“This Is Spinal Tap” Released on Blu-Ray Disc (Review)

“This is Spinal Tap” is one of those movies that people either love or are largely disinterested in. Anyone who is a scholar of or takes an active interest in the history of rock bands dating back to the 60’s are usually fans of  this “Rockumentary” by director Marti DiBergi (Rob Reiner) that pokes fun at a lot of stories and mythology of the big rock artists in the story of a washed out metal band who is desperately trying to make a comeback against seeming disinterest and plain bad luck.

“This is Spinal Tap” was released to theaters in 1984. In this time of ultra-mega-smash blockbusters the box office statistics are pretty small– The opening weekend of March 4, 1984 had the movie only playing on 3 screens netting only $30,000. It seemed to have done a slow spread through that spring growing to maximum of 206 screens by the end of April, and then dropping off until July 1st. Total net for “This is Spinal Tap” was $4.5 Million that year. In retrospect it was the promotion that Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer did by making appearances on places like MTV and the fact that they wrote and performed the songs that cemented Spinal Tap the band and catapulted “This is Spinal Tap” to the cult status that it is today.  Spinal Tap became a “real” band because it was a real band– the story is fiction, but how different is that from many bands that have a legend about them? The Wikipedia article on Spinal Tap is a humorous one in that it maintains both fictional and actual account. Under band members we get a list of the drummers and their untimely demise as well as actual people who performed or recorded with Spinal Tap. In a similar fashion we are offered a list of fictional and actual records recorded by the band.

2009 is the 25th anniversary of “This is Spinal Tap” and on July 28th it was re-issued on Blu-Ray Disc by MGM. The Blu-Ray edition of the movie is based largely on the excellent DVD version from 2000 that added over an hour of bonus material in the form of outtakes, real and fictional promotional material, TV appearances and an interview “Catching Up with Marti DeBergi.” It is worth sitting through the movie commentary which appropriately has Guest, McKean and Shearer in character.

The Blu-Ray edition of “This is Spinal Tap” is a 2-disc release with one Blu-Ray Disc and a bonus DVD . The Blu-Ray Disc is essentially the same content as the original 2000 DVD with new menus and the movie remastered to glorious high-definition. The bonus DVD includes the “Stonehenge” performance at Wembley Stadium as part of the Live Earth concerts and the National Geographic interview with Nigel Tufnel regarding his theories of Stonehenge. Pretty funny. I only wish they would have been able to include the rest of the Live Earth show that included a performance of “Big Bottom” with a number of guest bass players including Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield from Metallica and Adam Yauch (M.C.A) of the Beastie Boys.

It appears that the bonus material wasn’t remastered to high-definition, but I’m not sure that it would have benefitted much from remastering since most of it is made to look like old television appearances. Comparing the DVD of the movie to the Blu-Ray of the movie certainly shows that the Blu-Ray is providing a much sharper and brighter version of the film. Although the movie was only shot on standard 80’s filmstock, and since it was in a documentary style it isn’t like the cinematography was geared for breathtaking wide shots of landscape or special effects. The audio portion seems to be the same Dolby Digital version from the DVD. But, it sounds fantastic! The live performances in the film sound great. A word of warning– I found myself having to ride the volume button on the remote as the live performances are dramatically louder than most of the movie dialog. A couple of times my wife had to ask me to turn the movie down (sorry, Honey!).

The last time I sat down to watch “This is Spinal Tap” was in 2000 when the DVD release came out. Watching the movie on its 25th anniversary it is interesting to note how much of this film is still funny in a 2009 context.  It falls under the “It’s funny because it’s true!” context. The airport security scene where Derek Smalls is trying to smuggle an aluminum-foil covered cucumber is even more funny in these post-9/11 airport security days. The depiction of Polymer Records as a largely clueless organization run by stuffed shirts is an effective commentary as we watch similar stuffed shirts struggle with a new music economy. Bumbling concert promoters and label PR still exist in the real concert landscape. The situation where Sears is threatening to not carry Smell the Glove due to its “sexist” album art which causes the label to release the record with a totally black sleeve echoes the same strongarm tactics WalMart implements on releases it deems to be “not family friendly.”

From a purely guitar-head perspective I’m really impressed with the guitars the guys are playing in the movie. McKean is typically seen playing a white Gibson SG with humbuckers or a Gibson Les Paul Standard in Red Sunburst and at one point playing a goldtop Les Paul with P90’s. Christopher Guest is seen with a large collection of classic guitars in the “This One Goes to 11” scene which includes a beautiful three humbucker black Les Paul with gold hardware and a Shoreline Gold Fender Stratocaster. In a continuity problem, the black Les Paul is the guitar that Nigel Tufnel grabs for the “reunion” scene. If he was out of the band, I wouldn’t assume that his guitar would have been with the band– but whatever, my geek is showing.

“This is Spinal Tap” is one of those movies that has defined how we look at rock music and bands today.  As long as there are bands touring and fans that follow them, this movie will continue to be watched. Every day I expect another generation of music fans and musicians are watching the movie for the first time.

