Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #127. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Age… Is just a number. Number… Is just a word. And word… Is just a thing. Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls straps on for an album all of his own. Words by Emily Swanson
He was responsible for the low-end in one of England’s loudest bands. The Tap might have been turned off, but that hasn’t stopped Derek Smalls from rolling into his 75th year with what he hopes will be a triumphant return to “at least one of the echelons of the rock firmament”.
Thanks in part to a generous grant from the British Fund for Ageing Rockers (“one of the few good things that came out of austerity”), the former Spinal Tap bassist has been able to crank it up to 11 once more on Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing). We hopped on the phone with Smalls (who bears an uncanny resemblance to comedic legend Harry Shearer) to share in his musings on getting older and a time when men truly did rock.
When did you know it was the right time to go out on your own? Was there ever a push to get the Tap running again?
When I looked around and saw that there was nobody with me, that was the universe sending me that message. They both [David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel] seemed to have gotten bored of music. They wouldn’t say so in so many words; it’d probably take a lot more words for David in particular to say it. Nigel, rather late in life, has found that he’s almost obsessed with animal husbandry. His first project was breeding miniature horses, but then he discovered that he couldn’t find jockeys small enough to ride them. So he’s gone into miniature livestock now, and he’s been – if anything – too successful, because the goats have gotten to a point where they’re too small to milk. I think he’s got his hands full, almost literally, with that. So I ended up being the one still interested in doing loud music, as it turns out. Who would have thought that old Derek would be the one still standing and interested in making some eardrums bleed, as we once said? It’s the sound of lukewarm water finding its own temperature.
Is there a track on the album that resonates with you more than any other?
I think they all do in their own way; they’re all like tuning forks to a different frequency in me. But I think “When Men Did Rock”, strangely, because it summons up in a very grandiose – and almost pretentiously heroic – way the era that we grew out of, which is this era when you would stand on these massive stages and play to these massive audiences, and the sounds would echo off the woods or the hills in the distance. It seemed almost as if you were back in medieval times, except there were no serfs.
It was a simpler time.
Looking back at those days of yore, we thought they’d go on forever, and that there would be this endless stream of youngsters picking up guitars and bashing out a tune. But I think you’d have to have been a blind man with a deaf man at your side to ignore the fact that the great rock’n’roll era was coming to an inevitable… If not a turn in the road or an end to the road, at least a patch where the road got much smaller and maybe rougher; maybe more pebbled in its surfacing, and without the lane markers anymore. Not a very good road, really, when you stop to think about it.
You really have whipped out an all-star lineup for your first solo effort, with Donald Fagen, David Crosby, Peter Frampton, Joe Satriani… How did all these stellar musicians come to be involved?
Well, I’m not proud to say it, but I’m not not proud to say it… I think I detected, when we made the calls, a certain common emotional element to their reaction. It was best summed up by one of them as a sort of pity f***.
But a f*** nonetheless…
But a f*** nonetheless! Exactly right! Exactly right. You don’t look a gift f*** in the mouth.
What do you credit your longevity to after this many decades in action?
I attribute my longevity to the lack of death – that’s the key right there. You get an awful lot of longevity by refusing or failing to perish. Perishing is the great enemy of longevity, and as long as I’m here, the ideas… To me, it’s a semi-mystical process, very much like if you want the phone to ring, the best thing to do is get in the bath. It’s guaranteed to ring as soon as you get in. And it’s the same with songwriting. You must outwit them and be available to them when they decide to come, not when they’ve said or when you’ve expected them to come. It means staying home a lot.
You’ve lived a lot of life in as many years. If you could, is there anything you’d go back and do differently?
I had a trip to Trinidad – it was in the years before Tap, and I was playing with one of the two-tone bands in London called Skaface, and I ate some fish that I really wish I’d never eaten. I would never do that again. I would either eat the fish, but not go to Trinidad, or go to Trinidad and not eat the fish. The combination proved almost deadly.