhaps the package designers were too wrapped up in creating the dioarama that folds out to depict Spinal Tap action figures performing at their venue of choice, Stonehenge.
Despite its substandard music, BFTD earns half a headphone for its accompanying one-hour DVD, in which the trio of improv-ready comics lounge around a recording studio in character, riffing on the fictional stories behind the songs and blathering on about music in general. “The funny thing about playing a song with one chord is it forces the people listening to imagine other chords,” declares Tufnel/Guest, who also claims that “the best songs come from real-life situations,” leading St. Hubbins/McKean to quickly add: “Yeah, ‘Mairzy Doats’. Perfect example.”