So I had a great idea. An entire post about fake rock bands — groups made up for your cinematic pleasure that, in spite of not actually being real bands, managed to put out a couple decent tunes for the soundtrack. The definitions of real and fake in this super-sub-category are wishy-washy. Some of these actors actually play their music, others don’t and are lip-synching to studio performers. Some of the groups represented are meant as serious depictions, while others are strictly satirical. Some aren’t getting represented at all here (inferring that if the key member of the band is named something like Mark or Marky, your crappy movie didn’t make the cut.) Yes, a great idea, and an original idea! No one on the Internet has dared to do anything like this, not even my colleague Jon Cummings on this very site!
Nuts. Ah, ta’ hell with it — let’s keep going.
If we’re starting with the obvious, then we’re obviously starting with Spinal Tap, the metal band consisting of David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean,) Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer.) In the now ubiquitous mockumentary, the actors actually recorded their own tunes, which is a rarity. Then again, the songs weren’t meant to be taken all that seriously, but to be the foil for generational musical satire. Ranging from hippy-dippy psyche-folk with “Listen to the Flower People,” to Yardbirdsian skiffle rock with “Gimme Some Money” all the way to the heavy-handed metal misogyny of “Big Bottom,” the point was part comedy, part tribute, and all listenable.Á‚ Still, This Is Spinal Tap was meant to be a joke. (A point of irony — “Gimme Some Money” was actually used in an American Express commercial, before the credit market was revealed to be as bogus as some of these bands…)
That was until, in the 1990s, the band returned with a ‘for real’ album in Break Like the Wind. Sure, there was plenty of help from special guest musicians like Dweezil Zappa, Joe Satriani and Slash, but it was still Tap at its core, and still satirical. It would be hard to hear “The Sun Never Sweats” in any other context. Now, in good old 2009, news of a proposed third Tap CD is making the rounds. Harry Shearer told BBC News it is a probability, naming a proposed track: “Gimme Some More Money.” I can’t wait.
McKean, Guest and Shearer morphed into the Folksmen for Guest’s other musical parody, A Mighty Wind, this time focusing on a reunion of some of the 1960s’ biggest (and in this case fakest) groups. The pseudo-authenticity still amazes, as the three are clearly performing their twisted acoustic tales on the spot. A bit of news I didn’t know was the real history of the Folksmen prior to A Mighty Wind: Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer were castmembers of Saturday Night Live in 1984, Michael McKean was hosting the show and this other fake band was introduced to “the real world” with their folk ditty “Old Joe’s Place.” A Mighty Wind had another SNL connection in Catherine O’Hara who, after her tenure as understudy for Gilda Radner, was on the classic late-night sketch show SCTV with Eugene Levy. Their contribution to the movie as Mitch and Mickey, “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow,” was nominated for an Oscar (but lost to “Into The West” following the Lord of the Rings landslide.)
Guest recently released a folk-jazz CD as part of the Beyman Bros., an instrumental and very serious project further exhibiting his abilities. Levy guests on guitar on Steve Martin’s new (also serious) banjo disc, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.
Another band designed strictly for parody came from the ranks of Monty Python — Eric Idle’s Rutles. Bringing aboard former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member and Python sideman Neil Innes (“Brave Sir Robin ran away!”) The Rutles and subsequent special All You Need Is Cash predated Spinal Tap in the genre but, unlike Tap, was only half-fake (This is getting complicated.) Idle’s Dirk McQuickly lip-synched Ollie Halsall’s vocals while Innes (as Ron Nasty), John Halsey (as Barry Wom) and Ricky Fataar (as Stig O’Hara) actually recorded their contributions. The Rutles don’t get as much love as Spinal Tap, which is a shame because, in spite of satirizing iconic Beatles songs, their cross-eyed versions are just as listenable. “Doubleback Alley,” while undeniably a parody of “Penny Lane,” is fun to hear.
In celebration of, or sensing great opportunism at hand, the Rutles returned shortly after the The Beatles Anthology arrived. Archaeology continued that course of falsehoods good enough to be true. As a matter of fact, considering the post-mortem mash-up that is “Free as a Bird” is almost self-parody in its own right, the Rutles take “Don’t Know Why” seems that much more authentic. It is a lovely song serving the same purpose of its doppelganger — a musical eulogy for Ollie Halsall.
In 1998, another British figment of musical imagination emerged; Strange Fruit was the group at the center of Still Crazy, featuring one of this decade’s most versatile character actors, Bill Nighy. It also had a who’s who of professional talent to prop up the music portion. While actors Nighy and Jimmy Nail did their own singing, the writing came from producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley and musicians Guy Pratt and Jeff Lynne (E.L.O.,) while this track, “All Over The World,” is courtesy of studio go-to guy Marti Frederiksen, Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford. The film involves the ’70s rock band reuniting even though the members still have decades of bad blood between them. A subplot includes the character of Brian Lovell, formerly the lead guitarist and groupie magnet whose overdose death haunts the group and taunts the members who had to fill his shoes…very loosely based on Syd Barrett, Brian’s story does not turn out as expected, but I’ve already given up enough spoilers, haven’t I?
Marti Frederiksen returns as the primary voice of fictional band Stillwater from the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous, giving Jason Lee something to lip-sync to. The group, purportedly based on The Eagles from Crowe’s perspective as a young Rolling Stone music writer, exhibits the freewheeling and hard-partying tendencies no one can resist (sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, groupies, breasts, etc.) but the actual songs cleave much less to their countrified rock sound than to those of the primary songwriters of the soundtrack, Nancy Wilson (Heart) and Peter Frampton. In fact, it’s hard to hear “Love Comes and Goes” and not believe it was glancingly based on Bad Company’s “Bad Company” (No, I do not stutter, stutter…) The Stillwater songs were never released on a CD of their own, only on a bonus disc from the Almost Famous Deluxe Set, and I can see why: there wasn’t a treasure trove of material to be had beyond the official soundtrack’s period-correct collection of songs, including the sing-along of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Just six tracks for the Stillwater EP, and after listening to it you probably won’t be wishing for a Spinal Tap-like full-length revival, but as a curio it’s fine.
By the way, there actually was a ’70s band called Stillwater that had absolutely nothing in common with Crowe’s fictional version. Can you imagine the poor members of the real band getting all excited by the notion that someone — Jerry Maguire director Cameron Crowe, no less — knew they existed, only to find fate had shafted them one more time? These fakers are a nasty bunch, aren’t they?
Come back next week for part two, highlighting Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Fabulous Stains, and maybe a few more surprises. Much more air guitar to come, so get your hair sprayed up high, your microphones unplugged, and I’ll see you then!