Almost 20 years and who knows how many drummers into their unique career in rock, the surviving members of one of England’s loudest bands had reached yet another low point in the spring of 1984. Only two years removed from a disastrous 1982 world tour that not only failed to turn the album Smell The Glove into a comeback hit, but also led to the group’s breakup, Spinal Tap now had to suffer the indignity of seeing the Marty DiBergi-helmed behind-the-scenes film of that tour gain widespread theatrical release. Would the numerous embarrassments catalogued in the hard-hitting rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap provoke public sympathy for and renewed interest in the band that Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls began back in 1964 as The Originals? Or would the group behind such familiar classic-rock hits as “Give Me Some Money” and “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” be consigned once and for all to obscurity? In this atmosphere of uncertainty, Spinal Tap elected to go back to their roots, kicking off a tour of small American rock clubs with an appearance at New York City’s legendary CBGB’s on May 6, 1984.
Of course, almost none of the above is true, strictly speaking. A group calling itself Spinal Tap did play CBGB’s on this day in 1984, but that group was the fictitious invention of director Rob Reiner and the comic actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer—St. Hubbins, Tufnel and Smalls, respectively. Reiner’s directorial debut was the aforementioned This Is Spinal Tap, a film that launched the mockumentary mini-genre as well as a thousand catchphrases, from “These go to 11” to “None more black.” It was during the film’s first week of release that McKean, Guest, Shearer and one of their many doomed drummers played their gig at CBGB’s, which one attendee recalls as drawing “every professional musician in the city of New York.”
This live appearance by Spinal Tap was the first, but certainly not the last step in an ongoing effort by the McKean et al. to blur the line between fiction and reality. In the years since their live debut, numerous bootleg recordings and early television appearances have “surfaced,” and one full-length album—1992’s Break Like The Wind—has been released. At last report, Nigel Tufnel was working on a pony farm, David St. Hubbins was producing hip-hop records out of a former colonic clinic and Derek Smalls was in rehab for an Internet addiction. But do not be surprised if one day you encounter a salesman resembling Christopher Guest on a visit to a hat shop, or if next year’s lineup of Broadway openings includes the long-awaited St. Hubbins rock opera, Saucy Jack.