SPINAL TAP, NIGEL TUFNEL INTERVIEWED (1992): The wind cries Spinal

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Spinal Tap: Break Like The Wind
SPINAL TAP, NIGEL TUFNEL INTERVIEWED (1992): The wind cries Spinal

Rock history is littered with legendary bands, some more legendary than others. Some of these legends will live for ever, others even longer. But there is one rock hand which stands above all others, the most legendary of all legends. It is, in a word, Spinal Tap.

The story of Spinal Tap is now part of rock’s rich tapestry, an integral weave in the carpet of popular music: how Nigel Tufnel and David St Hubbins grew up in the same block of flats in London’s Squatney; formed the Originals (later becoming the New Originals when the original Originals from the East End threatened to sue); how they scored a minor hit with their debut single Gimme Some Money at the height of the Sixties Britpop boom; and then went through a roster of names including the Thamesmen, Flamin‘ Daemons, the Doppel Gang, Waffles, Hot Waffles and the Tufnel-St Hubbins Band.

They played their first gig as Spinal Tap in late '66; their first single, Listen to the Flower People, perfectly capturing the innocence of the hippie movement, and the subsequent album, Spinal Tap Sing Listen to the Flower People and Other Favourites went gold, The band got heavier, became more acid rock and employed the twin-guitar attack of Tufnel, a virtuoso guitarist whose solos are his trademark, and St Hubbins.

It was Tap as we know it.

Joined by the quiet, measured presence of bassist Derek Smalls, the lukewarm water between the fire and ice visionaries of Tufnel and St Hubbins, the group unleashed a series of critically condemned albums including Silent But Deadly, Brainhammer, Intravenous De Milo and the ambitious concept album The Sun Never Sweats.

They were all awful . . . yet they had something.

Tapheads (the name given to their Deadicated followers) loved them, and their lack of taste was curiously vindicated when Nice'N'Stinky, a live track from their Jap Habit album of ’75, became a huge, surprise hit in the States in '77. Tap was reborn. Risen again, as it were.

This_Is_Spinal_Tap_posterThe band reformed, introducing yet another of rock’s most explosive drummers -- or, more correctly, exploding drummers -- and their tour of America to coincide with the release of their controversial Smell the Glove album was filmed for the now legendary This Is Spinal Tap documentary (“or, if you will, rockumentary”) by Marti Di Bergi.

It was the tour that all but destroyed the Tap, and Di Bergi captured the madness of rock, the indignity of roll, and every Tufnel-St Hubbins argument.

Yet again fate -- “that most fickle of mistresses,” according to Tufnel, the band’s in-house philosopher and quite deep thinker -- lent a hand, if not loud applause.

Classic Tap songs like Big Bottom (“drive me out of my mind, how can I leave this behind?”) and Hell Hole might have been overlooked, but Sex Farm became a sudden surprise hit in Japan.

The group embarked on another Far East tour, fell apart amid arguments with their manager, Ian Faith, and Tap were no more . . .

Until the early Nineties when . . . the Tap came back.

In mid '92 their first album in a mercifully long time was released and Break Like the Wind looks like taking the name Spinal Tap to a new, unsuspecting generation. Despite some residual bitterness about Di Bergi’s film and a natural suspicion of the media which they court at every opportunity, Nigel Tufnel -- because he’s a professional -- spoke candidly about where Tap was at .................


spinal_tap

 The return of Spinal Tap couldn’t be more timely. As rock loses direction with bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers desperately raiding the funk cupboard and groups from Seattle making shoddy second-hand attempts at reviving Led Zeppelin riffs, Spinal Tap stands for classic rock.

Their album Break Like the Wind represents a return to real values in rock.

Look at the guests clambering over themselves to play with Tap: Joe Satriani and Jeff Beck play on the epic title track (so does Slash from Guns ’n Roses, but that's more a career move on his part). Cher sings a duet on the inspirational Just Begin Again (“Life is just like a dream, an unconscious stream, Rise! For you are cream”) and some other fairly famous people sing and play things, too.

To celebrate the return of Tap, Billboard magazine gave over a special supplement to the band and, according to St Hubbins, the new release is a concept album: “The concept is sales. it sounds crude, but it’s just part of our maturity."

