Spinal Tap from the beginning -- With a new album on the horizon, we look back on the career of this influential rock band

The last time Spi¨al Tap toured and released a new album, Nancy Reagan was getting free designer gowns, Liz Taylor was still carrying a torch for Richard Burton, and Pia Zadora had just won a Golden Globe award. We may have forgotten those events, but we cherish our memories of a band that, while never a critical or public favorite, still fills a void in the collective unconsciousness of ear-splitting rock & roll. And what memories: lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, whose amps’ volume went up to 11 (they go ”way past 20” nowadays, he notes); David St. Hubbins, the charismatic blond singer whose love for rock & roll was surpassed only by his dependence on his girlfriend, Jeanine; and Derek Smalls, the bassist who found a novel use for a foil- wrapped cucumber. We remember the wit and wisdom of performers who understood that ”there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”

For the 10 years following its last, disastrous tour of Japan, as documented in the 1984 Marty DiBergi film This Is Spi¨al Tap, the band was in rock limbo. But now they’re back, with their first new album in eight years, Break Like the Wind. ”Bitch School,” the new single, is already creating controversy, much to the group’s dismay. (”If you have half a brain in your head,” Nigel says, ”you can see it’s a song about training dogs.”) Tap’s world tour, which begins May 17, will culminate in a gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall that will be filmed and spun off into a fall TV special.

What better time, then, to relive some of the special magic that has made Spi¨al Tap as much a part of our lives as, say, clip-on nose rings? Turn the page, and savor with us now some artifacts of a bygone era — from what was almost a bygone band — culled from the estate of Tap’s late manager, Ian Faith, who, pasty-faced and badly bloated, the perennial purveyor of bad news and canceled concerts, presided over the band’s decline.

In the Beginning: The Calm Before They Stormed
The 60’s
Leather and spandex may be their uniform today, and their band’s name may evoke an excruciating medical procedure, but the members of Spi nal Tap snagged their first hit in 1967 with a gently psychedelic sound. ”(Listen to the) Flower People” captures the soon-to-be-satanic band in a state of innocence, imparting its belief not only that flower people indeed exist, but that we should listen to them. That was an innocent time, when bands with names like Moby Grape and Peanut Butter Conspiracy could make a ”sandwich” of Jim Kweskin’s jolly Jug Band, as the poster above so nostalgically recalls. But even then Tap was buffeted by the threat of incipient obscurity. Its appearance at the Fillmore West was only tentatively scheduled, and no one now remembers whether it actually took place.

Next: Nights In Black Leather
The 70’s
The ’70s with their ugly clothes and bad haircuts, was the crucible that forged Spi¨al Tap’s blistering twin-guitar attack, as the band went from flower power to, well, just plain power. The heat got intense at times, as evidenced by the charred drumsticks below, sadly all that remains of drummer Peter ”James” Bond after his death in an onstage explosion in 1976. (Spinal Tap’s other drummers — John ”Stumpy” Pepys, Eric ”Stumpy Joe” Childs, Mick Shrimpton, Joe ”Mama” Besser — all died, too, of causes ranging from a mysterious gardening accident to spontaneous combustion.) In this formative decade, Tap flirted with different sounds and styles, even a too-late stab at glitter rock. But the band’s 1975 live triple album, Jap Habit, which included the dreamy instrumental ”Nocturnal Mission,” set a record of sorts by hanging on to the No. 112 slot for an unprecedented 82 of its 84 weeks on Billboard’s – album chart. As Nigel once remarked, ”You can’t buy that kind of consistency.”

The Dark Decade: A Long, Pointless Journey to Nowhere
The 80’s
If the ’60s were a time of innocence and the ’70s of relentless searching, then the ’80s had to be Tap’s Dark Decade of the Soul. They rose phoenixlike from the ashes of lawsuits with their record company — which, in unusually blunt contractual language, had for three years forced them to “stay the hell out of the studio” — and then self-destructed on a Japanese tour in the spring of 1982 after playing only one date. (All of which makes the ticket from that tour, pictured above, an unusually rare collector’s item.) Shortly afterward, Marty DiBergi’s self-styled “rockumentary,” This Is Spi¨al Tap, made the band a household name. In the film, Spi¨al Tap got lost on its way to the stage at a concert in Cleveland; a crucial article of stage scenery for an epic production number came out looking as small as dollhouse furniture; luckless Derek was trapped inside a transparent plastic pod, and, freed at last, was nearly decapitated when he tried to get back in. Derek, angry at the film, is now quick to point out that, most nights, he gets out of the pod “60 to 80 percent of the time, easy.” The same hit-or-miss principle unfortunately dogged Tap’s attempts to promote themselves in what they thought were novel ways. Their attempt, for instance, to draw attention to their otherwise successful album Shark Sandwich went, as the results pictured attest, ever so slightly awry.