Song Writing

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal Tap

by Jeff Suwak

Share this post

Since the time of their 1984 film debut, Spinal Tap has evolved into something much, much more than a mockumentary rock band. They have become an international icon more real than reality itself, a visionary musical act transcending transcendence and reshaping cultural shapes. There are now only two kinds of people living in the world today: those who have seen This is Spinal Tap, and those who haven't. That's an actual, verifiable statistical fact.

Here at Songfacts, we (the editorial "we," that is) most certainly have seen the film. In fact, we most certainly have seen it more than once. Indeed, we have seen it more times than is comfortable to talk about. It's even possible that we lie in bed at night thinking about Spinal Tap. Out of one of those purely theoretical midnight reveries, the seed for this story found root. We began to ask ourselves an interesting and not unimportant question: which historic rock band most closely resembled, or resembles, Spinal Tap?

It's not an uncommon musing, I'm sure. Luckily for any of you readers who have also found yourself tormented over this existential dilemma, we have applied our prefrontal cortexes to this inquiry and determined an answer. But, before going further, let us first examine the qualities that went into this highly scientific examination of rock and roll resemblances.

We broke Spinal Tap down into twelve essential qualities and then examined ten bands (not at all randomly selected) to see which one could lay claim to the most similarities.
The Criteria:
1) Offensive Album Covers
Album covers pulled or banned because of controversial or offensive imagery.
The critics just didn't understand what the band was trying to achieve with the original Smell the Glove album cover. One would think that the image of "a greased, naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash, and a man's arm extended out... holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it" would speak for itself. Yet, the naysayers just didn't understand.

It was meant to be sexy, not sexist, damn it.
2) Internal Strife
Core members went from best of friends to worst of enemies... and sometimes back.
The breakup of Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins is one of the most emotional scenes in cinematic history. It's one of the few instances where a grown man can cry in the public justifiably (Wait... that is okay, right?). Luckily, it was only a brief prelude to their joyous reunion.
3) Cancelled Concerts
Had shows cancelled by major cities.
Boston canceled the Spinal Tap show they were supposed to host during the band's comeback tour.

Luckily for Spinal Tap, Boston's not all that big of a college town.
4) Armadillos in Trousers
Spinal Tap's audience predominately consisted of teenage boys. This is, of course, almost inexplicable, considering the talent, depth, and sexual magnetism of the band.

As Nigel Tufnel observed, however, the armadillos packed conspicuously in the members' pants were simply too much for young ladies to take, and so girls avoided the shows altogether.
5) Inexplicable Outfits
Used elaborate, inexplicable, bizarre stage props and/or band outfits.
Whether dressing as druids while dancing around a miniature Stonehenge or hoisting a demonic skull high up over the stage, Spinal Tap always found a way to craft an inimitable, inexplicable, inconceivable hodgepodge of stage imagery.
6) Girlfriend Tension
Nigel never did get along with David's girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone. The bitter rivalry nearly destroyed them forever.
7) Big in Japan
Many fine bands have found an enthusiastic Japanese audience when no other countries wanted anything to do with them. Spinal Tap — for a time, at least — was one of them.
8) English
They're English, which is another way of saying, "They're from England."
9) Drummer Turnover
Drumming for Spinal Tap has never been an easy, or even non-life-threatening, task. From gardening accidents to spontaneous combustion, it's just a dangerous gig to take on.

Bands awarded this criteria point will have also experienced high drummer turnover in their tenure. In order to keep things scientific, we're setting the bar at four or more drummers over the span of a band's lifetime. Initially, we were going to go with three, but were surprised to find just how many bands have had three or more drummers. The profession appears to be risky no matter where one goes.
10) Stage Mishaps
Derek Albion Smalls being trapped in an unexplainable space pod is one of the most iconic moments of Spinal Tap's reunion tour. In addition to the dramatic scene created at an airport security checkpoint by his tinfoil-wrapped cucumber, this may have been the defining moment of Derek Smalls' musical career.