And it’s working because, like it or not – and most people don't -- rock needs Spinal Tap. Which is ironic because here is a band which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary and hasn't yet had an original idea.

Nigel Tufnel ponders the thought of 25 years deeply, and therefore for a very long time.

“Yeah,” he says finally, "it just seems like, Well, I was going to say it just seems like yesterday, but actually it seems like 25 years in fact.

"We didn’t have a party because you get to the point where you run out of thing to party about. We're too old, so we get younger people to do that for us. It isn't like the old days where you’d go to a hotel room and toss the telly out the window. Now we get a groupie to do that. They enjoy it more, anyway.”

Tufnel, inventor of the neckless guitar and a new system of musical notation, sounds almost as if he yearns for the old days when they were young and naive, hitless and witless.

“Back when we were the Thamesmen or whatever, we didn’t know we were naive. Maybe we‘re still naive and we won't know that for another 10 years. It’s like the philosophers say, if you look forward, you -- umm -- well, you can’t really look back at the same time. You’d probably tweak something in your neck “

It is when Tufnel, who admits he isn’t university material, grapples with such knotty philosophical questions that you recognise he is one of the thinking men of rock -- a Socrates in satin tights or a Solomon with a really good guitar collection.

spinal_tap1As the lyrics to the anthemic Majesty of Rock on the new album say, “When we die, do we haunt the sky? Do we lurk in the murk of the seas? What then? Are we born again just to sit and ask questions like these?"

Nietzsche couldn't have put it more concisely ...or to a better riff.

More than simply being a poet (“like Shelley or Byron,” as bassist Smalls says of him), Tufnel is also a practical man. He ponders the great philosophical questions . . . but keeps that common touch. Witness his invention of the folding wine-glass in those, years when Tap was in semi-retirement.

"You see, so many times in the past I’ve said, 'Let’s go and have a picnic. You’ve got the Bovril and sandwiches and fruit, let's bring some wine . . . oh, how are we going to drink it‘?' You can’t drink wine out of a paper cup, so this is a folding wine-glass, full-sized and hinged so the sides fold down and you can put it in your pocket.

“There’s a bit of a problem with it. It leaks, actually, so by the time the glass reaches your lips the wine is pretty much in your lap. So then you’ve got to have some sort of nappy.

“I was reading Hegel the other day but that was just a bunch of words -- maybe this, maybe that. But I’ve come up with something dimensional. Alright, it’s not perfected yet, but that’s not important because I’ve got past the point of it just being an idea or a drawing. I’ve bloody well done it.

“And that‘s the message of this album in a song like Begin Again -- you've just got to keep going.

“The world is spinning - -well, is the world spinning or is that the sun? Anyway, something is spinning and you've got to keep spinning, too. I think."

Tufnel admits to keeping a pen and paper handy to jot down ideas philosophical and musical, he also keeps a tape recorder at the ready to capture those fleeting ideas which constantly flow through him. On the album he commits to disc his masterwork Clam Caravan, on which he plays sitar in the quasi-Oriental piece which is a showcase for his instrumental virtuosity.

His fluid guitar playing is everywhere (well, almost everywhere . . . but more of that soon) and his literate lyrics are littered with literary lyricism.

In The Majesty of Rock Tufnel poses the great existential questions within the context of popular music: "The Majesty of Rock! The Mystery of Roll! The darning of the sock, the scoring of the goal, the farmer takes a wife, the barber takes a pole, we’re in this together . . . and ever . . .”

Elsewhere he indulges his interest in anthropology and religious questions.

“We like to take chances and I read and experiment with historical ideas, like Stonehenge and the anthems we write,” he says referring to his magnum opus which begins with the thought provoking, “In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history . . .”

christopher_guest_this_is_spinal_tap_001Tufnel says The Sun Never Sweats on the new album (“losing is for losers, winners play to win") is "like a metaphor for someone in love with the British Empire, the Empire being the woman, I guess.

"But we’re still learning and, to be honest, there are some things I really don't understand."

Like?

“Like fish. I’m a fisherman, so I can catch them, but I don't know about them as if I lived under water.”

