Abuse Your Delusion: The 1992 Guitar World Interview with the Almost-Legendary Spinal Tap
Here's an interview with Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) of Spinal Tap from the April 1992 issue of Guitar World. To see the complete Spinal Tap cover -- and all the GW covers from 1992 -- click here.
At the conclusion of This Is Spinal Tap, director Marty DiBergi's warts-and-all (or, as David St. Hubbins puts it, "all warts") documentary of the metal pioneers' 1982 American tour, the band's future couldn't have looked brighter.
But true to the up-and-down nature of Spinal Tap's legendary career, the band proceeded to do the only thing that could derail certain success: They disbanded to concentrate on solo projects -- most of which either failed miserably or were never fully realized.
Lead guitarist Tufnel's much-anticipated trilogy, Clam Caravan (which includes the neo-classical "Lick My Love Pump") remains "under construction;" St. Hubbins's Saucy Jack, a musical based on the life of Jack The Ripper, opened and closed in London in record time; and bassist Derek Smalls played the North England pub circuit in various Tap copy bands.
But after an almost eight-year hiatus (during which Tufnel was mysteriously conscripted into the Swiss Army and St. Hubbins and longtime girlfriend/interim manager Jeanine Pettibone settled down in Pomona, California), Tap is back, reaching new levels of volume and stretching the boundaries of hard rock -- indeed, of art in general -- with Break Like the Wind.
Featuring guest appearances by Joe Satriani, Slash, Cher, Nigel-lookalike Jeff Beck, Dweezil Zappa and Steve Lukather (who co-produced the album with Dave Jerden and Danny Kortchmar), BLTW proves once again that, temptation notwithstanding, you can't underestimate the triumvirate of Smalls, Tufnel and St. Hubbins. In addition to Smalls's debut as lead vocalist ("Cash On Delivery") and a Tufnel guitar-scatting solo that would make George Benson blush ("Spring Time"), the album contains "Rainy Day Sun," the flipside of 1967's "Listen To The Flower People," and "All The Way Home," a pre-Tap demo featuring Nigel and David in their Squatney skiffle days, circa 1961.
"We may be gods," sings David St. Hubbins on "The Sun Never Sweats." "Or just big marionettes." There is perhaps no better summation of Spinal Tap's lofty position in the pantheon of rock and roll.
GUITAR WORLD: Where's Ian Faith, your manager?
NIGEL TUFNEL: Yes, Ian died.
How did he die?
DAVID ST. HUBBINS: Who cares?
TUFNEL: You get news like that and you go, '”I’m not even going to ask how."
ST. HUBBINS: He was always prone to apoplexy, because he had very thin English skin and very thick alcoholic blood.
TUFNEL: He was prone to apoplexy and... what do they call it? Embezzlement.
DEREK SMALLS: He took everything personally -- including our royalties.
TUFNEL: From what we hear, even his mum didn't go to the funeral. She said, "Go bugger off! I've better things to do."
SMALLS: We have a custom label, a subsidiary of MCA, named in tribute to him --
ST. HUBBINS: -- but mainly because it's a great name.
SMALLS: It's called Dead Faith Records.
ST. HUBBINS: Dead Faith Records, Tapes & CDs --
SMALLS: And Any Other Form Of Recorded Entertainment There May Be In The Known Universe. That's the legal name.
Would you characterize the new album, Break Like The Wind, as a reunion? A comeback? Or something else?
ST. HUBBINS: It's both, really. We reuned and we came back.
SMALLS: It's a reassertion. A reinsertion, really.
ST. HUBBINS: I was happy where I was, producing local groups in Pomona and teaching soccer for the Parks Department. I was really living the life of Riley. I passed my 40th birthday and said, "Well, maybe this is it. " As long as I could go out to the Rainbow every Friday or Saturday to see some of the old blokes and recharge my UK batteries, then spend the rest of the week just being a suburbanite, I was perfectly happy. I thought I had rock and roll out of me blood . But one day we all had some legal things to talk about on the phone, and we said, "Let's get together and jam a bit." We did it -- and it was great.
What did you think of This Is Spinal Tap when you saw the finished product?