And then, of course, there's the Stonehenge incident.
11) Two Artistic Visionaries
A dynamic duo that were clearly the creative engine.
Tufnel and St. Hubbins were each visionaries in their own right, but coming from different, diametrically opposed elemental temperaments.

As Derek Smalls observed, they were like fire and ice. The combination resulted in some potent artistic groundbreaking.
12) Hippie Phase
Went through a period when they embraced flower power.
Spinal Tap tried on many different musical hats over the span of their career, including a foray into hippiedom in which they urged the nation to listen to the flower people.

And now, based on the above criteria, are the ten bands most like Spinal Tap.
10) Nirvana

Hall of Fame hug notwithstanding, the tension between Courtney Love and the rest of Nirvana continues to this very day.

During the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, bassist Krist Novoselic threw his instrument about 25 feet into the air and caught it with his face in front of a live television audience.

Final Score: 2

9) Led Zeppelin

The naked kids on the cover of Zeppelin's 1973 album Houses of the Holy caused enough controversy that a new version with the children's butts airbrushed out was put on shelves. The design was inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End.

More than the nudity itself, the combination of the image with the surreal and vaguely menacing appearance of the rest of the visuals was probably the culprit.

The armadillo bulge in Robert Plant's pants was as much a part of the Led Zeppelin concert experience as the smell of reefer and the sound of John Bonham's gong.

Rising from the ashes of The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin comprised Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who both hailed from the London suburbs, and Robert Plant and John Bonham who both were born and bred in the Birmingham area.

Final score: 3

8) Mötley Crüe

The beef between Vince Neil and Tommy Lee kicked up plenty of dirt. When the band got back together in 2005, Neil explained: "I don't like Tommy and Tommy doesn't like me. Tommy doesn't care to resolve things. I don't care. I have no feelings about it either way. You go to work and there's a guy in the office you don't like. You still do your job."

Drummer Tommy Lee has, perhaps, the most notorious armadillo in rock history.

At a 2005 concert in Casper, Wyoming, Tommy Lee was burned by pyrotechnics as he hung suspended from a wire above the stage.

Final Score: 3.5 (we gave extra credit for the umlauts)

7) Guns N' Roses

The original cover for the band's 1987 Appetite for Destruction album, a classic of the genre, courted controversy with cover artwork showing what appeared to be a robot rapist standing over a recent victim.

Guns N' Roses was torn apart by the egos and differing styles of its two key members. In discussing he band's breakup, Axl Rose stated, "It was really a fight with me and Slash. Izzy [Stradlin] was doing the same thing, but the fight with me and Slash started the day I met him. He came in, popped my tape out and put his in and wanted me in his band. And I didn't want to join his band. We've had that war since Day 1."

Steven Adler and Matt Sorum served during the golden age of GnR, but they have had four other drummers, bringing their total to six.

One night in 1992 in Montreal, co-headliner Metallica took the stage before Guns N' Roses. During that performance, James Hetfield was injured by pyrotechnics and had to end the band's set, aggravating an apparently edgy crowd. Guns N' Roses then took two hours to start playing. When they finally took the stage, they discovered that the sound equipment was improperly set up so that they couldn't hear themselves. This, along with Axl's sore throat, prompted them to cut the set short. The combination of both headlining bands failing to deliver sent the crowd into a riot - as in, a literal riot.

Final score: 4

6) Gwar

Gwar doesn't just have inexplicably bizarre and elaborate stage props; it could actually be argued that the entire band is an inexplicable, bizarre, and elaborate stage prop. They have even been known to occasionally decapitate a walking effigy of Prime Minister Tony Abbot. The headless figure spewed a stream of blood all over the audience. As brilliant as the sight is, it's pretty much par for Gwar's course.

Gwar is so big in Japan that they even have a separate Japanese website, a fact that surprises no one. Gwar and Japanese pop culture are pretty much made for each other.

Gwar has had six drummers, including Hans Sphincter, Hans Orifice, Nippleus Erectus and Lee Beato.