With that gift of inquisitiveness combined with his natural talent for grasping difficult concepts, it comes as a surprise to hear Tufnel confess to losing information.

“You’ve got a lot of stuff in your brain which comes and goes . . . . and in my case a lot of it is, well, it’s gone, really. People say, ‘Do you remember this or that?' And I say, ‘No.’ So they tell me and I say, ‘No, sorry it’s gone, not there.’ "

Despite that, Tufnel crafts lyrics which work on various metaphorical levels simultaneously, some not always appreciated by his audience of young, out-of-it headbangers.

"See, that title Break Like the Wind is like a Zen question put out to the audience. The wind doesn't really break -- it bends, it goes around corners and in and out of things. You can’t break it, so by saying ‘break like the wind’ it puts that philosophical question out to people."

Yet some would just see the title as a poor joke about flatulence?

“Oh no, that’s bizarre,” he says in disbelief. "But I do see what you mean, although I hadn’t thought of it, hmmmm. But the same thing happened with the song Bitch School. Some feminist group thought it raised a whole issue and I said if they couldn't read the words or just listen to the record, then they shouldn't buy it.

“It’s a song about training dogs, obviously - it’s so clear."spinaltap

It is easy to see the feminists’ viewpoint here. The lyrics read in part: "I’m gonna chain you, make you sleep outdoors, you're so fetching when you‘re down on all fours, gonna send you back to Bitch School.”

And the picture disc comes with a photograph of a scantily dressed young woman on her knees with a dog collar around her neck.

It is an image remarkably similar to the rejected cover of the notorious Smell the Glove album of '82.

Tufnel insists the image came from the video which they had wanted to open with a field full of dogs. The video company said no one would be particularly interested in dogs; young girls were what an audience wanted.

“Ten years ago we’d have been so immature as to say, ‘Go jump off a building then’ and walk out. But because we‘re newly mature we said, ‘All right, if we must put young girls in, then we will.’ So that explains that girl in the poster . . . and she was very attractive and intelligent.

"I had dinner with her several nights in a row -- and breakfasts. Her main interest was the 1930s and the Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw and the beginnings of the British Labour Party. I listened to her a lot.”

Tufnel's relationships with women have never been entirely happy, as he admits. In fact, after the demise of the band following the Japan tour he travelled without direction to “experience many languages and to meet many women living strange lives.”

Unfortunately, while in Switzerland he was kidnapped and inducted into the Swiss Army.

On his escape he again wandered aimlessly, this time throughout the South Pacific picking up on the rhythmic traditions of the PeiPei and Poo Poo Islanders.

But percussion provided only a diversion for Tufnel and he says he was glad to be back playing guitar in the context of Tap. He is less pleased about the title track and the use of guests such as Slash, Beck, Satriani and Steve Lukather.

"A rather unfortunate story - and I will tell you now. The space those four chaps used to do their bits which comes after my solo was actually more of a solo by me. David and Derek, thinking they were giving me a birthday gift, erased my track and put them on. They thought the tribute of having Beck and them would be nice. Beck, of course, said, ‘Yeah, l'll do this for Nige'. But they forgot to tell Nige, didn’t they?

“It was supposed to be a surprise and it was like someone saying, 'Would you like a spike up your bum'" That sort of surprise.

“I was very upset. I can see what they were trying to do. After my Spanish guitar bit, there was more . . . but the more is less now. In fact, it’s not there at all!

“It's like someone coming up to Picasso or Magritte and saying, ‘Go out and have some lunch and I’ll stay in the studio. He goes out and has his soup and I take a paintbrush and make a different nose. Picasso comes back and says, ‘Hello, what’s goin' on here, then? Whose nose is that, eh?' It’s the same.”

And so Break Like the Wind is now, what might we say, a flawed masterpiece?

"Exactly."

As anyone who has seen the Di Bergi documentary (“or, if you will, rockumentary“) knows, the relationship between Tufnel and St Hubbins has occasionally been testy, largely because Tufnel and St Hubbins' girlfriend, Jeanine Pettibone, do not hit it off.

Latent envy of each other’s importance to St Hubbins saw Tufnel quit the band following a disastrous show at an Air Force base when Pettibone took over management after Ian Faith quit.

