“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”

Fender Announces Billy Corgan Signature Pair of Stratocasters

Billy Corgan Signature Stratocaster in Olympic WhiteBilly Corgan Signature Stratocaster in BlackI’ll admit to once being a fan of The Smashing Pumpkins. Although, I stopped listening to them after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness but up to that landmark third album I really believed that Billy and his attendant whine could do no wrong. I don’t know what happened after that. Maybe Billy shaved his head, I don’t know. Although there are folks who swear by Adore and Machina maybe I’m just missing it.

I still think Billy is one of the guys who took his shoegazer influences and built on them to make a signature sound. So, when I saw that Fender announced at Summer NAMM the new Billy Corgan Artist Series “Signature” Stratocasters I took some interest.

Effectively, we have two new American Hard Tail Strats (the first since they were killed off in 2006). One interesting aspect to them is that they utilize a CBS-era “big” headstock on a satin polyurethane-covered 22-fret maple neck. Not something I’m used to seeing on an American Stratocaster. The body is a standard “contour” alder body with satin nitrocellulose finish done with tasteful “tuxedo” (white knobs on black pickguard, black knobs on white) trim in two colors: classic Olympic White, or black. Then we get to the parts that Billy influenced. In the interview with Billy on Fender’s site, he says that he didn’t set out to make a guitar that would give the player his sound, but a guitar with a “modern” “high gain” guitar that a player could express themselves on. That said, it is a guitar that he is currently playing in the spirit of Artist Series guitars like Clapton’s “Blackie” (not the mega-thousand-dollar reproduction of his 70’s guitar but the one that he designed for Fender).

To achieve this high gain, Billy worked with DiMarzio to develop a “Billy Corgan” single-spaced humbucker pickup that this guitar is using in the neck and bridge positions. This guitar is also utilizing a DiMarzio “Chopper” in the middle. However, rather than just making a “hot rod” Strat with humbuckers, he has the 5-position switch providing any of the three humbuckers or the neck and bridge with a split of the middle. Oddly, the middle position only gives the Chopper in a humbucker mode rather than all three humbuckers being hot. Billy explains that he wanted to preserve some of the single coil sound that it’s known for rather than just loading the guitar up with humbuckers. I’d argue that the classic Strat sound doesn’t involve any DiMarzio pickups OR humbuckers for that matter.

Still the guitar seems intriguing to me. I’m kind of in the market for a Les Paul to achieve a humbucker sound in my collection, but maybe this is the guitar to do it, and it would look great next to my black Hard Tail Strat and my black P-Bass. Unfortunately, it will be a bit before anyone takes delivery of these since they were just announced (unless Fender would like to send me one for review– I’ll take an Olympic White one, thanks!).

This guitar MSRP’s at $1999 and comes with a vintage tweed case that fits the big headstock. If I manage to try one of these out, I’ll write a review here.

2005 Fender American Stratocaster Hard Tail (review)

2005 Strat HardTail A couple of weekends ago I was out to lunch with my friend Erik and decided to visit the Cedar Rapids Music-Go-Round to see if they had anything interesting in stock. Over lunch we were discussing the amazing finds that he and our friend Andrew had in that store.

Admittedly Music-Go-Round can be pretty hit-and-miss when it comes to really great finds at a good price. Quite a bit of their stock caters to the beginner or low-budget musicians– the guy who really wants a Gibson Les Paul, but only has the funds for the LTD version of it (a good version for the price, BTW). When we got there they had quite a few Fenders hanging on the wall– a couple of Mexicans– but they had two American Stratocasters as well. One was a 2001 Hot Rod Red with tremolo and rosewood fretboard and the other was the 2005 black and white Hard Tail with maple neck that I ended up purchasing.

The salesman plugged me into a used Fender Blues Junior Combo Amp to try the guitars out. A good choice as the Blues Jr is partially tube and would be fairly well-matched to the classic Strat sound. After playing both guitars and conferring with Erik and calling Andrew on his cell I settled on the Hard Tail for a couple of reasons– one is that I really didn’t want a tremolo even though I could choose to block it (like Eric Clapton!) and the other is that I really like the feel of a maple neck.

The guitar was in immaculate shape and came with all of its swing tags and paperwork as well as the standard-issue plastic case for $549. This guitar lists for $1327.99, but you can get a new one for around $950 at online retailers. So, I feel like I got a pretty good deal.

60th Anniversary Badge

Even though this guitar has a 2005 serial number (starting with “Z5”) it was sold as a 2006 model and has the Fender 60th Anniversary badge on the back of the headstock which is pretty cool. Another unique aspect of this guitar is that Fender discontinued the American Hard Tail in 2006. No new Hard Tails in ’07. I contacted Fender to confirm this as I see that most of the online retailers are still selling them even though the online catalog at fender.com doesn’t list it as current product. According to Fender the only way to get a Hard Tail guitar would be to order the Fender Robert Cray Standard Stratocaster Electric Guitar which is Mexican or to order the Eric Clapton Signature Strat, which has a blocked tremolo. Custom Shop Showmaster guitars come with Hard Tail as well.

This American Stratocaster is one of the post-2000 configurations. According to The Stratocaster Chronicles by Tom Wheeler, in the Summer of 2000 Fender discontinued the “American Standard” which had been in existence for 13 years and replaced it with the current “American Series.” The American Series was a new start to the Stratocaster line pulling together a set of features from the entire history of the Strat to that point making arguably the best Strat yet.

These features included the unanimously-agreed-superior pre-CBS 4-bolt neck, the Micro Tilt adjustment, the advanced shielding from the Standard, the 5-way pickup selector switch that dated back to 1977, “no-load” tone control which at “10” kills the tone pot on the middle pickup making for a vintage Strat tone, “Delta Tone” pickups where the middle pickup is wired in reverse of the other two providing a humbucking effect on certain switch settings, a single string tree on the head adding to tuning stability and improving tone, “rolled” neck edges which adds to the pleasant neck feel, non-veneered “original contour” body based on the 1950’s Strats, staggered pickup polepieces like the 1950’s Strats, and routing to provide the ability to add humbuckers in the neck and bridge positions. This final change eliminated the contraversial “swimming pool” routing where the area behind the pickguard was just a big hole to accomodate different pickup configurations.

Over the 53 years of the Stratocaster’s existence it has been subject to constant change– some of it good, some of it not good. In the American Series we see the benefits of a company looking back on the history of its products to pull a feature set together that I think ultimately makes an instrument that both honors its past, innovates and– most importantly– is great to play.

>pp 246-250, “Chapter 9: The New Millennium,”The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat, Tom Wheeler, 2004

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation

All Fender product names in this article are trademarks of Fender.

Check out the Fender Hard Tail Stratocasters at reverb.com!