TUFNEL: We were betrayed, basically.
SMALLS: Call the butcher's union, I said. Marty DiBergi? Try the butcher's union.
ST. HUBBINS: Because we really came off -- I don't know if you picked up on this -- as sort of second-rate. A great big joke. As if we were at odds with our art, which couldn't be further from the truth.
TUFNEL: [To David] You put it best: Somebody who 'd seen that movie would never dream that we were a smooth act.
SMALLS: [Nodding] The pod sequence.
TUFNEL: Exactly. Every night, that pod opens and Derek gets out. The night they're filming, there's a jam-up. So people who see it go, "They' re stupid."
ST. HUBBINS: Now, if we'd turned the cameras on Martin DiBergi, and caught him slipping out of a hotel room with some 14- year-old girl -- I'm not saying this happened -- but if the camera had caught him doing that, if it had been in our hands, we would have at least had the decency to come to him and say, "Look, we've got this on film -- "
TUFNEL: "How much money -- "
ST. HUBBINS: Exactly. "What will it take for us to take it out?" We would have made those choices on firm moral grounds. As it happens, we were just screwed.
Yet for all that the film doesn't always show you in a good light, you're more popular now than ever. Not many acts could make that claim -- particularly after an eight-year hiatus.
ST. HUBBINS: Well, they miss us, you know. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Always leave them wanting more. Half a loaf is better than none.
SMALLS: See, it's the flipside of what happened when we were active: we tended to become less popular. A karmic turn of the wheel, there.
After Mick Shrimpton exploded, the movie shows the gig in Japan with Joe "Mama" Besser on drums. What happened to him?
ST. HUBBINS: We assume he's dead.
SMALLS: He was not a well man. He had a jazz background.
ST. HUBBINS: We assume he either returned to the world of jazz or he died.
TUFNEL: Which is really a toss-up.
Last year's auditions for a new drummer were pretty competitive -- with Mick Fleetwood and Debbi Peterson, among others, contesting. Who did you eventually decide on?
ST. HUBBINS: Well, we saw some great people -- some who we're definitely going to use when we play our big gig in L.A., or perhaps in a video. But it seems like the wheel of fortune has stopped, and landed on the younger twin brother of Mick Shrimpton, Richard Shrimpton.
TUFNEL: He was always in Mick's shadow, but, ironically, a better drummer -- more chops. But he dropped out and worked in a shop where they sell used stamps. People come in and say, "Give me two Ivory Coasts and a San Marino." Again, it's the karmic wheel turning around and stopping. He's in good health, which, of course, is a major plus for us.
What about Viv Savage, the keyboard player?
ST. HUBBINS: He's dead. Sadly, he passed away.
TUFNEL: He went to visit Mick's grave, up in Hampstead, and the grave exploded.
SMALLS: It was like swamp gas.
TUFNEL: Scientific people have an explanation for that sort of thing. When dead matter is under the ground for any length of time --
ST. HUBBINS: Gaseous build-up. It's methane, and also what you find in beans, that kind of nitrogenous --
TUFNEL: An organic explosion. Tragic, really. It's unfair, in a sense, that Mick died twice.
SMALLS: The irony is that we found out later that Viv had originally been a drummer.
TUFNEL:. He gave it up as a teenager to play keyboards, as best he could.
SMALLS: If we'd known that, we'd never have hired him.
I've never heard of this happening to other bands.
SMALLS: Oh, and what of the Grateful Dead. and keyboard players? Imagine if they'd hired Viv Savage.
TUFNEL: It just seems more focused in our case. I mean, look at all the actors that have died. John Wayne died, Clark Gable died.
ST. HUBBINS: [to Nigel] They were over the hill; I don't think that's a great example.
SMALLS: Race car drivers, perhaps.
More than any group, Spinal Tap has either followed, anticipated or paralleled almost the entire history of British rock, from skiffle to heavy metal.
TUFNEL: Sort of a living time line.
ST. HUBBINS: Of course, there are a few missing chapters in there, too. We recorded but did not release a dance album during the disco era; we never went punk; we never went new wave. We experimented with r&b, but only as filler for our live act.
