Spinal Tap has been silent for years, but one of the band’s septuagenarian rockers has turned his amps up to 11 once again: bassist Derek Smalls.
Smalls is the satirical character dreamed up by comedian Harry Shearer — also known for being a two-time cast member on “Saturday Night Live” and for voicing many characters on “The Simpsons” — for “This is Spinal Tap,” the 1984 mockumentary about a British heavy-metal band.
Christopher Guest, who starred in and co-wrote the movie with Shearer, would go on to make mockumentaries about subjects including dog shows (“Best in Show”) and small-town theater (“Waiting for Guffman”), but “This is Spinal Tap,” which the Library of Congress preserved in the National Film Registry, is the only of the films that gained a significant off-screen life.
Spinal Tap may not be a real band, but it has released real music. And on Friday, Smalls is releasing his first full solo album for his 75th birthday, which was inspired by “fear of turning 76.”
The record, titled “Smalls Change,” is about aging in the modern world. Think of it as the comedic version of the swan songs from Leonard Cohen (“You Want it Darker”) and David Bowie (“Blackstar”).
MRIs, butt dials and erectile dysfunction receive full song-length treatments. The lyrics are funny, but the music is no joke, flipping from pounding heavy metal to lush symphonic segues. Real guest musicians fill out the album, including David Crosby, Peter Frampton, Paul Shaffer, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, Styx’s Todd Sucherman and former Yes member Rick Wakeman.
Then, the fictional aging rocker is embarking on a real nationwide tour — playing with real orchestras — which kicks off in New Orleans and ends in Washington at the Kennedy Center, where he’ll play with the National Symphony Orchestra.
And as Smalls tells it, Spinal Tap is officially done. Finding himself without his band, Smalls decided to “trot back up the ladder and see if there’s an attic up there.” There was. He found a wellspring of inspiration, ideas and opinions — some of which he shared with The Washington Post.
On the end of Spinal Tap
“This time it seemed to be some air of finality to it, to the unreturned phone calls and such,” he said.
Nigel Tufnel (Guest’s character in the film), who played lead guitar in the band, now spends his time experimenting with breeding miniature animals: First horses (but couldn’t find jockeys small enough to ride them), then goats (but they were too small to milk). Meanwhile, lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) sends the occasional letter, which Smalls opens “with a mixture of anticipation and bewilderment that I can’t find the scissors.” Unfortunately, they’re all written in Chinese pictograms, which Smalls can’t read, “so I can’t tell if he’s saying ‘Let’s get back together’ or ‘I miss you’ or ‘I love the new record’ or ‘Dim sum for three and I’ll have the duck.’ ”
On the record’s themes
“They say write about what you know. I thought, what do I know? I know I’m getting older, so I’ll write about that,” Smalls said, adding that he was often met with pushback.
“Friends said, ‘Derek that’s very limiting, that idea,’ and I said, ‘no,’ and then I thought about it, and I said ‘no’ again. And I said, ‘If you think about it — which I just did — you realize there’s only two kinds of people in the world: people who are getting older, and dead people. So I’m aiming very accurately, I think, at the active half of the market.’ ”
“Dead men do not stream,” he added.
On rock-and-roll’s health
“If it’s dead, the dead got up and danced,” Smalls said, adding, “I would say it’s past its peak, clearly.”
“There was a time in the ’70s when rockers strolled the earth and built pyramids in the musical deserts, but that time has past,” he said. “Now they making all these other types of music that I can’t even keep up with. Trap-house or house-trap, I don’t know.”
“Rock lived in the penthouse for a couple of decades. It’s now moved to a first-floor squat, I would say, a bedsit,” Smalls concluded.
On being a frontman
“As a bass player, you’re standing in the back,” Smalls said. “You don’t realize the lighters are brighter up front. And they’re warmer, because light equals heat. When you get older, you get a little more sensitive to the cold.”
If he could go back, he said he would always have been a frontman “if for no other reason than the warmth.”
On whether he ever revisits “This is Spinal Tap”
“You’re referring to a hatchet job. I don’t have to revisit it. It’s revisited as fans approach me every bloody day,” Smalls said.
He claimed the film showed the band in a bad light. In one famous scene, for example, the group has trouble finding the stage at a Cleveland show, instead circling around backstage in Sisyphean confusion. He said he wonders why the director didn’t show the good moments of the tour.
“That was our first American tour,” Smalls said. “About 19.420 percent of the time, we found our way to the stage straightaway. Why didn’t he show that?”