Today the relationship with Pettibone (who married St Hubbins in ’86) is a stalemate. Tufnel is delighted she has her own “little business" selling clothing of a “vibrational significance" in a New Age boutique in California.

“That's a godsend.” says Tufnel. "They moved to the States and he thought by them both moving there that they would become citizens. He didn't realise because they are both British it wouldn’t work. Anyway she's got this clothing shop called Potato Republic which specialises in, well, itchy sweaters, actually."

For the decade that Tufnel wandered, St Hubbins pursued a production career (unsuccessfully, as it happened) and collaborated by mail with his father, an amateur musician, on an all-scat version of Bizet's Carmen.tap_9s

Bassist Smalls stuck with music, too, after a brief foray working for his fathers telephone sanitisation service in Wolverhampton. He wrote hard-rock jingles for the Belgian Milk Advisory Board, then joined the Zeppelin-influenced Christian heavy metal band Lambsblood, who became famous for their mass baptisms and single Whole Lotta Lord.

They played at the "Monsters of Jesus” festival, but a chance meeting with Tufnel and St Hubbins at former manager Faith’s funeral led to Smalls’ decision to “throw in my lot with evil again” when Tap reformed.

These days Tufnel is candid enough to confess their meeting at Faith's funeral might not have been just chance.

"Unconsciously, we knew we’d all be there because we were all so bloody happy he’d died. But if you'd have asked me at the time I would have said, ‘I dunno, do I?’ At the funeral we were in such a good frame of mind that afterwards we walked over to my flat and said, ‘Let's pick up the guitars.' It was infectious and I don’t think rock ’n’ roll can lose the edge of friction and fighting without losing some of its creativity. You end up with pop music, which I hate.

“That’s-my most unfavourite thing in the whole world . . . except for various diseases."

And born out of that friction is Break Like the Wind, an album of provocative lyrics and anthemic pulses. From the satanic rock of Christmas with the Devil (“the elves are dressed in leather”) to a reworked version of their classic Rainy Day Sun from the mid-Sixties (which bears astonishing similarities to the Small Faces’ Itchycoo Park and the Beatles’ I Am the Walrus), Spinal Tap once again show their sure command of all aspects of the rock idiom.

It is classic Tap and typically not without controversy. While the lyrics of Bitch School have raised the ire of feminists and the title raised a laugh from most, a bigger fight has been bought when Tap misunderstood the environmental issue of the long box, the wasteful packaging in which CDs are wrapped.spinal_tap_1

Break Like the Wind initially came in what they termed the “extra long box,” a 45cm disposable package.

“The Extra Long Box is an environmentally conscious product which utilises more of our precious' recycled resources than any other compact disc package,” reads the sticker on the box.

“It’s very shape pays homage to the trees of our planets noble forests.”

The package was withdrawn.

That glitch aside, Spinal Tap are back with new management and an album, recorded “in dobly” so you can hear all the words.

“It's a push-through rather than a break-through, I think," says Tufnel. “I see what we do as something constantly evolving. It’s hard to be objective about it if you’re me. If I was you -- well, you are you -- ummm, if you were me and . . . umm . . . if you and me were . . . well, anyway. It's difficult.

“What we‘re saying with this album is, ‘We‘re back. Join us, won’t you,’ in a consumer sense.”

Yet there is still one troubling cancer in the Spinal Tap body, a pulled thread in the weave of their rock tapestry. Rumours constantly circulate that Nigel Tufnel is in fact Christopher Guest, an American musician and satirist who previously worked with National Lampoon magazine and created a series of rock parody albums including Goodbye Pop and Lemmings.

"Yes, I've heard that. And it’s nice of you to bring it up again and give it more circulation. All I can say is a rumour is . . . well, it’s no more than a rumour, really, is it?”

And with that, Nigel Tufnel, one of rock’s more profound thinkers and inventive musicians is gone. There are more interviewers wanting a piece of him, this man at the peak -- or another horizontal peak -- of a career with rock’s most legendary legend.

Curiously, you can only more or less understand Spinal Tap when you talk to Tufnel.

Less, actually.

For another perspective on Spinal Tap see here.

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