SMALLS: Britain is very fashion-oriented. A lot of its musical styles are like bits of clothing you put on and take off. You know: "This looks good." "No, it doesn't."
ST. HUBBINS: We've never been like that. We're sort of like Gibraltar. We're always there, obscuring most of the view. Especially when you get up close to us -- have you noticed that? The closer you get to us, the more the view is obscured.
The new album includes your old skiffle demo, "All The Way Home."
TUFNEL: Yeah, it was recorded in '61. We don't even remember who played on it. David and I were in the Creatures and the Originals, respectively, and it was probably one Creature and one Original.
ST. HUBBINS: We had an acetate we shopped around, but we didn't actually have appointments. We'd just show up and they'd say, "Bugger off." Or we'd play it for them and they'd read their mail or order breakfast. We didn't really make a big dent in the industry, but looking back on it, for all the youthful sass, it's quite a mature work.
The Beatles were just a little older than you. Did you ever meet them?
ST. HUBBINS: I never met any of the Beatles. I enjoyed their music, I liked it, it was light. With a few exceptions, it wasn't really what you'd call gritty, hard music. It was more like really accomplished, professional music.
TUFNEL: It wasn't dirty. It was musicians who washed their hands.
SMALLS: No jiz. Jizless music.
TUFNEL: It's okay to have music like "Here Comes The Sun," if you're shopping in the market, buying meat or poultry. [Sings very high] "Here comes the sun, here comes the sun. There it goes, here it comes."
ST. HUBBINS: We're not trying to be unkind.
TUFNEL: No, that's just the way it is. They know it.
So you wouldn't count them as a major influence on Spinal Tap.
SMALLS: A bit of the reverse, actually -- listen to "Rainy Day Sun." These guys were taking acid and listening to other people's music. I met George much later; it was at a mutual friend's home, long after the Beatles. We were having dinner, and all of a sudden George says, "I've got this tape of my new record." And we all had to sit and listen to his record.
TUFNEL: But back to "Rainy Day Sun": I would not be surprised if they heard that record and said, "Hmmm." Or maybe it was George Martin. 'Cos there's backwards stuff and a string quartet on our record as well.
So "Rainy Day Sun" was pre-Sgt. Pepper's?
ST. HUBBINS: They both came out in 1967.It's one of those great-minds-think-alike sort of things -- the single came out within weeks of Sgt. Peppers. On this album we used one track that's an album remix of "Rainy Day Sun," which was the flipside of "(Listen To The) Flower People." It was just truncated, chopped off willy nilly by the record company, and we finally had a chance to put it on in its entirety, with the sound collage at the end.
Another group might have had an ego problem here because the bass player on that track isn't Derek; it's Ronnie Pudding. He was an excellent musician but got too big for his hat size, if you know what I mean. Went off on his own, failed miserably, but at least had the backbone not to come crawling back.
TUFNEL: He did ring up, though.
ST. HUBBINS: Oh, he called a few times and we wouldn't take the calls. But he didn't literally crawl --which we admire him for. But to get back to my point, a lot of bass players not like Derek would say, "As long as you're remixing, let's yank that duff bass part --
SMALLS: Well, I did say that.
ST. HUBBINS: But you didn't mean it. So we kept Ronnie's bass. But you know what he did? Derek went in, this man, this Christian martyr, and said, "Let me just tweak it a bit." And he re-eq'ed the bass part, made it sound a bit more up to date.
A rumor circulated for years that Nigel was up for the lead guitar seat in the Yardbirds on three different occasions.
TUFNEL: That's one of those rumors that you hear. I think it 's just based on jealousy, really. I was never contacted by any of those people, ever.
ST. HUBBINS: But didn't Keith Relf call you when he was forming Renaissance?
TUFNEL: That 's different. First of all , I don't like auditions. Let those boys like Beck and Clapton fight it out with each other. Let me watch and laugh.
ST. HUBBINS: I would also like to say -- because he's too modest to say it himself -- that Nigel belongs in that company because he is one of the premier lead guitarists and stylists. No one plays quite like him. No one even tries.
TUFNEL: When you get older you realize that what's important is not the amount of notes that you play. It's if you're thinking about them after you've played them.