Gwar resulted from vocalist and bassist Dave Brockie meeting movie-maker Hunter Jackson. The two visionaries came up with the concept for Gwar, and the rest is history.

Final Score: 4

5) Judas Priest

Their stage props have seen the whole spectrum of inexplicability. From a gigantic, monstrous head looking over the crowd to the bearded face of a man with torn-out eyes impressed upon an image of outer space, they've got this category nice and cinched up. Lead singer Rob Halford also wore for a time a leather jacket bristling with spikes so long and sharp that they nearly took out Steven Tyler's eye when the two of them moved in for a photo op.

Judas Priest hails from the English midland city of Birmingham.

Priest has cycled through eight stickmen, including six in the '70s. None fell victim to spontaneous combustion, however.

Rob Halford regularly rode a motorcycle onto the stage for Judas Priest sets. In 1990, things went wrong when a misplaced stage prop knocked him off the bike, breaking his nose and knocking him unconscious.

Final Score: 4

4) Scorpions

The band's 1976 Virgin Killer album featured a nude 10-year-old girl. It was soon pulled from shelves and replaced with a different cover in some countries. The cover actually resurfaced in controversy in 2008, when the British Internet Watch Foundation tried to have its image removed from Wikipedia.

The Scorpions' 12 drummers earns the band TWO points for that category. Twelve drummers is just incredible.

No other band on this list fits the "Big in Japan" qualification as well as the Scorpions. Their initial, modest sales success in Europe and the US was matched only by their inversely huge success in Japan, culminating in a 1978 tour of the country and the resulting, semi-legendary Tokyo Tapes album that followed.

Final Score: 4

3) Black Sabbath

Guitarist Tony Iommi fired Ozzy Osbourne from the band because of the lead singer's alcoholism, which was pretty impressive considering the band as a whole freely admits to extreme consumption during that period of their tenure. Ozzy reunited with the band in 1978 and has been playing with them ever since in an off-and-on fashion.

Black Sabbath had an incident with inexplicable stage props that was eerily identical to one of Spinal Tap's own, and led to yet another prominent stage mishap. It occurred on their 1983 Born Again tour after Geezer Butler suggested (unironically) a life-size Stonehenge for their stage set. To tie in with the album cover (a demonic, red baby), a little person was also part of the act. Ian Gillan explained in a 1994 Mojo magazine interview:

We hear this horrendous screaming sound - they've recorded a baby's scream and flanged it - and suddenly; we see this dwarf crawling across the top of Stonehenge, then he stands up as the baby's scream fades away and falls backwards off this 30-foot fiberglass replica of Stonehenge onto a big pile of mattresses. Then dong, dong — bells start toiling and all the roadies come across the front of the stage in monk's cowls, at which point "War Pigs" starts up. By now we can see the kids are either in stitches or wincing in horror.

Ozzy Osbourne had an even more famous stage mishap, but he did that solo: On January 20, 1982, he bit the head off a bat at a show in Des Moines, Iowa, thinking it was a rubber stage prop. At least, that's what he claims. It's hard to believe he was bothered too much either way, considering he has admitted to biting the heads off of two live doves to get a rise out of some record executives.

With Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and half of Zeppelin, Birmingham can lay claim as the birthplace of heavy metal music and consequently is the motherland of Spinal Tap moments. Stonehenge fails are only part of its rich history, as the city was at the forefront of worldwide developments in science, technology and economic organization, producing a series of innovations that laid many of the foundations of modern industrial society.

The band has had seven drummers over their lifespan, including some big names: Eric Singer (Kiss), Cozy Powell (Rainbow) and Terry Chimes (The Clash).

Final score: 4

2) Saxon

Saxon was a "must" for this list. Harry Shearer, probably best known (except among his family and friends, we hope) for his role as Spinal Tap bass player Derek Smalls, traveled with Saxon as research for the film. For this reason, they get a special +1 bonus here for providing direct research material for the film.

