Then-current album: Break Like the Wind
Opening act: none
Back of ticket ad: it would be KLSX again — and how appropriate, really.
I’ve said it before but the color scheme of the tickets around this time was weird enough and increasingly so the further we got away from the eighties — which made the fact this was introduced after the eighties anyway all the more strange.
So, this show that was and wasn’t a band show. But it was. And yet.
Spinal Tap are one of the endless parts of pop culture that thanks to technology’s advances becomes part of an eternal present, the one-off joke that becomes and remains a touchstone. Certainly the film captures a moment perfectly — the more so because it was an accidentally perfect moment, the early eighties stretch where classic rock just seemed kinda old, where all kinds of bands went as New Wave as they dared or thought (the outfits the band shows off in the film are really kind of amazing as a result, not ‘eighties’ but reacting somehow to them, looking to fit in and failing), where what seemed solid was suddenly destabilized. For all that people talk since about how the film captures essential truths of ‘the business’ it’s also a perfect summary of a specific unsureness, of something not quite being right on a larger scale than just the flailing antics of a once-popular group.
All of which makes it sound like they were a real group, which time has made them become. From this year’s perspective Spinal Tap reappearing is more something that regularly occurs — I’ve heard it’s to do with contracts and rights maintenance on the part of creators Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean — but at the time of this show it was something new and surprising something nobody thought could actually occur. I remember when the movie came out and saw them appear in character on Saturday Night Live — with your host Barry Bostwick! — but didn’t actually see the movie until a couple of years later on video. It was probably the first VCR classic I saw as such, the idea of the ‘box office failure, cult hit on video’ made manifest. It was and is and remains endlessly hilarious, one of the very few comedies as such that I can watch and enjoy each time, a masterpiece of relentless editing, pitch-perfect performances, even cinematographic style.
So when the word first came out about the reunion the previous year everyone went nuts — and having it announced in Los Angeles (via the MTV Music Awards IIRC) made all the more sense, that sense of ‘where are we, what’s going on’ in the film’s original context turned into a clear sense of not simply a fanbase but a new, perfect context, the hard-rock/glam-metal mid to late eighties into the early nineties, grown up on the putative legends of earlier bands and incorporating Spinal Tap as part of it. Among many other things it was the release valve for a subculture, and I’m still amused at those bands and singers — allegedly including Ian Astbury — who hated the film and the group and the whole thing, who couldn’t let themselves go even a bit or were too busy fighting a war for attention to realize that they’d already won.
The album, when it came out, was something of a non-event — divorced from a film context, with songs played out to the full rather than appearing for just long enough for the joke to sink in or illustrating an amazing visual setup, Spinal Tap works at a different pace, and more often than not it can drag (if nothing else, also illustrating further the difference between the ‘documentary’ as edited creation and the real time experience, whatever it might be). Unspoken as well — presumably because so many of us wanted it to really be a real band (in more recent terms think of the consensual hallucination practiced in re:Borat and Bruno) — was the fact that the folks behind the whole thing seemed to have become less observant or less focused in their satire, aiming at broader strokes that weren’t as resonant. Combined with the fall-off timing of the LA glam metal scene in particular, stronger musical/observational humor could be found instead in films openly inspired by the Spinal Tap approach — think of that year’s Fear of a Black Hat, for instance, nailing hip-hop’s own state of being just so.
This all said, though, the point was still clear enough — “Spinal Tap? On tour? Oh hell yes.” So when the tickets went on sale I snapped up a set and myself, Jason B., Steve M., Kris C. and probably a slew of others I knew elsewhere in the theater settled in to see what we could see. Again, we didn’t really know WHAT to expect, nobody did, and when something like this happens for a first time ever, part of the expectation lies with just that lack of knowledge.
I forget if it was Guest or Shearer but one of them said, in an out of character moment, that the whole experience of that first tour in particular was strange to them because they knew that they weren’t a band in the sense that others were, but that everything going on around them was predicated on them being a band and them being the characters that they played. In doing so he revealed the truth of the night — this wasn’t so much a show as a production, a touring musical production that wasn’t a jukebox musical as much as it was something else, a massive act we were all buying into (in the audience’s case quite literally). It was something done by a bunch of folks who had been stage and radio and film and TV performers in a variety of contexts, people who had had two decades worth of that work under their belts at this point. It was, in an older sense of the term perhaps, a show.
And it was a great show — there’s a video that was released, The Return of Spinal Tap, which captures the London date of this tour and which is handy for me for showing those points of difference I remember from the Los Angeles one. Some jokes changed around, some specific references switched out, but in general it was as was shown there. From my perspective this night, we were all near the back of the Ampitheatre on the main floor, nearly looking straight at stage center so that was pretty handy. The whole thing was a feast for eyes and ears in a way, they arguably knew better how to use the stage as a whole than many other bands precisely because of where they were coming from; where many bands end up finding ways to do that they often do because they have to as their popularity level reaches a certain height. But this was something more like classic Alice Cooper, like Kiss, where the act was part and parcel — inverting the “Stonehenge” joke by showing a too-big model unable to be lowered, having gesticulating stagehands pointing out problems, running films of things like showing the other bandmembers leaving the stage to have a meal and massage while Guest as Nigel Tufnel played an ‘endless’ solo. Shtick, in a word — I remember Jason B. being a little surprised by that as was I (I think the mid-set break was the most surprising moment on balance, though), but only a surprise given our set of expectations and what we were conditioned for. We came for a ‘rock show’ assuming tongue in cheek moments, we actually got something else.
And it worked, it was a hilarious time. Sure, some forced moments — again, as noted, this couldn’t be fully edited down like the film, but it was also a chance to surrender to it all a bit. There was one moment where there was even a pit starting up down in front of the stage to “Diva Fever,” probably the only song best suited for that in their repetoire, but the sheer ridiculousness of that moment could only have happened if the music was there to do something to. Otherwise it was a lot of shouting along to gloriously moronic lyrics everyone knew all too well, massive eggs cracking on stage and Nigel Tufnel being a snake charmer. I have a feeling that if I had made a habit of going to the further reunion shows since the whole good memories I do have would have felt a bit more stale but it worked in the moment here, like a charm.
I will always remember one moment in particular, though — there’s one song on Break Like the Wind whose main joke is that it features a slew of guest guitarists doing one solo after another. Live, I guess the idea was that they would do this with whatever celebrity guitarist friends/admirers were around; on the London video it was Albert Lee (not Alvin or Arthur, Albert). So McKean as David St. Hubbins at one point proceeded to introduce three performers — one of the dudes from Toto, that blonde woman that played for Michael Jackson back in the mid to late eighties and/or beyond, and Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains.
I turned and looked at Steve M., who looked at me bewildered, then back at the stage. (I should note that Steve had recently seen Alice in Chains opening for Iggy Pop and had not been impressed.)
McKeown called them “Our special guests tonight!”
Steve M. in response — “No, these are not special guests. These are just guests.”