The Story of Spinal Tap’s Turn-of-the-’80s Comeback On ‘Shark Sandwich’
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American life, but American lives are of no concern to the (primarily) British-born members of Spinal Tap, her Royal Majesty's loyal, loud-playing and, more importantly, tax-paying subjects since 1964. On April 1, 1980, Spinal Tap stood perched on the cliff of an unlikely career comeback via the release of Shark Sandwich. Alas, like all great works of art, the record divided critical and popular opinion into extreme love/hate camps.
It's fair to say that no one knew how to divide people better than Spinal Tap. For instance, after taking the world by storm with their 1967 Summer of Love hit, "(Listen to the) Flower People," band leaders and co-vocalists and guitarists David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel had brazenly charted a new musical course into the raging seas of '70s hard rock, backed by steadfast bassist Derek Smalls for unforgettable albums like Brainhammer (1970) and Intravenus de Milo (1974). Triumph after triumph, however, eventually blinded Spinal Tap to their own Titanic-sized hubris. With the release of 1975's exceedingly ambitious (and uncomfortably sweaty) concept album, The Sun Never Sweats, the band inevitably crashed headlong into the unforgiving iceberg of failure, falling squarely in the cross-hairs of punk rockers for the second half of the decade.
If not for the fluke U.S. hit they enjoyed with a live recording of "Nice 'N Stinky" in 1977 (two years after its original release as part of the unfortunately named triple live album Jap Habit), the dispirited Spinal Tap may have never scored another recording contract and a new lease on life. They were also still grieving over the gruesome death of longtime drummer, Peter "James" Bond, via spontaneous combustion. Still, survive they did, and with the reinvigorated backing of mighty Polymer Records and its respected and urbane industry leader, Sir Denis Eton-Hogg, the Spinal Tap deli was once again open for business and ready to prepare its Shark Sandwich.
Of course, it didn't hurt that 1980 also marked a global resurgence of interest in hard rock and heavy metal, thanks to chart-conquering albums like Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell, AC/DC's Back in Black and Judas Priest's British Steel -- to say nothing of the thrilling rookie bands from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, including Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, White Spirit and Bad News. As a darn-right chuffed St. Hubbins commented in trade publication, R & R & R (Radio & Records & Royalties), "New wave, old wave, we don't care. We're just pleased that our surf boards are waxed."
Listen to Spinal Tap Perform 'Sex Farm'
There was bound to be a lot of backstage "waxing" in Spinal Tap's immediate future, based on Shark Sandwich's encouraging early sales returns. That caused no small excitement among new band recruits Mick Shrimpton (drums) and Viv Savage (keyboards). Music buyers were also in agreement that tongue-in-cheek highlights like "No Place Like Nowhere," "Throb Detector" and "Scratch N' Sniff" were all vintage Spinal Tap. With the first single "Sex Farm," the band had a bona fide hit under their belts, yet again.
As the ever eloquent Smalls later described it in the revealing documentary This Is Spinal Tap, however, all the band had intended was to "[take] a sophisticated view of sex and [put it on a farm]." Entertainment Weekly supported this assertion when they posited that "you'd have to go clear back to Brueghel for an equally heady brew of hardworking Everyman earthiness and primal barnyard lust." Furthermore, in a separate interview, Smalls elaborated that "It's close to my heart because I snuck into the mixing studio after the other lads had left and turned up my bass part." But that's neither here nor there, so let's not get off point. In the end, the most pertinent conclusion about the entire, sordid affair can likely be paraphrased from Tufnel's oft-quoted insight into the human condition: "What's wrong with being sexy?"
However, there were a handful of negative nellies who couldn't grasp the inherent genius of this immortal LP. One particularly vindictive critic saw fit to submit merely a two-word review: "S– sandwich."
Whatever the cause, such negativity did little to dent the fender of Spinal Tap's return to form in 1980. They would build upon its momentum two years later with Smell the Glove, whose release was intended to coincide with their first U.S. dates in years – known as the Tap into America tour – and chronicled in This Is Spinal Tap.
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