ST. HUBBINS: A mental resonance.
TUFNEL: Exactly. A mental depository. Can you remember what you played? If you can't, why did you play it? It becomes a thinking man's game. You want each note to be a score or a movie or a novel --
SMALLS: A novella.
ST. HUBBINS: Or a novelization. I'd say the same thing about rhythm guitar, though the terminology has changed over the years. They used to talk about the "chunk"; now it's about the "crunch." Basically, it's what feels right, rather than what sounds right. You are communicating with your instrument through your hands, and the instrument is communicating back through your hands to you. It's rather like a ferret -- like a hungry ferret running around in a wheel.
TUFNEL: If you put a hungry ferret in your trousers, he'll run around. You'd be surprised at the energy. The key, of course, is to always bathe -- even on the road or on a bus.
As you were saying, Nigel really deserves to be in the company of the Claptons and Becks and Pages --
SMALLS: He should be in the bloody Rock & Roll Hall of Fame right now.
Right. But he hasn't gotten the recognition due him. For example, in a recent article [in another guitar magazine] entitled "The 25 Players Who Shook The World," Nigel isn't even mentioned.
TUFNEL: Don't make me laugh. I read that. It's not even me so much; there are a lot of people who should have been in that.
ST. HUBBINS: Is Scotty Moore in it? No? Well, there you go. Chuck Berry? Well, there you go again.
TUFNEL: And Big Daddy Boozer? Pfft. Great Delta player. I mean, Robert Johnson learned from Big Daddy Boozer. All that stuff, all those tricks. Blind Lemon Jefferson? They can't hold a candle to Big Daddy Boozer. And where's he? He's not in the 25, is he? I just discount that stuff; I throw it off.
So it doesn't bother you or eat at you?
TUFNEL: It does, yeah, but I throw it off after it 's eaten me up.
Spinal Tap is such a musical melting pot -- there are so many different styles on the new album.
ST. HUBBINS: Do you mean that in a positive way? Well , we're growing. Petty inconsistency being the hobgoblin of small minds.
TUFNEL: What you see as "different styles," is musical growth to us. Derek has a background in ska and various other things, and there's always something in his music that rings of that. My background is more in the Celtic area.
ST. HUBBINS: As far as guitar playing goes, I'd say I'm midway between W.S. Gilbert and --
SMALLS: Melissa Gilbert.
ST. HUBBINS: That's where I'd like to be -- just midway between Melissa Gilbert. But there's the influence of the old musical halls and Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. That great sort of rhythm-lead is what I aspire to. I also play some solos -- some of the leads on "Stonehenge," for example.
TUFNEL: What lead? That's a part. I do like switching off, though, because I love playing rhythm. So when I'm singing, that's what we usually do
SMALLS: What you're seeing in the band is maturity. [Nigel makes farting noises.] It's not desperation, or thrashing about for a commercial style; it 's maturity, in which we can be all of our different selves. •
TUFNEL: That's the other thing: People say we're playing heavy rock, metal, whatever you want to call it, so this is what it 's got to be. We say there are no boundaries of any sort.
SMALLS: We' re not about heavy rock or metal or hard rock or leather trousers. We're doing what we stand for. And one of the reasons we got back together was to make a stand for generic rock and roll. Good old generic rock and roll.
Is the songwriting also a democratic process?
ST. HUBBINS: It happens in various ways. Sometimes Nigel will come in with a lick or the entire framework of a song, and we'll work on it a bit. Sometimes he writes alone, sometimes I write alone. "Clam Caravan" was basically all his, because he wrote that for his solo project. "The Majesty Of Rock" is mine. "The Sun Never Sweats" is a Derek Smalls creation, as is "Jazz Odyssey."
A lot of people identify Zeppelin as being the fathers of heavy metal. Do you agree?
ST. HUBBINS: The Who really had that great wall of sound from the very beginning -- from "My Generation."
TUFNEL: I go back before the Who. In 1961 , there was Chic Dooley. He was the first one to use Hi-Watts, as well. Very distorted, big wall of sound, terrible words. Never had any hits at all.
ST. HUBBINS: What was the name of that pub he played in -- Queen's Lips?
