That’s nitpicking, isn’t it?

I keep Monty Python and the Holy Grail and This is Spın̈al Tap1 on my iPhone at all times. They’re among my favorite movies and bear up under repeated (and repeated and repeated) viewings, not just because they’re funny, but because there’s a depth to them. The Pythons knew a lot about Arthur and medieval England, and the Tap crew knew a lot about rock and roll.

So it was with some trepidation that I started listening to The Incomparable podcast’s recent episode on Spın̈al Tap, called, with a certain inevitability, “These Go to Eleven.” Jason Snell hosted the show and the guests were Andy Ihnatko and Ben Boychuk. I’ve enjoyed listening to all of them on The Incomparable,2 and I’ve always liked Jason and Andy’s writing,3 but I don’t think of any of them as being particularly steeped in rock and roll culture. Andy’s always recommending musicals on AMC, not usually the sign of a rocker. And then there’s the matter of age—Spın̈al Tap came out in 1983 and is parodying people and events that took place in the 60s and, especially, the 70s. A lot of the humor comes from understanding what was going on back them, and I didn’t think any of the three were old enough to have that understanding.

Despite my doubts, the show was a lot of fun. Jason, Andy, and Ben obviously have a deep affection for the movie, and they had good insights into what makes it work. Jason in particular, I thought, was spot on in his discussion of the “these go to eleven” scene, which works so well, both because of the absurdity of the markings on the amps (a brilliant idea) and because Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest play it absolutely straight. It’s Marty’s sincerity and Nigel’s obtuseness that turn a good joke into one that’s lasted 30 years.

Still, some topics were missed that I think are essential to any discussion of Spın̈al Tap.

First on my list is All You Need is Cash, Eric Idle’s wonderfully askew retelling of the Beatles’ story through a retrospective documentary about the fictional Rutles, the band whose legend will last a lunchtime. I saw Cash only once, when it first ran on NBC in the late 70s, but there are bits of it that I simply cannot forget. And the music! Tap’s music was, as the Incomparable guys said, both catchy and funny, but Neil Innes’s songs for the Rutles were absolutely uncanny in how they evoked Lennon and McCartney with only a little outright theft.

The big difference between the two films is that while Cash focuses exclusively on the Beatles, Tap wanders all over the rock scene for stories to satirize. There are certainly Beatles references—like their outfits in the “Gimme Some Money” clip and the song “All The Way Home,” a pretty obvious nod to “The One After 909”—but they mine a much bigger and richer vein:

I could draw more parallels (Duke Fame = Marc Bolan), but you get the idea. There’s a lot more to Spın̈al Tap than foil-wrapped cucumbers.

  1. The character n̈, called the n-diaeresis or n-umlaut, doesn’t have it’s own Unicode code point (although it does have its own Wikipedia page, in which Spın̈al Tap features prominently). The way to get it is through the combining character for the umlaut itself, U+0308. Since 308 in hex translates to 776 in decimal, we can generate the combining umlaut with ̈. Thus, n̈ = n̈. This works in both HTML and Markdown. (I’m using a dotless i, ı, just before the n̈ because it keeps the middle of the word from being overcrowded with dots and because that’s what the band’s logo uses.) 

  2. We’ll set aside Andy’s poorly formed opinions on The Avengers and how they derailed that particular show

  3. I haven’t read Ben’s work, which seems to be largely political. Given that he’s affiliated with the Heartland Institute, I suspect his writings would infuriate me, but that shouldn’t affect his views on pop culture. 

  4. How wonderful is the internet? When I was young, I’d read about this Troggs tape but never got a chance to hear it. Now I can type “Troggs fuck yelling” into my browser and Google’s first hit led me to this clip. Quite exciting, this computer magic!