Spinal Tap may have been strangers to rock 'n' roll fans in 1984, but they were no strangers to rock 'n' roll. Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer had all played in bands, and director Rob Reiner went to UCLA film school with future Doors Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. And, while a member of improv group the Committee, he hung out with the likes of Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas and the Steve Miller Band.
“We knew that world very well,” Reiner tells YEAH! “There was a cross-pollination between the improvisational theater world and rock ‘n’ roll bands in the ‘60s.”
That cross-pollination not only spawned This Is Spinal Tap but the mockumentary genre. And even though the movie isn’t exactly true, it is based on real-life events -- many of them as strange as the fiction they inspired.
Here are 11 movie moments inspired by real-life stories, both stupid and clever:
1. Movie Moment: Nigel's Mini-Bread Tantrum
Backstage at North Carolina’s “Vandermint Auditorium,” Nigel has a mini freakout over his regular-sized cold cuts not fitting onto “miniature bread.” Manager Ian Faith assures him “it will never happen again.”
Real-Life Story: Van Halen's Brown-M&M Meltdown
When a caterer refused to remove brown-M&M’s from Van Halen’s candy plate, per a clause in their concert rider, the band members trashed a University of Southern Colorado dressing room. When later asked by Rolling Stone why this M&M clause even existed, drummer Alex Van Halen replied, “Why not?”
2. Movie Moment: Spinal Tap Get Lost Backstage
Spinal Tap take multiple wrong turns and get complicated directions from a janitor (“You go straight through this door here, down the hall…”) to finally find the stage of Cleveland’s Star Theater.
Real-Life Story: Tom Petty’s Court Appearance
On their way to a stage in Germany, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers once wound up on a tennis court. “We heard they got stoned backstage and couldn’t find their way,” Rob Reiner recalls, adding that a confused Bob Dylan asking “where’s the door?” backstage in the movie Dont Look Back was another inspiration. A few years after This Is Spinal Tap hit theaters, Dylan and Petty would tour together without either getting lost.
3. Movie Moment: Flower-Power Flashback
Through the magic of mock archival performance footage, we experience Spinal Tap’s biggest hit: the fantastically obtuse hippie anthem “(Listen to the) Flower People” … in glorious technicolor. “'Flower People' was just supposed to be the lamest possible song," Michael McKean said. "It's very optimistic, but idiotically so."
Real-Life Story: The Metamorphosis of Iron Butterfly
Before San Diego rockers Iron Butterfly helped invent heavy metal with their muscular 17-minute jam “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” they offered dreamier ditties like “Fields of Sun” and “Gentle as It May Seem.” Iron Butterfly shared the bill with Spinal Tap on Tap's real-life debut show at famed L.A. metal club Gazzarri’s.
4. Movie Moment: Nigel’s Mullet
Before mullets were fashionable -- wait, were they fashionable? -- Nigel Tufnel was all business in the front and party in the back.
Real-Life Story: Jeff Beck
Christopher Guest got the inspiration for his Nigel Tufnel hair from Jeff Beck. However, the British rocker was actually more taken with Nigel’s leather jacket … so much so that he traded Guest one of his guitars for it.
5. Movie Moment: Derek Trapped in His Pod
During their performance of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Creation,” David and Nigel emerge from man-sized pods, but Derek’s fails to open, prompting the guitar tech to reach for his blowtorch.
Real-Life Story: Yes' Seashell Drummer
On their 1974 tour in support of Tales From Topographic Oceans (shortest song: 18 and half minutes!), Yes weren’t exactly minimalists. The set began with drummer Alan White engulfed by a giant seashell. One night, it didn’t open and the crew had to pump in oxygen until the roadies finally broke out pickaxes.
6. Movie Moment: Isle of Lucy
Spinal Tap recall how Peter James Bond, one of their many ill-fated drummers, spontaneously combusted at a jazz-blues festival (or blues-jazz festival) in the Isle of Lucy.
Real-Life Story: Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight Festival -- which featured the Who and Bob Dylan in the late ‘60s and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kings of Leon today -- once grew so large that Great Britain passed a law essentially banning it for 30 years. As for the Isle of Lucy Festival? There’s no such thing -- just a spontaneous “I Love Lucy” joke from our band of merry men. But, of course, you can buy the T-shirt.
7. Movie Moment: Band F-ing Fight!
While recording in "Rainbow Trout" Studios, the f-words fly as David, Nigel and Derek fight over Nigel’s inability to play a guitar part.
Real-Life Story: The Troggs Tapes
British rockers the Troggs, best-known for their 1966 smash “Wild Thing,” once left the studio microphones running for an epic argument in which they cursed before nearly every phrase... even "fairy dust."
8. Movie Moment: Death by Vomit
David, Nigel and Derek recount the sad fate of former Spinal Tap drummer Eric “Stumpy Joe” Childs, who choked to death on “someone else’s vomit.”
Real-Life Story: Um... Many
Stumpy Joe’s tale was only original in the vomit’s owner, as rock stars including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and AC/DC singer Bon Scott choked to death on their own vomit.
9. Movie Moment: Astrology-Obsessed Girlfriend
David’s meddling girlfriend Jeanine, who has taken over as Spinal Tap’s manager, plans the band’s travel by zodiac charts.
Real-Life Story: Foghat
This scene prompted British rockers Foghat to accuse Spinal Tap of “planting a bug in their bus.” Perhaps the musical instructions “slow ride … take it easy” were because Mercury was in retrograde.
10. Movie Moment: "Smell the Glove"
Publicist Bobbi Flekman -- embodied (and voiced!) by the inimitable Fran Drescher -- tries to break it to Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith that the band’s Smell the Glove album cover, featuring a “greased naked-woman” on all fours with a dog collar and leash, might be a tad sexist.
Real-Life Story: Whitesnake's 1979 Album
Two words: Love hunter! Sorry, one word: Lovehunter.
11. Movie Moment: "None More Black"
After Polymer Records rejects Spinal Tap’s dog-collared naked woman album cover, they compromise on an imageless version that Nigel describes as “none more black.”
Real-Life Story: "Back in Black"
AC/DC’s 20-times platinum 1980 masterwork Back in Black was almost as black, and singer Brian Johnson has a theory. “Peter Mensch, [AC/DC’s] manager at the time, was an advisor on the movie,” Johnson tells YEAH!, “and so I have always thought the black album in the movie was modeled on our own black album.” We’re going with AC/DC on this one.