“Have a good time, all the time.” — Viv Savage
Much has been written about the career of Spinal Tap, the second greatest rock band to ever come out of England, apologies to The Rolling Stones. The longevity of the band, their expert songwriting, and their general loudness have all become the gold standard for nearly every musician that has followed in their wake. Often referred to as “Heavy Metal’s Susan Lucci”, Spinal Tap’s annual snubbing by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is a travesty of monumental proportions, especially considering the band has written two of the very best songs with the Hall’s name in the title, Rock ‘n’ Rolls “Creation” and “Nightmare”.
While the core personnel has been the same since the 1960s, and principal songwriters David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel have a relationship going “all the way home” back to childhood, one of the most famous elements of the band is their constant retinue of replacement players. Drummers in particular. And while these performers have ranged from the perfunctory (“Gimme Some Money” percussionist John “Stumpy” Pepys) to the incongruously virtuosic (Nigel’s temporary replacement, Ricky, “the hottest lead guitarist in San Francisco”), some of these musicians made lasting contributions with the band and they deserve to be remembered. None more so than keyboardist Viv Savage.
Viv Savage joined Spinal Tap at a crucial moment. The year before was one of the most trying in the band’s career as both of their new releases, Bent for the Rent and Tap Dancing, performed dismally on the charts. The group splintered somewhat as band members pursued outside interests, such as bassist Derek Smalls’ memorable role in Roma ’79 for director Marco Zamboni, while keyboardist Ross McLochness left the band to do missionary work. As the band regrouped without McLochness to begin work on the album ultimately known as Rock ‘n’ Roll Creation, the single “Nice ‘n’ Stinky” became a modest hit. Savage was hired on for a promotional tour that became a full time gig.
Right away, Viv’s contributions were readily apparent. The heavenly synths that he brings to the bridge on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Creation” move the piece into a whole new dimension. By this point, the band was learning that the blunt crunch of a song like “Heavy Duty” could be more effective when it is alleviated by surprising beauty. Viv’s work on the next album, Shark Sandwich, was equally compelling.
Viv’s effect on some of Tap’s signature songs was also transformative. The cascading effects deployed in the midst of the three basslines of “Big Bottom” make the live versions in 1982 the definitive performances of that classic song. Luckily director Marty DiBergi chose to capture some of these iconic performances in his “rockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap. While the band has had less than charitable things to say about the film’s portrayal of their inner workings, it is undeniable that the chemistry of the band live on their Smell the Glove Tour is palpable. Viv is one fifth of this chemistry. He’s like the ammonium hydroxide of the group.
(This Is Spinal Tap plays at the Central Cinema September 11 – 16.)