SMALLS: It was the Snout & Trotters, wasn't it?
ST. HUBBINS: He was like the resident group there. I never saw him, but Nigel used to rave about this bloke.
TUFNEL: He also played the App & Twittle. A lot of people started there. Charlie Watts used to do a bongo solo there, in '62.
How would you describe the relationship you had with your former label, Polymer?
ST. HUBBINS: We have not had good luck with labels. We were on Megaphone for years and years, but they’ve gone under. What we're really trying to do now is get hold of our back catalog. And Polymer's legal position is that not only can't we have our back catalog, no one should have it.
SMALLS: There's been a lot of publicity about MCA and Polygram [Polymers parent label] having this lawsuit, and the story is that it's about the rights to Motown, but that's a front, a smokescreen. The real story is all about our back catalog. They couldn't care less about Motown.
What do you think of the new technology, and the change over to CD's? A lot of the experimentation you helped pioneer, such as backwards masking, is now virtually lost, since you can't play a CD backwards to hear what's going on.
ST. HUBBINS: It 's very simple: All you do is make a reel to reel tape copy of the CD --
TUFNEL: Kids don't have reel to reels anymore. You don't see many of them.
SMALLS: And you can't move your cassette backwards either. There's a conspiracy between the Japanese and the Dutch -- because they invented the cassette -- to get rid of any kind of recorded medium that you can play backwards.
TUFNEL: I was the first person in Britain who had a reel to reel in my car. It was a Wollensack, 3-3/4 speed. You 'd plug it into the lighter of the Couper, place it on the front passenger seat, and reach over between shifting. Flipping the reels while making a U-tum was a bit of a hazard.
Has Spinal Tap ever been confronted with any lawsuits along the lines of those fought by Judas Priest or Ozzy Osbourne, relating to teen suicide?
ST. HUBBINS: No, because I think our music is very life-affirming. We do have a song called "Christmas With The Devil," but that's not a satanist song; it says you might have a really good time in hell.
SMALLS: One reason they don 't sue us is that the lawyers who tend to think up these cases go after bands --
ST. HUBBINS: With money.
There 's a cut on the new album called "Bitch School." Aren't you wary of the flak you 'll doubtless get from feminist groups?
ALL: Oh, please! Stop.
TUFNEL: I don't know why, because it 's not about women; it 's about a dog. It's so easy to make that cheap association.
ST. HUBBINS: We had another verse where we mentioned kibble. If we 'd left that in, there 'd be no confusion. The song was just too long, though.
SMALLS: I think it 's insulting to women, to think that they're so stupid that they're not going to know it's about a dog.
TUFNEL: It's in the lyrics: "You' re so fetching when you're down on all fours." Now, given, it's true that if a woman was in that position, she may or may not be fetching. But a dog is always fetching when it's down on all fours!
SMALLS: Depending on the breed.
On "Break Like The Wind," it sounds as though Nigel is just building momentum in his solo [Nigel grumbles]when, suddenly, Slash comes in, followed by Lukather, Satriani and Beck.
ST. HUBBINS: He's a bit sensitive about it. He really didn't know about all this.
TUFNEL: It's what you call a sucker punch.
ST. HUBBINS: [to Nigel] We thought you'd be delighted -- like when we brought you
the noddy books back from England.
TUFNEL: But that's different. If I did the liner notes and said, "Written by Nigel Tufnel and Jim Tuba," instead of you --
ST. HUBBINS: But these are genuine people we're talking about. We thought you'd be delighted to have some of your contemporaries as well as some younger blokes --
TUFNEL: Slash is not that much younger.
ST. HUBBINS: What Nigel didn't understand is that they were all paying tribute to him.
TUFNEL: I understood it very well. It was a surprise -- that part of it worked -- and I understand the tribute part, but I walk in and see on the board, from left to right, "Nieve" [the name of the board], then "Beck, Satriani, Lukather, Slash." I thought it was a send-up. As if I'd said, "Here's the vocal track: David Bowie." He'd have gone, "Ha ha ha. Very funny ." "No, David. The real David Bowie is singing on this instead of you!"