They have had their fair share of inexplicable and strange stage attire. In the official "Rock the Nations" video, lead singer Biff Byford is wearing what can only be described as a futuristic version of a Redcoat's uniform, offset by skintight silver pants and knee-high black boots.

Saxon was quite big in Japan, where their single "Motorcycle Man" charted for six months.

Saxon were formed in the South Yorkshire town of Barnsley in 1976. A former industrial town centered on coal mining and glassmaking, Barnsley has a tradition of brass bands, originally created as social clubs for its mining communities. Many factories also organized employees' bands during Barnsley's industrial peak. An employee would work at a job in the factory and then "double in brass" in the company band.

Since 1976, Saxon has had six drummers.

Final Score: 5

1) The Beatles

And the band most like Spinal Tap is... the Beatles!?

At first blush, they appear to be a hopeless, perhaps even ridiculous, competitor in this duel of stage titans. Yet, upon closer inspection, the Beatles have several distinctly Tap-like qualities.

They had one of the most infamous banned album covers of all time with the "Butcher" cover of 1966's Yesterday and Today, which featured a photo of the band covered in doll parts and raw meat. The cover was quickly pulled, and today copies of it can earn collectors several pretty pennies.

When Brian Epstein died in 1967, The Beatles lost not just their manager, but also their peacemaker. Forced to make business decisions, Paul McCartney and John Lennon found themselves increasingly at odds, especially when it came to running their company, Apple Records. Tony Bramwell, an Apple employee, said it was "like being in the middle of a gigantic divorce."

In 1966, the city of Memphis canceled a Beatles concert in reaction to Lennon declaring that the band was "bigger than Jesus."

The band suffered girlfriend tensions, to say the least. History has shown her to be a staunch steward of John Lennon's legacy and a woman of considerable talent, but Yoko Ono was so vilified at the time that many Beatles fans blamed her for the group's breakup. She unfairly became the archetype of the meddling girlfriend who poisons the well.

Formed in the northwest English city of Liverpool as the Blackjacks in 1957, John Lennon's skiffle group became the Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, the Silver Beatles and finally the Beatles.

Though most famous as the birthplace of the Beatles, during the 1960s Liverpool was at the forefront of the Beat Music movement, which would eventually lead to the British Invasion. Many notable bands of that era originated in the city, including Billy J. Kramer, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers. Later groups from Liverpool include A Flock of Seagulls, Echo and the Bunnymen and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Aside from The Beatles' heavy rock moments, any list of Liverpudlian metal bands would not take up much space. The best we could come up with is Nutz, who were 1970s heavy rockers that supported Black Sabbath on tour. They released four albums, one of which had the Spinal Tap-esque title of Nice & Dirty.

Lennon and McCartney were one of the most effective, powerful songwriting duos ever, true musical visionaries whose innovations had the whole of the rock world trying to catch up.

John Lennon might have waited until after leaving the Beatles to go full hippie, but the band as a whole had more than its share of forays into flower-child culture. "All You Need is Love" was a veritable anthem of the movement. The band members even traveled to India to meditate with the Maharishi (an experience which inspired numerous Beatles songs, including "Sexy Sadie."

Final score: 6

BUT WAIT, THIS LIST GOES TO 11!

In honor of Nigel's famous amp, we'll add an honorable mention to this list to bring it up to 11. And that would be:
11) Metallica

They earn this honor for their group therapy sessions, which involved exercises like trust falls and scrapbooking. Not only did they participate in these sessions, they documented them in their movie Some Kind Of Monster.

Let us know what you think of our selections in the comment section. Or, if you think that you might have a better candidate that should have been mentioned here, name them and plead your case before the court of public opinion.