David St. Hubbins says in the movie, “It’s a fine line between stupid and clever” which seems to be a good way to sum up why “This is Spinal Tap” is the classic film it is.

“This is Spinal Tap” Blu-Ray Edition on MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is out now with a suggested retail price of $34.99 U.S. / $37.99 Canada.

Click Here for the official Spinal Tap website

Click Here for the Wikipedia Article on “This is Spinal Tap”

New Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Studio “Vintage Mahogany”

Gibson Les Paul Studio Vintage Mahogany

Guitar Center had their regular huge blowout “list” sale last Labor Day Weekend. Since last Christmas I had been contemplating picking up one of the Gibson Les Paul Vintage Mahogany guitars. The sale over Christmas was a good one and this guitar was included in it, so I was hoping that it would be included again for this sale, too. This was a guitar that Sherry said that she liked a lot. This guitar has a “thin” nitrocellulose finish and has a matte finish that Sherry prefers on it rather than a glossy one. I had been struggling with selling my somewhat rare Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom that is the “star” of the most-read article on my blog. The fact of the matter is that I just don’t play it. So, if I can move to a new guitar that might fit my playing better, and it was on sale, I thought I’d better jump on it.

On Friday over lunch I hightailed it over to Guitar Center in Cedar Rapids, and found out that the guitar in question was, in fact, on sale! It was on sale for $200 off! This guitar is part of Gibson’s sub-$1000 line of guitars that includes most of the “Faded” line.

This is a pretty interesting guitar in a lot of ways. It seems that Guitar Center/Musician’s Friend has this guitar manufactured specifically for them. Apparently manufactured in large enough numbers that they can sell them very cheaply. On the surface, it looks just like the regular Gibson Les Paul Studio in what they call “Worn Brown” with Chrome Hardware. It’s their no-frills Les Paul which I prefer– no amber “top hat” volume and tone knobs, no gold hardware, no binding. Mahogany solid-body with chambers. The guitar itself is slightly thinner than other Les Pauls. The combination of the chambers and thinner body adds to the relative lightness of the guitar. A key difference of the Guitar Center version of this guitar, however, comes in the pickups. The regular Studio Les Paul, that Guitar Center sells for between $1100 and $1400 depending on options has 490R and 498T pickups, which are based on the original 1960’s “Patent Applied For” humbuckers. Guitar Center’s version of the Gibson Les Paul Studio has Burstbucker Pro pickups which are hotter.

Guitar Center had three of these left on Friday, and only one of them was still fresh-in-the-box. The other two were showing signs of demo floor abuse. Only pick scratches, but I wanted one that didn’t have any scratches on it. Additionally, there are slight variations in these guitars since they are hand assembled and finished in Nashville alongside the other Made in USA Gibsons. This one had a darker rosewood fretboard that I preferred. The neck was slightly wider than the other two, but not dramatically so. This guitar, like all Gibsons, came with a hard case, which is a really nice touch. [Note: it has been recently confirmed that Guitar Center no longer offers a hardshell case with the Vintage Mahogany Studios, only a gig bag. See the comments for more details]

Since I was selling the Jag, I was going to need a box to ship that in and they kindly let me take the box the Gibson was in which yielded me some interesting information about the guitar with the labelling on the box. Gibson calls this guitar a “Les Paul Studio Limited” and lists the options as “Worn Brown” and “Chrome.” It is given a model number of LPSTWBCH1, which would seem to mean “Les Paul Studio Worn Brown Chrome.”

So, having had this guitar for a number of weeks, I can say that this guitar certainly meets my expectations. In fact, it might surpass my expectations for a guitar that is considered the entry-level for the Gibson Les Paul line. Most of the complaints on Harmony Central surround fit and finish of these guitars. Indeed, Ian the sales assistant at Guitar Center suggested that I look at and play a bunch of these to make sure that I get one that feels and sounds to my satisfaction. I feel like I picked out the best of the three they had in the store. I didn’t experience any of the issues that some of the folks on the review site had experienced. It’s quite possible that Gibson has improved this guitar over time, too. It sounds great. I’m playing it through a homebrew tube amp called a P1 that a friend of mine made for me. The Burstbuckers overdrive the EL84 tube nicely adding to enough crunchy distortion for my tastes. The relative short scale of the Les Paul (24.75″) versus my Fender Strat (25.5″) takes a bit to get used to, but I’m adapting, and I find myself reaching for the LP more frequently. The setup was pretty basic, but the strings are a bit higher than I prefer and two of the strings could stand some tweaking for intonation and I’m going to be working on that in the near future. The vintage-style “green key” kluson tuners seem to do a relatively good job of holding the guitar in tune.

Overall, I would recommend this guitar for someone who wants to get into a Gibson LP for less money and the bonus upgrades on this model make it a steal, indeed. You can always go with an Epiphone, but I think the combination of features and looks makes this guitar an instant favorite for me.

UPDATE: After a strange couple of years of rebranding and an unfortunate 2015 model year it appears that Gibson has brought the Worn Studio series back for 2016– almost exactly the way it was in 2012. This is slightly different than my 2008 as it has a maple cap over the mahogany, otherwise it is very similar. Take a look at models for sale at Reverb.com