A few years ago, filmmaker Christopher Guest—the brains behind This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, and A Mighty Wind—was asked to speak at a retrospective on his films. So he phoned Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, costars of those films, and asked them to show up and play a few Spinal Tap songs—acoustic, and not in costume. The songs were well received, and now the threesome has launched a tour that continues the theme. “Unwigged & Unplugged” kicked off April 17 in Vancouver, and features low-key versions of Spinal Tap, Guffman, and Wind songs, sung by the comedic masterminds who originally penned them. The A.V. Club asked McKean, free from the faux-British accent, to share the stories behind the satirical ditties of Spinal Tap.
Michael McKean: “Hell Hole” was pretty much all of us. Chris came in with the opening lick. We were just looking for hooks, looking for big hard-rock hooks, and he came in with that. And where you hear the words “Hell Hole,” it originally said “Time Code.” We’re not sure why, except that it just sounded like maybe we’d do that. We tried to write a lyric around the phrase “time code,” and it wound up being way too smart. So we went with “Hell Hole.” And we made this story about this guy who hits the top and starts missing being poor. It’s fictional.
The A.V. Club: So “Time Code” was just a thing that felt natural?
MM: I don’t know. It was one of those things, like “scrambled eggs,” which was the original title to “Yesterday,” it was just a mnemonic way of doing things. My wife and I wrote a song called “Potato’s In The Paddy Wagon,” and it was in A Mighty Wind. Originally, “Potato’s In The Paddy Wagon” was just a way to remember the tune. But we wound up liking it so much, we decided to write the lyric about a girl named Potato, and that she’s in the paddy wagon, and why. So that’s how things happen. But “Time Code” had to go.
“Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight”
MM: We needed an opening number. I wanted to write something which was not exactly heavy metal, but had a hard-rock shuffle feel. And lyrically, something that would trumpet the astounding manhood of the singer.
AVC: There’s a borderline pedophile vibe.
MM: Yeah, tell me about it. “You still got your baby teeth.” That’s a pretty horrible line. But it may be my wife’s favorite line. No, no, no, “You’re too young and I’m too well-hung” is my wife’s favorite line.
MM: This was a song I wrote originally for a group called Lenny And The Squigtones in 1979. Chris was actually in the band as well. It was a garage band, with these characters that we were doing on Laverne & Shirley. And “Heavy Duty” was just a parody of hard rock. Kind of along the lines of AC/DC more than anything else. “She’s Got The Jack” kind of feel.
“Rock ’N Roll Creation”
“The Majesty Of Rock”
MM: “Rock ’N Roll Creation” is something we all pretty much wrote together. We wanted something big and pretentious and pompous, and that seemed to fill the bill. It’s actually an “In the beginning, there was the beat” kind of thing. Which we repeated later with a song called “The Majesty Of Rock.” I just thought it would be a nice, big, pretentious, grand song. So I sat down, fired the whole thing off, and then brought it in to the boys. I had a great guitar lick in mind, and as I played it for them, they looked at me like, “That’s not that great.” So we actually developed a different one. Which worked a lot better.
MM: It was probably inspired by “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen. It seemed certainly worth another look by a lesser band than Queen, which we certainly were. [On this tour,] we’re going very minimal with it. We got up to 19 bass players on stage when we were at Wembley Stadium two years ago. And we figured “Let’s go in the other direction.”
AVC: What’s the Spinal Tap mentality toward women?
MM: Uh, a necessary evil. It’s funny, we don’t get too specific in the film, except of course, with the groupie Jeanine. There is kind of another angle that can be spotted on some of the extra material, if you look in the DVD releases and alternate takes, et cetera. You’ll see a lot of footage of Derek, Harry’s character, on the phone with his lawyer about how his ex-wife is cleaning him out. And Nigel [Tufnel, Guest’s character], you just figure the total free spirit will do it with whatever casts a shadow. But I think David [St. Hubbins, McKean’s character] is a serial monogamist, but also fancies himself an intellectual kind of monk. But as far as the attitude, it’s probably not too far from your average rock ’n’ roll moron.
“(Listen To The) Flower People”
AVC: Was this the “Octopus’s Garden” of This Is Spinal Tap?
MM: Yeah, sort of. But in 1967, the Summer Of Love, there was a flurry of songs. Not all of them were released here, or were any kind of a hit here, but there was a song… I think it was called “San Francisco,” and it was by The Flowerpot Men. And it’s a pretty lame song. So this was just supposed to be the lamest possible song about how there’s going to be peace and love all over the place, and we’re all saved. So it’s very optimistic, but idiotically so.
“Cups And Cakes”
MM: If there’s one I’m a little sentimental about, it’s this, which is off the first album, and it was kind of like their string-laden “Eleanor Rigby” sound. It was actually closer to a Kinks song than anything else. We just re-recorded all the original songs to make them sound better, and instead of a string quartet, it just starts with me on the piano. Then everyone joins in bit by bit with Chris on the guitar, Harry on the bass, C.J. on keys, and by the end of it we’re all singing along. And it’s kind of this boozy little tea party. It’s really sweet. It’s certainly not textbook Spinal Tap.
AVC: Where does the sentimentality come from?
MM: It’s innocent. It’s a look at innocence written by a person who’s not that innocent. It’s make-believe. It’s “Let’s play that we’re kids playing.”
“Christmas With The Devil”
MM: We were going to be doing an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1984, when the movie came out, and we wanted to do “Big Bottom,” which was kind of our hit at the time. We also wanted to do a new tune, and Harry had this idea of “Christmas With The Devil.” It just seemed iconically disrespectful and kind of edgy, quote-unquote. And so we wrote that tune, and that was the first place we did that song. It was Harry’s idea for the song itself, and he came up with the opening piece of what it sounds like. I think he wrote the basis of the song, and then we all got together and finished it.
AVC: How was it received?
MM: Good. We had background singers dressed as angels, and of course, little people dressed as reindeer pulling a sleigh. It’s pretty crude.
“Rainy Day Sun”
MM: This is one of my favorite songs. As often happens, the titles came from Harry. We needed a flip side for “Listen To The Flower People,” and Harry just said “Rainy Day Sun.” And I said “That’s a great song title,” and we used it.
AVC: The song shows off the silly side of the band. Is it tough to give satirical characters a sense of humor? To make them aware?
MM: I think a band that doesn’t have a sense of humor can come up with their own take on whimsy. Kind of lead-footed and ham-handed, but I think just all the better for that. These guys singing about how the sun is like a moppet at a birthday party. That’s pretty lame.