Americans Pretending To Be British Part 7: Spinal Tap
For reasons which are probably caught up in the 1970s and hedonism and Led Zeppelin and all that stuff, whenever Hollywood thinks about the classic rock star, it’ll be a cadaverous British guy, in black leathers, behaving like a toddler (albeit one with an appetite for stronger things than milk and Teletubbies). Russell Brand in Get Him To The Greek, Bill Nighy in Love, Actually, Ralph Brown as the roadie Del Preston in Wayne’s World 2, that’s the archetype.
They’re lovable characters all, driven entirely by ego and unfettered by conscience, and yet still rather rambly and childlike and charming: Ozzy Osbourne without all the kids and animals, basically.
However, the actual mindset of the British rock star, of rock stars from anywhere, actually, is more fruitfully captured in the film This Is Spinal Tap. We’ve discussed the quality of their accents before now, but hats do have to be doffed in the direction of Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer for showing incredible understanding of the true reality of the rock star life.
Think about it, you’re a person who has been lead to believe that you are special, because of a thing you can do that very few others can, and you believe that your life can be lived outside of the responsibilities that other people have to deal with all the time, that your every whim can and will be catered for by others while you swan about, trying to look deep and artistic. However, you’re also a suburban boy from a rough patch of London who knows not to take anything good for granted, and that’s the reality that makes the most sense to you.
So every tiny disappointment which enters your rock star life is magnified by the disorientation of your job, the hassle of being on the road, and by the suspicion that this is the moment when the pendulum begins to swing back the other way, and you’ll have to go home, back to school, back to the grotty suburbs, back to live the dreary life you hoped you had escaped. On the other hand, all you need to do to stave off this fate is come up with a brilliant artistic statement and you’re immediately back on top again.
(It’s the same dynamic that runs through the documentary Anvil: The Story Of Anvil, and that was made with real people.)
Of course, when the film was made, there was a wave of British heavy metal bands blazing a trail across the US, and a good portion of those had served time in other kinds of bands before that, as metal and hard rock were still relatively new genres. The story of the musical development of Spinal Tap the band closely mirrors that of any beat group that rose to fame in the mid-’60s. They begin whacking out the pugnacious R’n’B, go doolally with psychedelia, and wind up rocking as hard and as loud as they can.
All of this has been taken into account, and it’s all represented faithfully and with a lot of affection, especially Harry Shearer’s Derek Smalls, who’s the kind of pipe-smoking, mild-mannered civil service bass player – Bill Wyman and John McVie spring to mind – that has now been effectively bred out of the gene pool.
It’s just a little deeper than Russell Brand swinging from the chandeliers, is my point, and he actually IS British.