Wednesday, November 4, 2015
TMFW 113 - Life Imitates England's Loudest Band
Today's relatively short TMFW comes to you from Boston, where we are celebrating my wife's 39th (for the first time) birthday. Thinking about Boston, I was reminded by the great throwaway line from the all-time great movie This is Spinal Tap, where early in the tour the band's manager Ian Faith reports that their Boston gig has been cancelled. The band is not happy, but Ian reassures them by saying "I wouldn't worry about it though, it's not a big college town." So two little This is Spinal Tap facts are the subject of today's TMFW.
I am a sucker for stories where fiction inspires real life. For instance, after the high-flying game quidditch was a staple in Harry Potter novels and was exhaustively explained by J.K. Rowling, some enterprising college students adapted the rules so that the game could be played on brooms that don't actually fly. Today, U.S. Quidditch has over 300 teams and hosts events throughout the year. It looks like a real live sport. (But players still run around the field with a broom between their legs.)
Similarly, the Christmas alternative holiday of Festivus - celebrated by George Costanza's family on Seinfeld - has inspired adherents around the world. You can get your own 6 foot tall aluminum Festivus pole online for the low price of $39, and there are several books to help you understand the "traditions" associated with the holiday.
On that note, let's get to the music facts. First, in This is Spinal Tap, the band tours the country and plays at a number of delightfully-named venues that includes the Xanadu Star Theater in Cleveland and Shank Hall in Milwaukee. Those sound like fake places, and they are: they were made up for the movie.
But in Milwaukee, fiction inspired reality. In 1984, the appropriately-named Peter Jest booked Spinal Tap (then on a real live tour) at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin Ballroom. Talking to the band, he shared with them his dream of opening a club, and promised that if he did he would name it Shank Hall. Five years later, he did just that. Shank Hall has been open for more than 25 years, and has hosted Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, Guided By Voices, Drive By Truckers, TMFW 134 future subjects Yo La Tengo, Bob Mould, Dead Milkmen, and a host of other great acts. Its logo is a tiny little Stonehenge. And in a case of "life imitating art imitating life," Spinal Tap held a press conference there in 1992. I love everything about that.
Separately, perhaps the most famous scene in the movie features lead guitar player Nigel Tufnel showing off his guitar collection. Nigel ends by showing off his Marshall amplifier, which has volume knobs that go to 11, so that if you are playing at 10 and "you need that extra push over the cliff," you can make it "one louder." The volume plates for that amp were a one-off prop for the movie, but since the film came out there have been a number of audio devices that do in fact go to 11. That includes several amplifier models, some mixing and audio consoles, and even the stereo on Tesla cars. Just as Shank Hall has become a real venue for Spinal Tap to play, "one louder" has become a real option on lots of stuff you can buy.
So there's your True Music Fact(s) for today; two stories of Spinal Tap silliness becoming reality.
BONUS FACT: Separate from those who celebrate the holiday purely for the whimsy, Festivus poles have been used as a political point for liberally-minded people who wish to reinforce the separation of church and state that is established in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In some places where civic leaders insist on Christian holiday displays - for example, the Wisconsin and Florida state capitols - activists have succeeded in similarly insisting on an adjacent Festivus pole display.
BONUS FACT 2: There's a fun little "easter egg" on This is Spinal Tap's IMDb page: the film's rating goes to 11.
BONUS FACT 3: In one of the most famous scenes from This is Spinal Tap, the band has difficulty navigating the labyrinthine backstage of a venue in Cleveland. As they struggle to find the stage, bass player Derek Smalls works to keep up his enthusiasm, at one point exclaiming "Hello Cleveland!" several times.
Since then, "Hello Cleveland" has become ingrained as a rallying cry. Aside from obvious uses (e.g. a video promoting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland), YouTube features videos of several different bands wandering backstage and noting the inspiration, the R&B singer Sade got her bass player to holler it at a show in Cleveland, it has inspired the name for (at least one) band, it is the name of a record label in Australia, and it's the title of several songs, including one by the instrumental UK band Mono. An old bandmate of mine used to greet our audience with "Hello Cleveland!" at each of our shows (which were never in Cleveland).
BONUS FACT 4: Several years ago, my wife bought me this wonderful Nigel Tufnel t-shirt. The few times anyone has commented on it, I have relished the chance to say that it was my "exact inner structure...done in a t-shirt."