Additional contributions from Ed Pearce
July 29, 2015

Quiz: Real or Spinal Tap
Spinal Tap Songfacts
More Song Writing

Comments: 12

  • Roger from Long Beach, Ca UsaThat whole animal spirit thing that the girlfriend gave each member of the band had to be a spin on the Led Zeppelin IV cover. Each of the band members chose their own symbol.
  • Angie from Maryland UsAbsolutely *beautiful* writing Jeff. Outstanding! One of the most clever music pieces I've ever read, and the best Top "11" list by far. A joy to read.
  • Erich Jacoby-hawkins from Barrie, OntarioYou should have given the Scorpions one extra point for their early (1960s) formation and music. While they don't seem to have been a "hippie" band then, they were performing Merseybeat music, which is very much like what Nigel & David sang together with their earliest Beatles-ish songs "Cups and Cakes" "All the Way Home" and "Gimme Some Money" performed as the Thamesmen. In fact, we actually have more Mersey-Tap songs recorded (3) than hippy ones (just "Flower People"). What's more, the Thamesmen's first album came out in 1965, the same year the Scorpions were formed.
  • Mark from SheffieldStatus Quo was the most glaring obvious to me as the source for Tap.. On the re-release of Picturesque Matchstick Messages, the interviews are classic Spinal Tap double-talk
  • Gog from TasmaniaStatus Quo! Hippy Phase - did all the psych pop flower thing in the 60s, Rossi/Parfitt, English with denim armadillos :)
  • Liz from Mammoth Lakes, CaGreat stuff Jeff. What about Blue Oyster Cult? Drummer woes, costume weirdness, big in Japan, dual vision, and on-stage mishaps. And an umlaut! I think a 6 is in order! And... of course Iron Maiden was omitted for some strange reason. You should revisit this list sometime??
  • Jray from TexasI just listened to John Entwistle's "What kind of people are they" and couldn't help but think of Stonehenge! Any connection? Just similarly thematic! Still makes it more enjoyable when it brings up memories of ST!
  • John from San FranciscoIron Maiden? Watching "Powerslave" live led me down the rabbit hole to this article.
  • Stanley Eisen from Detroit Rock CityKISS?
  • Paz from Harleysville, PaTHIS IS FRIKKIN' BRILLIANT!! (See, the internet doesn't ALL suck!) THANKS for the effort! Extremely well done!!!!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaHow about the Sex Pistols?

    You have:

    They are British

    Not only have an Offensive Cover, but an offensive song in "God Save the Queen"

    Internal Strife:
    They blew apart in front of everyone at the Winterland Ballroom and Left John Lydon stranded in San Francisco

    Cancelled concerts
    Thanks to the infamous Bill Grundy Fiasco

    Inexplicable outfits
    They started the safety Pin Craze

    Girlfriend Tension
    Nancy Spungeon anyone?

    No Drummer Turnover, but bass player turnover
    Glen to Sid and back to Glen

    Stage Mishaps
    Too many to list

    Two Artistic Visionaries
    Actually Three: Malcolm McLaren, John Lydon and Glen Matlock, all Conflicting

    Plus you have public drunkenness, The previously mentioned infamous Bill Grundy episode, the stunt where they Rode a boat up and down the Thames and then getting arrested

    Getting bought out by EMI and A&M before being signed to Virgin records.
    even had a fake movie made about them in the form of the "Great Rock and Roll Swindle"
  • Rich from 90027ANVIL?
see more comments

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal TapSong Writing

Based on criteria like girlfriend tension, stage mishaps and drummer turnover, these are the 10 bands most like Spinal Tap.

Ed Roland of Collective SoulSongwriter Interviews

The stories behind "Shine," "December," "The World I Know" and other Collective Soul hits.

Pam TillisSongwriter Interviews

The country sweetheart opines about the demands of touring and talks about writing songs with her famous father.

Amanda PalmerSongwriter Interviews

Call us crazy, but we like it when an artist comes around who doesn't mesh with the status quo.

Mac Powell of Third DaySongwriter Interviews

The Third Day frontman talks about some of the classic songs he wrote with the band, and what changed for his solo country album.

Don Brewer of Grand FunkSongwriter Interviews

The drummer and one of the primary songwriters in Grand Funk talks rock stardom and Todd Rundgren.