SMALLS: You know, it is the real Cher singing on "Just Begin Again."
TUFNEL: It is the real Cher, and it's the real Beck, but that 's not the point! The point is, ask me. Say, "Nige, what 'bout this idea?" Give me the chance to say no.
ST. HUBBINS: And you would have said no, because of your modesty. What we asked them was, "How would you like to come in and replace eight bars by your idol, a person you respect." They really do respect Nige.
SMALLS: You know, you can't pay Jeff Beck just to play on your record. You can't ring up the musicians' union and say, "Give me Jeff Beck's number." It would cost you a fortune just to have him come in and do an eight-bar solo. He did it out of respect. And Nigel's too modest to acknowledge that.
ST. HUBBINS: Too cranky, as well.
TUFNEL: Well, my ego's healthy enough to admit that it turned out good.
SMALLS: As for the bits that they replaced, we sampled and used those elsewhere.
ST. HUBBINS: In fact, I'm using one as the message on my answering machine.
I notice that you quote Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" in the classical guitar segment you play.
TUFNEL: I'm not really quoting it. I'm stealing it -- but in a modern context. You're used to hearing Julian Bream play it or that guy Segoveeya, but when I do it, in the context of a rock and roll song, it's a whole new thing.
David, you take the first solo on "Cash On Delivery" and get what Clapton used to call the "woman tone."
ST. HUBBINS: Woman tone, yeah. ZZ Top makes use of that. I just tum the tone to the woman setting.
TUFNEL: It's very fat -- a fat woman tone. He does that on his Les Paul. I don't play Gibsons anymore. I used to use "Goldy," the Flying V and others, but I've sworn off them because they're too heavy. I wear one of those neoprene back supports when we play live, even acoustically, because they warm up your vertebrae and allow you to bend a bit. That's what happened in the film -- not that it ever happened before or after -- when I fell down and couldn't get up again. And I wear one knee brace because I've got a trick knee, and I don't jump off those platforms anymore -- that's for the younger kids.
Where does "Just Begin Again" modulate from and to?
TUFNEL: The thing about modulation is that it's a composer's trick. We like to modulate as much as possible. It makes the audience feel as though they're being taken on a little holiday from the song itself. "Oh, I'm being picked up and delivered where?" It starts in G, then we go to A, and it modulates to D, then back to G.
SMALLS: A lot of these bands brag about how they modulate and change keys. Well, here's four modulations in one tune. And you really don't even notice a difference.
ST. HUBBINS: We knew we wanted to do a duet with a female voice, and we thought of Cher immediately because she's perhaps the primary rock vocalista. Steve Lukather, who produced that particular track, had just worked with her, and he said, "Oh, she'd love to do it." She's a gracious human being.
Was the electric sitar solo on "Clam Caravan" completely spontaneous? It sounds like you 're groping for a certain note at the song's end.
TUFNEL: I should mention that it's not a real sitar, but a Coral Electric Sitar designed by Mr. Vinnie Bell. I thought, "I love the sound of the sitar, but I don't play it -- who has the fuckin' time?'' So I rented a Coral Sitar, and thought, "Well, it's a guitar; it just has a bad bridge." But something happened when I was playing, and I admit there was some confusion as to where I was going. But in the end, what's better than being realistic about your emotional state? Which was confusion and some desperation, I would say. But I do get there, don't I? It's a measure late, mind you, but I do hit the E.
SMALLS: "Clam Caravan": people say, "Where's the clams?" There's no clams in "Clam Caravan" because it was a typographical error. The name was really "Calm Caravan."
This is the age of safe sex. Are you going to have to curtail your notorious road lifestyle on the upcoming tour?
ST. HUBBINS: Well, Jeanine is keeping my sex real safe -- keeping it safe from me. But I'm definitely going to be keeping my eye on these two single gentlemen.
SMALLS: He 's going to be our condom police.
TUFNEL: You can't behave the way you did in the Sixties or Seventies or Eighties -- or even early Nineties.
SMALLS: And to the extent that kids read your magazine and take what we say as a model for their own behaviour: When you're bedding down with two or three young ladies after a rock and roll show, be careful.
ST. HUBBINS: You might knock yer head.